Dress For Success?

Tom Peters

I’m a hypocrite. I admit it. I think all the dress-for-success stuff is pure rot. But I must confess that I’ve got my own “fashion thing.” It happens to be baseball hats, and hats in general. (Hundreds, perhaps as many as Imelda Marcos had pairs of shoes, line my shelves.) I spend an inordinate amount of time before I set off for the day selecting the right one to wear. Do I feel ornery? My Los Angeles Raiders silver and black cap sets the tone. Into erudition: My Stanford hat wins out. The rural pose: My Orvis fishing hat is made to order. Domineering: My Royal Canadian Mounted Police hat is just the ticket.

It goes further: The angle of the cap is all important too. Shall it be the jaunty, back-of-the-head look? Or do I get serious and wear my Oakland A’s cap pulled down almost to my nose, like the A’s nonpareil pitcher, intense Dave Stewart?

I acknowledge, then, that style is important! But it’s so personal that I’ve long delayed writing this column. Pontificating about hats, or any item of dress, seems the height of arrogance. But there is an “on the other hand,” and I want to explore it.

In short, winners (individuals, firms) in our changing commercial environment will break the rules. Barriers between functions will be routinely and rapidly crossed inside tomorrow’s successful companies. Outsiders (customers, vendors, distributors) will be treated like insiders. Useful mistakes will be tolerated, even welcomed. Top management will focus on speed and opportunism, not lengthy plans and ceaseless analyses of what-might-be. I contend that this adds up to fluidity and empowerment—which can be nicely abetted by informality.

A strategy of “break the rules to serve the customer” and “tear down the barriers” rather naturally translates into a “shirtsleeves” rather than “suits and ties” environment. (I reluctantly admit that until I saw Michael J. Fox in The Secret of My Success, I’d never heard the term “the suits” used to describe the stuffy denizens of the corporate stratosphere: But what a telling portrayal, in fact and especially spirit!)

The Japanese have long made a to-do of managers and workers wearing the same outfits—overalls, whatever. I think they’re on the right track. Such an approach is one way of acknowledging that the line worker has as much to do with top-drawer quality and service as the boss or expert—maybe more.

But dress issues surrounding shop-floor equality are secondary to inducing a sense of motion. An old friend at a huge corporation described a scene he helped orchestrate a few years back. The five top officers went off for a two-day “retreat” to talk through the essentials of business strategy. They took off their suit coats and rolled up their sleeves. (That was about all.) My friend swears that “though they’d all known each other for over 20 years, it was the first time they’d seen bare elbow.” (Jesse Helms, cover your eyes.)

My pal surely doesn’t attribute all the company’s subsequent progress to “bare elbow,” but it was, arguably, one more little nudge in the direction of a less formal, less analysis-driven, more open atmosphere.

To license informality is not to cheer those who don’t wash their 501s from one month to the next. I make this obvious point to deflect those who believe that anarchy lurks around any bend; and that if you give up on suits and silk, “They’ll soon be running around half naked in foul-smelling clothes.” I know a few of you naysayers are out there, as some have attended my seminars where I’ve broached suggestions like the ones here.

The point, instead, is that corporate cultures are all of a piece. Office design and layout suggest openness and free movement, or stuffiness and constrained movement. Training-program content suggests a penchant for perpetual growth, or going through the motions of learning to apply the rule book. Organization charts, job descriptions and policy manuals suggest flexibility or rigidity. Style of dress also points up such predilections.

Like most things in life, there are ways to test the water without jumping immediately into the deep end of the pool. Any number of firms have introduced “free-form Fridays” or other weekly, biweekly, or monthly “traditions” of an informal-dress day. You can at least risk something of the sort. (One Canadian bank even has a regular “costume day,” when employees don various zany garb; customers have taken as much a shine to it as employees.) Most experimenters report a useful spillover from such events to daily affairs. But the deeper issue is awareness: Look at all aspects of your firm—from warranty forms to art on office walls to clothing habits—to see if your espoused openness and new-environment-of-trust show up in “trivial” day-to-day affairs. In the end, such trivia is about all we have to work with.

OK, I’ll admit that I’m a 25-year Californian. (“Ah, that explains it”—I can hear the sighs of relief, especially from the east-of-the-Mississippi crowd.) And we are a little looser “out here” than “back there.” On the other hand, check the recent census figures and our economic vitality: You could do worse than emulate the Golden State’s disdain for “the suits.”

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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