In the manner of dressing for work, the corporate world I entered in 2000, was a lot like the corporate world where my father worked. That is, suits, or sport coats with button-down shirts and ties, nice slacks and polished leather shoes. With the corporate headquarters in Washington, D.C. and the CEO and founder a product of the late 1950s, we dressed up even when we never left the office. But employment in San Diego in the new Millennium was being influenced more by Silicon Valley than Wall Street or Foggy Bottom in D.C.
Not surprisingly, the client of my employers in that first decade of the Twenty-First Century were the Naval officers and senior civilian staff (SPAWAR) who oversaw technical development in ships, electronic systems and aircraft for the Navy and Marine Corps. Since the military has prescribed uniforms for daily wear, and standardized grooming, these military officers had a certain expectation for civilians who supported their efforts.
In published articles in the Wall Street Journal and Scientific American , studies have shown also that dressing well, whether in button-down shirt and tie, or “business casual”, in the years since my father’s generation retired, has positive benefits on worker advancement, attitude and productivity. When I first interviewed at my company eleven years ago, I was still a member or the Navy Reserve and a Chief Petty Officer, so I arrived fit, clean-shaven, with shined shoes, and in a tailored suit. When the offer of employment was accepted, I was told that the dress code, when our clients were not on site, was more casual. California in general and San Diego, in particular, is a center of technical businesses, Integrated Circuits, Biotech, software companies and avionics. But with several universities in the area, interns and later their graduates were recruited and accommodated with casual dress options, flexible working hours and amenities from gyms to coffee houses to volleyball courts. Of course, the industrial standard requirements for manufacturing areas are as uniform in required dress as the military.
While senior management of the major divisions were often more formal due frequent meetings with senior-level clients, it was still an office environment where a staff meeting occurred at 10 AM to allow for surfing or gym workouts. In the last ten years however, the growth of the company has changed the culture slightly. From acquisitions, becoming a publicly-traded company, and increasing leadership roles in major technical boards, advisory groups and other businesses, business casual, including button-down shirts, nice tailored polos (with the corporate logo) and slacks and leather shoes is increasingly seen in the middle and senior division-management and those groomed for their next level. New hires, and casual employees who make a significant contribution to a project (read “brain trust”) are often the ones who are more casually attired year-round.
What does all this mean for the transitioning military member who has the education or the skills to enter the corporate world? It means having to adjust their “uniform” for the workday. While it may seem refreshing to wear baggy shorts and sandals, or hair that recalls more of the college dorm life than a corporate environment, one’s work ethic and contribution to a project, may be hindered. During meetings with military or senior government clients, a sharp appearance can foster more productive outcome. And the more ambitious a former military member becomes, there is value in a certain standout appearance.
This also seems to motivate employees to maintain or enhance a certain fitness and healthier lifestyle. Not only because the workplace may subsidize health insurance for workers more generously for fitness, but also it reflects better on the employee’s advancement opportunities. (Of course, this does not imply that any of the equal opportunity standards that govern employment are overlooked.) A sharper appearance and a healthier overall person is more often a better candidate when looking at similar qualifications.
The world’s third oldest profession*.
When I was a younger Sailor, traveling from foreign port to foreign port, I encountered a lot of outgoing people engaged as vendors, tour guides, shopkeepers and restaurant owners. Often their families were the wait staff that ran these places or made the things that provided their living. When your livelihood depends on people, there is an advantage in being a “people person”.
When I was a kid, I was actually an introvert. A gangling kid with poor eyesight, I was not the best athlete nor a glib talker and jokester. From several moves, a lot of activities that caught my interest, studying people, and experience in several professions from ranching to construction, furniture sales and auto parts counter work, I got to talking with and taking an interest in people. I worked as a bartender and waiter before I went into the military. One of my dreams, long before I became a technical worker in the telecommunications industry, was opening a bar or restaurant based on what I visited in foreign places. A kind of dive that had “atmosphere”. With all that experience of these exotic places and tourists from every part of the world I thought it would be fun. I had been working in bars and restaurants prior to my military service so it was somewhat familiar. I learned to speak, or at least communicate in three foreign languages, Spanish, French and Russian.
