Small companies are like a fish bowl: With fewer places to hide, it's easier to stand out. But you don't want to stand out for the wrong reasons. One of the most common mistakes both men and women make is their appearance.

How you look -- your wardrobe, your hairstyle, your grooming, your overall presentation -- may seem superficial compared to the quality of your work, but it is a key element in whether you are perceived as having leadership potential. Appearance is vitally important, the Center for Talent Innovation found in its research on executive presence (EP), because while only 5 percent of leaders consider appearance to be a key factor in EP -- all of them recognize its potential for curtailing or derailing talented up-and-comers. It's important to make the right first impression on clients, colleagues, managers and potential sponsors. If you look like a leader, it's easier to be invited to hobnob with other leaders. That's critical because if you're not invited then leaders in your company will never know just how much you could contribute.

As one male senior leader we interviewed observed, "Appearance is one's lighthouse. It gets the attention focused on you." Unfortunately, there's no one "right" look that spells leadership -- and the right look is even more of a challenge at a small business where dress codes are very arbitrary. The sharply pressed outfits that win you brownie points at a law firm might gut your chances at a creative agency where an artfully messy look prevails.

As nature shifts into the more "serious" seasons, it's a perfect time to re-evaluate your work outfits. These four tips will help you assess your wardrobe and guide you to become more intentional about your appearance:

  • Dress to look appropriate. A drug representative for a pharmaceutical company described having to send home a member of her team who showed up for a presentation at a hospital wearing a sundress and high-heeled sandals. "We're meeting with people who are making life-and-death decisions," the rep told this young woman. "You can't hope to persuade them that you grasp the gravity of their mission if you look like you're headed to a picnic." Avoiding appearance blunders is more important to looking like a leader than nailing the individual details. Our surveys show that on the appearance litmus test, a "D" grade impacts your EP more negatively than a grade of "A" or "B" on the positive side. That "D" stands for "distract," as in: Do not adorn yourself in ways that might distract others from your performance, your communication skills and your gravitas. When in doubt, don't dress to stand out.
  • Ask for feedback -- and signal that you're open to receive it. Confused about the dress code? Ask for help. Be aware, however, that there are two hurdles when requesting appearance advice. The first: Most people aren't specific enough. If you make a blanket request, as in "How do I look?," you may get a blanket answer ("Just fine!"). Better to laser in on a particular issue: "Is my appearance appropriate for this particular audience/client?" Ask your mentor or sponsor to comment on your attire, hairstyle and grooming. Dig deep to ensure you understand how to correct your gaffes. Here's where you may encounter the second barrier: Many people bristle at what they hear -- which makes your sponsor or mentor less likely to share what he or she really thinks. Assure them that you will receive their observations and suggestions not as fault-finding but as constructive guidance. Live up to your promise by listening appreciatively rather than reacting defensively. While it will be painful to hear what you're doing wrong, consider how much more painful it is to learn about your blunders later when it's too late to reverse first impressions. Last, act on their feedback. Unless you show superiors that you are willing to course-correct, they might conclude you're not worth the time and energy it takes to impart difficult feedback in the first place.
  • Seek professional help. Ask for a coach -- or pay out-of-pocket yourself. Far from betraying a lack of EP, asking for, or seeking, professional help on your own dime signals a considerable level of personal maturity and professional commitment. Typically allocated to "high-potential employees," this leadership perk can be a huge help with your image, even when you think you've already got a leg up on other people. An outside coach can also provide a wider perspective than your boss, as well as granular advice, such as where to shop for an upgraded wardrobe and which fashion pieces will give you the most bang for your buck. Paying for advice up front can save you a lot of money -- and spare you some costly blunders.

Respect and credibility in your job are yours to win or lose -- but they are easier to win if you look the part. After all, packaging is not the heart of any gift, but the right wrapping definitely attracts attention, suggesting that something truly special resides inside.