Mark Twain once said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” The underlying truth to this statement is that those who are acting in a manner that is well outside the societal norms, especially if they are engaging in what is viewed as outlandish or impractical behaviors, are not taken seriously. They are not able to influence their surroundings.
So why did I bring this up? There is an application of this principle in business settings. If you don’t understand your company’s business model and how your company intends to implement the business strategy, you won’t be taken seriously. If you are viewed as irrelevant or a flake, you won't be taken seriously. You are essentially naked in your business environment. People may tolerate you and find you amusing, just like we used to laugh at the people who would “streak” at sporting events or concerts. No one really took them seriously, and no one will take you seriously either.
This means that to become a person of influence in your business, you need become “clothed” in the business and industry. For many years I worked with several Fortune 500 companies providing training to their new college hires. While I was supposed to be teaching them project management (which I did), I found that in many cases what was more important was that I taught them how to think in business terms. In other words, I had to teach them how to get “dressed” for business. Here are the five suggestions I provided:
- Become familiar with what is happening in the company. Read the company newsletter. Follow the company on social media. Keep track of the company press releases and shareholder reports. It is not enough to just know your department or your division of your company, you should be aware of the major issues and initiatives in your company. A great way to do this is to join one of the corporate communities of interest. Sometimes these are formal and sometimes they are informal. Regardless, make friends and get involved with others in the company so that you will be aware of what is currently important and why.
- Become familiar with what is happening in your industry. You were hired for your technical expertise that was learned in college. But now you must apply that expertise in the business setting to be successful. You need to know what is happening in your industry so that you are prepared to do that. You may be an IT person, or an HR person, or an engineer. If you are in IT, what are the trends in the use of information technology in your industry? If you are in HR, what are the hiring, staffing, and retention issues that your industry faces? If you are an engineer, how is product or process technology changing the nature of competition in your industry? To be relevant and influential, you need to know what is happening.
- Become known for an aspect of professional competence related to your work. You don’t have to be an expert in everything, but to be taken seriously you need to be viewed as an expert in something. You want to become a “go to” person on a topic that is important to the business. This means that you will be specifically sought out and included in key discussions and decisions. Once you have a seat at the table, your voice will begin to count on more and more topics. Developing this expertise will take some time. You may need to read books or attend conferences. Look around your business for an area of business concern where the organization is currently weak. Focus on that area and become the expert. Your work to become familiar with your company and the industry should help you pick an appropriate area of focus.
- Developing financial acumen was another aspect of business preparation that I recommended. Finance is the language of business. Companies typically measure success or failure in financial terms. Personal or organizational goals and measurements often include financial goals such productivity, savings, growth in key ratios, or return on investment. Many of the new college hires had no background in these topics. They could balance their check book, but they didn’t know how to read a balance sheet. This is an area where there are books and classes that can help someone get up to speed. In fact, one option is the online course offered through GoSkills that I teach. (www.goskills.com/Course/FinanceProfessionals)
- The final point was to demonstrate a mature and caring personality for their co-workers. Work isn’t a beauty pageant, but if it were, their goal should be to win the award for “Miss Congeniality.” You want to develop a reputation as someone who is encouraging and supportive of others. Not a reputation of being “snarky,” rude, and off-color. I don’t mean that you pretend everything is always wonderful when it isn’t. But when things are difficult and people are discouraged, you keep a positive attitude and work to make things better. The rest of the organization will see you in the role of a problem-solver, not a problem-maker. This is the hardest attribute to teach. That is because it is less about knowledge and more about attitude and habits. However, habits can be changed through practice. That is why athletes spend so much time in practice, so that their body will respond to the challenges of the game or meet out of habit. Use whatever reminder system works for you to think about your attitude and practice developing a positive and encouraging way of interacting with others at work.
So if you want to be taken seriously, you need to put on the clothes of business. These five suggestions are a great way for you to “dress for success.”