I keep a file called “ideas” in which I squirrel away articles, clippings, or personal thoughts that seem really smart, only I don't exactly know what to do with them. Every couple of years I look at the file and mostly end up baffled as to why I put any of these items in a file called “ideas” in the first place.
I also have a compilation of memorable quotes. Truth be told, these quotes are usually recorded during boring meetings when I get a kick out of someone's speech patterns, interesting phraseology, or pure outrageousness. For example, there was one executive at Nissan whose malapropisms were so legendary that I simply had to record some of them. My personal favorite was when he said, “You can't lead a horse to negative water.”
At Bozell & Jacobs, we had a general manager who spoke quite fluently in clichés, which I would furiously write down as they came tumbling out. He would say things like, “Well, we need to run that up a flagpole before we put it on the back burner.” Or, “I'd like to flesh out a thumbnail of that concept, as we don't want to appear like the turd in the punch bowl.” I don't make these up. These phrases were actually used.
I also recall an attorney with whom I worked who loved legal speak. He was particularly fond of the phrase “de minimis.” Apparently, it refers to a situation in which the law is not interested in trivial matters, as in, “The truth is that these changes are de minimis.” I've always wanted to use that phrase when I'm on the defensive with my wife over actions that I am pretty certain are de minimis. But I digress.
One of the smartest proclamations I've ever heard was uttered at our dinner table about a decade ago. My oldest son, who was 8 at the time, announced that he intended to be president of the United States. My youngest son, who was 6, thought the situation through and then very wisely said, “Jamie, if you want to be president, you have to comb your hair.”
I think about that statement all the time. I do so because it pretty much sums up the secret to corporate life.
If the project isn't presented properly, if you haven't thought through how this is all going to appear to others, if you look like you haven't slept well and you're not on top of things, then you're not going to succeed.
I've seen some of the most brilliant men and women languish because they can't package themselves and their ideas properly. I have seen some slick and not-as-bright executives move up because they present themselves well and look good.
When I was an account executive at Ruder Finn living from paycheck to paycheck, I one day got up the courage to splurge and trek down to Moe Ginsburg's to buy three suits in one weekend. At the end of the following week, the agency president stopped me in the hall and commented on how professional I looked.
Fast forward a quarter-century and I now work for an executive recruiting firm where we assess talent every day for very senior-level positions. Believe me, clients care very much how candidates present themselves.
So I still make sure to buy nice suits, and I always comb my hair. Of course in my case, the combing doesn't much matter any more.
Don Spetner is EVP of corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.