Dear Mr. Molloy:
I am a man in his mid-30s and have just been elected to the school board in my town. In the course of campaigning I visited both blue collar workers and young professionals in their homes. The one thing I noticed was the better educated parents were more interested in their children’s education than those with a high school education or less.
In about a month and a half the school board will be having a second public meeting. I intend to introduce a program which will by its nature increase the cost of running our school. There is already opposition in the community to my proposal but if it’s well presented I think it will pass since many school board members will respond to pressure from the community. I know I already have the backing of a majority of parents who are college educated and they are more likely to attend school board meetings but I fear I will not win the blue-collar majority.
I’m looking for an outfit that will work equally well with both groups. I noticed when I was campaigning that if I showed up wearing a very conservative suit it offended some blue-collar workers and when I dress down I was not as effective with the more sophisticated members of the community. Can you recommend a specific outfit I can wear to this meeting?
Please keep in mind our school board meetings are often loud and disorderly. The president of the school board often spends most of his time bringing the room to order. I’ve seen you speak several times and I know you are very good on stage and am wondering if you could give me specific advice on how to handle interruptions.
Yes, there is. Wear a navy blazer with gray slacks, a white shirt and a solid maroon tie. When the meeting starts loosen your tie and if the audience is predominately blue-collar take off your jacket.
One of the tricks used by union leaders and professional politicians when they attend such a meeting is to have people who agree with them from different groups accompany them when they go on stage. While you’re the primary speaker you can refer to individuals and ask them about their personal experience or opinions to back up the argument you’re making. This will make it seem as if the argument is not yours personally but that of a group which will give you greater credibility with most audiences and make it less likely that you will be interrupted.
Another gambit used by sophisticated salespeople and you are a salesperson in that situation is if you are interrupted by someone who is loud and obnoxious do not get angry. Tell them and the audience that you respect their opinion and invite them up on stage to counter the points you have made. If you pick someone who’s particularly inarticulate or even better rude to defend the opposing point of view you have chosen the best person from your perspective. In addition, you can calmly and politely ask them questions which require specific expertise that they probably will not have, giving your side a definite advantage.
But since no one can predict how such meetings will go I must tell you that the first rule is to read your audience and follow your instincts. So although I’ve given you what I think are a couple of good tactics, only use them if you think they’re appropriate at the moment.
Dear Mr. Molloy:
I work for a company where about one third of women managers wear jackets usually over dresses almost every day and the others wear jackets but not the ones you would recommend. There are some who dress very casually, most of them are in technical positions and work with men who are casually dressed.
I have an MBA from a major university and while I dressed casually and hardly ever wore a jacket for the first four years I now wear a suit whenever I can and jackets when I cannot. I did this because my father who is an executive bet me that if I changed my look I would increase my chances of getting promotions. I was sure he was wrong but because I received two promotions in the last three years and am being looked at for bigger and better things I insisted that he take his winnings.
My latest promotion put me in a new department. I am now working for a woman who has hinted without subtlety that she dislikes my dressing like a man. I think she really dislikes my dressing better than her. It would be hard not to because she dresses terribly.
St. Louis, Missouri
I wish I could give you better advice but I cannot. Since you just started working for her I’m sure will be difficult to transfer to another department but that is exactly what I suggest you try to do. If you cannot transfer for a while you can adjust your dress to suit her just a bit. You may have no choice. However, once it becomes possible to move, do so.
At present, you’re in a Catch-22 situation. Since you have earned an MBA from a major university I’m sure you’re aim is to move into management. If you start dressing in a manner that destroys your executive image, I’m sure it will be noted by the men and women at the top. While if you do not she will probably give you a hard time, and might write negative reviews of your work and short-circuit your career.
I talked to several women executives and explained your situation to them. They suggested that you continue to dress professionally but when you’re dealing with her take off your jacket and relax your image. They conceded it wasn’t a perfect solution to your problem but added that one of the necessary skills to be an executive is handling difficult situations and difficult people. I wish I could give you upbeat positive advice but I can’t.
Dear Mr. Molloy:
I always admired your advice but am beginning to question it. My wife attended your lecture on popularity last week at the Disney hotel. She said you are writing a book on popularity and it will be available in a couple of months. She said nevertheless you told the audience that 40% of them didn’t need it. That’s idiotic.
Name and Address Withheld
After another test speech on popularity I was approached by a publisher who is interested in my book. He said he had only one requirement for publishing the book, I had to stop telling people they didn’t need it. He said to do so was stupid and he may have a point.
However, I didn’t exactly say that. What I tell all my audiences is if 30% to 40% of them do exactly as I say they will learn to make a great first impression and charm people for a limited period of time. What I do tell them is that they do not need my book to accomplish that but the book would make it simpler, quicker and easier. What is more I tell them if they want to be popular and receive preferential treatment from the world they need my book.