How Should A Facilitator, Trainer Or Consultant Dress? “Smartly” or “Authentically”?

If you’re a consultant, how do you want your potential clients to see you? Does that change if you’re more of a facilitator than a consultant? And do either of these change if you mostly work remotely?

To what extent is it Clean to match a potential client’s metaphor for “business consultant”: to what extent is it Cleaner to be “authentically oneself”? 

I’m not generally interested in clothes – I try to minimise thinking about them as much as I can. I’m all in favour of the wear-the-same-thing-every-day idea.

In the last few years my working wardrobe has settled into a particular style: it’s comfortable enough for standing all day, shifting boxes and furniture when needed, carrying luggage or running for a train – and at the same time hopefully smart enough that people don’t regard me as “too scruffy for this company”.

And, this week it was gently suggested that Steve and I need to get some pictures taken and put online which show him in a suit, me in “female equivalent”, in order to increase our chance of winning the meetings that could lead to doing more of the work we love to do, helping to create the conditions for teams to collaborate by using Clean Language-based approaches.

The request came from someone thoughtful and intelligent who understands the subtleties of what we do and would like to introduce it to some of his key clients: it’s not thoughtless cookie-cutter advice from a random “business coach”.

I wasn’t sure what kind of outfit I was looking for, so I asked for practical advice from my online network. It wasn’t quite what I expected!

The majority of people who responded said that dressing in a way that was true to myself, being “authentic”, was more important than dressing to fit any client’s expectations. Space suits and feathers were amongst the ideas proposed 🙂

That gave me a puzzle to work on. One of the things that’s authentic for me is a Clean (or at least Cleanish) philosophy: to put the client and the client’s desired outcome at the heart of the interaction, reducing the amount of the attention being paid to the facilitator. And clothes are an important part of that, especially in a first encounter – whether that’s in marketing materials, an online conversation, or a first face-to-face meeting.

We also know there’s plenty of research about how people respond differently to people in different clothes. “White coat syndrome” is an actual thing.

A lot of Clean enthusiasts take the view that low-key, dark-coloured clothing is appropriate when in the facilitator role, with brighter colours and more distinctive styles when “presenting”. “Training” falls somewhere in between.

In a typical in-organisation engagement, perhaps my clothing should probably start by matching the client expectation for a sales meeting (in this case, “smart”); then match the group’s expectation for “trainer” and then, as the group takes more responsibility for their own process, fade to “facilitator”. Pace, pace, pace… then stop leading.

That leaves another challenge, of course: predicting what a potential client would want to see their potential consultant wearing. The consensus in the UK and Europe is that business dress is much less formal nowadays than it used to be. It’s perhaps not so true of the US, apart from the west coast, or in Asia.

And that, of course, is why people invest in style consultants.

Meanwhile, I’ve ordered a navy trouser suit…

  • What do you think? Should a consultant or facilitator dress up or down? Turn up in pyjamas? Please comment below.

6 thoughts on “How Should A Facilitator, Trainer Or Consultant Dress? “Smartly” or “Authentically”?”

  1. Laurence Long

    I was surprised that so many people on that thread seemed uncomfortable about dressing smartly. I think there’s nothing wrong with looking smart for a particular context. For example for an interview I will turn up looking smart. It’s no big deal and it’s not some infringement on my freedom. I could turn up in jeans and talk about “authentic living” or something but I probably won’t get the job. Furthermore in some contexts it’s respectful to the environment to look smart. Yes clothes have no actual meaning beyond what we’ve made up for them, but to be fair nor do the ceremonies at which we’ve decided which ones to wear.

    And the whole psychological thing is true as you say, people who dress smartly will probably be taken more seriously, people will think they know what they’re doing more etc. Like the thing they did with the person that crossed the road in a suit vs casual clothes.

  2. There is a curious potential tension between ‘authentic’ you and what authentic you might want to wear, and the other you, the one who is influenced by what is at some level old fashioned consideration for ‘other’. What if authentic you is just somebody who is too self-orientated, self-obsessed, self-led, and unwilling or unable to take into consideration the preferences of others? And what if considerate you is simply and unthinkingly perpetuating some mythical mindset around expectations which at its worst can prejudice against people with different hairstyles or appearances? Heck.

    For me, and I think others, there is a common area, like overlapping circles, where I can be comfortable and authentic and at the same time considerate of the needs and preferences of others. In that space I can be myself without ramming it down anybody’s throat. And I think I can be happy there.

    And, there will be people for whom that tension is higher and I think it can lead to some real challenges, unfairness, prejudice… all sorts.

    So, starting with me, my job is to be genuinely OK about how people chose to show up in terms of dress, hair, all of that. To connect with the person, not the presentation… I will probably fail at some point, but where will I find that point? The point where I think there is too much of a gap between where somebody wishes to ‘present’, and what my old mind thinks is OK for the intended audience, especially if it is in some way linked to my business/professional life. If a co-facilitator turned up in body paint and nothing else, I know I would likely not want them to get client facing with me, but that is an extreme and easy-to-call example. What about body art, hair colour and style, piercings, and all of the other perfectly reasonable personal choices and physical characteristics…I hope I can be as liberal and OK about things as my self image prefers.

  3. Hey there, great thoughts. I too am a bit stumped how some would be surprised at dressing nice would mean not being authentic.

    What is authentic anyway? I like Steve’s point. What I wear when I’m out running is authentic and functional, and now I’m headed off to the bank to see my advisor, I’m going to change, and I won’t feel like a cheat. When I’m skyping I wear a nice shirt, try to comb my hair, and even wear pants– sorry trousers for you Brits– regardless that no one sees them. Once the skype is over I might put on shorts, or just go back to my boxers… depending on who’s in the house at the time. I don’t feel less authentic with trousers on, just warmer and more professional.

    I like wearing a nice fitting sports coat when I do presentations, and I feel great. I do the same when I perform music, I just don’t wear the same one, most of the time.

    Oh yeah, and I sleep naked. None of those times am I feeling in-authentic in my dress, my words maybe, but that’s another story…

    … I look forward to seeing the photo

  4. Such an interesting read Judy. I do have to adapt what I wear regularly to fit a client. I do also try to be myself which is so important too.

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