I hate wearing suits. They make me feel like I’m 50 years old. Like I’m playing dress-up in my mother’s clothes. When I started doing a lot of public speaking last year, my mom and my aunt admonished me for getting up on stage in my typical office garb: trendy sweaters, pencil skirts, suede high-heeled boots, big hoop earrings. The last straw was when I gave a speech in front of hundreds of people at the 2008 Nonprofit Congress in DC and I was going to wear a cute argyle cardigan and plaid slacks from Express. I love mixing colors and patterns – for me, it’s part of what makes getting dressed fun! And when I dress my age, I tend to have more fun at work. I’m more relaxed when I feel like I’m expressing my true self and not trying to look like anyone else’s definition of me. But my mom and aunt were horrified. “Oh, no you don’t,” they said. “You’ve got to buy a suit.” I searched high and low for a two-piece suit that fit my small frame, finally snagging one in Talbot’s Petite for about a hundred bucks. It looked great on the hanger, but when I put it on, I just felt . . . like I was trying to be someone else. That was over a year ago and I’ve only worn the suit once more since then. But I do have this picture of me at the Nonprofit Congress with Samuel Isaac Richard (the young nonprofit powerhouse of Phoenix) that I posted on Facebook with this caption: “Yes, I’m wearing a suit. It was against my will.”

I thought about my hate-hate relationship with formal businesswear last week when I had dinner with a fellow young nonprofit leader about how her career was progressing. She shared with me an incident she had experienced during an annual performance review at her former job. She had asked her boss how she could improve, and he told her she was doing a great job, the only thing that bothered him was that she just looked so young, couldn’t she start wearing suits more often? From that point forward, she made sure she was dressed in blazers and slacks in every meeting, at every nonprofit event, at every conference. I remember meeting her for the first time and thinking she was much older than she actually turned out to be. She struggled with the same feeling of not being who she really was, as if she was merely imitating her older colleagues. Now, she’s working on getting out of that mindset and adding playful pieces to her wardrobe that express who she is as a person. “People are just going to have to accept the real me,” she said.

A lot of career advice columnists will tell you that “clothes make the person” or that “you should project a professional image at all times,” meaning that you have to walk around in pointy shoes or people won’t respect you. I tend to disagree. “Professional” doesn’t have to mean dressing up to look 20 years older than you really are. “Professional” doesn’t have to mean that you trade in your authenticity because you’re afraid people will think you’re “too young.” Case in point: I had lunch with one of my organization’s corporate funders yesterday at a trendy little Asian restaurant in DC. I did not wear my pointy shoes, but instead I was decked out in a chunky sweater from Tarjay with the collar turned up. I was feeling good, feeling great. We only spent about 10 minutes in the whole hour actually talking about fundraising and my organization’s programs. The rest of the time I spoke to her like I would any of my other colleagues – we talked about our respective career paths, our families, and personal backgrounds. We even talked about what we did over the weekend. I get the sense that the reason she likes meeting with me is my energy, authenticity, and passion for our cause. She also feels like she can trust us with their money because she knows me, who I am, and what I stand for. Sometimes I think older people actually feed off of that. They are proud of us for forging our own way in the sector. And while I know Generation Y can learn a lot from Baby Boomers, I do think that there are a lot of downsides to just blindly emulating what our older colleagues look like, sound like, lead like. Yet somehow it’s easy for us to forget that just being our bright, young, brilliant selves is an asset, not a liability in the nonprofit sector. Irene Agustin expresses this nicely in her recent blog post (my bold emphasis):

I know what it means to be the baby of the group. A few months ago I asked my supervisor why she hired me. I started with Crisis Nursery as their grant writer (after 10 months I was promoted to their Communications and Marketing Manager). I found out that the other candidate they were looking to hire had more grant writing experience than I did. I asked my supervisor, “why did you choose me?”
She told me that it really came down to my young, fresh perspective on nonprofit work. The other candidate was the same age as the four individuals who made up our Senior Management at that time. They are all over the age of 50 and preparing to retire. She honestly said that she didn’t want to hire someone just like them. She added, “little did I know what I was in for.”
I love the fact that I’m the youngest member in management at Crisis Nursery. I am also in a position to try new strategies and initiatives. Some of the ideas I propose require that our organization thing outside of the box and step out of their comfort zone. While it can a struggle to push my ideas through and at times they are flat out rejected, I think that our Senior Management and Board of Directors appreciates this new approach to looking at how Crisis Nursery operates.

What Irene, my funder and my friend remind us is that the best way to lead is to be yourself. And that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do it in a suit.

imageRosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, D.C. area.  She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.