Three counter-intuitive tips for managing your image


To manage your image effectively, you have to think constantly about how other people will perceive you.

Are you wondering if you’re good at image management? Ask yourself how you responded to that first sentence. If you said to yourself, “I am not consumed by what other people think of me—I have enough self-confidence to just be myself,” then you are probably bad at image management.

Because it’s not so cut and dried as either being ruled by everyone else or just being yourself. In fact, managing your image is mostly just making sure that people see you as your true self and don’t get side-tracked by things that easily derail our perception of other people.

Here are three ways you need to manage your image and you might miss these opportunities if you’re not paying attention:

1. Hang up on important people.
It’s clear that voicemail is a dying technology. Email is much more efficient, and it’s rare that leaving a voicemail is better than sending an email. But if a phone number is all you have, then you better be ready.

Which happened to me last week. I am raising funding for my company, and I had to call up a powerful, famous venture capitalist. I had an introduction to him. I had his cell phone number, and I was very nervous about getting the message right. As a writer, I wished I had his email, but I didn’t. Anyway, it occurred to me that maybe his cell number is more valuable to have anyway. Maybe harder to get.

So I rehearsed my voicemail—connection to the guy first, then my phone number, then what I want from him (a meeting), and then my name and number again. Ready.

Then I dialed and a recording said my message would be translated to email.

I went ahead with my rehearsed message. Which was totally stupid. An email should not read like a voicemail, so I had the wrong message for the wrong medium.

Now I know, for the future, that if that happens, I should hang up immediately and recraft the message I’m going to leave: Probably just a name and a number and the name of the person who referred me. Anything else probably won’t get translated properly by the voice recognition software anyway.

2. Compare yourself to losers.
A lot of your performance at work is about perception. For example, research from Tiziana Casciaro shows that if people think you’re likable, they will perceive that you do good work. And if people don’t like you, they will perceive you do bad work—even if you are a genius at work.

Also, it’s important to manage up—let people know what you’re doing well—so that they know what you are accomplishing at work and why you deserve to get great assignments.

The problem with all this is that you need to walk a fine line between pushing yourself to be a star performer and feeling good about what you have done already. Complacency is for losers, but so is perfectionism.

You need a balance. Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University studied Olympians and found that people who win the bronze medal are happier than people who win the silver. Because silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medalists, while bronze winners compare themselves to people who didn’t get a medal.

If you compare yourself to low performers at work, then you feel successful, and if you feel successful you will be happier. This is circular, but in a good way, because people who are happier at work do perform better. Even against high-performers.

Gilovich sums it up this way, “Happiness is not a trait but a talent. Finding balance between achievement and satisfaction.” This is an example of how satisfaction is not actually material to the achievement, but more mental. So be sure to allow yourself enough satisfaction so that your achievements are recognized and people appreciate the chance to work with you. For many people, this means comparing yourself to the losers at work. But that’s good for you, as long as you keep on improving. (Hat tip: Dennis Yang.)

3. Spend money on image when money is tight.
Are you wondering how Sarah Palin could spend $150,000 for new clothes last month? If you don’t understand why she needs those clothes, you probably are not spending enough on your own image. The key to knowing what to spend money on is knowing what people are paying for, so you know what you’re cutting corners on.

For example, expensive bangs are very different from cheap bangs. If you don’t know the difference you don’t know whether to get crappy bangs. The same is true for eyebrows, and highlights. Newsflash: Good highlights in LA and NY are $300, without a haircut. And you have to get them done every two months.

Sarah Palin is going on TV every day. She has no idea how to look like the other people in that league, but she is doing what Republican stylists say, and she looks great. Who doesn’t look great in an Armani suit from Saks? That’s the thing about expensive. Expensive is safe, especially if you don’t know what you are doing—you will look like you know what you’re doing.

And don’t tell me about Michelle Obama’s $150 dress. She made headlines when she wore it on the View because making that outfit look great is hard to do.

