This week, Washington Business introduces John Held and Business as Usual, in which Held promises to explore the eccentricities of the working world. In turn, Washington Business promises to publish it occasionally.
In most organizations there is an established mode of dress for every type of job. Even the reporters where I work, who pride themselves on their individuality, are generally as carbon-copy dressers as any pack of teen-agers or printout of executives in the halls of IBM.
This phenomenon offers an ambitious person one of the easiest opportunities to stand out. It's a chance that must be gauged carefully, however. If your job performance is poor, better you blend with the crowd.
Even if you're great, you must assess the audience. A dress code of your own is truly a code -- and the receivers may not get the message you're trying to send. The flamboyance that is supposed to signal "I'm original" may be seen as "wise guy." The casualness that is meant as proof of one's confidence can come off as "doesn't give a damn." Or, in a laid-back atmosphere, the square clothes it takes to be different may just label you a square.
In short, standing out is easy; doing it wisely isn't. The safest opportunity occurs when your boss dresses differently than your peers. Simply adopt the basic style of your boss -- unless it means becoming a transvestite, which might be pressing your luck.
Once you've decided on this strategy, you needn't worry about easing into it. Imitation is a form of flattery (like all the others) that executives love. You want your boss to notice it.
As for your co-workers, who will despise you, they may keep score but they don't count. Not if your drive for success succeeds. Remember that the road up is strewn with blossoms of tribute such as envy, scorn and hate. Take them as compliments, because you're going to take them anyway.
True story: once in my naive past I was bequeathed a new boss who sported suspenders and puffed long, thin cigars. Two days later I was astounded when one of my cohorts abandoned his belt and cigarettes and appeared with suspenders, long, thin cigars and no apparent shame. I was convinced that this crass currying of favor would backfire.
I was totally wrong. He became an immediate favorite. Neither he nor our boss choked on a cigar, as I fervently wished. And only in my daydreams did I strangle either one with suspenders.
Moral: the early worm frequently gets the bird. Alternate moral: worms of a feather succeed together. Take your choice. And happy shopping.