Michael Willard, writer, painter, columnist, entrepreneur
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Chapter Eleven

Naked Business People

To paraphrase Mark Twain's concerning clothes making the man - or woman - yes, it is true. Rarely have naked people made a favorable impression banging the closing gavel at the New York Stock Exchange.

Clothes are rather essential to the business dress. Very few of us can do what the naked cowboy does - strum a guitar for the tourists up and down Broadway while wearing a cowboy hat with the only other article of clothing being his Fruit of the Looms. Most of us can't sing.

There was a period, which I believe is fading, when Western business went through a rather juvenile period of dressing like Britney Spears and Kid Rock. This informality was contagious during the latter part of the dot.com boom of the late 1990s. Some people nearly died of it. Dressing down became a badge of honor and a symbol of freedom of expression. It made the statement: "Look at us. We're cooler than you are."

In the advertising business, odd colors of hair and going sockless helped hammer this home, along with a shaggy haircut, the ever present earring, and the dirty T-Shirt inscribed, "Eat me", or some other irrelevant poetry. It all seemed rather unhygienic, and a breeding ground for dreadful diseases of the 16th Century. Admittedly, this was mostly confined to what is generally known as the "creative group", a term with which I have always taken exception because it suggests everyone else in the company is brain dead when it came to proffering ideas. My view is that commercial idea people are made, not born. Shakespeare was born.

However, this odd dress seemed to help with clients. They liked to have a creative director who looked the part. I sometimes felt we could pick the goofiest looking character we could get from central casting, have him memorize a creative presentation, and win the business every time. The amazing thing is that most creative directors, when it comes to dress, are total conformists. They all wear no socks. They all wear T-shirts with the image of Che Guevara. They all have the obligatory earring and hairstyles they borrowed from "Jesus Christ Superstar", which suggest that if all are weird none are weird. They are mostly white bread and vanilla.

I don't claim to be Mr. Blackwell, the late former fashion designer who made a career of his annual Ten Worst Dressed Women list, but who, to my knowledge, has never listed a business type. While never owning a leisure suit, I also have never been a fashion leader with the possible exception of the 1970s when I wore cowboy shirts, Indian jewelry and suede pants. At the time, I was writing a national country music column, and was dressing for the times and for the part. You remember; it was during this period we also wore bellbottoms and thought Felini movies deeper than the Biblical Revelations. We read Ulysses in the park, hoping a cute blonde would casually pass by. None of us ever finished it.

However, the purpose of this chapter is not to chastise. I favor that same freedom of expression, but I would like to see it explode in a fashionable business dress, whether black and blue conservative suit or a Tom Wolfe white with cane, scarf and homburg. This doesn't necessarily mean the standard silk tie, but I personally hate to see men or women show up at the workplace in jeans. Here I am merely being egalitarian, for there is nothing I like better than a woman in well-fitted jeans. But men look like farmers, not to castigate the folks who bring us our daily bread, but to reiterate this question: Do we guys really want to look like Captain Kangaroo's Mr. Greenjeans at work?" I am not even sure Mr. Greenjeans wanted to look like Mr. Greenjeans.

Casual Friday

I think this dressing down conspiracy began with the cretinous human resources director who came up with the bright idea of Casual Fridays. Have you ever heard of anything more absurd than dressing to the nines four days a week and like a slob on the fifth traditional working day.

Think about it. It makes absolutely no sense.

If it were good for business, wouldn't everyone dress for Casual Friday every day? It would appear that the whole reason our harebrained friend came up with CF was a grand experiment to show that people actually worked harder and with more creativity when allowed to dress like a clown. If his hypothesis is true, then suits, ties, skirts and dresses and women's business suits should be banned forever from the workplace as a hindrance to commerce. There should be a big bonfire in which all us business types toss in those dress-up duds as we hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

However, that's not the way it is. Some of most embarrassing moments I find are when I meet with a client, often a CEO or managing director, in his office on a Casual Friday. He (or she) immediately begins to apologize for his dress, noting that, yes indeed; the company has a causal Friday policy. This doesn't add an iota to the business discussion, for I have this mental picture of the guy with a tennis racket in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other. It doesn't make him more creative, but it does make him less serious.

