By SALLY DUROS
I am here to announce that the business suit for women is alive and well and sitting stylishly (minus the shoulder pads, thank goodness) on the shoulders and hips of businesswomen the land over! That’s proof that I’ve been hanging round the tech world a long time with its casual dress everyday and its designer tennies and its quirky habits of eating and talking – artfully – at the same time. Don’t get me wrong – I love that quirkiness, but I have forgotten the feel of a DK jacket and a Dana Buchman silk – jeeze louise, I don’t even know if those brands exist any more and whether their equity has held up.
The fact that women in business still get dressed up and wear beautiful clothes that resemble those worn by Cokie Roberts rather than those worn by Madonna hit me like a Perry Ellis camel-hair topcoat when I attended a recent breakfast meeting of the University of Chicago Women in Business Alumnae Network her in Chicago. I breathed a sigh of relief that I had left my tattered backpack at home and brought my Tumi bag instead.
I had correctly anticipated the formal atmosphere. It was an event put on by The Executives’ Club of Chicago as part of their New Women’s Leadership Breakfast Series. The title was “Perspectives from Women Shaping the Future” and “The Challenge of Leading Change. ” It was great! We heard the scoop from Linda Bammann, Executive Vice President, and Chief Risk Management Officer of Bank One. We heard from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Chief of Staff, Sheila O’Grady. And we got the viewpoint of Judith Sprieser, Chief Executive Officer of Transora. Then we had an excellent moderator in Elizabeth Brackett, Correspondent for WTTW and “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”
They said a lot of insightful things. But the bottom line was the usual “Managing change is difficult.” It was my turn to be incredulous – well “Yes!” I guess I thought the rock was a bit higher up the hill and the conversation might have advanced to a deeper level. But a panel discussion is limited in what it can deliver, and it’s a whole different story when you’re talking about light as a feather early stage start-ups vs. large organizations like our panel was discussing. I started recollecting a conversation I had a while back with a fellow who knows a lot about cultures and change – in both start-up businesses and Fortune 100 companies – Bob Okabe, principal of Illinois Partners and co-founder of Chicago’s Prairie Angels Capital partners LLC., the manager of the first organized angel fund in the Midwest. Bob has a grey suit pedigree in investment banking and corporate finance, holding senior leadership positions at Lehman Brothers, Kidder Peabody, and General Electric, among others.
Sally:How do you get to the authentic core of what your values are, so that you can build a business that will give you what you want it to give you? Obviously, you don’t want it to just be successful. You want to also have a business that you want to go to every day.
Bob: I think a lot of entrepreneurs just say, “It’s my business and I’m doing it my way, and therefore it’s something I want to come to every day,” but they don’t realize it’s not necessarily something other people want to come to. … Too many people hire for skills, not for culture.”
Sally: Can you talk about culture a bit more? About how it’s manifested in business?
Bob: Yes, I think culture is expressed consistently in one of two ways. One is by leadership, and the other is, you institutionalize it. I think it can be institutionalized. There are companies like SAS that clearly institutionalize it, and they foster a very particular culture or an attitude, and they build systems to make sure it stays consistent as the company grows.
“Then, there are companies that do it just by leadership. I mean, at GE Jack Welch had to do it by force of will, because the organization already existed. He had to fire people at this very senior level who were probably good at their jobs but didn’t fit the culture. He had to reward people who fit the culture but weren’t successful. And he had to stick by people whose performance was mixed. I think he basically did it by force of will and leadership; so you can do it in either way. The question is, what is easiest for you.
“I think in a small company, by its nature, it is going to be done by force of will, by leadership.”
Sally: Well, yes; you would say, “This is what I want.”
Bob: “But you know what? A lot of entrepreneurs – a lot of raw startups put together their team by who’s convenient and who’s willing, not by who’s right. …I see lots of teams where it’s a bunch of guys who knew each other. ”
Sally: Do people hire from skills versus culture because it’s easier to quantify skills than culture?
Bob: I think first of all that people hire in the following order: skills, personality, and then culture last. Really, what they should hire for is culture first, skills second, and personality last. Because the boat moves as fast as the slowest rower, so if there’s somebody who’s not motivated and not interested, I don’t care how physically able he is; he’s not going to row well.”
Sally: Have you gained any insight into office politics and how that affects an organization?
Bob:Office politics are a reflection of the culture in an office. People politic within an office if they feel they have to, or if they feel it will gain them a significant advantage over others. So people who are known as brown-nosers have learned and believe that office politicking helps them. And a culture that accepts that is a culture that breeds it.
But the reality is that if you’re working together, then it doesn’t matter. A consistent culture reduces the amount of office politics. I would argue that the more consistent an organizational culture is, the less onerous the office politics are.
Sally: That would actually make sense. Because if people understand the rules of how you work together, and they have enough guidance and understanding of that, then they won’t be bringing personal – you like me, you don’t like me, I like you, I don’t like you – into the mix so much.
Sally: You have to have some kind of good radar working to understand culture so well.
Bob: I think good entrepreneurs do.
The bottom line of our conversation was that Bob and I agreed that you can tell a lot about the culture of an organization by the way it talks about itself.
From my viewpoint, that talking comes in many forms. In dress codes, and hours kept. In lunch etiquette, and coffee time and water cooler gatherings. In please’s and thank you’s or growls and purrs. In office spaces and public gathering places. In email formats, and cc’s and bc’s and subject lines. In golf outings and take your kid to work days and family leave. In how you celebrate holidays and birthdays and days of important business events. In how you hire and promote and celebrate. In the stories the business tells about itself in the hallways, the executive offices, in the mailroom and in the media.
And all of these things will contribute to whether you’re wearing high-tops or floral pattern pumps to the office. As the old saying goes, “If the shoe fits, wear it.” Any type of shoe is fine as long as it fits you.