Is your business persona working for you?

FORTUNE — Fortune columnist Stanley Bing’s new book, The Curriculum: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master of the Business Arts, is published this week by HarperBusiness. The volume is intended as an alternative course of study to the education offered by the established, tedious, ivy-covered institutions stocked with professors who would be eaten for lunch by serious business executives. Bing, by day, is himself an ultra-senior executive at a gigantic corporation. An excerpt:

To succeed in business you must assume a working personality that supplants your own, at least in part, while you grow on the job. Those who do not have a functional business persona distinct from their “true” personality either go mad or become the CEO.

For the most part, the ability — and the right — to reveal your true self grows over time, until you reach the highest levels of power where people are unalterably and irrevocably authentic — gigantic, festering warts and all. Sometimes all that’s left are the warts … and a lot of money. Research conducted at a very high level reveals that the ability to express one’s “true” self is directly driven by status and power:

In short, with power comes the right to be yourself, whatever that self might be. Let’s look at how you might go about assembling a business persona you can sustain over time, until you have the right, the title, the power and the cadre of friends and supporters to let yourself run amok.

The Functional Business Personality

Each student will have to determine what kind of mix upon which he or she will settle, but the constituent parts of the whole are relatively immutable:

The chart above dissects the elements of personality, with each element expressed in a proportion as it displays itself in a relatively well-balanced individual. You, however, will have to make decisions on makeup and proportion for yourself. Before you do, let’s look at the elements:

1. Grooming

It’s so easy to make fun of the way people groom themselves. We are not a dignified species. Those who do achieve dignity are in danger of looking ridiculous if they overgroom.

First: You want to smell good, but you don’t want to smell too good.

Conclusions to be drawn from this chart:

  • Smelling bad renders an individual significantly less likeable than other options;
  • The smallest improvement in personal odor is rewarded with an immediate improvement in likeability;
  • Maximum likeability is achieved in the neighborhood of the zero smell point, although high likeability is sustained just short of that point and after it as well;
  • There is, however, a crossover point (B) where an excess of good smell results in a cataclysmic decline in likeability not dissimilar to the reaction that others have when in the presence of a bad smell point.

The takeaway here is very clear: try to hover around the zero smell point where the entire issue of personal aromatic aura doesn’t even arise.

Then there is the issue of Hair. As people grapple with this question, the following options are most often under consideration:

Notes on the chart: A teeny-weeny ponytail in Los Angeles may identify one as a savvy agent capable of bringing Brad Pitt over for cocktails; in New York it classifies its bearer as a shallow poser who doesn’t have the courage to face life without a little projectile sticking out of the back of his head. In that regard, the negative attitude toward toupees makes them difficult to wear in a business context. Hair transplants, too, have an unfortunate aspect of being a work in progress for quite some time. Business people hate seeing unexpected things from those they expect to act expectedly, and a changing cranial landscape can be disconcerting.

2. Costume

Every organization, every industry, has a look that speaks to power, self-control and a certain amount of incongruity. The latter is important, except in insurance and all but the highest levels of accounting, where any level of self-expression might be viewed as freaky. A real-estate agent who dresses like an Internet start-up dude (or CEO) won’t sell many houses, unless, of course, he’s marketing homes in the hipster neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, where every article of clothing is an ironic statement. When the author worked at Westinghouse in the later years of the 20th Century, a man in brown shoes might as well have been wearing a fez.

3. Hardware

The tools you carry have a significant impact on the way people see you and on the way you feel about yourself, and are therefore an important factor in the fabricated persona you are creating for professional use. Here is a snapshot of where we are right now:

Several conclusions may be drawn from the data underlying this graphic.

  1. 1. Functionality is not the primary issue in the selection of hardware for those wishing to construct their helpful persona. If it were, the BlackBerry with the physical keyboard would still be around. Get something new. People will love you.
  2. 2. Apple does not have the stranglehold on the marketplace that it seemed to have for a while. A very credible and workable alternate universe exists among Androids. In fact, a significant number of bankers and IR people seem to be using the Samsungs with the big screens. Their spreadsheets look better on it.
  3. 3. Interestingly, the old-fashioned clamshell not-so-smartphone also carries with it a kind of “screw-you” aura for those who wish to appear just ever-so-slightly out of the hot zone of technology. There are a lot of people, some of them quite elderly and powerful, who hate the phenomenon of “everything new all the time” too. The clamshell speaks to them in an interesting way.
  4. 4. Microsoft remains the 65-year-old guy with the goatee trying to pick up young girls at the party.

Finally, a word about Bluetooth earpieces and their reputational impact:

4. Work habits

All too often, he or she who receives a work assignment makes critical errors in understanding not so much the nature of the assignment, but the nature of business work itself. This profound misunderstanding manifests itself in the following ways that are extremely irritating to the senior officer, the Boss:

  • Lust for praise telegraphs need and turns a businesslike assignment into an exercise in child care, where the child is YOU;
  • Crazy Hours are what people work when they do not know how to apportion their time, leading to …
  • Ostentatious exhaustion, wherein the employee seeks pity for the burden of doing his or her job. This is especially aggravating for boss’s who are at their wits end with their own real work.
  • The need baby also needs to receive Hugs in Progress, demanding love from an entity that is not really there to give it.
  • At the same time, the now thoroughly obnoxious employee is displaying symptoms of Work in Progressitis, issuing updates, bragging about solutions, seeking guidance, and otherwise bothering the boss with a bunch of stuff that she or he thought they had succeeded in downloading.

