Thursday, 8 September 2011

Look the part!

Recently a friend has been talking to me about her frustrations at work.  She is a very intelligent person, well educated and very knowledgeable but she is having problems managing staff and relating to colleagues in her new role.  During our recent encounter she appeared to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  
When I looked at my friend I realised that one of the possible reasons why she is not being taken seriously in her managerial role is because she does not look the part.  No doubt she has the technical competence but she fails to inspire confidence and respect, because although her personal hygiene is unquestionable she does not dress well and her hairstyle is usually quite ordinary.  Her outfits are quite drab and when she tries to spruce up her style she wears short dresses which do not suit her.  She wears no makeup or jewellery and while she is entitled to that decision, it does not help her situation.  She often travels with plastic bags and it is quite normal for her to go shopping on her way to or from work.  She works in a blue chip company situated in a posh area of town.
Indeed there are other factors that could be impacting on her work environment – resistance to change, racism, low morale, working conditions, staff relations, organisational culture - a myriad of possibilities.  Without the ability to examine the work context I am unable to proffer a more accurate diagnosis.  What I do know is that people are more likely to support someone who looks good. In my tenure at the Foreign Ministry I was always proud of my bosses as they invariably looked the part.  Now that I am on the other side of the fence I endeavour to lead by example. There is a Jamaican proverb that says:  “A brown man’s wife eats cockroach in the corner while she saves her money to buy silk dresses.”  Image is important, even if you are starving! 
It is more difficult to contend with oneself than with the world (Kurdish proverb).   It is easy for us to blame others but sometimes we need to reflect and try to see what the world sees. These are not the days when brains rule; indeed I am not sure those days ever existed.  Brains are important but also of importance is the person’s image – charisma, mode of dress, personality, manner of speech, body language, demeanor, the confidence they exude.  Even if they are not truly confident, they must appear confident. 
Some time ago I was commissioned to interpret for the BBC.  They were interviewing the accomplished Cuban Band Buena Vista Social Club who was visiting the UK.  This was with live cameras and I was unsure whether I would understand the Cuban accent, especially since the group consisted of elderly people in their 80s and 90s.  I had never been to Cuba and I felt really unsure of myself.  So how did I do it?  I told myself that I deserved the opportunity and reminded myself that I had trained and qualified for it and that I was as good as anyone else. I convinced myself that I was confident.  I must have been shaking like a leaf before the event but no one could tell.  My affirmations worked - once the session started, it flowed and I absolutely enjoyed the experience.  "What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve" (Napoleon Hill).
The image of a business is just as important.  People do not want to deal with organisations that portray a negative image.  Many opportunities in business will not be offered to organisations that appear unprofessional.  Is your business image consistent?  What is the quality of your stationery?  What is the protocol for answering your phones?  What’s your company’s dress code?  Does your website look professional and  does it match your company logo and stationery?  How effective is your branding?  Start up companies often make the mistake of either going overboard – investing heavily in glossy marketing material or going to the other extreme of using cheap-looking materials.  It is important to strike the right balance and to avoid investing in material that will soon be outdated, while being aware of your costs and the image you portray. 
Your business image is also impacted by the “friends” you keep – the people you partner with, their track record, their values.  “Show me your friends and I will tell you who you are” says another popular proverb.  If you align your organisation with one that has a bad reputation you will be prone to developing that reputation yourself.  Be selective of the business deals you accept and remember that image is important.