Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Business Tribe

Commenter DEC over at Tigerhawk has an illustrative anecdote about the Business Tribe. The context is an op-ed by some liberal over at HuffPo “enraged” that Bush didn’t look rumpled, as he would if he’d been working hard.

DEC: I forgot to mention: Sometimes Bush wears Oxxford suits. You can wear an Oxxford suit on a plane for 20 hours and still look crisp.

Dawnfire82: Are you being paid to say that?

DEC: Why do you ask, Dawnfire? Are you ready to spend somewhere between $3,000 and $14,000 on a suit?

The answer is no. I am a satisfied Oxxford customer.

Dawnfire82: I was trying to be funny. Sheesh.

And no, there's no way I'll ever spend that much money on a suit, ever.

DEC: "And no, there's no way I'll ever spend that much money on a suit, ever."

When I was an up-and-coming young manager, I attended a meeting with a corporate CEO and a CFO to hear a proposal from a consultant. The consultant asked for a large amount of money for his services. The CEO agreed.

After the departure of the consultant, the CFO asked the CEO, "How do you know he is worth that much money?"

"By his shoes and the rest his clothes," the CEO said.

I learned the lesson. Since then, every dollar I have spent on expensive business clothes has generated many more dollars in additional income for me.

Business is theater.

From his other comments, I gather that DEC is in imports/exports and makes a very good living at it. I agree with him over 75% of the time, so he must be smart as well. I’m inviting him over for this post and hopes he drops by.

Remember the Arnold Kling article about business trust cues that I linked to? Something like that is happening with the Oxxford suits. To those not in the business tribe, such an expense for mere clothing seems wasteful, indicative of the shallowness, cupidity, and materialism of businessmen. But if we look at this as a tribal trust cue for that clan, it might look different. I used to attend a very wealthy church nearby. Many of the people I knew from men’s groups, choir, retreats and the like moved in business circles at this level and would make comments reminiscent of DEC’s about the necessity of having an impressive car or shoes if you were in certain types of sales. I thought their statements to be rationalizations at the time. Now I am less sure. My needing to think so may have come from my own issues with my stepfather in the business tribe.

If you spend $10,000 on a suit, it is not merely a statement of “I have a lot of money. Trust me.” They know plenty of guys with money they wouldn’t necessarily trust with an account. It is a statement of embracing the tribe’s values. Each tribe has its own values, and adherence to them does not imply morality elsewhere, but investing so many resources in what is “merely” a tribal cue communicates volumes. Even if the person is up-and-coming, and not yet wealthy, paying large sums is a statement of tribal loyalty: “I am putting everything I’ve got into this membership. I won’t throw it away for a few bucks. I will deliver value for cost.”

Why buy an expensive engagement ring? It’s just decoration. There’s no use to it. But saving for a long while beforehand or promising to pay for many months after is a statement of loyalty and devotion. (Now that I know that, I clearly fell down on the job on that. My method of proposing was shoddy as well. Tracy should never have married me.) Jacob labored seven years to win Leah, and after being tricked, signed up for another seven. When you consider what life expectancies were then, and the likelihood he would not live long enough to receive or not so long after, that’s a powerful statement. Like the woman who gave the two copper coins, he declared what was of central importance to him.

Just out of college, I interviewed for jobs in Boston. I wore a suit, but one designed to look more “cool” than “business.” I had a beard and longish hair. In 1975. During a recession. My appearance shouted “I’ll make some compromises, but I’ll be who I want, thank you very much.” One interviewer offhandedly mentioned being a “team player.” I found the implication insulting. Conform and be like everyone else? In your dreams. I’m smarter than anyone you’ve got walking through this door, you sonuvabitch, and there’s nothing you’ve got here that I can’t master in a few months. Those were my thoughts, at least.

He was right and I was wrong. He did have something I couldn’t master: joining the tribe. I falsely perceived that he was demanding conformity in all things. He was only demanding it in some things – in the others I could be as I wished. But those few things were important to the tribe. If you can’t make a statement of tribal loyalty, why should they hire you? You won’t go to the mat when they need you.

People can game the system, of course, and businessmen are as susceptible to gamers as any other tribe. It can also work in reverse, as all the businesses that wouldn’t hire the computer guys with wild hair and bare feet in the 70’s and 80’s learned. By the 90’s, people figured if you had a great suit you couldn’t be that good at computers. Different tribal cues. The Science & Technology tribe didn’t have suits as a trust cue. Once the business guys figured out what the geeks were going to be loyal to they could work with that. But they were way behind by then.

1 comment:

D.E. Cloutier said...

Thank your for your kind words, Assistant Village Idiot. To your observations, I would add only the following:

1. In today's fast-paced global marketplace, people often don't have the time to get to know other people well. Expensive business clothes make you look like a winner. Nobody wants to do business with a loser.

2. If you are the best-dressed person in a room, you feel good. If you feel good, you perform better.

3. Sometimes clothes help develop business relationships over the long term. Last year one of my customers in China and one of my customers in the Middle East flew half way around the world during their vacations because they wanted me to help them pick out new business clothes.

A couple years ago, one of my staffers met with an overseas military general at an embassy in Washington, DC.

"How did it go?" I asked the staffer after the meeting.

"We got the contract," the staffer told me. "But the general has a question. He wants to know where you buy your ties."