Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Eleven white shirts

I mentioned to a friend that I had purchased a white shirt and she responded, "how many white shirts do you have anyway?" "Eleven, I said." Rather than trouble you with the rest of this conversation let me get right to the point.

I like white shirts. For some reason white shirts give me power. They raise my blood pressure. They make me look younger. And when they're snowy and crisp and well-fitted, they give me the courage to get out in the world and grab life by its horns.

I'm not being ironic. White shirts have an amazing effect upon me. And so rather than chance it on a day when my spirits are a little lower, I always opt for a white shirt knowing that it will neutralize the demons.

I've become an expert on white shirts. My favorite is from Facconable. It's a boxy cut, one pocket and the collar is just right...not too wide, not too narrow. Costume National makes an amazing shirt but only to be worn after a week of dieting...the cut is very narrow but it really makes a great point with the elongated sleeve and the wide cuff. Last year I bought two cotton shirts from a small label called Kristianne du Nord and the cool thing about them is they're supposed to be worn wrinkled. It's really nice to travel with them.

I also have a pair of black baby doll pumps that raise my spirits. Whenever I wear them I feel a little smarter and a bit more vixen and pixiesh. I put them away during the summer but come the fall I will work them with either matte black stockings from Wolford or the fishnet stockings that my Mother deems unacceptable but are in fact the sexiest and most classic thing to wear with a simple black pencil skirt and one of the shirts from my closet.

I did not realize that people associated me with white shirts until the day I heard someone refer to me as "the woman who wears white shirts." I felt a little sad that I had become so predictable but then I realized I had become memorable, identifiable and connected to something visual.

I don't think it is all that hard being a standout in a conformist society. Of course, it does require a little bit of courage, a dollop of confidence and a dash of ingenuity. Anyone care to join me?

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Maybe it's like programming the DVD and having an account with Twitter...I'm suddenly aware that this child of the 60s has to get with the program. And the program for today is: We're outnumbered by nincompoops in the workplace. There is a dearth of leadership, mentoring and support for all the young people leaving the safety of the university and finding themselves unarmed in a shark tank.

For example, a young client arrives and spins a Scheherazade-worthy tale of pure and pitiful incompetence at a well-known company and the people who occupy their corner cubicles. Given this young man's credentials, competence, charisma and character, you would think that management would nurture his progress in the hopes of encouraging him to take an ownership role in the company's success. Trust me, this is a superstar in the making.

The problem is, no one is thinking.

His boss systematically underutilized, underinformed and excluded the young man from meetings. Rather than stoke the young man's fire and use it to build the department, the boss followed the path of all bad managers and did everything possible to discourage his commitment to the company.
As we all know from previous jobs, we don't work just for the money.

It's not the first time I've heard this story from a client. The opportunities for developing young talent are being blown everyday because no one gives a damn. From my experience working with these fine young men and women I can tell you that they want to work their heart out but they need generous bosses, people secure enough to take pleasure in someone else's success.

And you don't have to be a boss to do this. Young professionals are in desperate need of post-graduate guidance. A lean organization might mean bigger profits but it will also mean that someone entering a company will not likely have a manager take a vested interest in them.

College prepares you to deconstruct Trollope. It doesn't prepare you for the chicanery of 21st century corporate America. And with the nincompoops ascendant, our young graduates, shiny with hope and expectation are finding themselves hopelessly and helplessly outnumbered.

Call up your favorite new graduate and take her to lunch.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Costume Department Drama

I'm intensely interested in this year's Presidential race. It's not so much about seeing my guy win 'cause that's a given. I'm also fascinated by the messages being crafted, the strategy being executed and the narrative being enacted. The mechanics of winning the White House are not only epic but fraught with costume department worthy drama. Behind every candidate is a personal stylist polling whether Ohio prefers white shirts over blue. Clothes matter.

When a colleague recently forwarded an article from the Wall Street Journal on "How to Pull Off 'CEO Casual'", my instinct was to read the article through the lens of stagecraft. Clothes not only maketh the man/woman, they also have significant impact on the acceleration or stagnation of professional ambitions.

According to the article's Trevor Kaufman, a CEO running a digital-branding agency, anyone who wears a suit makes him exceedingly nervous. In fact, he tells the reporter, "A suit has become something you wear when you're asking for money." He goes on to extol the virtues of going sockless, British underwear and having shirts custom-made with a lowered top button (to conceal chest hair) and widened cuffs to accommodate thick and hugely expensive watches. Without a trace of irony, he connects his sartorial obsessions to establishing his creative authority.

Maybe so. But as my colleague Linda Y. pointed out, "Kaufman earned the right to sockless Prada loafers. He didn't start out sockless."

Unfortunately, the landscape is littered with sharpies who showed up for an interview projecting cool only to discover that the interviewer had a strange predilection for heat-seeking missiles. In a tightened economy, my money is on smart grooming habits and quiet attire that carries a whiff of seriousness and purpose.

