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Reader L has a question about looking competent and professional, without looking like the assistant who thinks she’s the VP… Specifically, how can she look professional without looking like she thinks she’s in charge?
I recently started a job in a large creative nonprofit in New York. It is a conservative place- no open shoes, hose or tights at all times. This is fine, except it creates another problem. Hard to describe why this is wrong, but in a suit, I look like a vice president. Polished, mature, and competent.
Why is this a problem? Because I’m not! I don’t have all the answers — frankly, I’m still trying to figure out a system for getting to work on time. The problem with my look right now is that I’m afraid I can’t deliver, and/or I’m putting off my supervisors. I want my bosses to see themselves in me yet at the same time I don’t want to come across as arrogant or immature. It’s further complicated because as a new hire I’m entering an already inhabited space. I’m the newest addition to a group of young people, all of whom have their own career goals.
What do you suggest for a look that says competent and professional, but also young, creative, and teachable? That will help me stand out from my coworkers without alienating my peers?
This is a great question, and one that I think a lot of young women struggle with when they enter the workforce. Ultimately, don’t worry too much if you’re mistaken for Someone Who Knows What’s Going On — just help them if you can, and if not redirect them with a smile. (Entire careers have been made out of this!)
We’ve talked before about which workwear basics may be helpful to a woman just starting her career — but if those suggestions don’t help, some additional tips on looking like the eager, young professional you are:
First, make a “do not wear” list by looking around you — is there a cultural divide between what the the secretaries and the executives are wearing? (In a lot of big offices, particularly in New York, there may be.) If there is, make sure you identify what you should avoid. It may be bracelets layered on top of one another that clank when you walk down the hallway — or it may be a suit that looks like something from the 80s.
Co-opt just enough of the executives’ style to show you’re a member of that group. It may be a layering technique — if the women wear trousers, blouses, and blazers, look for the same for yourself. It may be the details — understated jewelry and makeup, simple hair, sedate colors.
More youthful details are okay — color and fit will be the main ones — but try to keep the overall sense of “taste” at the same level as the executives you work with (and avoid veering into secretary territory). Sometimes, budget-friendly swaps will be necessary — e.g., a colorful statement necklace for $50 rather than a $3000 set of pearls — but try to be mindful of the office culture. I would advise that you should have less clothes of better quality, rather than a new outfit a day from stores specializing in knock-offs and fast fashion.
Check out our Wardrobe Essentials for Work — all the reader favorites!
Recognize that “teachable” is a great quality — but that you can project authority at the same time. Carry a notepad and a pen with you to all meetings, and take notes. Respect your superiors’ time — don’t launch into long stories without prompting, and think before you speak (I’ve even jotted down questions before asking them at meetings) — it will help prevent youthful speech patterns (“um”) as well as, hopefully, shortening what you have to say.
Journalists talk about the “nut graf,” entrepreneurs talk about the “elevator pitch” — both of these things stress a way of speaking that is concise and information-packed.
By the same token, try to think of your bosses as your friends and mentors. When time allows, ask them what they’re reading, or what their favorite industry association is. Do your best to contribute thoughtful things to the conversation, both when it’s work-related and when it isn’t. I’ve even continued the conversation when I’ve seen an article, or had what I deemed to be an interesting thought, by dashing off a friendly but quick email to my superior.
Freely admit what you don’t know — but follow it immediately with the steps that you’ll take to learn about it and answer the question. “I’m not familiar with __, but I’ll get back to you in 5 minutes after I check out their website and look at some of their other collaborations.” (If you’re constantly getting questions that stump you, try to befriend someone you respect at an intermediate level between you and the boss — mentors can be from all levels.)
Readers, have you noticed this problem in your own workplaces (if not your own careers)? What tips do you have on how to look professional without looking like you think you’re in charge?