Wear a White Shirt and a Dark Suit: Clear Rules for Corporate Boards and Executive Leaders

Every organization should have a few clear and unambiguous rules and principles that are followed and enforced at every level. These principles build culture and set standards that can readily and credibly spread throughout any organization.
A string of executive controversies over the summer months have brought this issue into stark contrast. Two bewildering examples drawn from recent headlines include the firing of the:

  • University of Georgia’s athletic director following a DUI arrest (when part of his responsibilities involved encouraging fans not to drink at UGA sporting events)
  • HP CEO for breaches of trust and conduct who had pledged to lead his business ethically

In setting standards, I suggest leaders and boards figure out what’s really important. If you don’t live up to these rules, you’re gone, no matter what position you hold or who you are.
If you are the UGA athletic director, you need to follow the behavioral rules that you are telling students to follow. And if you are the CEO of HP, you must provide accurate expense reports and other information.
I learned my lesson about following the rules on my first real job as a part-time salesperson for Baker Shoes in September 1967. Back in those days, there wasn’t any orientation, no employee handbook, and no training.
Right before my first day of work, my boss, Joseph Silverman, told me how much I would be paid, what I would do and my shift hours. Finally, he said, “be here at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. Wear a white shirt and a dark suit.”
I got up on Saturday, ready to go to work for eight hours on what was already a muggy day in East Liberty, an urban neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Penn. But there was one problem: I had only one heavy gray wool suit, which had been given to me by my friend, David Kalson, for a role in the prior year’s class play. If I wore that suit, I knew I would burn up, sweat and itch on that sweltering day in that unairconditioned shoe store.
So I came up with a better plan: I would wear my solid lightweight dark-blue blazer with matching blue slacks. The blazer buttons were gold, but it looked just like a suit, and I would be more comfortable.
I arrived at work on time, greeted by Mr. Silverman, who wore dark suit and white shirt.
His first reaction before I even entered the building: “Where’s the suit?”
“But it’s hot and this is just like a suit,” I replied.
Mr. Silverman said, “I said a suit, not just like a suit. Go home and come back in a suit if you have one. Otherwise, forget it.”
I went home and told my dad. Without hesitation, he ordered, “put on your suit, and get down there now.”
And so I did. I sweated that first day and first month until I could save enough to buy a lighter-weight, real suit.
Baker’s did not spend a lot to get its message out. But the company’s dress code was embedded in its culture. Mr. Silverman always wore a suit, he communicated the rule to every employee before they started, and he enforced it. It was clear, important and he brooked no exceptions. And, that was the rule in the other stores across the nation.
Some organizations’ boards and leaders fall back on complex and wordy rules and codes of conduct. It’s easier than figuring out what’s really important, universal and essential to the business.
But it’s a vital exercise if you want to draw clear lines that can’t be crossed. You still have plenty of room for discretion to deal with “gray-area” exceptions. But where basic principles, values, cultural, legal and reputational risks intersect, the rules need to be as clear and unambiguous as Mr. Silverman’s “Wear a dark suit and a white shirt” was back in 1967.

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