The playwright George Bernard Shaw once remarked, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself”. In an age where so much of our life is captured and recorded in the digital cloud, he couldn’t have been more true. Cultivating a professional image, or what some call a personal brand, has never been more important. The prevalence of social media and the unerasable nature of internet data demands that we are always vigilant to the images, information and affiliations that appear about us online. Whatever you see when you Google yourself, is probably the first impression people will have of you.

For humans, it’s instinctual to make judgments about others based on appearance and behaviour well before we’ve had a chance to assess competence or performance. This happens both in-person and online. Your customers, colleagues, peers and employees are all forming their own impressions of you. The question is, what control do you currently have over that impression, or more importantly, what control could you have?

For those in leadership roles, an effective, successful professional image is a composite of appearance and behaviour. Perhaps it is the quality and styling of clothing that people see first, however, grooming, etiquette, character and effective communication are all a part of the personal brand you project.

In marketing, a brand can be defined as a promise to consumers that the product will meet a certain expectation. A personal brand is no different. It is a promise to your clients, your peers and your team that you are competent, consistent and reliable. That you can be trusted.

As the super sales trainer, Zig Ziglar famously quipped, “if people like you they’ll listen to you. If they trust you they’ll buy from you.”

Professional Personality

The starting point for developing a professional image is an honest assessment of the role you play within your organisation; sometimes referred to as a professional personality. This isn’t the same as a personality assessment like DISC or Myers Briggs, although the insights from those methodologies may help you define your role. This a more general view of how you want colleagues and staff to perceive you. Here are four of the most common personality types.

The Entrepreneur:

You inspire others to see the possibilities and you focus on the big picture. You never micro-manage. In fact, there’s probably a lot of things that your team do that you don’t know, and don’t want or need to learn. You’re all about creating excitement and inspiring others and your team love you. Think Oprah Winfrey. 

The Helper:

You get enormous satisfaction from seeing others succeed. You take a close personal interest in the wellbeing of your team and you let them know you believe in them. Helpers in C Suite are usually found in HR or operational roles where they can improve the lives of other people in the organisation. Your team are dedicated to you. Think Ally Watson, founder of Code Like a Girl or Jane Burns from Streat.

The Leader:

You are the general, the coach, the head of the pack. You believe in setting the right example, so you are the first one in and the last to leave. You worked your way up and you know how to do most, if not every job in the organisation. You guide, you strategise, you give structure and you don’t take sh*t from anyone. Your team respect you and follow you. Think Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas.

The Problem Solver

You are the person that thrives when they have a big juicy problem to solve because you can see the solutions that others can’t. Your thinking is outside the box; the rare and valuable combination of creativity and logic. Your team are in awe of you. Think  Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar founders of Atlassian.

This is by no means a definitive list, and most leadership roles require a combination of these and many other qualities. However, I have yet to meet a business leader or professional that didn’t have a recognizable, dominant leadership style.

Reflecting personality in clothing and style

Your professional image needs to be based on an honest and authentic reflection of the role you play within your organisation and the way you are perceived or wish to be perceived by others. If you are a hands-on leader who works side by side with your team in solving problems, a pin-striped power suit is neither appropriate nor practical. Similarly, the entrepreneurial go-to of jeans and t-shirt can damage credibility in some formal corporate settings.

Some of the practical factors to consider in developing a professional wardrobe include:

Working environment: Is your workday spent in an airconditioned, carpeted office, or do you visit factory floors, manufacturing plants of outdoor sites and if so how often? Has the impact of COVID-19 meant you are working remotely and conducting more meetings online?

Profession or Industry Conventions: Is there a dress code or other professional conventions or expectations that need to be considered? Law, politics, finance and academia are some of the sectors where this is often the case. Rather than see them as a limiting factor, is there a way to use this to express individuality?

Frequent Flying: A role that involves frequent travel and hotel stays, needs an easy-care, no-iron, crease-free wardrobe. Items that can be styled in multiple ways can reduce luggage size and weight.

Frequent Socialising: Does the role involved attending formal lunches, cocktail parties and other social events? Social attire should be consistent with the professional business image and having an adaptable wardrobe is often an easy and practical way to achieve this.