So if you want to look like you belong at a certain level, you need to pay for what others in that league pay for. Work is a club. And if you think people want to see you cutting corners in a bad economy, you’re wrong. Time magazine reports that Playboy—the grand arbiter of all image consulting—found that in a bear market, centerfolds of meatier women sold better. This makes sense: In a down market you naturally want to be around people who don’t seem to be suffering from the financial hardship.

In a centerfold, it’s meat on your bones. In the workplace, it’s an Armani suit.

59 replies
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  1. Jessee
    Jessee says:

    I love that your advice is dead on and I can see already and I hate when people tear it apart for being less than politically correct. Political correctness does very little for us except manage the middle – it does nothing to encourage low performers or high performers, what a way to marginalize everything! It’s like professional flirting – necessary but such a bad concept to the people towing the “everything-should-be-fair-and-equal-politically-correct” line. Uh, hello!? Who ever told you people life was fair? Get over it and get ahead already and quit waiting for your fair shake. You have to make your own shake.

  2. Holly Hoffman
    Holly Hoffman says:

    Great advice, P. I just got a promotion, and I’ve suddenly realized that my wardrobe just isn’t cutting it. Money is still tight, but it’s high on my priority list because coming in as a new manager means I need to look the part, especially since my credibility is what’s key right now.

    I still remember the post you did where you said something like, if you’re wondering whether your glasses are out of date, then they probably are. Crap. Now I definitely need new glasses!

    My only worry with comparing yourself to the losers is that you will become complacent if you’re surrounded by morons. What do they say? It’s never good to be the smartest person in the room? For example, I’m definitely better off than most of the people in my town… but I live in a largely undereducated, underambitious town. Yes, I’m more fit than 90% of the population, for example, but what does that say when I’m in the diabetes/obesity capital of the nation?

  3. jenX67
    jenX67 says:

    Very interesting. I really enjoyed all the sites you linked to in this post, by the way. I’ll have to think about the subject matter though, and maybe come back and comment later. The Tiziana tidbit is new for me. I didn’t know that.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I agree that you should hang up the telephone if you don’t feel comfortable about your delivery for whatever reason – voicemail, kids start making a racket, mother nature calling, etc. However be aware that your phone number has likely been recorded by the system on the other end. Call again but have a good excuse for the initial hang up should it be necessary for any reason – be prepared.

  5. MJ
    MJ says:

    I don’t know, I’ve always prioritized dressling for who and what I am. If I’m surrounded by the shiny-shoe and pinstripe suit sharks, I wear tweed – they don’t impress me, I’m not one of them, I don’t intend to be or become one of them, and let’s just get that out of the way as fast as possible. We don’t have to conform to everything in life.

    That said, why do the 20-27 year old girls in the worlplace (YES they are girls) have to wear the low riding pants and cute little puffy cap sleeved shirts? They’re in the frakking work force – dress like adults. And rethink the pink princess cellphones too, please.

  6. Fabulously Broke
    Fabulously Broke says:

    I agree about the fact that you MUST dress appropriately with the right amount of class for work (a $50 suit looks different from a $200 one) but telling people that an $2000 Armani suit is necessary, or trying to justify Palin’s $150k wardrobe is a bit too much for me to swallow.

    Spending money on image when money is tight really goes against what I believe in. If money is tight, food, shelter and water are the most important things, not image.

    But I’m assuming you aren’t referring to money REALLY being tight, like for low income families.

    I am going to link this.

  7. Juki Schor
    Juki Schor says:

    All the losers and low performers will love this post, it’s great. After all they have been assigned the role of their lifetime. Who wouldn’t want to make other people happy just through being what they are, after all they don’t even have to take a coach for doing this well. And of course, who ever told people that life was supposed to be fair is a liar. Life is what you make it to be, and if you want it unfair, that is how it is going to be. Rest assured, unfairness always wins, in the short run. In the long run things sometimes change, but then, you would just play the greatest role there is, making people who perform better happy through your low performing. That’s the real pioneer mentality. And who wants to be “middle” anyway. I guess it was meant to be a joke, or are you saying this is for REAL?

