Shedding the Corporate Armour—Part One

It was May of 1985. I had just finished my last final exam during my third year of undergrad, and had heard back from my internship coordinator that I was scheduled for my first interview for a professional internship at the Marine Bank Corporation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since I left high school, I relished the fact that I could dress for my university classes as I pleased—comfort was king, and adding a bit of personal flair meant nothing more than wearing a pair of cheap earrings or a necklace that I beaded myself.

This internship was the culmination of everything I knew I wanted and needed to progress in my career as a professional. The company was well-known and respected, and the fact that I even got a shot at interviewing was due not to the status of my family or personal connections, but my grades and portfolio of student journalism. I knew that the culture of the organization was buttoned-up and conservative. It was, after all, a bank. Men wore dark grey pinstriped suits (or navy blue as a creative alternative), muted-coloured ties, and black wing tips. Women wore the exact same thing, trading the pants for pencil skirts. I knew that to fit in, to be taken seriously, I needed to dress the same as my more seasoned colleagues.

My shopping trip to purchase this uniform of my corporate initiation was frustrating.  Everything I saw and tried on fit for size, but didn’t fit my personality in the least.  I nearly gave into buying a particularly androgynous and stiff black wool skirt suit with the requisite white collared blouse and black ribbon tie, when I spotted it: a bright green, linen-blend two-piece suit with a flared skirt and dolman sleeved jacket.  It was spectacular, and nearly matched the green of my eyes.  Suddenly, I felt more excited about dressing for the corporate world.  Riding home on the city bus, green suit in tow, I suddenly felt apprehensive—what if I didn’t fit in?  What if I was immediately judged by my internship boss as a flake simply because I made the wrong suit choice?  It was too late to return the suit, so I vowed that I would keep the tags on and wear it for my first day of work.  If I made the wrong choice, I could always return it for the black wool suit.

The green suit ended up being with me for a long time, having gotten me through three professional internships and my first two paid professional jobs.  Fast forward 10 years—the mid 90s.  I was shopping again for a wardrobe to fit yet another new role, again with a conservative banking organization. Along the way, I lost my sense of personal style – maybe a bit of myself. As I walked the halls of the bank during the interview process, I saw fashion clones that appeared to me as uptight, emotionless, and style-free robots. Despite this onslaught, I had too much at risk professionally to go outside the norms.

Not only did I purchase several pieces of corporate “armour”—two-piece pencil skirt suits in black, grey, brown, and navy, but I even went so far as to dye my bright blond hair a dark auburn and start to wear glasses.  Yes indeed, this girl meant business!

For the past 20 years I strayed only slightly from the margins of my corporate armour.  My suits became my talisman for personal power, and my fear was that by showing even a bit of personal flair, I would be knocked down a few notches on the corporate ladder that was built almost entirely by fashion-challenged men.

Recently I joined an organization that was about as far from a stiff corporate environment as I could get.  Our organization prides itself in helping leaders to discover and value their true, authentic selves, and to build their personal leadership competencies around what drives them as individuals.  Coming in as the new CEO, I was yet again faced with the fear that if without my corporate armour, I would not be taken seriously.  In the first few client meetings I attended, I noticed that the firm’s clients were mostly dressed quite comfortably—a few sweaters here, knit culottes there, even a couple t-shirt dresses with funky necklaces made appearances.  These were not clients who were working for small start-up companies or creative agencies, either.  These were heads of learning and development for Canada’s Top 20 employers.  Yet, I stuck with donning my corporate armour for these appointments—figuring that our clients expected the head of their leadership development partner to be more corporate and less comfortable.

Then came the trip to Toronto.  I had packed for this trip like I had so many before—three conservative dresses in conservative colors, black heels, and a pearl necklace and earrings.  I had known Toronto to be more on the professional-conservative side, so I would fit right in!  Boy, was I wrong.  One by one, I was surprised (pleasantly) to find that these clients were donned in the most beautiful, personalized clothing, looking far more confident and comfortable than me.  My final appointment was with the head of learning and development for one of the largest employers in Canada, with more than 100,000 employees.  I was dressed in my grey pinstriped suit dress, hair slicked back in high ponytail, black heels shoved on my blistered and swollen feet.  She was dressed in jeans, a sleeveless sweater, and cowboy boots.  Suddenly I realized that I was not only dressed for an environment that I no longer fit in, but I wasn’t dressed at all like anything that represented me.  At 52, when was I finally going to be authentic, and shed my corporate armour?

In the Patrick Lencioni book, “Getting Naked,” the author focuses on the many ways in which we build up false pretenses around ourselves—through our dress, language, and work relationships.  He invites us to explore what becoming vulnerable—getting naked—really means—and how, by showing our authentic selves, we can be more engaging and…successful.

So, I’ve decided to start chinking away at my armour and figuring out what it represents, why I started wearing it in the first place, and if I can fully live without it.  Stay tuned…this may take awhile.