Article Date: 2/1/2010

You Can Dress For Success, But…

You Can Dress For Success, But…

… just remember that the fashion police may get the wrong person.

Jim Thomas

Years ago, it wasn't unusual to hear about a research project where, at a crowded intersection, a poorly dressed man crossed the street against a red light. No one followed his lead; they waited for the light to turn green. Yet when a man dressed impeccably in a fine suit confidently crossed on the red light, his fellow pedestrians followed.

I don't know if this research was real or business folklore, but I witnessed similar behavior at an investors' conference in the late 1990s. There, CFOs of top logistics companies presented in front of analysts from investment firms. Afterwards, analysts gave their highest approvals to the companies represented by the best dressed, most dynamic speakers. Forget the balance sheets. A healthy company with a solid business plan was no match for style that day.

Falling for fashion

Hopefully, the recent economic downturn now discourages financial analysis by the fashion police. Whether it does or not, I learned a few lessons. First, I'm often one of the worst offenders of style-over-substance behavior. When I buy a laptop, I search out the sales representative who looks like a computer geek. At a car dealership, I favor the sales “consultant” who wears a sports coat over the guy in the windbreaker. At a bar … well, you get the idea.

Many patients will choose doctors and other professionals based on dress. Is this rational? Maybe not. But in their defense: Doctors don't provide patients with statistics regarding their performance, as CFOs offer to analysts. Without that knowledge, wouldn't patients seek qualities that they consider consistent with their idea of professionalism — in this case, attire?

Does style measure up?

Assuming we judge by preconceived notions in the absence of performance statistics, then consider those practices with no formal employee review process. Do they judge based on the external qualities that they feel best represent those of the ideal employee, such as attire or a smiling face? Do these attributes accurately reflect performance? Similarly, how can a practice objectively judge the value of a vendor without any system of measurements in place?

Under the “style wins” system, analysts made bad stock picks. Pedestrians put themselves at risk. I made purchases I later regretted. I still believe in a “professional” presentation, but I also take writer William Hazlitt's words to heart: “Those who make their dress a principal part of themselves will, in general, become of no more value than their dress.” OM

Optometric Management, Issue: February 2010