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Women on the way up: Dress the part

After all these years, there shouldn't be a need for an honor like the Paradigm Award, bestowed on top female business leaders by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

After all these years, there shouldn't be a need for an honor like the Paradigm Award, bestowed on top female business leaders by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. It should be as irrelevant as giving an award to the best executive with a cowlick. But, women leaders, like this year's prizewinner Lynn Utter, the chief operating officer at Knoll Inc., remain enough of a novelty that women, lacking a well-established business uniform, still have to think about issues such as how to dress and whether it's a good idea to wear high heels.

"In this day and age, I always dress up a notch," Utter told me during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer. "People can get so casual. It's hard to tell.  Is that person at work or are they going out for a date? I think you have to dress up a notch, not formal all the time. But again, you only get once chance to make a first impression."

Question: Does height matter? (Utter is 5' 10")

Answer: I think it can. But Janet Yellen (Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System) is not a tall woman and she is one of the most powerful women in the world right now. Deservedly so. I think it makes it easier. But I'll also say, it's probably not helpful that I tower over many men. I'm 5'10. And when you put heels on...

Q: And you do put heels on?

A:  I do.

Q: What's your philosophy on the heels?

A:  If I'm on stage or if I really need to make an impression on someone who doesn't know me well, I dress up and put on a set of heels. And the challenge, these pants happen to be hemmed for heels. So one you decide to wear the pants, you also have to wear the heels, so it all goes together. If I'm working and I'm going to be on an airplane and I'm going to see a client. It's one pair of shoes and it's all flats.

Q: Women put a lot of thought into all of this. For example, you wore red -- Knoll red -- for our interview today. Do you think it matters?

A: I do think it matters. I was in a boardroom session 10 years ago maybe for audit committee [meeting]. There was an issue and the auditors came in to render their opinion. We wanted to know what was going on. The senior audit partner couldn't be available in an emergency basis, so he sent his next in line number two. She knew the business very well and she knew the issues very well. She came in -- dressed, I swear it was a negligee. She had a suit on, but whatever that thing was underneath-- she took her jacket off to present. At the break, the entire conversation was about her inappropriate dress. No one was listening to whether she knew her stuff or not. That's not their fault. That's her fault.

Q: Did you ever talk to her about it?

A: I did. I called her. I said, `You can hang up this phone and you don't have to listen to me. You are purely a client, but let me just help you with the perception you just left in that room.' Here's the thing. She was probably embarrassed, she was probably stunned. I hope when she hung up, she thought that I was only sharing that perspective to help her.

Q: That kind of thing comes up at work a lot.

A: I don't think women get good feedback. Men are embarrassed and afraid to tell women how they really feel, especially on presence and appearance and communication skills. It's a very dangerous world.. It's the law. They could get sued. And because of that women are suffering because you don't get candid feedback. I know that's the case and so I seek out feedback I really try to get candid feedback.

Q: Did you ever have a similar experience when you were climbing up the corporate ladder at Coors or Frito-Lay?

A:  Years ago, I sat down with the CFO at Coors [and asked], `What can I do to improve my performance?' Bear in mind, I was running our manufacturing operations at the time, so I was dressing every day in khakis and golf-shirts with the Coors logo on them. He said, `Lynn, your appearance doesn't look like you are boardroom ready.' I was angry at first. Seriously? I'm smart and I've done all these great accomplishments and he talks to me about how I dress.

Then once I calmed myself down, I realized he was just being honest, I didn't look boardroom ready.

Q: So what did you change?

A: I started dressing up, but not every day, but I was more cognizant [of what would be more appropriate on any given day]. I needed to take it up a notch.

Q: How did you know what to do?

A: I began to pay attention. I never paid attention to what businesswomen wore. I had always dressed well enough. It was just a good reminder.

Q: Men are so lucky. They can just keep an extra jacket in their offices.

A: I have done that. I often keep a black jacket in my office, just in case you got to throw one on. Men keep a tie in the office. For women, actually, there is a pretty nice wide range of what's acceptable. When I started in business, it was wool suits and rosettes -- those old bow ties and that's what you wore to fit in. Today, there's a much broader range. It's not one size fits all.