  8. Ian |
    Ian | says:

    “If you compare yourself to low performers at work, then you feel successful, and if you feel successful you will be happier.”

    Penelope, do you honestly feel successful comparing yourself to someone who is worse off (workplace or otherwise)?

    I think I might feel happy for about 3 seconds…

    * * * * * *

    I think the comparison to people who are worse off is a way to get perspective. So often we become obsessed with our own situation and don’t realize where we really are — it’s a forest vs. trees kind of thing. Part of doing a good job of knowing yourself is having a clear perspective. That requires you to acknowledge where you are great and where you are not great. So, yes, I do feel good making those comparisons because it reminds me of where I am. Really.


  9. says:

    My grandfather always used to say that you could tell a well dressed women by her handbag and shoes; whatever else she wore her handbag and shoes would be quality. Dressing well is important…or maybe dressing to the occasion. When a mom attends a school conference in torn jeans–it sends a message to the teachers…cocktail clothes at a business meeting send a message, sneakers at a business lunch send a message. And as someone who care for other peoples dogs…if i greet my human clients in black pants, white cashmere sweater and pumps with heals…they should wonder exactly who was caring for the pup. The clothes you wear, including the quality – tell the upfront story of who you are and where your priorities start.

  10. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    Enjoyed the post as always. In my opinion happiness is not a trait or a talent, it is a choice. You have to decide to be happy and then step forward. Appreciate all the fashion guidance but enjoy being known for wearing my own look and having clients ask for the guy that wears the western shirts. Of course you better be prepared to perform well if you choose to stand out. Would not argue with you that image and developing image have an important place in virtually all endeavors.

  11. Neil C.
    Neil C. says:

    #2 really leaves me scratching my head. I believe in the idea that we should strive for greatness by modeling ourselves after great people and comparing ourselves to people we want to be like.

    Self esteem should come from a sense of accomplishment; not from artificially feeling better about yourself because you are better than the gen Y non performer that shows up 20 min late every day, takes 25 sick days every 6 months, irritates everyone else in the office & is about to be fired.

  12. Maya
    Maya says:

    I don’t know about 2. Comparing myself to losers will make me happy, but complacent happy – and that is not happiness for the long run.

    I like the managing up bit. We need to teach our managers to compare us with the losers – then we might be really happy – with money and promotions to show for it.

    Totally agree with 1 and 3 though.

  13. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    Here’s what I do to look good on a budget. I buy expensive work clothes (well, expensive for Madison). Then I wear them 2-3 days in a row. Not the whole day obviously, but I’ll wear my nice outfit to my 2 meetings on Wednesday, come home, change and then put the outfit back on for my 3 meetings on Thursday. That way I don’t have to have five different outfits every week. I guess my job is different in that I don’t have to see the same people every day though… Image management is definitely an art. Great post!

  14. Sara
    Sara says:

    I think some of you are missing the point about #2. Research shows us that, whether intentional or not, we DO find happiness when we feel successful comparing ourselves to others, and despair when we compare badly. Someone who is making 100K per year, but all her friends and co-workers are making 200K per year, does not feel successful and happy, even though her salary is higher than 99% of other Americans’. An average-looking girl in a room full of ugly hunchbacks is most certainly happier than a pretty girl in a room full of supermodels.

    This is all subconscious, so it doesn’t matter if you find it distasteful. Penelope is just acknowledging it and telling you how can use it to your advantage instead of pretending it’s not true.

  15. deepali
    deepali says:

    I think something about point #2 is being missed, not just by commentors, but also by Penelope. When you are mere steps away from the “best”, you agonize about those mere steps. But when you are mere steps away from “average” or the “worst”, then you are thankful for those mere steps. I don’t think it is just about comparing yourself to what is around you (which is also an important element), but also about where you fall in the spectrum.

  16. Lindsay Price
    Lindsay Price says:

    I agree I think the point is being missed on number 2. It’s our vision of what a ‘loser’ is, the lowest of the low.

