Opportunity Knocking: Part 1

Opportunity Knocking: Part 1

I can tell you from personal experience and from my informal research with colleagues and friends down through the years that real opportunities don’t come along very often. And when they do, we need to be ready. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt a bit if we were a tad over-prepared.

Some of the preparation we all do is just our ticket into the game, so to speak. We go to college and we get a degree or two in our chosen field.  Then we go to work and set out to make our mark on the world.

And then one day while we are in the middle of doing our jobs, the phone rings with important news: we have a significant interview or a meeting about our career path with our boss or the leadership of our organization. Perhaps we have shown initiative and been successful in our current companies and roles, and we are being summoned to something bigger. This meeting could be life changing. But the truth is many opportunities are lost before they even have a chance of being won because people don’t look the part, act the part, and speak/write the part. Your mother probably told you that there are no second chances to make a good first impression. She was right.

It complicates things that our world has become more casual over the past decade or two. We dress down. We work from home in our flip flops and jeans. Or, perhaps we work in a setting where pretty much anything goes as far as what we wear and even what we talk about. And, to be honest, I like that change for the most part. Being comfortable can help us relax and do our best work.

But, here is the rub: It’s easy to get complacent about our appearance and impressions and to assume that everyone is OK with it. That kind of ethnocentrism will get us into trouble, or at least hinder our ability to rise. Everyone is not like us. There will be some, perhaps those in authority, who will be put off by a casual approach. It might be seen as a lack of effort. If so, we are dead in the water.

I have a mantra that I have always used that has worked well for me: When in doubt, do more. Go above and beyond.  I’ve never lost by doing that.

With that in mind, let’s look at one aspect of doing that.

Look The Part

It’s important to know that first impressions are made at lightning speed and once they are made, they’re made. Research shows that in the first seven seconds of a meeting strangers are drawing conclusions about you just as you are about them. Furthermore, research has consistently proven that nonverbal cues have over four times the impact on the impression you make than anything you might or might not say.

When you meet someone for the first time, the second that person sets eyes on you, his or her brain makes countless on-the-spot judgments: Do you have authority and status? Are you trustworthy? Likable? Competent? Confident?

You can’t prevent people from making instant decisions. (The human brain has been hardwired for this for survival purposes since prehistoric times.) But you can learn to make this critical moment work in your favor.

Here are some time-honored ways to make sure you boost your nonverbal scores: (Special thanks to Dr. Linda Henman. I adapted many of these tips from her “Positioning Yourself for Board Member Seats as a CMO” webinar.)

Clothes: When I consider appropriate dress, I always picture Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck. (Jobs sought out famous designer Issey Miyake to design it.) The turtleneck was simple elegance—a personal brand attribute that Jobs intentionally conveyed about himself and Apple. My Luby’s board colleague Arthur Emerson conveys simple elegance another way. At a recent meeting, he wore a perfectly tailored black sports coat, black open-collared shirt, and an ivory ascot. What does what you wear say about you? Is your personal brand well represented?

Ask yourself what others are likely to wear to the event or meeting and make your choice accordingly. When in doubt, dress up, not down. Appropriate dress varies between countries and cultures. So, when you will be in an unfamiliar setting or country, prepare by paying particular attention to the host’s traditions and norms.

Grooming: A good haircut for women and a good haircut and shave for men are essential. Women’s makeup should be neat and natural. Above all, for both men and women, make sure your choices make you feel “the part.”

Jewelry: Understated jewelry is always the best choice. Err on the conservative side. Men should think twice before wearing jewelry other than a good watch and wedding band.

Pen: Invest in a good pen. It truly sends a message. (No pun intended!)

Briefcase: The only real option here is authentic leather.

Take Action Now

-Audit your wardrobe. Do you have the “go-to” essentials? If not, go shopping soon. You don’t have to spend a fortune. I see many great blazers and suits in thrift stores.

-How about your pen? I had a colleague that personally delivered to my office a box full of “nice” pens. Why? Because he witnessed me using a pen in a meeting with a hotel logo on it!  He was horrified!

-Leave your backpack at home!  Find a nice leather portfolio or sleek briefcase. Remember, it sends a message.

Next time: What To Do When Opportunity Knocks, Part Two: Act The Part.

Forbes.com Contributor

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