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Sucess Story

What Happened: Influencing Unprofessional Dress

This letter was received in response to a question Joseph Grenny answered in the February 29, 2012 Crucial Skills Newsletter titled, “Influencing Unprofessional Dress.”

Dear Joseph,

I am the “CEO” of this company—that is, I am the superintendent of schools of a 5,000-student K-12 district and my challenge was to get the building principals to agree that impressions do matter to our “customers.”

In public schools, we have a rather unique situation in that one never knows where the parents are on the “dress for success” spectrum. Some (like Joseph and some who responded to his column) do not like ties and suits (very few of us do!) and argued for a relaxed, personal approach to dress. But that doesn’t work when it comes to interacting with parents who are more likely (given that they’re taking the time to actually visit you rather than call or e-mail) to have an issue and are quite possibly mad and ready to draw conclusions of one sort or another. The impression we create for those parents matters, so we have to dress the part.

However, my building leaders were often not setting a good example for the teachers in their school, and as a result, the entire building’s level of dress was unacceptable by most peoples’ standards. The occasional spirit day or casual Friday is totally fine and welcome in a school, but this was becoming the norm.

So I decided to engage the leaders in a conversation. At our leadership council meetings we first talked about our impressions of the teachers’ dress and then about how we could be role models for them. Addressing the teachers’ dress was a secondary objective—they are unionized and for such “initiatives” we need to get union leadership on board. I decided to first discuss and then decree that leaders start wearing a jacket and tie (or the equivalent for women). Now, school leaders definitely look more professional. I’m not saying they wear three-piece suits, or even a suit, but the norm is now to wear a tie, and that has raised the general level of dress quite appropriately.

In fact, I’ve started a conversation with union leadership about teacher dress. We’ll need to define terms such as “business casual” which means different things to different people, but there is consensus that such a term, once better defined, can and will help us get away from the ragged jeans and flip flops. I just cannot help but think how that type of dress harms our profession’s reputation and union leadership agrees, so perhaps we have some mutual purpose and common ground from which to operate when we begin step two of the dress for success campaign in our school district.

Thank you once again for the advice and for the ensuing comments from your readers. Very helpful to me indeed!

Editor’s Note: If you would like to share similar feedback about how the authors’ advice has helped you, please e-mail us at editor@vitalsmarts.com.

2 thoughts on “What Happened: Influencing Unprofessional Dress”

  1. How funny this sounds. “A jacket and tie” HA HA HA! Decree?!? There is a great way to build resentment. The writer must be at least 55yrs old. Leadership isn’t about dress clothes, its about leading. In my experience in the corp world, there are plenty of hollow suits that I would never follow out of a paper bag! I am not adovcating for ratty jeans and flip-flops, there needs to be a sensible standard. Most people these days can see through your Jacket and Tie nonsense. Leadership isn’t a title or a way of dressing, its leading.

  2. The writer is actually 49 years old and our “business” is unlike many others in that we answer to the local taxpayers who provide us with the funds to operate their public schools. Many of whom no doubt have your approach to dress, which is sensible, but there are unknown numbers of “others” out there who retain an old style approach. All we don’t need is to get on their wrong side and have even a crisp looking, “business casual” look be misconstrued as not being serious or worthy of their hard-earned tax dollars. My middle ground is to allow for business casual when school is not in session (administrators have to work those days).

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