The service industry depends on people-skills as well as a strong work ethic. Marketing. Being a good listener as well as an observant and diligent service provider. And have a good memory for people’s names, their likes, and so on. In France in he early 1990s I saw the “smash sandwich” vendors – paninis as America now knows them – and thought it was a novel idea to bring to these shores. With the buxom women staffing these kiosks, the Toulon vendors served a lot of sandwiches. In Turkey, shoeshine boys mobbed visitors, appearing at the dock where our ship’s water taxis deposited them. These kids knew how to say “shoe shine” and make small talk about sports, whether you were an American sailor, a Brit, an Arab or perhaps even Chinese tourist. Even sailors wearing sneakers were not overlooked by boys with pats of shoe polish. In the markets, almost every vendor spoke some foreign tongue.
Interviewing, like selling, takes skill and people-smarts
Just as there are people who do not understand the difference between “selling” and “buying”, there are people who do not understand that the interview is a skill that one perfects. Preparation, listening, knowing what and how, to answer a question is part of the interview. Confidence, balanced with humility, and understanding the requirements of the job being sought as well as knowing something of you prospective employer, can win the interview.
Technical professionals I have coached have earned an offer of employment, not only from their preparation, but knowing how to “answer the question being asked” with sufficient detail, but not enough to get bogged down. It is a marketing opportunity to show that you will be an asset to those doing the hiring, but not telling them as much. And to win their trust, through your personality and likeability.
I know others who are successful gardeners, pool men, insurance agents and financial counselors. Some are musicians. Others are artists and writers. And still others with a love for and enough experience in hunting, fishing, camping or motor sports, they made professions as guides and teachers. And they connect with their clients and employers, with the same people-smarts.
Commitment and self-improvement
Practicing interviews, such as the “elevator talk” or meeting people in social settings, is valuable. Listening to people’s names and observing details about those you converse with, not only makes the other person feel valued, but aids in your ability to connect with your message.
Books I have read recently and recommend to everyone, engineer, actor, or military member in transition, include How to Start A Conversation and Make Friends, by Don Gabor (Simon & Shuster), and the classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People , by Dale Carnegie. Another great read and short, is The One Minute Sales Person, by Spencer Johnson, MD, and Larry Wilson (Harper Collins). There are also many good books and websites on personal development, the interviewing process in the social media age as well.
In a job interview, a prepared and confident person builds a relationship and earns trust with the interviewer and the employer. Beyond the hiring process, as an employee or consultant, you continue being a student of the company, the people you meet, and learning by asking the right questions. There is also the times and places you can market yourself for new opportunities in the company, and by demonstrating value – increasing the bottom line, can use the same interviewing skills to ask for raises as well.
As a manager, you are still engaged in the sales profession. Whether as team leader, morale booster, mentor, recruiter or discipline agent, you still show the “customer” the value of the company and role that person fills, which provides their needs and their relationship to the team.
People do not want to be “sold” but they do want to “buy”
Just as someone who shops for a new vehicle, kitchen appliance, or bringing on a new team member, the skill is in recognizing what motivates, interests or is valued by the customer. A customer looking for the security of business insurance is not going to respond to the agent’s ‘hot buttons’. And an employer is not going to be encouraged by a prospective employee’s focus on pay rate, vacation earned or working hours.
Interviewing requires diligent effort and practice. But the military member also has what many other applicants lack. Focus. Endurance. Attention to detail. And maturity. As well as experience working under stressful situations and deadlines. So take charge and carry out your mission. Interview, interview, interview. And I have benefited from fifty years of practice. I am no longer gangling, nor introverted. I have been a recruiter and meet people everywhere I go. Though my best friends will tell me I am still not “glib”.
Fair Winds and Following Seas. – Senior Chief (Ret.)
* Wikipedia repeats the quote attributed to Ronald Reagan that a politician is the second-oldest profession. Prostitution is frequently quipped as the “oldest” profession.
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