The Well Dressed Gorilla

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 Or- The project manager’s uniform

I was madly typing away, on the latest project status report, when Doug rapped on the door to my office (Doug was our HR guy).  Pushing away from my keyboard I smiled up at him, instantly making him the focus of my attention.
“Doug, good to see you please have a seat… Umm” I looked around my office. Every vertical surface, that was not the floor (and then even some of that), was covered by stacks of paperwork, boxes or other “objects de work.” I scooped up the pile of papers on the guest chair and deposited them precariously on another pile on my meeting table. “There you go!”
With the meeting table two feet high in boxes and papers, I had to sit back down at my desk. Finding a space small enough to rest my hands I stared across at Doug. “So, when can the candidate start?” I’d had an open req for a new project manager open for three months.  Last week I finally extended an offer to a great candidate.
Doug shifted in his seat, his hand coming up with a single Birkenstock . “Hey, there it is, I was looking for that.” I said, as I took it and slipped it back on my bare left foot. 
Free of the physical discomfort Doug glanced down at his moleskin folio. Running his fingers down some notes he then looked up and spoke. “The candidate turned down our offer. She said she was looking for  something a little more…” Doug looked back up at me, “polished.”
“Polished?” I asked, “What the heck does that mean?”
Doug’s eyes wandered around the my office before he gave a shrug, “I’m not exactly sure, she didn’t go into details.”
“Well dang,” I said “guess we go back to the we’ll and start reviewing applications again.” Doug gave a non-committal shrug and stood to leave. “Thanks anyway, Doug. Let me know when you’ve got more resumes to look at.” The HR representative didn’t say anything as he sidestepped his way out of my office.
I muttered and reached for the donut on my desk. Nearly breaking a tooth on it I realized I’d picked up the, half-eaten, stale donut from last week. Tossing it in the empty garbage can I reached for the powered monstrosity I’d picked up on the way to work today. Sugar spraying from my mouth I grumbled, “More polished! This is a damn dream job! Why the hell did she turn it down?”
It had been a rhetorical question, but the problem with rhetorical questions and the gorilla in the room, is the gorilla usually answers. Whether you want them to or not.
“When looking for the source of a problem, start in ever expanding circles around one self.” Hogarth said from the only clean corner of the office. He was using the window glass to tie a tie with a perfectly proper Windsor knot.
“I know the mantra, but this isn’t some project failure to analyze. I made a, more than, good offer and she turned it down because the company didn’t have enough “polish”? A billion dollar a year firm, considered one of the places to work in the Valley and she turned down the job?”
Hogarth turned around and I noticed he was looking neater than even is typical for him. He flashed me a toothy smile, before responding to my quizzical stare “I’m headed to a lunch with some other professional gorillas, want to look good.” Fishing a slim leather bound notepad out of the mess of my table he used it to wave over the office dramatically. “She didn’t turn down working for the company because it lacked polish. She turned down working for you. Just look at yourself.”
I turned to look at my reflection in my blackened monitor. What I saw made me almost cry. Frantically brushing away a layer of powered sugar, I worried my finger into a hole just below my shoulder. “Oh no, I’m getting a hole in my Spinal Tap t-shirt! This shirt is irreplaceable.” Turning back to look at Hogarth, I opened my mouth to continue my complaint. I didn’t get a chance though. Hogarth had turned and was none too gently banging his head against the wall. I think he was saying something along the lines of “it’s hopeless.”
“Hogarth? What?”
My gorilla let up from the head pounding to stare at me as if I had two heads. I almost had to check and make sure I didn’t. “Your office looks like a tornado just touched down and you’re dressed so badly Jimmy Buffet probably wouldn’t let you into Margaritaville.”
“Hey now!” I objected, “I look like every engineer in the group.”
Hogarth leveled his gaze at me. “You aren’t an engineer. You’re the project leader. You aren’t just representing you, you’re representing the entire project.”
I stared back him with a blank expression of incomprehension.
Hogarth sighed, “Look. a firefighter wears a flame proof coat and helmet. A cop wears a badge and bullet-proof vest. A politician wears a suit that will look good on camera.  The Pope wears his vestments and miter. Every job has a uniform and you’re out of uniform!”
The project manager’s uniform:
John F. Kennedy was the last president to wear a top hat at his inauguration.  Even on Wall Street there are places where you can walk through a business and see not a single man in a tie. In Silicon Valley, one of the most famous CEOs is known for wearing a trademark black mock-turtle neck and engineers wearing shorts and flip flips is as common as email spam.