A Signature Look: Have you deliberately, or by default, established a particular style or recognisable look that you want to maintain as an important part of your identity? Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, is rarely photographed not wearing a choker. Richard Branson is always in an open-collar shirt and rarely wears a tie. Naomi Simpson, founder of Red Balloon, will always incorporate the colour red.

The theory of ratios

The Golden Ratio also referred to as the rule of thirds or the Fibonacci Sequence is everywhere around us from the arrangement of petals on flowers to the formation of galaxies. It is a mathematical formula that explains why certain proportions create a sense of beauty through harmony and proportion.

Humans have applied the Golden Ration in art and architecture for millennia – the Pyramids of Giza, the Parthenon in Athens, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and even the Pepsi logo are examples of the Golden Ratio applied. Our brains are seemingly hard-wired to prefer objects and images that use the Golden Ratio.

Our bodies and faces also follow the mathematical ratio and unsurprisingly it can be applied effectively to the way we dress.

As a general rule, the body can be divided into thirds. Garment structure and colours can define these proportions. For example, dressing with a distinct one-third top and two-third bottom can create the illusion of height.

However, the same approach can be applied to each part of the body. For men, the relation of shoulder width to neck width would indicate the best choice of shirt collar, lapel width and choice of a necktie. For women, the width of their shoulders compared to hips will indicate the best style of garment to balance proportions.

By dressing according to ratios, clothing can be used to not only communicate a personal style but to draw or divert attention from different parts of the body and create a more aesthetically pleasing and harmonious appearance.

Using the rule of thirds replaces the outdated idea of body shapes, where a person was categorised according to whether their overall body shape was triangulated, ovoid or rectangular. It is far more nuanced and practical. And it is something that each of us responds to subconsciously.

The theory of colours

In the National Gallery of Victoria hangs John Brack’s famous painting Collins St, 5 p.m. The painting captures the throng of city workers in the 1950s heading home to the suburbs at the end of the working day. The colour pallet is all browns, blacks and beige. If he were to paint it today, perhaps he would have used greys, blacks and navy, but the uniformity of city workwear has changed little in 70 years. It is a sea of sameness.

There are some business leaders who have made colourful clothing a central part of their image. However, for most people, anything outside of a neutral tone is seen as risky because unless it is done well, dressing colourfully can come across as messy, unapproachable, or worse still, unprofessional.

The power dressing ideas from the 1980s and 90s tend to prevail in many professional settings. Dark blues and greys are considered powerful colours for men, for women, it’s navy blues, beige and sometimes reds. However, using colour correctly can be an important component of a memorable and strong personal image and style.

Colour theory is the study of how colours work together and the effect they have on each other when combined. We all know that some contrasting colours can look clean and crisp, certain tones can be complimentary, while certain combinations are just jarring.

The colour wheel is a handy device to understand what colours will and won’t combine.

Analogous colours are ones that work together. You find them next to each other on the wheel – greens and blues, reds and pinks, blues and purples. There is cohesion and harmony to these combinations.

Complementary colours sit exactly opposite to each other and provide dramatic contrasts. When paired, they make each other seem more vibrant – yellow and purple; green and red; blue and orange.

Triadic colours are three separate colours spaced equally apart on the colour wheel. These colours balance each other and create harmony. Examples are orange, purple and green; red, yellow and blue. If you want a multi-coloured look, using Triadic tones is the key to achieving balance.

Tonal colours are different shades of the same colour. Red, pink and burgundy; Navy, teal and aquamarine. A tonal look is more relaxed and easier to achieve than a monochromatic look.

Monochromatic colour is wearing the same shade of a colour, from head-to-toe like your whole body has been dipped in a colour. It can be difficult to do because it requires colour matching across many items and fabrics. For this reason, the most common monochromatic looks are all black or all white. One of the effects of monochromatic dressing is that it can make you look taller.

Note that neutral colours – blacks, whites and greys – are visually void of colour and tend to be easy to coordinate especially with analogous, complementary or triadic combinations. Neutral tones are the foundation of a ‘capsule wardrobe’, a limited selection of garments designed to all coordinate with each other.

Your professional image determines the way you are perceived by others. It can impact your effectiveness and power within any business or social setting and deserves as much attention and consideration as any other aspect of your professional development.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

If you’d like to know more or would like to discuss your own professional image, please contact me