Let’s complete our discussion of Work Habits with this little video on Taking Credit.


5. Approach to Aggression, Rage and Violence

Each level of the organization is allowed to display its own level of anger, with varying impact on reputations. Those who do not display enough anger may be viewed as wimps. Too much may earn the angry operator the most unenviable title of all, one pertaining to the sphincter.

6. Friends

Friends in business are good to have. But they are not like friends in “real” life. In real life, a friendship is based on a balance of certain well-known qualities that make the friendship work. You have fun together. Your friend will help you when you need it, maybe lend you five bucks for a sandwich. Sometimes she says interesting things. And you just care about her, that’s all, who’s to say why? The affection was immediate, probably, and has grown over time. Here is the pie chart of an average friendship:

So, while friendships in all phases of life may be heavily contextual it is based on good, wholesome things that may even stand the test of time. The issue of self-interest barely enters into it in most cases. In Business, the mix is somewhat different:

You will note the increased importance of both self-interest and a new category based wholly on context-dependent relations — business chatter, strategic discussions, review of open issues and challenges, etc., etc., that take up so much of an average working friendship. Together, these two metrics add up to 61% of the whole, leaving less than half for the more traditional bases for working friendships — affection, intellectual stimulation and fun. Even much of the intellectual stimulation and fun are context based. In fact, if there were no alcohol involved in business, it is an open question whether the red segment of this chart would exist at all. The underlying engine of business friendship remains self-interest and work-related engagement, and, as in “real” friendships, a genuine emotional attachment that colleagues form for each other that generally lasts the length of their mutual employment.

7. Substance Abuse

You may be able to construct a sustainable fabricated business personality without the benefit of some shared substance abuse with your fellows. If so, congratulations. Examples are few.

Imagine, if you will, a group of Yaqui shamans sitting around in the sweat lodge. Together, they are attempting to summon the spirit that will bring them victory against their enemies. They chant. They share legends. And then, amid the smoke and sweat, the Chief Executive Shaman produces a flagon of steaming brew that contains a heady narcotic that will give them all a common vision. Slowly, with pomp and a sense of shared camaraderie and danger, the bubbling potion is passed around the circle until it comes to Pat, the senior vice president of Tribal Relations. “No thanks, I don’t touch the stuff,” says Pat, and passes the ceremonial container to the next celebrant.

How far do you think Pat is going in the tribal ladder?

This doesn’t mean you need to fill your nose with cocaine or shoot smack if some idiot tells you to. But every culture has its steaming brew, generally a legal one. And the big bones go to those who can take their share and handle it without losing their shorts. Some rules apply. Have a look at this helpful video:


Final Thoughts: On Conforming to Expectations

The core concept the student must master, as he or she goes about the gradual and serious business of fabricating one’s sustainable business personality, is the necessity to conform to cultural and pre-established personal expectations. This may sound like sheer conformity, but it’s not, not really. It is recognition that one’s appearance and behavior — in any organization, from the Boy Scouts to the Supreme Court to a Hip Hop posse on tour — must be in accordance, within a certain zone, with what people expect. Falling outside that zone will make people uncomfortable with you. But more importantly, it will make them begin to see you as not part of the program. This will, after a time, delegitimize you in the eyes of the group and, perhaps more importantly, its management.

The benefits of living up to the group’s expectation of consistency and predictability (or consistent unpredictability) falls within a traditional bell curve, comme ça:

As you can see from this vector, the highest benefit is attained by those who are appropriately predictable and conform to most reasonable expectations. Before and beyond that point, the benefit curve falls off quickly. Some latitude, in other words, is not only expected but permissible as long as it falls within, that’s right, expectations.

As you fabricate your personality, make sure to keep that fact firmly in mind, because the creature you create will have to be sustainable, admirable and capable of growth. It also helps not to hate yourself when you’re done.


  1. 1. Purchase a very serious business suit and wear it around your house for a week, including the weekend. How does it make you feel? If you begin to have the urge to order other people around, do so.
  2. 2. Purchase a bottle of vodka. Mix it with your favorite juice, if you wish. Drink it, preferably after dark. Then go about in polite company for a while and see if you can function without attracting notice. Practice this exercise until you can do so successfully. All points are deducted if you fail to make it to work on time the next morning.
  3. 3. Men: Grow a soul patch or tiny moustache. Women: Insert a purple, green or bright red stripe into the front of your hair. Note: Those who work in environments where such accouterments are already present may remove them for the same effect. Now go to work on a Monday morning with this addition to your personal presentation. Note how management relates to you. Is this eccentricity an asset at this stage of your development?
  4. 4. Make a list that enumerates what people expect of you. Do not consider your list complete until it has at least 20 entries. Now consider in what regard you consistently meet or exceed these expectations. How did you do? And how are things going for you?
  5. 5. Put on a Bluetooth earpiece and go to a Starbucks. Conduct a business conversation in an audible tone until people look annoyed with you. When you are able to do so without flinching, throw the Bluetooth away and never use it again.
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