Thursday, July 28, 2005

Suits me

The fearsome performance evaluation is over, and it went as well, perhaps better than I could have expected. Because I run a small (minuscule, actually) non-profit, I report to a board of eleven members. I have eleven bosses.

Okay, I exaggerate. I only have nine bosses, because we have two vacancies. They are all volunteers, and I am the only full-time paid staff person, with a half-time assistant. It is an interesting dynamic. I am in charge of everything, and if I need a sounding board or specific expertise or backup or…anything…I have to accept that everyone may be too busy to help. From time to time there are things that simply must be communicated, and the president takes the brunt of that—the concerns about the local businessman who is a little too free with his hands, the thankfully-now-former assistant who has accused me of …well, never mind…, the political ramifications of my inability to meet every real or imagined need that has a “business” overtone. Because I was brought up in an environment where the biggest, most sacrosanct rule governing communication was “No surprises,” I communicate relentlessly. Even when the president sighs and harrumphs.

But really, he is a good guy. Can he help it if he is a very different personality type from me?

They had mercy on me. Only three came for the performance review, and they were sensitive to fact they had me outnumbered. In exchange, they gave me a gift—they flexed to my communications style, let me ramble, rant and posture as I worked through the blessedly few issues that we had to discuss. I will spare you the grim and gory details (well, actually, there weren’t any, despite the fears I bring from my years living the Wall Street staff shrinkages), but the amusing one was this: they want me to wear suits.

Suits! Who woulda thunk? Now you have to understand that there are huge numbers of non-profits in Vermont. In a state of some 600,000 people, there are three thousand non-profits—that is one for every 200 people. And these are relatively well-paying jobs that allow for personal fulfillment, casual attire, and an atmosphere in which you can bring your dog or your sick child to work. It is a great life, as long as the pyramid funding scheme doesn’t collapse. For those of us who toil in the economic development vineyards, the men do wear suits to Montpelier, and the women wear something that passes for business attire. But my board thinks I am excessively casual, that they would prefer to see a more polished presentation.

Once I got over the shock—which partly derived from the fact that nobody has mentioned this in the two years I have had the job—I can see their point. It is not a comment on my personal life choices; it is an issue of positioning and branding the organization. And as an INFP, I am routinely unaware what others see—the external face that creates confidence. Just as I am unaware of large amounts of dog hair in my car, in my office, and on the knees of my trousers. So I don’t mind being reminded that for some people, if I dress more formally, I am more credible.

Okay, so let’s not get hung up on whether I wore a denim vest to the last board meeting (even if it is really cute and flattering) or that, in fact, I always wear some version of business clothing when I visit Montpelier. Let’s instead take the whole range of choices of clothing for quiet days in the office, reconnoitering buildings (complete with dead pigeons), visits to local businesses (who demonstrate a range of dress code options), schmoozing legislators, peddling raffle tickets for Rotary...all of the varied dress occasions that my job presents. Let’s take them all up a notch on the formality scale. I honestly don’t have a problem with that.

This is the perfect time of year to make a shift. I heard a long time ago that the way to be fashion forward is to be slightly ahead of the season. So in August, the first transitional fall clothes come out, and if the truth is known, I hate almost everyone’s summer clothes. Fabric and cut, all seem too casual to me, with my taste shaped by a certain New York chic. And I draw the line at frumpy.

I didn’t put enough money in my request to take care of a major wardrobe overhaul. But the hunt for pretty clothes at low cost—that’s entertainment to me, and I will do my best to make it work.

And all they want is suits? Oh yes, and perhaps I could clean up my trading floor language, which emerges in stressful periods. What a gift! To have the option to stay and work with people who treat me with care and respect, in a job that suits.


Jean said...

Good grief! Hard not to see this as a stereotypically naive opinion from the less appealing side of small-town society. I'm imagining myself in your shoes and how this would have made me very angry and deeply threatened my conception of why I'd left the city. Well, you're not me and I'm glad you don't mind, or at least can decide to deal with it positively.

Visual-Voice said...

umm.... I charge more per hour if it involves pantyhose. I find it much more difficult to get the creative juices flowing when I have them on.

carlakeet said...

Glad you got through the review okay. I was a little worried that you were jumping the gun on that slow slide into the collective unconscious. May you find everything you need - on sale!

Robert said...

They want you to drop trading floor language?

Alas, another language goes extinct.

Seems to me there's a place in Johnson that Karen likes to shop every so often, great stuff at low prices. The Something Shop or some such, kind of an institution, you probably already know about it.

(Maybe you could document some trading floor language in your blog know, for academic purposes.)

While on the subject of business attire, it occurred to me a few years ago that the people who have ripped me off most all wore business suits.

Finally, it has been my experience that Gore-Tex boots are considered business attire in the winter up here. Your mileage may vary.

Karen said...

Wow, thanks all for the support, but really it was a very positive discussion.

Jean, I agree that because it was so late in coming--and because I have witnessed so much bad behaviour in the name of giving the employee what is good for her/him--that I did feel threatened, and probably always will in performance reviews. It is sad that we punish new people in our lives with mistrust when it really is not their doing that created the sense of threat. I wish I could do better, but I cannot.

Vis, I completely agree. Pantyhose and heels--particularly on winter ice--are dealbreakers. Fortunately, business dress for women has far more options than for me. I was told by a high-ticket advisor on how to dress many years ago that short women working on Wall Street should always were pants, not because it is manly attire, but because pants make us look taller and therefore more powerful. Since there is otherwise nothing about me that says "power," I glommed onto that one with gusto!

Robert, trading floor language is not possible to document in any polite forum, consisting as it does of invitations to assume a position in which the trader (who theoretically has your nest-egg in his hands) performs unspeakable indignities upon your family jewels. Testosterone heavy and highly energized, this heady atmosphere is mostly in the category of boys-will-be-boys, and for those of you who know my identity, I assure you it was all bluff in the well-respected firm for which I worked in the past. But I did find that in the trading-floor years, my daily language became peppered with more four-letter words than people are comfortable with outside the trading floor.

Stress brings that back out, and also makes me even more blunt than usual, to a degree that I have a tendency to pull others up short and cause hurt feelings. This is not a good thing, and I try to manage stress to keep my best intentions dominant. So it helps me if people will say to me, "Uh...Karen...language!" or "That was a little over-direct, don't you think," so that I have warnings that I am not communicating as I would prefer.

And since I am not particularly tidy (although I am organized), it helps me if people tell me to brush off the dog hair or put on lipstick before going into a particularly formal meeting.

What I'm saying is that I want more communication, not less, so I have to adjust my brain and my projected attitude to encourage that, even if inside I am feeling attacked. Life is all about what we are used to, but flexing to other worlds is good exercise.

Carlakeet, not to worry about that mortality consciousness. Never remotely suicidal, I do believe that it is important to embrace change and to accept our worldly limitations. Of all my fears in this world, the greatest may be the prospect of losing brain function--intelligence and the capacity to moderate my behavior toward others in love and respect.

Karen said...

On re-reading, of course this should say that women have more business clothing choices than men, not more than me. Not a Freudian slip, I am pretty comfortable with gender identity!

Robert said...

Oh, I hope you don't think I was being mean talking about trading floor language.

I was speaking a dialect of "tongue in cheek."

But your description sounds very intriguing. But not so much that I want to p**s you off next time we meet, just to hear some.