I stood in front of my dresser staring a multitude of clothes. “So, exactly what do I wear to this, anyway?” I thought to myself as I fumbled through a variety of shirt and pant options accompanied by a blank look on my face. It was my first Leadership Retreat since I arrived in my new position as Director of Student Life and Development. I was preparing to go to a full day retreat with leadership staff from a variety of departments throughout the institution, some of which I do not interact with on a regular basis. To say the least, I wanted to make a positive impression on everyone.
A couple of days before the conference, the Senior Vice President’s Administrative Assistant had sent an e-mail out stating that the dress for the occasion would be the standard “Business Casual”. Excellent, I thought, that’s how I dress every day! Then came the curve-ball. A day later another e-mail arrived in my inbox stating that the standard would actually be “Casual”. Uh oh, I thought. “Casual Dress’ could mean everything from jeans to sweat pants. To sense what other participants would wear, I asked my office neighbor who was also new to the team and going to the retreat. After chatting for a few minutes we agreed that shorts, sandals, etc. would be o.k. given that the code had been declared as “Casual”. I felt much better leaving the office that day with clearer direction.
The next morning, however, brought back the same level of indecision I had experienced the previous day. Was wearing shorts and flip flops too causal? Would I be the only one who would interpret the dress code in this manner? What would the consequences be if I showed up not dressed appropriately? My wife finally talked me off the ledge and convinced me to go with my gut and wear what I wanted to wear.
As I pulled into the parking garage of the off campus location, I began to look around for my colleagues to with a hope of immediate reassurance. Unfortunately, I saw no one outside. Walking into the facility I knew there was no turning back. Entering the meeting room, I quickly scanned the room — and my biggest fear had become a reality — I was the only one wearing shorts. My office mate responded that he had decided against it at the last minute, and instead chose to wear jeans. I had to quickly make the decision of how to react to this awkward scenario. I could laugh it off and just play it cool, or I could emphatically apologize.
Initially I panicked and chose that latter. This took the form of me immediately approaching my supervisor and stating the obvious regarding my dress code. I suddenly remembered that I had a pair of jeans in my car, which resulted in me immediately asking “I brought jeans in my car. Should I grab them and change?” He had the option of responding in a variety of different ways. My anxiety quickly dissipated when he looked at me, smiled, and calmly stated “Absolutely not, I think what your wearing is perfect.”
It’s amazing how much time I spent in graduate school studying important concepts such as student development theory, leadership, and student cultures. What gets lost in all of that information is the additional time my cohort spent having dialogues around topics surrounding working for institutions and units that directly matched up with personal values and expectations. One my strongest values is embracing and being comfortable with change. Taking on a new role, I realized that I would experience a variety of change lessons along the way. Taking part in this ritual was a lesson that could have produced extremely non beneficial results had it not occurred amongst a community that was supportive and understanding. While I received some lighthearted jokes and comments from my colleagues, and quickly realized this would be the last time I wore plaid shorts and a tee shirt to a leadership retreat, I appreciated the qualities of acceptance and understanding of the culture to help me effectively manage this episode of change in my new role. It made me feel more comfortable in my colleagues’ willingness to let me find my way in a world of new norms and responsibilities.