    To that end, the Olympic example is great – of course those who didn’t get a medal aren’t stereotypical losers, they just didn’t hit the bar. Reading this post, I immediately went – ‘Damn. I always think like a silver medalist…’

    Lots to think about.

  17. Mark F.
    Mark F. says:

    In response to point #2: Maybe setting the bar high has more to do with how high your personally able to jump, not how high your competition can. Maybe we are to focused on how we compare to others instead of what we are capable of regardless of the rewards…Competition helps you set a pace, its company, its a benchmark for those viewing outside.
    When I used to swim competitively it was about my personal best- I won every time I improved my time even if I finished last, maybe we need some of that in the workplace too!

    * * * * * * *
    The concept of personal best at work is so interesting, Mark. Thanks.

    It’s odd, really, that our goals at work are so externally driven. I like the idea of having a personal best at work, though I’m not really sure how it would work…. Thinking… I can see how, for example, if management is about being kind and helpful then you can measure yourself by how often you can keep you mind in that framework as a manager…. Not sure though… I’d like to hear other peoples’ ideas about this.


  18. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    I love the idea of up scaling your image to reflect whom you want to be/are striving for. But, with that, I like the idea of holding on to something – anything – that gives you comfort, and creates a sense of security from whom you already are. So, if you upgrade to a big girl suit and/or a big boy briefcase, I like the idea of holding onto something familiar, such as an old favorite pen or leather portfolio. Stretch to whom you’d like to be with something new, but hold on to something familiar so you have a point of security to touch for those moments when you feel nervous. Stretching and growing are great. So, in my opinion, are feeling gratitude and safety for where you’ve been.

  19. Jeanette
    Jeanette says:

    As a budget-priced hairdresser, I hear a lot of stories from men and women who used to spend a lot of money thinking they were getting a better color, cut or whatever, only to realize that it wasn’t true. Individual talent and experience is what matters, not the price. I, and a lot of talented people, work at a chain for the health insurance and the free training. (I’m sure I would do fine at a high-end salon if I could tolerate snobs. No thanks. Not worth it.) The smart thing to do is not to find a hairdresser by price, it’s to ask around. See someone with great hair? Ask them where they go. It’s just common sense. All hairdressers use similar techniques and chemicals. More money does not equal better hair. However, if you’re a snob and being around other snobs while spending too much money is what makes you happy, then by all means spend more money on your hair, and good luck to you.

  20. Juki Schor
    Juki Schor says:

    When I used to swim competitively it was about my personal best- I won every time I improved my time even if I finished last, maybe we need some of that in the workplace too!

    Great! I think it would also help to avoid that people keep going, never mind the cost for themselves or others, just because they don’t want to loose out or be behind the competitors. It gives more freedom to really live an individual life and takes the sting out of society between those who “achieve” and those who don’t. I have actually been wondering whether competition is not just a way how to keep people fighting, preventing them from thinking about what they really want to do. Once you are hooked to the “I must be better than them”, what you do becomes less important. As long as there is somebody who does worse, you feel good although you might be better off in a totally different field of work.
    If being better refers to money only, you are automatically hooked to choosing a profession that promises money, whether this satisfies you deeply or not doesn’t really matter. And then you compensate the inner emptiness with all kinds of stuff that causes health or emotional problems. When you have been going down the competition road long enough, it becomes increasingly harder to actually detect your personal best as you have been running for “comparable best” so long.

  21. Jennifer Skinner
    Jennifer Skinner says:

    Greetings Penelope,
    I’ve been following your blog for some time now, and I really enjoy reading your posts. This time around I just had to comment.
    I agree absolutely with you about image management! As an image/wardrobe consultant, one of my mantras is that we have to decide how we wish to be percieved and then dress accordingly. People judge others both consciously and unconsciously based on appearance…we can’t help it, no matter how “enlightened” we think we are. It’s hardwired in our brains. Some people get so lost in the “being true to yourself” camp that they lose touch with the message their appearance is sending.
    Thank you for an awesome post!
    Jennifer Skinner

  22. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    A note regarding personal best – it’s a good way to focus and benchmark our own progress for a given task without being distracted by the performance of other people. If we can see at least some progress with time, we will likely gain self-confidence in that task which we can hopefully transfer over to other tasks in some way. Ultimately our performance will be based on the performance of other people but I think it’s a good way to improve the performance of who we do have control over and that is ourselves.