So why the heck am I worried about wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt to work? And why on earth do I care if my desk is messy or not? I mean I get the job done, right?
Yes, but I could be a lot more effective…
I work in Silicon Valley, a place so famous for its casualness, it has almost become a uniform in and of itself. Seeing someone in a tie usually means they are either a C level exec, presenting to the public, or headed to a job interview (and there are some that would argue you don’t even need a tie for a job interview anymore). You’d think someplace like the Valley, it wouldn’t matter what a good project manager wears.
Can a project manager get the job done in blue jeans and a t-shirt? Sure he can. And a SCUBA diver can swim without fins, but he won’t be nearly as effective. Just because you can do something in a certain way does not mean it’s the most effective way. My grade schooler is still learning this lesson the hard way. He can shove all his pants into his dresser drawer. But unless he folds them, he has to struggle to open or close the drawer and invariably three or four pair fall out when he tries to pull out a single pair. If he took the time to fold his pants, the drawer would open smoothly and he could just pull one pair of pants from the top.
The same principles apply to the uniform of an effective project manager. Very few places enforce any formal dress code beyond general decency and hygiene (UBS Employees being a notable, recent, exception). That does not mean you shouldn’t be very aware of how you look, and how your professional work place looks.  It all boils down to perception. You’ve probably heard the adage, perception is 9/10s of reality. While it may not really be 9/10s it doesn’t really matter, because the perception is it is (Yes we’ve entered one of those strange cyclical, self-powering conundrums).
I was fortunate to learn this concept very early in my professional career. While still in my early 20’s I did temporary work in San Francisco. After a month working in the property management office, for one of the hottest new buildings in the City, I had my contract abruptly cut short. It wasn’t a lack of knowledge, I knew their phone system perfectly and had nearly memorized the location of every single tenet. I was the most proficient user of the new fangled PC in the office and I had a native’s knowledge of the area. It certainly wasn’t my personality. I was bright, cheerful and attentive, early markers of my future success in customer service. It wasn’t even because my clothes were unprofessional. I had nice slacks, button down shirts and the whole nine yards.
It was because I didn’t iron my clothes…
“Your appearance looks unkempt. This comes off as a lack of caring which translates into not caring for the clients.”
Wow…. Ironing? Really?
Less than 10% of human communication is verbal, with the majority of communication being visual in nature. How you look affects how you are perceived and treated. Just take a look at the comedy classic Trading Places. At the start of the movie, Dan Aykroyd’s character is treated as a rising star on Wall Street (back in the day when being a banking executive essentially made you American royalty). By the middle of the movie his beggar’s clothes led him to be treated as a beggar, despite his Ivy League education.
“The people around me dress in jeans and t-shirts, why can’t I?” (Also add to this “Won’t I be overdressed?)
“If all the other boys jumped off a cliff, would you?” The time tested Lemming defense. In high tech project management, you are often working with engineers and other, task focused individuals. They may well have a completely different dress style. There are many who argue you need to fit in and I can only say I’ve had no problem fitting in with the engineers on the teams I’ve managed. You are the project guide/leader/facilitator. Some even jokingly call project managers, “the grown up in the room.” As a project manager you need to interact with all levels of the company and you are often the face of the project. Do you want the face of your million dollar project to be an AC/DC shirt?
As for being overdressed. No one is espousing wearing a tuxedo to work. The general guidelines I’ve heard from many fellow PMs is to dress at least one notch above your team. This might set the bar a little low if your team regularly wears flip flops and shorts, so I tend to look at what the corner office is wearing and what the team is wearing and seek a middle ground.
“Yeah, but I can dress up when I need to. Why do it all the time?”
You can never redo a first impression. Is today the day the head of your division pops into your boss’s staff meeting? The archetypal American Mom has oft been quoted, “Always wear a clean pair of underwear, you never know what’s going to happen.” Well I don’t plan to show my underwear to the CEO,  but I’d rather not meet him wearing my Rodney Atkins concert shirt.
“What about Steve Jobs? You mentioned Steve Jobs. He always wears a black mock-turtle neck.”
And he’s Steve Jobs. I bet you that Jobs wore a suit and tie many a time in his early days. Before he was the oracle of Apple, he was just another Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He can get away with the casual black  now because he’s become an icon. When you run one of the the biggest software companies in the world, you set your own rules. Exceptions don’t make the rules, exceptions define the rules by what they are not. A colleague of mine told me a story of a man, at a very straight laced company, who’d gotten his dog certified as a service animal under the heading “psychological support.” It reportedly helped him to stay calm and unstressed. Sure you could probably make this happen and even if it were a legitimate aid, I’m not sure I’d ever want to do it. Unless you are a Steve Jobs, being the exception makes you stand out in a not good way.
