Interview Threads: Dressing the Part

By Girish Mirchandani – Partner, San Francisco –

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.  If you think about that, you’ll do things differently”
Warren Buffett

So you’ve done your prep work for your big interview.  You studied the company, checked LinkedIn for mutual relationships (legalized stalking), and developed your list of questions (always the most powerful tool).  You are ready to go and then one thing hits you: What to wear?  Do you dress in your finest suit or dress down for a more casual setting?

The popular cliché “dress for the job you want” might come to mind.  So if you’re a software engineer, does that mean you whip out your Tron t-Shirt and best pair of jeans?  That might get you some popular votes but probably not the best idea for a job interview.  And if you are interviewing at a tech startup, how does it look when you are wearing a suit and the guy across the table from you is wearing jeans and a tucked out dress shirt?  Do you come across as “stuffy”?  Does it match the culture or do you remind them of George Zimmer from Men’s Warehouse?

Dressing today is much trickier than in the past when wearing a suit and tie was a no-brainer.  In fact, a suit was not only a must, but the standard.  Times have changed.

I spoke to a Silicon Valley tech CMO and asked what his thoughts are when someone shows up in a suit for a job interview.  He said, “It looks desperate and an absolute deal breaker.  It shows us he doesn’t understand the culture of a startup.”  Now if you are interviewing at a formal and structured organization that has a very buttoned up corporate culture, not showing up in a suit for an interview can be a game changer from the start.

Which brings me back to my original question, what do you wear?  My answer is simple, do your homework.  Find other executives or someone you know in the company and ask them for advice.  If you are working with a search firm like ours ask your recruiter for some guidance.  Research what other executives wear or visit their campus or office area to observe what people are wearing (without stalking of course!).

More than likely when interviewing for a tech startup in the valley, wearing a formal suit and tie sends the wrong message.  It gives an aura of big company which is not the image you want to portray.  Most tech startups want teammates that roll up their sleeves and can get to work.  So where does that leave you?  Do you bring your hard hat and lunch pail?  Not exactly, although that actually might not be a bad idea…let’s leave that one for another day.  My suggestion is to look your best without looking stuffy.  For men, if you want to wear a suit, leave your tie at home or wear nice slacks with a sports jacket that matches.  For women, try slacks and a simple blouse.

After you’ve done your homework and decided what to wear, remember that it’s you, your attitude, your charisma, your connection to the culture, and your skillset that are going to get you to a “Yes”. So dress accordingly and be yourself.

I think Alicia Keys sums it up best:
“The most important thing to remember is that you can wear all the greatest clothes and all the greatest shoes, but you’ve got to have a good spirit on the inside. That’s what’s really going to make you look like you’re ready to rock the world.”
Alicia Keys

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