I love dressing informally, maybe too much. My wife frequently reprimands me for dressing down. I recently met with a US Senator in slacks and a collar shirt (which I thought was being respectfully dressy!) and he wryly cracked that I looked awfully comfortable. I sometime teach my HBS class in jeans (please don't tell the dean).
But lately, I have been wondering if entrepreneurs have taken informality too far. I don't mean dress code. I don't care how they dress. I mean their thinking and approach.
You probably see it all the time – hipster entrepreneurs with the cool affect walking into meetings carrying nothing but their smart phone. When asked to present their story, they ramble informally without a cogent direction. When a substantive discussion ensues, and good ideas and follow-up items are generated, they take no notes. And when the meeting wraps up, there are no action items that are reviewed, no closure regarding next steps.
My observation is that some entrepreneurs are confusing informal dress with informal thinking. I like dressing informally because I find it reduces barriers and allows for more direct, open dialog. I have noticed that people are more comfortable getting right to the point and being candid in their conversations when there are no hierarchies or barriers communicated through dress code. Studies reinforce this view.
But I can't stand sloppy, informal thinking. Crisp, logical discussions, well-organized meetings, good note-taking and dogged follow-up are all ingredients of successul, well-run companies. When a startup entrepreneur conveys the opposite in their approach and style – whether in a pitch meeting or in a board meeting – I question whether (to coin a phrase I learned at my first starup) they can operate their way out of a paper bag.
I sat on a panel this morning at an executive retreat for a Fortune 100 company focused on innovation and the impact of next generation technologies on their business. The company's president wore jeans for the first time in a business meeting and was getting some good-natured teasing from his staff. I loved it because it showed he was willing to knock down some walls. But you can bet the meeting started on time, ended on time and had a very clear agenda.
My belief is that entrepreneurs should dress in the way that makes them feel the most comfortable. Not physically comfortable (or we’d all wear snuggies) but dress in the way that makes you feel the most like you. If you try to dress up/down to appease investors/clients/etc… you’ll end up acting differently (more buttoned up, or un-crisp). Be yourself.
If you had to choose to dress a bit more formally (not full suits, just business casual) in order to get the crisp, logical discussions – would you make the trade?
I think I would, actually, although not sure why there needs to be the tradeoff…