  23. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    On point #1: Didn’t your mom ever tell you? Never hang up on anyone! Not only is it impolite, with caller ID they’ll know you called twice (mom didn’t know that, of course). Email inboxes are so overloaded, a voicemail message is likely to be heard before an email is read (it’s easier to ignore unread emails – esp those from an unfamiliar address – than a furiously blinking red light, and often you don’t know who the voice message is from until you listen). Best to do one and follow up with the other.
    On point #2: Great advice about perception – what you see is what you get, right? And the Olympian research is dead-on: silver medalists are pissed they didn’t get the gold, bronze medalists are just happy to be standing on the podium. But there is danger in putting yourself in the same category as losers at work, even if it’s just to make yourself feel happy. Instead of striving to improve, you’re encouraged to slack off – after all, you’ll still be better than the losers, right?
    On point # 3: Sorry Penelope, that’s a bunch of crap about Michelle Obama and her $150 dress. Are you saying Palin couldn’t pull off what Michelle Obama did? Palin is attractive and has a great body, she would look good in a potato sack (which, from the looks of things, she wore often before she was nominated). She’s the perfect example of someone who DOESN’T need an expensive wardrobe to look like a million bucks. Her stylists just got carried away with dressing her up – like my kids used to do with their Barbie dolls.

  24. Holly Hoffman
    Holly Hoffman says:

    You know, this kind of reminds me of that terrible Jennifer Aniston movie “Picture Perfect.” Her boss doesn’t promote her because she has no real financial obligations, and thus in his mind, no loyalty to the company. He tells her to “dress for the job you want.” While it’s a crappy movie (and I still love it), that’s something I’ve carried with me always.

  25. Liz
    Liz says:

    This is brilliant. A lot of people won’t get it, but if you want to succeed in a really competitive environment, this is the kind of advice you need.

    Thanks for the great article!

  26. Liz
    Liz says:

    PS – @ prklyr – Palin really could not pull off what Michelle Obama did with a cheap dress. This isn’t about politics, it’s about urban v. rural senses of style. (Before you freak out, I grew up rural so I had to learn the difference the hard way. I’m not being snotty, I’m being honest). Palin doesn’t know how to accessorize, how to dress for her body or how to carry herself so that cheap clothes will look expensive. Face it, she actually made her expensive clothes look a little cheap.

    If you really think Palin has clothes sense, you don’t know clothes – by which I mean you have no understanding of fit, proportion or structure. It doesn’t matter what your face or body looks like, it matters how you dress around it. Obama’s body is nowhere near as good as Palin’s (although both women are beautiful) but Obama can dress for her body and Palin can’t. Palin needed the $150k just to look halfway good. It’s a shortcut, and many of us could use the same thing.

    * * * * * *
    This is such a smart comment. It gives everyone a little peek at what a stylist can do for you. It’s very very hard to learn how to dress for your body. Being surrounded by experts — which is what happens if you live in a big city — helps so much.

    This is something I know for sure, having moved from NYC to Madison, WI: One of the biggest difference is how great women in NYC are at wearing stuff that looks great on them. It doesn’t matter, really if you have a lot of money, but it does matter if you have access to people who have a lot of money because you can see, first-hand, what the stylists are doing with other people. It’ a learning process.

    And Liz is so right: Michelle has learned and Sarah hasn’t.


  27. Joanna Van Vleck
    Joanna Van Vleck says:

    Thank you, Thank you! What a wonderful post. Image is crucial, especially in an economic time that is forcing more competition. I started a mens clothing club for this exact reason. Clothing equals Confidence equals Compliments. When you have that, you are unstoppable. Thank you!

