This post is part of the Executive Image series started by Daria (aka @MominManagement). I am honored to participate with her and five other amazing women on this topic. For more about the series, visit Daria’s website, MominManagement.

In graduate school, if your jeans weren’t frayed at the bottom, people thought you were dressing up.  All I ever needed were my military uniforms and weekend clothes.  I never bothered to invest in a business suit.

Then I found myself invited to a strategy meeting at the National Academy of Science.  I couldn’t bear to put myself (and my wallet) at the mercy of Ann Taylor.  So I wore the only skirt I owned (even though it was winter) and hoped for the best.

Unfortunately, I looked like I was going to church and everyone else looked … sophisticated.

It didn’t help that I was the youngest person in the room.   My mind kept trying to devise ways to hide my outfit.  Maybe I could just keep my coat on?  Except, my coat was designed for snow sports, not business meetings.  It wasn’t the right image either.

Finally, I took a deep breath.  I couldn’t change my outfit now. Eventually, I found myself so engrossed in the topic at hand, I forgot about my insecurities. I told the group, “You know, these strategy sessions are great, but the real problem is that we don’t talk to each other regularly enough to make them work.  What we really need is a communication plan.”

All eyes were on me.  They weren’t judging my fashion sense.  They were looking for me to lead.

You can’t find confidence in your closet

When you think about creating an “executive image,” naturally the first thing that comes to mind is what you’re wearing.

Last week, Margie Clayman kicked off this series with this observation: women who want to project an executive image often end up looking a lot like … men.  A collection of Google images shows women in the same dark suits and arrogant cross-armed pose.

This is odd, because as Margie says, “women, even powerful women, are not men.”  What’s even stranger is executive image seems to be largely created by women.  Most of the executive men I know hate shopping, hate fashion, and thus rely on their wives to assemble matching outfits.

I’ll argue what’s far more important than the brand of your pant suit is what’s inside it.  Take this story from Lisa Petrilli

I had a business lunch last week with an older gentleman from the “old school” and I wore a skirt, bright red top with a scoop neck, dangly earrings, my hair down long, and brought poise and confidence with me. You know what? He said at one point, “You’re so poised and powerful and you’re not afraid to be a woman. I applaud you for that.”

My experience has been the same.  When I took stock of the women I respected, I discovered they didn’t look anything like the angry (but well dressed) business women in my Victoria Secret catalogue.

In fact, some of them were downright frumpy.

What they brought to the table, however, was much more powerful: a head full of good ideas and the confidence to share them.  They had opinions and weren’t afraid to use them.  It turns out ideas are much more memorable than outfits anyway.

Confidence is cheaper than Jimmy Choos

If I could end my National Academy meeting with a stack of business cards, chances are you don’t need to spend a dime on clothes to improve your executive image.  The bad news?  You can’t order “confidence” on Amazon with express, two-day shipping.  It only comes with practice.

If you aren’t as confident as you’d like to be, here are six effective strategies to help your confidence, and image, soar:

  1. Find your opinions–and share them.  If my daughter is any indication, we’re all born with plenty of opinions.  But in our quest to be more polite or political, those opinions grow quiet, sometimes even in our own heads.  Start with something easy.  Next time you go out to eat with friends, be the one to pick the restaurant.  Then try engaging a small group of co-workers, starting with the line, “What do you think of this idea?”  Before you know it, you’ll be making appointments with the boss and speaking up at weekly staff meetings.
  2. Argue without getting emotional.  Women in particular tend to see disagreement as a personal attack (even when it isn’t).  To learn how to handle conflict with grace, have a trusted friend take an opposing view on a subject you’re passionate about.  Time how long you can argue your point without raising your voice or questioning whether your friend is an idiot.   Most meetings won’t go longer than an hour, so if you can last that long, you’re in good shape.
  3. Practice being wrong. Fake confidence is almost always revealed by arrogance.  One of the most powerful ways to demonstrate confidence is to allow others to publicly change your mind.  Don’t just do it for effect either.  It takes strong conviction to see the wisdom in another viewpoint.
  4. Take an acting class.  A sure way to impress the pants off your co-workers and boss is to give a memorable, entertaining presentation.  Many recommend Toastmasters as a way to overcome a fear of speaking.  In my experience, the group can be a tad stuffy.  Adopting a persona is a strategy I use to calm nerves and project an aura of confidence.  If this doesn’t come naturally, try taking an acting class to learn the art of being someone else.
  5. Ask (even if you think the answer is no). How often have you sabotaged your success simply by not asking for what you want?  You won’t always get a yes, and you certainly don’t want to get carried away, but most of us are far too cautious.  Asking for small things, like taking a day off or making a presentation, will give you the confidence to ask for bigger things, like leading a project.
  6. Value yourself.  Rock bands need adoring fans, but they don’t hang out with them.  Likewise, executives won’t invite you to join their ranks if you can’t act like you belong there.   This means avoiding submissive behavior, like apologizing for taking their time or complimenting their ideas to the point of denigrating your own.  Keeping your own value at the front of your mind will help you see “muckity mucks” as people just like you.

First impressions are important.  But who remembers what you wore to your last business meeting?  Executive image isn’t what people see on you, but what they see in you.