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Sunday, June 16, 2013

How single-malt Scotch can help your career

My post two weeks ago touched on the idea that being odd can pay off. At least two of this Spring’s crop of university speakers touched on this idea as well.

Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke at Duke's Fuqua School of Business last month and counseled the MBA students:

“You should write the rules. “If you follow in a formulaic manner, you will wind up at best being the same as everybody else."

Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, told Pitzer College graduating students:

“There are moments when you'll have a different point of view because you're a fresh set of eyes; because you don't care how it's been done before; because you're sharp and creative; because there is another way, a better way. But there will also be moments when you have a different point of view because you're wrong, because you're 23 and you should shut up and listen to somebody who's been around the block.”

But unwritten rules are, I believe, more powerful than the written. Violate them and you’re dead man walking.

For example, when I was 23 and a newbie at IBM, my manager counseled me that I’d never get ahead because “your hair’s too long and you walk too slow.” I started going to a hair stylist, bought a clutch of crisp white shirts, and picked up the pace. A management spot magically opened where performance alone hadn’t done it.

My turn to divulge the unwritten to a newbie came when I was manager of speechwriters. My rule for hiring was to recruit from the Washington, D.C., pool because speechwriters accustomed to the 24/7 cauldron of the national political arena proved to be quite comfortable operating in the tense climate of the Chairman’s office.

One of my recruits had been speechwriter for a senator. Another for a Cabinet secretary. Both were buttoned-up, seasoned pros.

But my next new hire – a former reporter for a national news magazine and then press secretary to a mid-Western senator -- showed up on his first day at IBM in a sports jacket.

IBM had no written rules about dress. So I took the new man aside, asked him to look around, and suggested: “You might feel more comfortable in a suit, like everyone else is wearing.”

He went home at lunchtime, changed, and went on to a fine career.

People had fun at IBM’s expense because we all wore vested suits, white shirts, and sincere ties. But at Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference, there seemed to be an unwritten dress code at work among the executive presenters, as these pictures show:

Apple CEO Tim Cook

SVP Craig Federighi

SVP Phil Schiller

SVP Eddy Cue

It ain’t easy, maneuvering a career between the Scylla and Charybdis of written and un-written rules. I myself defer to the late Christopher Hitchens, that rough-and-ready correspondent who lived as he liked: “Be careful about up-grading too far to single-malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won't be easily available.”

In my next blog: Meet the savage goddess of Cape Cod

(To comment, click on 'comments' below)                                                    JAC8QGA95YED


  1. When I relaxed my personal dress code is when things got better. I stopped being concerned about what others thought and became more me. It paid off.

  2. A strange twist, my conservative Fortune 400 company went to dress down (late in the game). After that, if someone wore a nice suit, they stood out in an amazingly positive way.
    Maybe, it's being "different." John M.