My own dress code:
As a project manager and Silicon Valley professional I’ve developed a personal dress code over the last twenty years. (Though no small amount of credit goes to my, wonderful, wife who has the good fashion sense to know if that particular belt looks good or looks cheep and other vital fashion things I’m a stranger too.)
Disclaimer 1: I am in no way saying this is the only way to dress. In some jobs I would probably be over dressed (and in some I’d be underdressed).  This is just what has worked for me.
Disclaimer 2: Ladies, my sincere apologies, these are guy centric. Some stuff does apply (particularly if wearing male influenced fashions) but this isn’t your example guide. I do recommend Manager-Tools for this though. They have a couple of podcasts that talk about professional dress and have reliable women’s advice .
  • Button down collared or high quality polo shirts: Buttons… 99% of the shirts I wear to work have buttons of some kind. Most of the time I wear solid or basic patterned dress shirts. That said, even a good quality polo shirt (solids or weave patterns only) can be perfectly professional. For me, the polo is my ‘dress down’ wear.
  • Slacks or Dockers: My own style has evolved over time. I used to wear primarily Docker-style pants, mostly because I could iron them myself. I’ve begun to migrate to the classic black and blue wool slacks because they are more universal and hide wrinkles a lot better so you don’t look wilted at the end of the day.
  • No blue jeans: Yes, you can have some very nice looking blue jeans and if you only wear them for work, they will probably stay fairly nice. I have many colleagues who wear jeans and they are very effective. For me though, blue jeans are a mark I’m not at work. It may be that it just helps me stay in the right mindset, jeans mean home, slacks mean work. Whatever it is, it works and I don’t wear jeans to work.
  • Matching Belt and Shoes: One of the things I learned from my wonderful spouse, if you’re going to wear brown shoes, wear a brown belt. Something I’m still getting the hang of myself is gold vs silver buckles, and how they change based on the color of the shirt/pants you wear. (Yes, this means no tennis shoes. And no complaints on comfort, I have dress shoes that are more comfortable that the best running shoe.)
  • Wear a T-shirt: Dress shirts were designed to be wore with a t-shirt. The t-shirt gives a neutral canvas for light colored shirts (Ever seen a man wearing a white dress shirt and you could see how much back hair he had?). T-shirts absorb sweat, preventing unsightly arm pit stains. Finally they cover your chest. If you’re not going to wear a tie, then your chest shows a lot more. Even a v-neck (my preference) gives you a professional edge in your appearance.
  • Calf Length Socks: Took me a long time to learn this. Unless you never move your legs, if you don’t wear socks that go up to mid-calf, then you will show off your leg. It seems trivial, but if you’re wearing black socks, black shoes and black pants and you cross your leg to show off screaming white legs, people are drawn to them like a bad accident on the freeway. (okay I’m of Northern European ancestry, others of you may not be as impacted).
  • Shave (yes, the neck too) and keep groomed: I’m not espousing being clean shaven. My own profile photo shows my preference for facial hair. It also shows someone who keeps his beard closely trimmed. This goes for the neck as well. If it looks like you have a fur blanket growing out of your collar, its like the white leg surrounded by black clothes, it draws the eye.
  • Wear a watch: I give a lot of effective reasons for wearing a watch in a recent blog. For men, a watch is also one of the few accessories you can wear. A nice watch is another way to project a professional appearance. For this reason I espouse analog watches. There are some really nice digital watches, but they are like Steve Jobs, the exception. Analog watches are classic and professional.
  • Dress Up for Presentations: If you are going to be making a major presentation, then dress up a notch. Manager-Tools has great advice for this and I’ve followed it to great effect myself.
How you dress effects people’s perceptions of you. Perception effects how people react to you. People’s reactions to you effect how effective you are.
The Professional Office Space:
The blog is already running long, so I’ll just add that much the same rules apply to your professional work space. Following the iPhone mantra or there’s an App for that, there is an Manager Tools podcast for this, where they discuss an effective professional work space. For me its mostly about clutter and neatness. If your office has more paper in it than you have hair, then you probably need to clean it (yeah we balding people have to keep neater offices).  Personalization is fine, but having more knick knacks then you do pens could be a sign of clutter.
Keep your appearance and office space professional, and keep being effective.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP