Several years ago I saw a presentation from an association CEO who had recently redesigned their office space. He started by talking about the core values of the organization, which included one on “Having Fun” (or something of that sort). This was a place that viewed fun as an integral part of getting their work done.
He then showed a photo of their old work space (pre-redesign), that looked remarkably like many association offices I’ve seen: a sea of grey cubicles enveloped by fluorescent lighting. As he pointed to the photo, the CEO was really clear about his message:
You can’t claim that you’re all about fun, and then make your people work in an environment like that.
Whether or not you have a written policy about it, all organizations have a dress code. It’s a part of your culture—the kinds of clothing that you are expected to wear (or not wear) actually says something about what is valued internally at the organization.
But honestly, I don’t think most organizations realize this. They choose their dress code based on some vague understanding of WHY the code is required. I hear that we want a “professional atmosphere” or are concerned that certain items of clothing are “unprofessional.” Um, okay. But what does that really mean? And who gets to define it?
Because I know for a fact that my previous boss (a former Ambassador) would not have accepted someone coming into work with a suit jacket, suit pants, collared shirt, BUT NO TIE—yet such an outfit is a staple for companies today with very formal dress codes. And don’t get me started on the definition of “jeans” (if you pay $200 for them, and that keynote speaker you hired was just wearing them, can they really be called jeans?).
And before you start debating the no-tie thing or the jeans thing—stop. The deeper you get into that conversation the more folly it becomes. There is no right answer once you get into the details. It’s all debatable. And trying to figure out whether something is a sweater or a blouse is a huge waste of time, because it’s avoiding the underlying question: what purpose does your dress code serve? Or, put another way, how does your dress code drive the success of your organization?
In the association world, we tend to think of our annual meeting in terms of what it delivers to the members. It is typically a crown jewel type of program—that part of our annual calendar where it’s all hands on deck because a large number of our members get a LOT of their networking and education there (two pillars of your strategic plan). And all that is certainly true, but there’s another piece that you might be missing here:
Your annual meeting defines your culture.
Well, not ALL of your culture, but part of it. Remember, your culture is the collection of words, actions, thoughts, and “stuff” that clarifies and reinforces what is truly valued inside your organization. So how you run your annual meeting can have some important implications about what is valued, yet we often don’t make decisions with that in mind. That means you’re shaping your culture WITHOUT intention, and that can be a problem.