Owning your style in the Boardroom

Boardroom style

Kirsten Patterson, CEO of Institute of Directors. Image by Olivia Melhop.

Fashion changes constantly and in a pandemic environment with working from home becoming the norm and fewer events to get dressed up for, some of our previous outfit choices may not be as obvious as they once were.

Many of us are now shopping differently and our outlook on how we choose to present ourselves to the world, albeit one that might be limited to zoom calls, has shifted dramatically.

Relaxed styling is key for those of us lucky enough to roll out of bed, prop our laptops on a dining room table and set ourselves up for the day.

But what does getting dressed look like today when you’re the CEO of a company or sit on a board?

Institute of Directors CEO Kirsten Patterson says owning her sense of style has come with confidence over the years.

In her first CEO role almost ten years ago, she was more fixated on wearing ‘the right thing’ to fit in.

“I wanted to look like a CEO on the outside because I probably didn’t feel like a CEO on the inside… that imposter syndrome that can be so strong for all women, but women leaders in particular,” she says.

Developing more confidence in her leadership allowed her to let go of perceived expectations of how a CEO should dress.

“Absolutely I feel much more comfortable showing my personality in different aspects and in different circumstances,” Kirsten says.

The Institute of Directors has a ‘dress for your day’ code that can see Kirsten in occasional splashes of colour, tailored blazers, floaty dresses and crisp white trainers as she moves between hosting webinars, media engagements and giving speeches.

Being a CEO is a long way away from starting her professional career as an employment lawyer. She entered the industry at a time when there was a very strict dress code for women in the legal profession.

“Many of the senior women would tell me the stories about how they would turn up to court in trousers and the Judge would say, ‘I can’t hear you,’ because they weren’t wearing a skirt.”

Back then it was a given that female lawyers would never see a client without a jacket or without wearing lipstick.

“That sounds really old fashioned now,” Kirsten laughs.

Boardroom style

Kirsten Patterson is drawn to the classics. Images by Olivia Melhop.

Trousers are definitely key staples in her wardrobe these days, but she says even in a corporate boardroom environment in the past, women weren’t permitted to wear trousers in that context either.

“Fashion really captures snapshots in terms of culture – what’s acceptable and what’s not, where the boundaries are and where power sits,” she says.

Kirsten is on a number of boards including Voices of Hope, The New Zealand Rugby Foundation and she previously chaired the Wellington Homeless Women’s Trust.

“I’m very much still a blazer or a jacket person because that has been ingrained and is part of the corporate uniform,” she says of her boardroom style choices.

But board meetings have also resorted to Zoom calls, informing a more relaxed style. Kirsten says the men are more likely to wear polo shirts rather than suits, with women veering towards less tailored and more relaxed options.

“I definitely haven’t worn heels for a while!” she laughs.

Navy, black and white and ‘anything with piping or pinstripes,’ are staples in Kirsten’s wardrobe. Largely drawn to classic styles she admits there still isn’t as much colour in her wardrobe as she’d like, but she has noticed colour becoming a popular choice for other female directors.

Pre-COVID, Kirsten regularly updated her wardrobe on work trips, purchasing pieces from favourite designers Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, especially on overseas visits to the U.S.

Closer to home, she has been drawn to the soft, modern tailoring of homegrown label Repertoire – a brand that doesn’t scream corporate, but fuses lifestyle with workwear and could seamlessly take any woman from home to office, before heading out for post-work drinks.

“I’ve been buying less internationally in the past couple of years because of that connectedness to home, and supply chain disruption has also been impacting my decision making,” she says.

Before the pandemic it wasn’t uncommon for Kirsten to attend galas and black tie events at least three to four times a month. Each event came with the expectation to wear a different outfit and buy something new, while her male counterparts could wear one suit across a number of occasions without anyone commenting.

Kirsten says not only was there a cost-burden involved, but she felt that social pressure.

Post-pandemic, she is hoping those old standards and expectations will no longer be there.

“I think as women business leaders we need to start normalising re-wearing good pieces a lot more and to see it as being okay.”

Boardroom style

Rhiannon McKinnon, CEO of Kiwiwealth. Image by Greg-Bowker-Visuals.