  28. Rick
    Rick says:

    Or, instead of putting all that money, time, energy and worry into image, I imagine you could also put those into professional development, networking, improving your industry/profession/other knowledge.

    Call me old-fashioned, but *knowing*, being able to *do* and being able to *communicate* just seem so much more important that fussing over image.

    And please…Sarah Palin as an illustration of your point? Um, so she looks great…and is still a small-town, gun-toting, crony-hiring, Bible-thumping right-winger. I can think of a dozen better ways the campaign could have spent $150K; as an analogy, not so supportive to your point.

  29. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    @Liz, sorry if i wasn’t clear. I didn’t say that Palin has clothes sense – that’s what the RNC paid some lucky stylists big bucks for! Michelle looks fabulous because she exudes confidence (and she’s damn smart!); Palin pulls it off because the stylists treat her like a doll: they dress her up and pretend she’s something she’s not. Looking good and actually saying something intelligent are not correlated. With Michelle Obama it’s the whole package. With Palin, it’s an empty Armani suit. But they both look good.

  30. Steve C.
    Steve C. says:

    “If you want to look skinny, hang out with fat people,” is what you are saying, correct? This is one of the explanations for parents who deliberately hold their children back in school, start them later, so they will be more developed as they progress through the years, a built-in advantage, so to speak. More gaming of the system. Before you know it, everyone starts cheating, and the system becomes meaningless. It doesn't always work out though, no matter what the strategy. Do you strive to be a big fish in a small pond, or do you try to succeed at a higher level where the competition is much greater? Which athlete is likely to be better prepared; the one who played against the highest level competition, or the one who always looked for the stacked deck?

    One of the sad parts of reality is that looking the part is 80% of the game, at least as far as getting in the game is concerned. A little voo-doo statistics here, but you get the picture. How it plays in the long run goes a little deeper, kind of a turtle and the hare sort of deal. Having said all that, in any profession, having the right tools, knowing which tools to have to do the job, goes hand-in-hand the ability to do the job. This applies in consulting or being an iron worker or carpenter, whatever. If dressing well is one of the tools of the job, then you need to dress well to do the job. There is nothing counter-intuitive about that to me.
    Being well-liked is also a skill, one that can be learned and cultivated, but has only limited value in predicting competence in any random area. Do you know anyone who prefers to be disliked, and that you otherwise consider to be a normal person?

    If you consider athletics, the athletes with higher expectations and stronger drive to succeed are the ones who ultimately are the most successful, particularly after the Olympic type events, if they are able to transition from athletic competition and use the experience as a springboard for other goals. If perfection is your goal, you are probably going to be disappointed most of the time regardless of what you are shooting for. If doing the best you can is your goal, you'll only be disappointed if you know that you held back and didn't do your best.

    As with practically any aspect of life, those who are emotionally intelligent, have realistic expectations, and are doing something they are enjoying are most likely the happiest people.

    “Life is like a violin: what you get out of it depends on what you put in to it”. I’m sure everyone has heard some variation of that axiom sometime or another. I know where I first heard it, but do not know whom to attribute it too. It’s hard to argue with the sentiment. The variability in the axiom depends on how you define “life”.

    Oh yeah, the botched voice-mail message. Man, if only we could call out for a do-over when that stuff happens,eh? How about just being honest about it, calling again, explaining that you weren't expecting voice-recognition, and wanted to make sure the important information got where it needed to go? Sometimes the truth might set you free. Take a chance.

  31. Steve C.
    Steve C. says:

    It just occured to me, if we go through life qualifying ourselves on the basis of how others perform, are we not then doomed to fluctuate between jealousy/envy and narcissistic egomania?
    Steve C.

  32. Kendall Lee
    Kendall Lee says:

    The thing about “personal best” is that management can’t measure that on the forms they have to send back to corporate after your reviews. And maybe your personal best is still not what the company needs.

