After more than two decades in the Executive Search
business, I have learned a lot about what goes into a
successful hire. I try to impart my knowledge to both hiring
managers and candidates. Nevertheless, at many job
interviews I find myself listening to questions that make me
cringe and answers that make me want to cry.
Now it's my turn to talk.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Headhunter Un(der)dressed

Chapter 7 of my book deals with what a candidate should wear to a professional interview.  In the chapter, I include comprehensive instructions for both men and women regarding everything from color choices to shoe polish to what perfume not to wear.  But the chapter could really be summed up in three little words.  Wear. A. Suit.

Of course, there are exceptions – and for certain careers, a suit may never be required.  But basically, my thinking is this:  At a job interview, you are competing with other candidates for your future livelihood.  It is not a time to focus on being comfortable.  Wearing a suit unequivocally demonstrates respect for your potential employer and commands respect for you.  

You would think that I would follow my own advice, wouldn’t you?  You would think.  But…

A few weeks ago I proposed the services of Ward & Associates to a client for whom I had previously done work.  As an entrepreneur, presenting one’s services is the equivalent of undergoing a job interview.  My presentation would either earn a paying assignment or open that assignment to someone else.  Even though I had worked with this client before, the previous assignment involved a different professional discipline.  I knew I would have to convince the client of my capacity to recruit from a completely separate arena of candidates. 

As anyone from the Chicago area knows, the last few weeks have seen record warmth and constant sunshine with 100% chance of perspiration. Putting on a tie to meet with my client was far down on my list of Things I Want To Do On An 83-degree Day.  And, having some familiarity with my client, I knew he dressed casually.  I decided to leave the tie behind and dress for comfort with an open-collared dress shirt and sportcoat. 

Turns out I was the only one at the meeting dressed for comfort.  My client, the usually casual CEO of the company, had spent his morning at a meeting with a prospective client of his own.  Because he had felt unsure of what to wear to the meeting, he phoned beforehand to make sure he dressed appropriately - a novel idea.  Although he was advised that casual attire was fine, he chose to wear a suit to his meeting, a suit which he still wore- which means he was dressed much more formally than I was.  Oops.
There is a happy ending.  I got the assignment.  But some good luck and my client’s goodwill played a big part in the successful outcome.  The long and short of it is: I had made a serious mistake in arriving at my “interview” wearing casual clothes that potentially undermined my professionalism and reduced my confidence.  My client, on the other hand, did two things right.  He checked on what attire was acceptable for his meeting, and then he dressed beyond what was expected.  He was a CEO and he looked the part.

Moral of the story:  Better to sweat in a tie than sweat because you are not wearing one and should be.

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