Rhiannon McKinnon feels there is definitely a greater cost for women and higher expectations to invest in appearance.

“If you think about the face creams we might buy or the amount women spend on their appearance, I would have thought you would see that in the stats in the beauty industry that women spend a lot more than men,” she says.

Rhiannon was appointed CEO of KiwiWealth last year, and when asked if she felt the pressure to up her game on the wardrobe front, she says being approachable is what matters most.

“I haven’t gone and bought a whole lot of power suits, I still want to look the same as I ever did,” she says.

These days her approach to workwear is more about looking smart, yet modern – a break away from the kind of tailoring she wore 20 years ago when her daily uniform was a suit with a smart shirt or blouse, and heels.

“I think that’s changed a lot in terms of not wearing shirts, but instead, wearing coordinates and separates which have a more casual feel,” she says.

Like Kirsten, Rhiannon feels that expectations have shifted a lot over the years. She says working alongside other Mums also takes the pressure off to look a certain way.

“My husband’s uncle often sees me on a working day and says, ‘is this what CEO’s wear these days?’ because I’ll be wearing jeans, a pair of flat shoes and a reasonably smart top.”

A penchant for knee-length dresses, which tend to be her first choice for board meetings, Rhiannon’s wardrobe is also awash with vibrant colours.

“I wear a lot of jewel tones, bright yellows, bright red…I generally look terrible in pastels. Someone at day care the other day said they didn’t recognise me because I wasn’t wearing something bright.”

So what about those all important zoom calls that have replaced face-to-face office meetings and coffee catch-ups? When asked if she ever dresses from the top-up for those occasions, Rhiannon laughs.

“I personally dress my whole self,” she says, adding that she has never been one for athleisure or sporting track pants.

During lockdown Rhiannon made a concerted effort to dress as she normally would for an average work day. On attending a party themed ‘wear what you wore during COVID’ she says she copped a bit of flack from her friends.

“I came dressed extremely nicely and my friends all criticized me for not being there in my trackies. But I didn’t wear them one day,” she says emphatically.

UK-born Rhiannon says her style choices have also become more relaxed since arriving in Wellington with her husband in 2011. Back in the UK she would never leave the house without thinking her outfit through, or going makeup-free.

Boardroom style

Rhiannon McKinnon says dressing for her role is about being accessible. Image by Sanne van Ginkel.

She misses the variety and eclectic array of options offered on London’s high street, and says when Top Shop opened in Wellington she embraced the quirky, different pieces and enjoyed having a bit of home here in New Zealand. But also since the pandemic, she has found herself buying less online as a general rule.

“There are outfits I see online that I adore, but I don’t buy them because I think I have no occasion to wear them in my life here, which is a shame,” she says.

Her most recent purchase was a handbag that she intends to use for dinner outings and fits only the bare essentials – a phone, cards and lipstick for touch-ups.

“I bought a great one yesterday which looks a little bit like a fortune cookie…I like to find designs that are slightly different shapes than normal.”

Top of her list of Kiwi designers are Trelise Cooper for her electecticism, different shapes and styles, as well as Kate Sylvester. She is also fond of the more international brands found at Goodness Boutique, and Coco on Willis Street in Wellington.

“It’s nice to mix it with UK designers, so it’s a wardrobe that’s a bit different – I don’t want to look like everybody else,” she says.

Rhiannon has been on three boards over the course of her career and Dress for Success Wellington was one of them. The not-for-profit supports women by providing quality, near-new clothing for job interviews, court appearances, house viewings, graduations and more.

“People sometimes have expectations of how someone should dress in certain scenarios, so I think it probably helps with their outcomes,” Rhiannon says of the importance of first impressions and the role of Dress for Success.

Most importantly, she says wearing what feels good is huge for confidence and self-esteem.

“There are very few women who wouldn’t have felt [what it’s like] to feel a million dollars when you’ve got the right outfit on.”

She says for young women hoping to make their way onto board roles, the one key piece of advice would be to dress according to the culture of the organisation.

“It’s worth trying to understand a bit about the company and what sort of style might suit…try and understand the business and the formality of that board, and then try and match that and find the thing you’re most confident in as well.”

Images by Greg-Bowker-Visuals, Sanne van Ginkel and Olivia-Melhop.