    But I think a great manager can help people raise the bar on what their personal best is in the workplace.

  33. jenX67
    jenX67 says:

    Well, I’ve been giving this a little thought since I read it a few days ago. Here’s what I’m thinking. I went through three very difficult pregnancies, a tough divorce and major family illnesses during my career – 18 years in PR before launching a virtual PR shop. Most days, I lied about how I was coping with all of the above at any given time. I was constantly focused on managing my image – €“ proving that nothing could slow me down or make me a less valuable member of the team. Happy was my mantra, and all of this producing and posturing was profitable. My experience and credentials landed me tough interviews, but, I am convinced "happy" and “agreeable” (read: easy to control) got me the high paying jobs. I was often praised for my ability to SUCK IT UP or for having "no ego." More often than not I ended up reporting to extreme ego maniacs who did not keep a check on their bad behavior or extreme self interests.

    I do apply many counter intuitive rules for success – primarily, the teachings from my Judeo Christian tradition. I still believe in the first shall be last and the last being first – €“ a principle I have always tried to apply and one that has served me well. The one that is hardest though – €“ let your YES be your YES and your NO be your NO. In this regard, the most counter intuitive tip may well be not losing too much of one's self in the process of promoting a seamless image. I figure I can still wear Armani, smile and be a consummate team player. But, I can incorporate meaningful and reasonable boundaries as part of my image, too. So, when and if a boss ever says to me, " – I own you now," I can be confident in saying "No, sir, with all due respect, you never have and you never will." Smiling of course and not wearing rundown heels.

  34. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    MJ’s comment is something I think about often in the workplace. You can set yourself apart and still be poised and mature in your style. It’s interesting, actually, because I think it has a lot to do with your role in the office. I had a boss who was an HR person through and through – she was very conservative and always looked the part, which was company President. But her favorite colors were pink and purple. She sometimes wore these black slip-on shoes with little sparkly pink stones on them. She was fifty-five, and I thought, really? But she was the President. I started to wonder if, after I established myself in the office as a smart and productive employee, I could do the same.

    As far as what MJ calls ‘cute’ dressing, the ruffly sleeves, pastels, etc., we shouldn’t have to forgo our femininity (I read that women who try to be too masculine in the workplace are actually inhibiting themselves).

    Ultimately, we should push aside our skepticism of that person in the office who always looks good (and appears to get ahead), and figure out how we can do that for ourselves, while balancing it with our personal flare. So keep your fun ringtone, but put the phone on vibrate while at work.

    Great post, Penelope.

  35. Benjamin Strong
    Benjamin Strong says:


    I always enjoy your meat and potatoes career advice. Your thoughts on managing your image couldn't be timelier in today's world. Whether someone is looking for a new job because of a layoff or trying to institute a new path or product in a company recoiling from a bad market, your advice is good advice.

    I have ditched voicemail years ago. I can't track it, don't trust the automated machine to time stamp it correctly, and feel it is outdate. I specifically give my email address in my voice message to encourage callers to email me. The only exception is for the media, who I encourage to email, voicemail, and call my mobile number directly.

    You suggest people compare themselves to losers. That is some of the best advice I have ever heard! Until recently, the Federal government's Department of Homeland Security was hoping to move towards a pay for performance system. The plan never materialized. Most mediocre employees were scared beyond belief they would never get raises. I took a different approach. I knew the fear of lawsuits and union action would weigh so heavily on supervisors that I only had to be a bit better than the most average employee to look superior. That's it, just work a little harder than the most average employee and you are a stand out!

    Finally, your suggestions to ensure you look good is excellent advice no matter what the economy or situation. What's the old adage? Always dress for the job you want, not the job you have. You don't have to spend a mint to look good. Discount stores such as K&G Men's Warehouse, Syms, and Burlington Coat Factor all sell name brand clothing at discount prices. Men should never wear short sleeved shirts with ties, should always wear a tie (you can take it off it things are more casual) and should wear tie up shoes, not loafers. Stick with that and you will always look like you know what you are doing. Casual day is for interns. You never know when a producer from Fox News is going to call and want an on camera interview. Trust me about image, it matters.

