I admit that we stared and sometimes, there was giggling But there was also an undertone of admiration for him. Some days, he would show up in the cafeteria wearing lime green from head to toe. Other days it was pastel pink. There was always an outrageous (and colour-coordinated) hat. This professor was definitely expressing his personality at work.
If you haven't already been coached or infused with ideas about "appropriate" work behaviour and attire, you soon will be. It is, naturally, important to understand that the potential impressions you're making with how you dress and what you say (or write, tweet or blog) can affect your chances of getting hired or promoted.
But it can also help to know that in addition to conveying to employers how you can add value to and positively represent their organization, you're also trying to find a fit for yourself.
Yes, this is work, not a pajama party or the Jersey Shore but we also need to remember a crucial part of presenting our professional selves: the "selves" part. If you completely morph into some sort of weird job search version of yourself, you're creating a fake impression with the people you meet. Do you want to have to fake it every day at work for months or years on end?
Bringing bits of ourselves to work can start from the very early interactions. For example, I recently talked to a group of students about re-thinking their cookie-cutter cover letters. If a cover letter is your first conversation with a potential employer (and hopefully, most of the time, it isn't), this is your first chance to introduce yourself, make a connection and test out a fit. It's similar to the first email or text you send to the person your friend set you up with before you go on a blind date.
Unfortunately, most cover letters sound almost exactly the same. There's a list of skills and qualities you bring to the table (parroted back to them from their job ad, if there was one).
There's the requisite "I found your ad on greatgigs.com". But, you're NOT the same as the other people trying to connect with this work, are you? Yes, you might come from the same program and be roughly the same age. Maybe you even have similar experience but YOU, the part of you that helps people recognize you in the street and want to work with you or introduce you to their hot, available friends, is different from all the other applicants.
So how much of that "voice" is in your current cover letter? If your parents wrote your current resume and cover letter (a very common situation for students), the answer might be: not so much. In fact, you might be sounding like a 47-year-old plumber or teacher — with excellent "leadership" and "teamwork skills" of course — on paper.
When I revealed to some students that I write about my 1973 Volkswagen Beetle in the first paragraph of many cover letters, they were astounded. The Beetle is a relevant metaphor for the kind of work I do so it's not just an off-the-wall gimmick to grab the reader (although it works).
The real reason for the Beetle is that I'm a bit goofy, and over the years I've learned that I am happiest and most successful in places and with people where that is an as- set, rather than a flaw. As a result, part of the way I start to test my fit with an organizational culture is to reveal a tiny bit of goofy in my cover letter. Y'know – professional, relevant goofiness and bearing these... ahem..."goofy guidelines" in mind:
- Understand your audience (are they likely to be receptive?)
- Choose what you reveal wisely (is it relevant?)
- Decide how much risk you're willing to take (are you narrowing your audience too much?)
- Learn from the response and adjust accordingly (does it make sense to keep doing this?)
Whether you have green hair or are merely a fan of Green Day, you have uniqueness that may not be immediately obvious but is still a key ingredient to your fit with a type of work and an organization. Many times, you will need to make some compromises with your appearance and communication in order to connect with a wider range of opportunities.
You may also want to ask yourself: "Will I (and my 37 hidden tattoos) be happy in an organization that's the epitome of the black suit and briefcase brigade?" Maybe you will be. Yet wouldn't it be great if you could connect with organizations that embrace the uniquely-authentic YOU, like that professor at my school?