Treat your closet like Warner Brothers's wardrobe department. When in doubt, slip into the costume of the ambitious, focused, supremely confident superachiever whose left brain capabilities are not at all thwarted by ties, tailored pantsuits or Gold Toe knee high socks.

And tune in to the sartorial decisions of the two candidates. You can be sure that come September, when the race tightens, decisions about jackets, sweaters, ties and shoes will be very much a part of the equation.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What is "The Third Paragraph?"

When I was nine or ten I was on my yearly visit with my Aunt E. who was also my first writing teacher, confidante, analyst, therapist, coach, ally and all around remarkable influence. I had spent the previous summer at sleepaway camp and had written her a few letters. In one of those offhand moments that are seemingly innocent but seismic in impact, my Aunt said:"Ellie, I love the fact you wrote to me this summer but your letters should start on the third paragraph."

I looked at Aunt E. with surprise. "What do you mean?"

"Well, all of your letters began with "Hi. How are you? I am fine." It wasn't until you got to the third paragraph that the letters got interesting."

I remembered the vellum stationery I used that summer. And of course the hackneyed way I started the letters. Aunt E. was right...

My letters had started out dull and formulaic. They were predictable and pedestrian. I decided there and then to move to the grist as fast as possible so the reader would hear my voice and be compelled by the story.

I use the "third paragraph" rule for practically every form of communication whether it's emails, personal correspondence, voicemail, text messages...even blog entries. I even use the rule in conversations. I don't have interest in the superficial...I'm on the lookout for connections and real connectedness.

Not everyone can communicate on the third paragraph. For some people it's better to stay in the safer, less treacherous terrain of the banal. But if you're willing to take a risk, if you're willing to be real, you'll discover a richness of closeness and understanding that can only come when you start in the middle where the fun (and the pain) are waiting.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Big Mistake

We had breakfast this morning at Cianci, the charming European bistro that just happens to be located on Main Street in New Jersey. Our waiter Mike is leaving in a few weeks to return to college in Boston. Mike is terrific and attentive and polite and one can't help wishing him well so I decided to give him a piece of unsolicited advice.

"Make some mistakes," I said.

The biggest mistake young people make is being afraid of making mistakes. Back in the old days it was perfectly acceptable to blow it, screw up, get a C grade as long as it was in the pursuit of some passionate enterprise. Not today...today my young coaching clients have been so programmed that when they leave the so-called safety of university life they feel as though they've been pushed out of a plane without a parachute. As the good Doctor W. would say, "they're two inches from the floor but it feels like two hundred feet."

There are lots of situations where mistakes should not be tolerated but taking a difficult class or seeking a job in a field that may not pay off but piques the interest should not fall under that heading.

Many of my coaching clients haven't made a mistake in their life. Big mistake. The little errors, the small roadblocks are excellent preparation for the curveballs life tends to throw you.

So go ahead...fail at something. Blow it completely and watch how your world doesn't splinter, your friends don't abandon you, the sun still comes up and goes down. As Kate Monster sings in "Avenue Q"..."And you never know 'til you reach the top if it was worth the uphill climb."

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Entitlement Problem

I stopped at the local health food store this morning to buy the ever fabulous Ecco Bella Vanilla Body Lotion and to share a few words (and laughs) with owner Alan R. His shop is located in one of those "strip malls" that one finds in suburbia and has recently welcomed two new upscale neighbors -- a very luxurious nail spa and a Java Brewing coffee house. I noted how the parking lot was quite filled and wondered aloud if a new type of clientele would be coming into Alan's store.

"They're coming," he said, "and they're brutal."

I knew immediately what Alan meant: The entitlement problem that's epidemic and probably pandemic at this point.

I wonder: Are you born with the entitlement gene or is it something you acquire? The reason I mention this is that it's a blind spot for anyone who's hoping to earn the kind of enviable reputation that money cannot buy. You earn it by faithfully and flawlessly demonstrating consideration and respect for everyone you encounter in the course of a day.

I define entitlement as this: Someone who shows a pronounced lack of interest in the feelings and concerns of someone else. An entitled individual will interrupt two people in conversation because waiting their turn simply will not do. Entitled people sashay, they do not walk. Entitled people see the world split between those that are served and those that serve. Entitled people do not understand boundaries since in their (distorted) minds they occupy a far greater swath of psychic space than those around them.

I know a lot of entitled people. And frankly they rub me the wrong way and I bet they rub a lot of people the wrong way. And eventually it will trip them up, derail their career trajectory, diminish their opportunities.

So I listen as shopowners and salespeople lament and complain but I know this: If I ever spot entitlement from anyone I coach with, I point it out and we work through it. Because I can get evangelical on the subject of "E" and why it needs to be erased from the face of the Earth. Like malaria.