  36. Jessica Bond
    Jessica Bond says:

    Excellent points about image and clothing. Dressing well for work sends a message that you consider your work important. Being well-dressed is likely to result in you acting more like a boss.

  37. Juki Schor
    Juki Schor says:

    I can’t help but wanting to be a little nuisance ;-).
    “That's it, just work a little harder than the most average employee and you are a stand out!”
    And don’t forget that you continuously work a little harder in order to become a stand out. Any stop signs out there?
    “Trust me about image, it matters.” Obviously. It is probably an easy way to sort through the “workforce”. I just can’t find any hints on how to see what is underneath a correct wrapping? How do you find out what is inside the package? Are there any statistical correlations between Armani suits and inner qualities?
    I have now read all the links with this post above (pew) and feel like asking: is there any “real people” out there any more over there?

    I get the impression that careerist is a “collection of behavioural patterns that are readily applied in order to give the impression that is perceived as being appropriate for the given situation”. Even trying to keep all the rules and regulations in mind would completely absorb my full concentration and I understand why everybody needs a coach. But admitted, I am completely outdated and never was much of a great actor :-).

  38. Bihter
    Bihter says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Just wanted to say that I’ve started reading your blog. I’m wondering if you have heard about the book, “What Men Don’t Tell Women About Business”. I heard the guy (Chris Flett) on the Today Show and thought you probably have already heard of him. I’m wondering what your thoughts were. He seems to be really taking on the ‘Old Boys Club”. I just emailed him, but haven’t heard back.

    Anyway, keep up the great writing.



  39. Michal Mitrega
    Michal Mitrega says:

    When you compare yourself to losers you will become one of them – you will be satisfied.

    When you compare yourself to winers you will become one of them – you will try harder.

    It’s that simple. Gold medalist is always most happy.

  40. Steve C.
    Steve C. says:

    I was just thinking about the story of the two fishermen running away from a bear that was chasing them. One stopped to put on his sneakers, the other looked on in amazement and exclaimed, “come on man, we’ll never outrun that bear if we stop for you to put on your shoes”. To which the other replied, “I’m not worried about out-running the bear, the only one I have to out-run is you”. ;-)
    Steve C.

  41. Bihter
    Bihter says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I’ve been doing some additional research on the author, Chris Flett, that I talked about on my last comment. His company is “GhostCEO” ( and his book is a bestseller. I found it on Amazon here. Anyway, he was in the NY Times last Sunday under the “Career Couch” and he makes reference to women’s blogs like yours so I thought you might like to connect. I’d like to see you interview him and see what he’s all about. I saw on another blog he was a guest blogger. His email is:

    Best wishes,


  42. Liz
    Liz says:

    I think that if Palin and her handlers has been intelligent instead of spendthrift, she would have had a stylist who could have dressed her wonderfully at any price point Do you actually think Michelle went shopping for her own clothes? No. I will wager she did not. However, she is savvy enough to know that compiling a 100k+ wardrobe would alienate her from the people whose votes her husband needed.

  43. Jen
    Jen says:

    “Which happened to me last week. I am raising funding for my company…”

    It is natural for advice to be given in the areas that the writer thinks important. In this case I am sure Penelope judges those she meets on their looks and therefore thinks that a person’s look is very important. However if I were reading a proposal and the writer used an incorrect tense (such as using “I am” for the past tense) I would immediately think the proposal writer was stupid. I would not even have to look at their shoes to judge them.

  44. Gordon
    Gordon says:

    I can only say “Clothes do not make the Man/ Woman” You are what you are in inside, the external is for show, camo to artificially give you an edge. I always mentor my students, be themselves, do not try to be me, or any other “leader figure” find you!!! And be you!!!. In my world, whether you look good or not, does not matter to those who are counting on you to execute. I am afraid skin deep is only skin deep, those who judge a book by its jacket, miss so much in life. Are you???


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