Refactoring Leadership

A geek struggles to become a leader

The Riddle of the Suit

My company recently took professional pictures of all employees. I really appreciate this. It's fun for most people, and it's fun to observe the squirming objections of those who don't want their photos taken. For personality, they asked everyone to be prepared with Props or Poses that were clues to your personality.  Here are my pictures, which have earned me some interesting responses.



I really like my motorcycle. It's one of the ways I deal with stress, and I put a lot of miles on. Over 11,000miles on two wheels last year probably puts me beyond most people's definition of "casual rider". 

One of the responses that gave me pause was "Well, which person is the real you?" The implication here is that one of these is an act. Well I am definitely Director of R&D at Edgenet, and I definitely earned my Iron Butt Association patch on my vest.
What does that say about the commenter, myself, and Business? I actually started wearing a sport coat years ago because I currently live in Wisconsin and it gets cold during the winter and maybe my metabolic rate isn't typical. I've grown to like it because I do like to look better sometimes.

Given the choice, most people today will choose to dress more casual more of the time. Dressing up, we are told, is the "Uniform of Business" and must be done to be taken seriously by other Serious Business People. One dear colleague has even said his goal is to be so good at his job that he can wear shorts & flip flops into the board room. Given the cultural shifts brought about by the Internet age, the connection between appearance and performance seems ever more tenuous. If Vice Presidents and CEOs and venture capitalists all want to be wearing shorts why are we still participating in this costume ball?

I am reminded of an old story explaining why there were so many Vice Presidents at Hewlett Packard. Why so many VPs with no direct reports? Without that title, they found that they couldn't get meetings with the right people during customer engagements. If your company is so geeky cool that your business card says "Analytics Jedi Master" and I'm not a Star Wars geek, I guess I'm not really sure if I want to accept a meeting from a Jedi Master.  On the other hand, my employees don't treat me any differently on a sport coat day vs. a millennium falcon t-shirt day. What gives?

I'm convinced that business attire is like that VP title. It's the correct thing that makes you safe and appropriate. I don't need to wonder if your Legend of Zelda shirt is a band or a cartoon. For every person who will appreciate it, there are hundreds who won't get it, won't appreciate it, or will even tell you your hometown sports team sucks. Yes, some will even assume incorrectly that you're not taking this meeting seriously because of your retro Atari shirt and matching socks.

Unfortunately being safe still pays off most of the time. As for me I'll keep wearing sport coats to stay warm in my freezing office, and otherwise treat the suit like an overly rehearsed first date: once you see I'm not a broke, sloppy axe murderer I can cautiously reveal a little more "me" next time.

Comments (5) -

  • RFInco

    1/5/2016 4:42:19 AM | Reply

    One thing to note - the business uniform is, and has been undergoing a paradigm shift in the more techy places and there has been a 180 on what is the acceptable uniform.  Please note, that at places where everyone is wearing casual - the person that wears business professional or business casual attire - they're the ones that are in some way, dressing down.     I read an article about ageism in the newer workplaces.   How at these places if you interview in a suit they look at you with the same contempt that business execs at one time looked at casual dressing.   Show up to a job interview in flip flops at these places and you are wearing their uniform.

    People at these places like to say "that they aren't strict about dress code around here", but they are not looking hard enough - they aren't realizing that their casual style is the same mode of uniform that is shown with a suit for bankers.  They absolutely are strict about dress code!  it's just a different code.    Show up to one of these companies in a suit, and you'll be considered wrong for the role or a bad "culture fit" for the company.   They scrutinize and judge on the very same points that they distain and mock - it's just that the points are represented, manifested differently.

    That friend that wants to wear flip-flops, his dream is really speaking to the idea of wearing flip flops in a non flip-flop culture - his dream isn't the wardrobe but what the wardrobe represents,i.e. "I'm so good that they accept me and allow me to break culture".     Or maybe, just maybe he just wants to wear flip-flops in a company that accepts that as business attire and frowns on the oxford shoe.   Either way it's all a uniform.

    You speak of titles and they have the same 180.  in some cultures the "jedi master" role is seen with more respect, as opposed to the traditional "VP of "xyz".   the hierarchy still exists, and the titles still exist.  A rose by any other name...  

  • Michael Sullivan

    1/5/2016 4:52:28 PM | Reply

    “In my culture we work hard so we can wear a suit.”

    -Conor McGregor

  • Ben Velker

    1/6/2016 9:18:35 PM | Reply

    So, which option when showing up for all the meeting?

  • Scott

    1/6/2016 9:19:24 PM | Reply

    For years, I've dressed up for work, with shirt/tie/khakis, even when the dress code was blue jeans and t shirt.  The main reason was the psychological effect.  Dressing up for work puts me in the "work" mindset.  I acted more professional, because I dressed more professional.  

  • Marc

    2/9/2016 8:36:25 PM | Reply

    I love the discussion but I'm going to take the easy way out... This is completely situational awareness.  If you know the culture then conform to it.  We want to work/and play with people like us; it's human nature.   The bigger question is... What do I wear when I really don't know the culture?  If we no longer have a default setting, what is the correct answer?   My opinion is that you are taking a risk either way.  So if you don't have a safe way of being right, then just be yourself.   If you are in an interview, maybe you could even share this struggle because it's an interesting topic that probably doens't have a correct answer, but it's good to know that you care enough to care.