March 6, 2012

Young or New Advisor: How to Dress for Success, Remixed

I wrote Skeleton in My Closet, a blog for AdvisorOne (then InvestmentAdvisor.com), in August 2007. Since then, I’ve received a steady stream of emails about it; asking specific questions, or telling me how much it helped the writer. So I convinced the AdvisorOne folks to repost the blog below, and I thought it would be cool to take this opportunity to add an intro to address some of the comments I’ve received over the years, as well as to add some follow-up thoughts of my own.

After working with young advisors and advisory students for quite a few years now, I’ve come to realize that this blog isn’t really about how one should dress—it’s about the realization that success isn’t only about you (or me). Success is also about how others perceive you. How other people see you plays an inexplicably large role in their decisions about you as a professional and whether they want to associate with you. I recently read about a study conducted at Harvard on the students themselves, where they were asked about their perceptions of their professors after the first 30 seconds of their first class, and then again at the end of the semester. The result? Those initial 30-second impressions didn’t change at all over the ensuing six months. 

Now I’m not saying this perception thing is good, or right, or even makes any sense. I’m simply saying it’s just the way it is. You can make your life easier or harder depending on how you present yourself. It’s your choice. And I’m not saying you should “do anything” to succeed, just asking whether classing up a bit the way you dress—and act—isn’t a small price to pay to advance your career.

This is especially true if you’re already struggling to overcome some stereotype, like, say, being a young, blonde, blue-eyed, reasonably attractive young woman. Or even just being a young advisor. We all face the same problem: getting older folks to take us seriously. Sure, you could get a Ph.D. in economics, or launch your own successful hedge fund, but in the financial world, I’ve found it’s far easier to simply dress as if you are already successful; which is to say, the way successful financial professionals dress.

If you’re confused about this, just go to an industry conference and check out the way other professionals of both sexes dress who are trying to impress advisors: wholesalers, B/D execs, and the speakers on the agenda (except Bob Veres). You’ll get the picture pretty quick. And drop the whole ‘That’s-just-not-me’ routine: it’s not about you, at least not at first. Get a couple hundred million in AUM on your books, then you can dress any way you want.  

(Originally posted on InvestmentAdvisor.com, now AdvisorOne.com, on Sept. 29, 2007)

Skeleton in My Closet: Does what you wear really matter?

For the past six years, my mentor has been quite forthright with me about the way I dress in professional settings.  I dress conservatively, but the problem he had was how I shopped and, essentially, the labels on my purse, watch, shoes and suit.  He wanted me to look older and more mature by being slightly overdressed to show people that I was not only "smart but prosperous." 

Conservative by nature, I was taught that clothing wasn't the essence of who I am and I certainly didn't need to spend thousands of dollars on the biggest brand names to find good friends, business associates or clients. Furthermore, I am a college educated financial planner who knows that the time value of money is my greatest asset and I should use it while I am young. So logically, I would rather save my money. 

However, last year the topic of clothing came to a head following a speech I gave where my mentor said, "Your speech was fantastic, but you look terrible. Angie, You need to understand that you are a young woman in an older, male-dominated industry trying to earn respect for your expertise. Instead, you look like a 20-year-old dumb blonde." 

Hurt and resentful, I gave in as a little test to this theory. I enlisted my best friend Michelle, who is a successful older professional, to take me shopping. I purchased a brand new, perfectly tailored, three-piece black suit whose brand name I cannot even pronounce, a pair of Manolo Blahnik black pumps, several non-iron Ralph Lauren collared shirts to go under the suit jacket, a pearl necklace and earrings, and a Louis Vuitton purse—all for a price tag close to the amount of my annual Roth contribution! I choked all the way to the cash register, and the only satisfaction I got out of the fiasco was when the associate called the bank to verify that there was indeed enough money available for my check to clear. 

This spending spree happened almost one year ago. I have carried that purse and worn those shoes, and I have likely spent more money on the dry cleaning of that black suit than the cost of the suit itself. 

I must admit, however, that the results have been quite astonishing. I get compliments on my shoes and purse from both men and women—clients and their spouses, friends, and business associates. Where once I thought people just talked about my age, they are now asking me what I do for a living. I have been invited back to give several speeches at industry conferences. I have had people ask me where I purchased my suit. I have been asked to attend dinner with some of the top executives of B/Ds and custodians after my speeches. I have been invited to attend client events where the person sitting next to me was worth $65M and says, "Nice shoes!" 

This past year I have learned that my mentor was right. I am not saying that you have to give up what you value, go on spending sprees, or do whatever it takes to fit in. I have learned that you just have to know who your client is, and in order to serve them best, how you dress yourself may make your job a little easier. We all have uniforms that we have to put on for certain occasions to get the job done, show our worth, and look professional. The first impression is very important. 

For the past six years, by my refusal to dress a little older and buy the expensive things that others value (that I don't) to look successful, I was actually making my work harder. 

Michelle always told me, "Dress for the job you want to have, not for job you are currently doing." Whether I like it or not, it does work. My advice to all you young professionals out there is now to do the same. 

I would love you hear your stories on this subject!

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