The fact of life is that one dresses for the position to which one aspires. If your aspiration is to be a gardener, and your company allows it, then by all means dress down. At a certain point in my life, I aspired to write for Rolling Stone magazine, and hence the colorful getup of the latest 70s country/rock group. I didn't make it. I didn't come close. Therefore, my goal was to advise politicians on Capitol Hill, a position I held for a number of years. It is doubtful I would have had much credibility in a cowboy hat, unless perhaps I was advising folks in Wyoming. These days I advise corporations how to avoid crises and how to tackle a crisis once it is on your doorstep. Wonder what the CEO would think if I showed up in sandals and a T-shirt reading "Born to Eat Pizza." It would not inspire confidence.

An Embarrassing Moment

Bad impressions trump good impressions everyday in the business world. Good is expected. In a competitive environment, bad sticks out like a silver tongue stud. This was brought home to me several years ago when I worked for an international public relations corporation, and had the occasion to travel to London to meet with the European president of our organization. He was my immediate boss.

Since it was an opportunity to tack a few days of relaxation on to a business trip, my then-wife traveled with me. We arrived at Gatwick International Airport around 9:30 p.m., and it was another hour and a half getting through passport control and a taxi ride to the West End where we were staying. Once into the hotel, my wife started to hang up my dress shirts. It would have been quite a trick, for they were left on the bed about 2,000 miles East. On the trip, I had worn a pullover Cadmium yellow shirt with St. Moritz emblazoned on it, an emblem of affectation and a place to which I had never been. Over the shirt, I had worn a tan sports jacket, a combination that might have gone well for those Casual Fridays. However, it was mid-week, not Friday. My meeting with the big cheese was at 8:45 a.m. and from there I was to go to a seminar on Eastern Europe at the U.S. Embassy.

I asked the man on the night desk if he knew a men's store that might be open. He didn't. It seems about the only thing open this time of night was the airport shops from whence I had just left. By the time I retraced my steps, even those shops would be closed. Desperately, I called the bar and asked if the presiding bartender were wearing a white shirt, hoping that it would be at least as uncomplicated as a kidney transplant. He was wearing one, but then he was a 90-pound weakling and I am a 220-pounder. There was absolutely no chance of drastic weight loss over night.

The next morning I turned up for my meeting with the European president brightly lit in my St. Moritz pullover, but neatly groomed. I apologized for my very casual look, and briefly related the story about leaving my dress shirts on the bed at home. He smiled as if to acknowledge that mere forgetfulness is not a mortal sin, and we discussed topics of business for about an hour. It was a cordial conversation, and I soon forgot my awkwardness. On leaving his office, he suggested several other people I should see before attending the seminar, which would run all day. At each office, I noted my dress before anyone else had the chance, and told the slightly funny story of asking the barman for his shirt and tie. No one really seemed to care.

It was many months later that I received a computer file of my annual performance rating. Since I was an executive vice president, it was the European president to whom I directly report and who had the responsibility of rating my performance. Generally, I got very good marks across the board because we had, indeed, made a good profit in Moscow for the first time in the company's history on commercial work. We had surpassed all the revenue and new business goals we had been given, and were poised to go into the coming year in good shape. However, down toward the bottom, in all of his wisdom, the European president had suggested I was miscast as an executive of his company. Put succinctly, my dress didn't measure up to his standards. It was as if I had shown up for our meeting dressed in drag, which, in retrospect, would probably have been better than the St. Moritz pullover. There was no way I could let such a verdict stand. I sent him a message re-explaining the reason I showed up in his office as I did, and that it was, for sure, an aberration and not a habit. But, apparently, my costume on that particular day was not the question. His overall impression was that I had set the bar too low when it came to my dress standards. He felt his team needed not only to be the part of a professional but also to dress the part of the professional. He was right.

I had always dressed adequately, except for the time - after a rather late night and early morning -- I put on one brown shoe and one black shoe, and headed off with then Governor John D. Rockefeller on a campaign trip. However, I had not necessarily dressed professionally. The incident with my old boss occurred about ten years ago. From that moment, I began to invest more money into clothes. Even though I didn't have an Armani body, I could at least have well-tailored clothes, shined shoes and freshly ironed shirts with French cuffs. Today I spend about $1,500 on a suit, about $150 per shirt, and have an assortment of ties that would put a haberdashery to shame. For others, it takes less or more, depending on your means. However, the Silverback suggests that dress can be the difference between your own self-confidence and the confidence others place in your judgment as a professional.

A Differentiating Difference
In the professional world, we differentiate ourselves from our competitors through our client service, our judgment or perhaps our enthusiasm in handling a problem. While professional attire will probably not differentiate our organization, it will be negatively differentiated if we are seen to be too informal, too casual. We will be thought of as being less serious than our competitor.

