• My Take on Dressing to Lead

    by  • May 29, 2013 • Uncategorized • 3 Comments

    So, about the recent discussions in LibraryLand regarding the role of our dress, especially for those of us in a leadership position. Yeah, you know. The stuff discussed HERE, HERE, HERE, and a number of other places online.

    Well, I’m not one who can let a fashion discussion pass me by, so here’s my take.

    I definitely feel like we should not feel pressured to conform to any particular dress standard and should feel free to express our own tastes and style.  However, I also think that each of us should take time to consider what our wardrobe says about us, our organization, and our profession and find ways to incorporate our own personal style into a framework that positively represents them.

    Either way, it’s about personal choice. But I think that the choice is an important one, especially if you’re in a leadership role.

    I’ve always taken the position that a person’s image choices, including what they wear, are important in how they are perceived by supervisors, colleagues, vendors, business partners, customers, and themselves. Because of this, I dress carefully when in professional situations. Next time you see me present, take a look at what I’m wearing. I can guarantee that my outfit was meticulously chosen down to the last detail in order to best represent me and my professional, reinforce my message, reflect the brand of my organization, and reinforce the elements of librarianship I most value. Plus, I like to coordinate with my slides whenever possible.

    This level of detail is not necessary for everyone, and is probably just a side effect of my OCD and I should get my meds adjusted. But here’s how I do it.

    These are some of the things I take into consideration for my own professional wardrobe:

    The Organization I Represent

    Nobody wants to get in trouble for crossing the line that has been established by your employer. I work for an organization with a pretty loose formal dress code based on safety concerns (appropriate footwear, etc) and their desire that the staff portray a professional image (no jeans, etc).

    OK, I look a little manic here. But it was kind of a funny presentation.

    OK, I look a little manic here. But it was kind of a funny presentation.

    But beyond that, it’s pretty open. One of the reasons is that the staff perform widely varying functions, and what I wear for training sessions, library consulting, and public speaking is not going to be appropriate for staff sitting all day doing Authority work for the County or sorting and transporting 12 million items a year between our member libraries. It’s up to each of us to determine the clothing appropriate for our jobs and the tasks being performed that day.

    But beyond following the rules and dressing for the tasks you perform, there is also the very important consideration of how your wardrobe reflects your organization’s mission and brand.

    In my case, the whole mission of my organization is to provide services to our member libraries that help them serve their patrons best at the lowest cost. Although our role is to advise the libraries, we in no way determine the course of action any of them decide to pursue.

    That said, there is a certain amount of perceived authority that comes with our role in consulting with and making recommendations to our members. I always try to be conscious of how my clothing reflects the idea of bringing them the best services and knowing our stuff. We are also charged with working closely with vendors, politicians and business partners. To me, that means that dressing professionally creates an advantage as a negotiation tactic and a way to grant authority to our claims. That’s just part of helping my organization meet its overall goals.

    Yes, you will often see me in a business suit. When I worked in one of our member libraries, the mission had more to do with connecting with the local community members, so I wore more of a corporate casual look so as to be more approachable and make a more personal connection.

    In terms of branding, what information about your library such as the logo, design aesthetic, marketing style, and overall tone convey to the community? What is your organization’s brand? What kind of image does your organization want to portray.

    I used to work in a public library in an ocean-side resort community in the Hamptons. The logo has seagulls on it. The building is steps away from the marina, and there are lots of nautical design elements. It’s a relaxed place with lots of New Englandy charm and an open atmosphere.

    I would never have worn my current wardrobe there.

    Now, I work in an office building. It’s full of offices and state of the art training and meeting spaces. There is modern art in the hallways and a funky 70’s style roof over us. Our logo has a simple, modernist design, and we rely heavily on formality in our interactions.

    I dress very consciously to reflect the brand of this organization – which, unlike in my past life, does not include khakis, denim skirts, or polo shirts. That’s not what we are about here. I’m not about to undermine the branding of my organization by stepping out in public in something might contradict the image we portray in other ways.

     The Profession I Represent

    Wanna know something I hate? I hate listening to people talk about how they hate the stereotype of the dowdy old lady librarian so much of the public harbors in their imaginations… only to go to a library conference and see that very image paraded in front of the people of that city.

    Hate librarian stereotypes? Hate having people make assumptions about librarians? Don’t reinforce them, then. Use your style to show what kind of librarian you are. Dress to reflect what your profession is about when you’re in a professional capacity. Especially when you are representing your profession in front of the civilians.

