How to Look More Professional: The Unwritten Rules

Sometimes the most important things to know as a leader are the ones that nobody really talks about. These "unwritten rules" of leadership are essential for your success and advancement. Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing some of the most important ones.

Let’s start with an area that affects your personal leadership brand more than you may realize: how you dress and groom yourself. If you’re already rolling your eyes thinking about it, remember that this is really about building professional credibility and personal confidence. And, even if this sounds basic, you would be surprised at how often these topics come up in discussions about a person’s credibility as a leader.


If you just got promoted or you're aiming to move up, this topic matters even more. You need to "look the part" for your new role, or the one you aspire to.

As a starting point, consider any written rules about dress and grooming in your workplace. Your company's policies could contain important information — for example, what "business casual" means in your workplace. But many dress codes can be vague. Perhaps yours leaves a lot open to interpretation.

The 5 Keys to Looking Like a Leader

No matter what your company dress code says, here are some overall guidelines that will help you present yourself in a way that enhances your leadership. Do a quick self-assessment using these questions:

How much does your look:

  1. Fit the context of your workplace? (Or do you look like you're headed for another setting entirely?)

  2. Distract from your knowledge and experience in any way?

  3. Reinforce your desired personal brand as a leader?

  4. Make you feel more confident?

  5. Convey credibility?

Dressing for Leadership

So how can you meet these criteria every day? Here are a few key things to remember.

  • Details matter. Dress in a way that shows others that you understand the culture of your office and have good judgment. That means wearing clothes that fit your body, your role and workplace. Steer clear of items that are too tight and revealing and those that are boxy or swallow you up. Pay attention to whether your clothing needs pressing or repairing. If you're wearing a thin shirt or blouse, don't forget an undershirt or a camisole.

  • Don't show up unfinished. If you come to work half-ready with your hair still wet, your makeup in process, with a tie in your hand or with ungroomed facial hair, how do you expect others to feel confident that you can handle more responsibility? You can’t even be ready to work when you show up at work. It may sound silly, but people can draw big conclusions from seemingly little things.

You constantly send messages about your leadership — from the moment you arrive at the office. Make sure they align with what you want others to recognize about your leadership, rather than raise questions about your capabilities. By simply investing 2-3 extra minutes a day to consider your appearance, you can boost your credibility.

  • Stand out with style. Dressing professionally doesn't have to mean stifling your individuality. In fact, I suggest you use your personal style to distinguish yourself as a leader. A signature accessory — like funky ties or socks, unique jewelry, or shoes — can convey your creativity and originality. Whatever you wear, consider how it makes you feel, and how it fits your brand and the organization’s culture. You don’t have to sacrifice your identity. Be authentic and seek out something that enhances your brand and your company’s brand.

  • It isn't just how you look. If your boss has to give you feedback about your personal "aroma," it can get awkward really fast for both of you. So take a minute to ask yourself some hard questions: How often do you forget to use deodorant, especially after a morning or lunchtime workout? Does your perfume or cologne completely change the air in the room and linger long after you have left? If you smoke, are you sure that you left most of the smell of your cigarettes outside? Remember that your coworkers may also have physical reactions like headaches to strong scents. What does your oral hygiene look like, especially after coffee or food with strong spices? That can also add to the “aroma” in the room.

Like it or not, the way you present yourself does play a big role in whether others perceive your credibility and potential. But it's also one of the easiest areas to make positive changes and can be really fun to play around with.

You can implement one or more of these suggestions without going broke or making your routine too high maintenance. Invest in a few high-quality pieces of clothing that you can wear repeatedly and that make you feel confident. Magazines, online videos and advice from professionals like your hairstylist can help you create a low-maintenance, polished look.

I want to encourage you to pick one or two things to implement. To further enhance your image as a leader, pick up a copy of "Building Executive Presence," part of my Leadership EDGE Series℠. And if you have questions about other unwritten rules at work, please don't hesitate to drop me a note. I may answer your question in an upcoming blog article.