People believe what they see and that perception of what they see IS the reality of what they believe to be true.

Many executives I know including those I’ve worked for and those whom I’ve worked alongside spend countless hours trying to “play the perfect part” as a corporate exec.  We’ve all been told that you only get one chance at making a good first impression – and for all intents and purposes, that is true.  You do only get a few seconds to make an impression upon someone and that person will immediately assess and categorize you.  Sometimes that categorization is exactly what you want, but sometimes it is the complete opposite.  The problem occurs when you don’t realize you aren’t getting the reaction you are looking for and go on your merry way.

Let’s dig into this a bit further – because you can guess by the title of this blog, I’ve had some personal experience in this arena.

My story is typical for many successful corporate executives.  I have a good educational background, I connected with – and still connect with – a smart group of peers, I am constantly learning how to improve and yes, I always dressed the part.

For me, that dress code included custom-made suits, designer shoes and bags and elegant jewelry.  My daily wear made me feel confident and comfortable; in some essence, it defined me.  I assumed that my peers would view me as such – confident and successful, able to lead the team and the company forward and able to handle any issues that came my way efficiently and effectively.

When I was passed over for a corporate position not once, but twice by boss came to me with the “We have to talk” look on his face.  He was brutally honest and told me that the reason I didn’t get the position was the board felt my team didn’t view me as leadership material and I wouldn’t effectively be able to accomplish the company’s strategic goals because of it.

Ouch.  I considered myself a leader and an effective and very efficient project manager.  My boss suggested hiring an executive coach to work with me and uncover the roadblocks that were holding me back.  I was all in.  I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty, but I need to know why.  My career depended on it, but also my soul depended on it.  I couldn’t go on in my current role knowing I wasn’t effective.

Back to the custom-made suits and pearls.  It turns out, my team viewed me as aloof, snooty and yes a tad pretentious.  They saw my custom suits and elegant jewelry as a Scarlet Letter – I was an outcast, not an insider.  The team felt I could never understand what it was like to be “one of them” because I didn’t live in their world.  Ouch – again.

The coaching began with observations – how I interacted with my team.  I learned to be less formal in my conversation, more approachable – less all business.  Versus diving into the agenda for a meeting I would ask everyone how their weekend was.  It made all the difference in the world.

The pearl conversation was one of the biggest revelations.  I explained why I wore my pearls so often –   family members gave them to me piece by piece over the years.  I feel when I wear them I have a part of my family with me – it gives me inspiration and strength.  Letting my team in on the softer side of me increased our engagement ten-fold.  I was now just a woman who loved her family, not someone who shopped for pearls at Tiffany’s.  The perception changed immediately.

The moral of the story is – be true to yourself, embrace your differences and your personal story.  Don’t be afraid of transparency, it can be extremely powerful.   Thank you to my former boss, mentor, and friend for seeing in me something I didn’t and for the guts to be brutally honest with me.  He not only helped my career get to the next level – yes I got that corporate job – but he also inspired me to help others.

I eventually left my corporate career because I identified my true passion – helping others navigate the waters of the corporate world and working with them to chart their course to success.  It was a great move, and I still get to wear my custom-made suits and heirloom pearls – now I just tell the story that goes along with it instead of hiding behind it.

It’s all about thinking from the outside in….seeing yourself from the lens of those around you.

Have you had a ‘pearls and a custom-made suit’ experience in your career or personal life?  One where assumptions were made by someone else or by you that resulted in lost opportunities or thwarted career goals?

If so, how did you handle the situation?  Are you still struggling?

Please comment and share your story – vocalizing a road block is not only therapeutic it can be very eye-opening! And, it is a way to ‘share forward’ so others can benefit from your journey.