    Think about what it is you would like the general public to think about when they think “library” or “librarian”. Then take that into consideration when you get ready to face the public.

    For me, I value the intelligence, compassion, and devotion of librarians. I lo

    ve information and feel like we as a profession have an amaz

    ing dedication to serving the public interest via education and information. For me, librarians represent trust, truth, expertise, personal advancement and the creation of knowledge.

    My personal fashion interpretation of that often translates into more formal business attire, in line with the idea that we are part of a profession that commands respect and a place at the table. We are not dowdy old ladies, but modern professional men and women who have exceptional expertise in our field.

    For me, that means rocking a pencil skirt and some fashionable heels. What does it mean for you?

    Shameless Self promotion

    Once I have thought about what my wardrobe says about my organization and profession, I feel like I can get to the level of what my clothing can do for ME.

    Professionally, I am good with Tech. Politics. Training. Staff development. Creativity. Communication. Consensus building. Motivation. Not taking any crap.

    These are some of the elements of my professional persona that I want to emphasize as part of my own brand. I want to elicit a particular reaction from those I’m dealing with professionally, and I want those reactions to help me to get where I want to go.

    Often, this means subtle changes in my look depending on the situation I’m in that day, or the people I am working with.

    • Am I working with a handful of library staff members on a small group training session? Hm. That calls for some authority, but not too much. Gotta stay approachable to get the buy in from them and make them comfortable with asking questions about what they’re learning.
    • Am I visiting a library for a consultation? What is the formality level at that library? Do I know the people I’m meeting with? What kind of impression do they already have of me? How might my appearance impact their impression of me and my recommendations?
    • Am I giving a formal talk to a large audience? Maybe something a bit more formal business attire, especially if there are going to be people there who do not know me. Unless it’s a talk about a “lighter” library topic… in which case, my credibility will increase if I go a little more towards the fun/creative side.
    • Am I meeting with a vendor and need to be a little aggressive? Need to show I’m the one holding the checkbook and deserve a little respect? Am I looking to negotiate a price or just make nice with a long-term business partner? Maybe it’s someone I’ve known for a while… or this is our first meeting. Are they taking me out for a meal, or is it a boardroom style meeting? All of this stuff needs to factor in to my decision of which jacket I want to wear.

    Believe me, it’s definitely possible to enhance your image and give more weight to your work if you wear your best dress – not because it is your

    best dress, but because it enhances your image within a particular situation. Right or wrong, people do judge you based on your clothing. So I try to make strategic decisions based on what kind of an impression I want to make and what benefit I hope to derive.


    As someone in a leadership role, I have found it extremely advantageous to consider these things carefully. The way I dress in professional situations benefits me, my organization, and my profession the most by giving me confidence. When I look good and appropriate to the professional situation, and when I am able to express my own personality at the same time, there is no stopping me. And I totally mean it.

    Maybe I’m waaaaay over-analyzing the whole situation. In fact, I’m sure that I am. But it works for me as a very goal oriented, calculating person.

    If you want to really boil it all down to a few key questions, here goes:

    • What do your professional fashion choices say about your organization and what it is looking to achieve?
    • What do you value in this profession? How do you reflect that in your dress?
    • How can you highlight your professional strengths by thoughtfully planning your style choices for particular situations?
    • What gives you the most confidence supports your message in professional situations and best helps you reach your goals?

    Try thinking about it that way. Then make it work for you.



    3 Responses to My Take on Dressing to Lead

    1. May 29, 2013 at 1:01 pm

      And you will always, ALWAYS, have kick-ass shoes. :)

      I have seen my wardrobe develop over the past year, moving from working in an office at the network to being a library director. I like to keep my creativity in the mix, but I definitely know I am a public face now.

      I think this conversation has been really interesting; not just for the posts, which have been great to read, but the responses – which have not always been so great.

    2. Emily
      May 29, 2013 at 1:15 pm

      It has been an interesting conversation. And I don’t mind responses that are negative as long as they contribute to the conversation. I know not all of them have, but whatevs.

    3. Lauren Comito
      June 1, 2013 at 11:35 am

      I have found a marked difference in how the patrons treat me depending on what I am wearing. I generally wear a pencil skirt, tank top and heels, it’s my uniform. If I LOOK like a librarian, they ask me questions, are more likely to say please, are more likely to accept my answers, etc. If I don’t, they don’t really even notice me, name tag and all.

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