Blue Jean Presence: Commanding the Room from a Bean Bag Chair

Today is the day. You’ve got your first meeting with your new team, and your manager has asked you to share your perspectives on what you’ve observed as some strengths and weaknesses of the team’s processes. And to make it even better, the meeting is being led by the Chief Technology Officer. It’s only been a week on the job but you’re getting to meet her and share your impressions on how the team can improve.

This is the best job ever! You grab a quick cup of coffee at the company café, lace up your Allbirds and head off to the meeting. You’re the first one there so you pop in your AirPods and browse Amazon for a few minutes to see what you might want to buy with your first new paycheck. People slowly trickle in and you nod to Karen and Zack, who work on your sales engineering sub-team.

As the meeting starts, you kinda zone-out a bit. This meeting is on your calendar for a full hour and your manager is walking the CTO through a coding error that caused a product delay last month. Your manager let you know this morning that he’d introduce you towards the end of the meeting, so you’ve got some time. You get a text and check your phone as the meeting drags on. Your friend Tony wants to try the new microbrewery after you get off work. Sounds like fun!

All of sudden your manager is introducing you and asking you to share what you’ve thought about the team’s coding process. You get ready to speak when you notice the CTO has a hard look on her face. She gives you a dismissive glance and then proceeds to answer emails while you walk through the observations you prepared for the team. You just started speaking… you don’t understand what went wrong!

After the meeting your manager pulls you aside to let you know that you didn’t exactly show up well in the meeting. Defensive, you immediately look down at your jeans and t-shirt and start to worry that maybe you didn’t dress the part. The CTO was wearing a suit…maybe you were supposed to as well?

Dress codes fluctuate between cultures. The truth is, how you come across to your co-workers goes far beyond tucking in your shirt or choosing slacks over blue jeans. While your wardrobe choices can make a statement in and of themselves, the reality is that clothing only highlights the Presence you carry with you into a meeting or convey across the shared-desk space to your co-workers.

In order to attract and retain talent, top companies have almost made job perks cliché. Free Starbucks coffee, beer on tap with foosball and ping pong tables in the break room, and colorful, creative shared workspaces across the building complete with bean bag chairs, nature wallpaper motifs, and maybe even a slide or two. Yet, one of the most common gaps we see young professionals make in company cultures that promote a relaxed corporate environment, is that being comfortable in your workspace does not change how others experience you and take you in.

Let’s go back to the team meeting with the CTO. When your manager gave you feedback that you did not show up well in the meeting, you immediately thought he meant how you dressed. And that’s a pretty typical response. Many of us have grown up having to “put on our Sunday best” or been told to “dress for success.” But the reality was that CTO never had a problem with your dress code. She had a problem with the signals you were sending to her and the rest of the team throughout the meeting. It wasn’t your blue jeans, it was that you were checked out during the meeting.

And that’s a real problem workplaces face as they seek to make employees feel more comfortable and relaxed in their workflow. The mantras of “do it on your own schedule,” “take as much PTO as you need,” or “bring the dog to work,” so long as you get the job done, are great! But what can often get lost in the use of these new amenities is that, yes this meeting is taking place in bean bag chairs, but that doesn’t mean the expectations of being present and being engaged have changed.

Regardless of your wardrobe, the signals you send in meetings, whether you’re the center of attention or a participant in the far-off corners of a jam-packed room, matter and the impressions they give to your co-workers, managers, and senior leaders can stick around longer than you might think. That CTO doesn’t come to your team’s weekly meeting very often. It might be another three months before she sees you again. So, for the next three months she’ll remember you as the newbie who was more interested in plans with Tony than their new team…if she remembers you at all.

Presence is a funny thing. So often we hear people think about it as something that only matters once you reach a certain level in your career or only if you’re constantly presenting in front of a large audience. But the truth is that each of us has a Presence we put forth regardless of if we’re in a three-piece suit or a faded polo. You can command a room just as easily from a bean bag chair as you can from across a mahogany board room table. And while that may seem unlikely, it’s easier than you might think.

Keep in mind how powerful the impression the CTO formed in our example was. You may not always be the most important person in the room, or even have a defined speaking role in a meeting. But when it’s time to solicit buy-in, report out on an initiative, or lead a small team meeting, being present and being engaged goes a long way. Even if you don’t say a single word in a meeting, if you’re an active participant in your body language, your attention, and your energy…it will be remembered!

The more comfortable and independent we become in our work settings, it can be tempting to think that grey concepts like our Presence or how we come across to our colleagues don’t matter as much as they used to. But it’s actually quite the opposite. With teams working at different hours, working remotely, and colleagues moving around more frequently than ever before, our windows for connecting and influencing across an organization are smaller. And this means the impressions you make today just might pay dividends down the road.

If you’re interested in learning more about our take on Presence and Personal Brand, check out our Open Programs.