Management’s New Clothes: The Magic of the Business Suite

Management's new clothesThe manager in his or her suit has become an archetype in professional life around the globe. Even at international meetings, where people of various cultures gather, managers all wear the same type of clothing, only displaying minor variations in style and colour.

Business suits have of course no practical purpose, but rather convey social meaning. The suit has become a symbol of power, and a means to demarcate the white from the blue collars. Using clothes and other objects to communicate meaning to other people is a natural aspect of being human. An immutable law of marketing is that we don’t buy stuff for what it does, but for what it means.

Early in my career, I was working on a dredging site in Bangladesh, wearing my comfy heavy metal t-shirt and jeans. I was unexpectedly asked to present to head office executives visiting from the Netherlands. Blissfully unaware of my lack of appropriate attire and ignoring their visible scepticism towards my expertise I was able to convince them of my recommendation.

It is of course not a secret that the relationship between the clothes we wear and our actual ability to be a good manager is not a necessary one. Sociologists Erving Goffman, who analysed human interaction from a theatrical perspective, wrote more than half a century ago:

People holding corporate positions are blinding themselves and others to the fact that they hold their jobs partly because they look like executives, not because they can work like executives.1

In the field of consumer behaviour, the clothes we buy are often seen as the result of our lifestyle, demographics and other variables. Sociologists, however, have a reverse logic and see the clothes we wear as the cause of the behaviour. Research has confirmed that we use objects such as clothing to compensate for actual ability to act in a particular role.

It has been found that MBA students less likely to be successful in professional life (based on grade averages) are more likely to look the part.2

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that quite often the smartest people are portrayed in movies as eccentric, deviating from the expectations, but accepted because of their abilities.

Clothing as a means to communicate actual and aspired social status is part of what makes us human, and after my experience, I quickly learnt to adapt to the expectations of professional life. The best way to end this post is with the words of the bard:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts … (As You Like it).

  1. Erving Goffman (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life, Penguin, London. 

  2. Solomon, Michael R.: The Role of Products as Social Stimuli: A Symbolic Interactionism Perspective, The Journal of Consumer Research 10(3), volume 10, 319–329, 1983. 

When you see an MBA on the road, kill them! The MBA Deception

When you see an MBA on the road, kill them! The MBA Deception

After two years of intense studying, writing more than 75,000 words, many exams, hundreds of hours of lectures and a fascinating expedition to Hanoi, Ian and I have finally formally graduated for my MBA.

When starting this journey, I asked myself whether I would be wasting my time. Well, it was not a waste of time – learned some interesting things; visited a fascinating city; met great people and did some interesting research. During my two years of intensive study I have, however, also cultivated a critical attitude towards the material touted as management theory.

One important aspect that seems to be forgotten in many management books is that running a business is first and foremost about the actual production process and provision of service. Management supports these activities, but cannot replace them. Studying management does, for example, not teach you anything about how to make the best horse saddles or provide world class healthcare.

If management theory is separated from what the business is about, the organisation can fall victim to fads that only achieve to alienate the people it is supposed to help.

Henry Mintzberg, copiously referenced in graduate schools around the world, is critical of the MBA phenomenon and argues that no education can teach intuition, creativity or insight:

Management is not a profession, nor is it science. It is a practice that depends mostly on craft and significantly on art. Craft is learned by experience. Art can, of course, be admired in a classroom–think of all the visionaries you read about in cases. But voyeurism is not management, either, nor does it develop creativity.

The Frugal Law Student refers to a New York Times article about the favourite books of the most successful Chief Executive Officers. Interestingly enough, they do not seem to read books like From Good to Great, Seven Habits of Effective People, Six Thinking Hats or any other self-help book. Their favourite books are fiction, poetry, philosophy and biographies. To become a good manager, it is important to be well rounded and read the classics.

The title of this post is inspired by the traditional Zen koan attributed to Zen Master Linji:

If you meet the Buddha, kill him.

What Linji is trying to say is that those who are on the road to enlightenment should ignore all their perceived conceptions of what enlightenment is. This also applies to the halo some people seem to apply to themselves after completing an MBA.

MBA Deception

Now that I have been adorned with academic robes myself I will deconstruct everything I have learned at the Graduate School of Management and share my thoughts on Ian and I invite you to join us and share your thoughts on this journey of creative destruction.