As I write this, I am a couple of clicks past sixty-years. In a previous book, I called this the red zone for professionals. We are expensive. We are thought, perhaps, to have lost a step or two, even if we think we can keep up. In my book, The Portfolio Bubble: Surviving Professionally at 60, I wrote: "We in the portfolio bubble can afford to stand out, and we should; but we can't be nonsensically weird until we are sure our portfolio has the element of credibility. For example, if I were Ted Turner, 64, founder of CNN, I could wear a beanie with a white feather on top, and some would say I was bizarrely and eccentrically charming. Not being Ted Turner, I would simply be thought of as goofy. The same credibility exists with that prominent and very flamboyant lawyer from Wyoming, Gerry Spence, 75, who won the right to dress like Buffalo Bill by winning high-profile cases while also writing poetry and snapping artful photographs."

This doesn't mean one needs to be a cardboard cutout of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. One's individuality can be reinforced in the selection of colors and accessories. My own tendency is to be colorful but conservative in dress, preferring splashy ties and striped-patterned shirts. In the winter, I am a suit and vest person and in the summer I am a suspenders person, realizing that with the exception of CNN's Larry King, braces are not the style of the day. In the winter, I still wear a fedora on occasion, and perhaps am one of the few remaining "hat" people on the planet, since the brown porkpie crown went out with the Soviet Politburo. On occasion, however, I have been known to show up at a senior staff meeting in our office with one of the loudest, most colorful Hawaiian shirts ever stitched on the planet. I never want to be too predictable.

The Carter Effect
Jimmy Carter is a great statesman. He is a better former president of the United States than he was president. To this day, Carter doesn't know why the American people rejected him in 1980, denying him a second term. You probably thought it was because the Iran hostage crisis, or perhaps his famous speech in which he blamed the American people for having a malaise. You're not even close. It was because of the clothes that he wore.

I kid you not. My boss, Sen. Robert Byrd, then majority leader of the U.S. Senate, predicted Carter's downfall. He said it was because the American people didn't want someone who looked like them, they wanted someone better. Carter, if you recall, liked to be photographed in blue jeans, and he came to the Presidency boasting of a common touch. On Inauguration Day, he walked from the Capitol Building swearing in ceremony to the White House. People cheered, but, deep down, they wanted a more imperial president. What, they asked in unison, was this: America can't afford gas for the limousine?

Hey, the Carter thing is just a theory. The fact is Sen. Byrd would wear a three-piece suit to chop wood. I think he slept in his wingtips. When floods ravaged Southern West Virginia, I traveled with him to Mingo County to survey the damage. We went by way of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer helicopter, and managed to inspect several very muddy communities. Byrd had on a conservative blue suit, tailor-fitted just so. In my naivety--having joined him a few months earlier--I asked if he might not be more comfortable with less formal attire. He gave me one of those funny looks and said, "I grew up wearing jeans. I can afford better, and people expect better." It is hard to argue with someone who gets elected with 70 plus percent of the vote every six years.

The fact is a well-dressed man or woman exudes power. With the exception of a few, most CEOs you run across these days learned that lesson long ago. If I were just starting out on my first job interview, I would probably come to the table dressed to the nines, though not with affectations such as a flowery hankie in the coat jacket pocket.

The Fairer Sex

I have trouble here. I am sexist. I think the female sex is far more intelligent, innovative, creative, organized and prepared for the business world than what we referred to in kindergarten as snails and nails and puppy dog tails. Also, it is a fact that men who dress down look like sad sacks while women can look stunningly appropriate. However, in a business organization, it is not appropriate, and plus, being the leaders they are, they need to set an example for the fashion challenged.

Putting personal preferences aside, ladies, please, wear nice dresses, nice suits or pants suits. This doesn't mean you have to dress as if you were in mourning. Dressing professionally is not about basic and funeral blacks and politburo brown.
It is true that when women first started in the professional work place, they tended to dress like men, complete with ties, like Frasier's wife in the old "Cheers" TV series. Later, styles of the 1950's had them dressing like Cruella in "1001 Dalmatians", what with the flying-saucer collar and the wide skirt that in grade school invited the old mirror on the shoe trick by curious and pre-puberty boys.
For women, I would suggest they look at the dressing styles of the most successful women in business. Meg Whitman of Ebay is a good example. For the life of me, I can't see Ms. Whitman either in a Saturday Night Fever outfit or a skimpy updated version of Daisy Mae.

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