I was recently asked to work with a senior leader who had been promoted to CEO for a major division of his company. The president of the conglomerate called me and said, “His work is great; the way he dresses is not. Help him.” This was said with no malice, but in recognition of the fact that this soon-to-be company leader needed some CEO reputation management help — in his sartorial choices at least.

The Critical Role That Clothing Plays

Without hesitation, I accepted the assignment and spent several sessions hanging out with him at the Men’s Store of Nordstrom, New York. I’m pleased to say he left there not only with a new wardrobe, but a new man.

While how we dress is certainly not the most important factor in CEO reputation management, its role in developing executive presence should not be underrated. One of my favorite studies on this topic comes from the Center for Talent Innovation on Executive Presence.

The report highlights three pillars of executive presence: gravitas, communication and appearance. To be fair, appearance was not perceived as being as important as gravitas and communication, but it none the less was still a critical factor in how an executive was seen and related to by their staff, bosses, customers and the business community at large.

In my own experience working with leaders on developing their executive presence, the way they dress does open doors — or closes them. Here’re a few things to think about (man or woman) the next time you reach into your closet to get dressed for work.

One of the most interesting findings of the study was that of all the appearance attributes, good grooming was the most important, followed by posture. Physical attractiveness and slimness ran significantly farther behind, and expensive clothing and youthful appearance were at the end of the list.

The bottom line is that looking “polished and put together” is an important part of generating respect, including wearing clothing that is wrinkle and stain free and having a clean shave, manicured nails, styled hair and other finishing touches.

While we all know that being “good looking” in general opens doors in life, the study showed that it’s not necessary to be classically handsome or pretty in order to be considered attractive at the office. The key, it turns out, is making the most of what you’ve got; in other words, playing up your natural features, dressing for your body type and appearing well groomed.

The old expression Clothes make the man (or woman) may not be the whole truth when it comes to developing executive presence, but it does have an important role to play in your CEO reputation management. Just remember that wearing a dreary, dull jacket says more than you think, and less than you hope.

One other interesting note from the study was that 83% of senior executives reported that “unkempt attire,” including poorly maintained clothing, detracted from a woman’s presence, and 76% said it distracted from a man’s.

Karen Tiber Leland is the founder of Sterling Marketing Group, a branding & marketing strategy firm helping individuals and companies build stronger brands. She is the best-selling author of The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build, and Accelerate Your Brand. For more information please contact [email protected].

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