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5. Business Etiquette

Each of us is constantly marketing ourselves for success or failure depending on our behavior, manners and mannerisms, habits, business protocol and personal etiquette.

—W. Henry Walker, Farmers & Merchants Bank<>

Arrogance, which Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines as "the state of being arrogant; full of unwarranted pride and self-importance;overbearing; haughty," seems to be the behavior least admired in leaders and would-be leaders. Recent history is littered with bodies that were brought down for lack of humility. Sadly, it almost always seems to be a front that masks an otherwise poor self-image. It inspires followers to root and, sometimes even vote, for a downfall, or at least a comeuppance. Painful comeuppances.

A September 22, 2003, Business Week article titled "What's an MBA Really Worth?" concluded that after 10 years, most alums of the prestigious business schools — men and women alike — have found their way to the upper echelons of management, but not without some painful comeuppances along the way. Marching into jobs as smug know-it-alls, they soon found out that "you don't just step into a CEO role after two years of business schools," reported MIT's Sloan School of Management alum Richard Wong, now senior vice-president of marketing at Openwave Systems Inc. "What some people don't realize [when they graduate] is that being a top manager is an earned right."

Further, the loudest complaint of the mostly Ivy League educated MBAs was about just how ill-prepared alums felt when faced with the office politics and challenges of "managing in the middle." Many report that they should have been required to take more organization behavior classes, "though it's like trying to get someone to eat their spinach," conceded 40-year-old Charles W. Breer, a Big 10 University of Michigan business school graduate who has spent most of his post-MBA career working for Northwest Airlines Corp. "Still, actual office politics — the tricky mix of sociology, personality and corporate culture that exists in every workplace — can make a mockery of B-school theory. Breer says his hardest times were managing a 12-person staff. 'At a minimum, I wish someone had told me this would be one of the biggest challenges, and then given me some tips,' says Breer."

As one of Ready for Media's current clients puts it: "How important is what you do if you can't conduct yourself properly while you do it?"

Shaking Hands

As a rule, Europeans shake hands for everything, air kiss both sides of the face, and men hug other men. America refers back to its less touchy, Puritan origins and, in business, favors a simple handshake — not pulverizing, but firm. It's best to save the two-hand handshake and air kiss for personal encounters or old friends.

An executive may reach over and shake hands from behind his or her desk, but it is thought to be more gracious and welcoming when he or she comes around to greet the visitor. Appropriate greetings include "I am pleased to meet you" and "How do you do?" reinforced by a sincere smile and direct eye contact.

Networking

Mixers and cocktail parties were invented before networking was, with its requirements of shaking hands, presenting cards, and making notes. How does one graciously maneuver a glass and an hors d'oeuvre plate at the same time? Never just stand at a buffet table and shovel or, heaven forbid, go back into a dip after you've taken a bite out of the chip, carrot, shrimp, or whatever!

My secret is to secure the stem of the wine glass with my thumb on the plate or hold the tumbler-shaped glass with the plate in the left hand, leaving the other free to fill the plate (judiciously) eat, drink, shake hands, and pull cards from a pocket. The practice Scarlett O'Hara pioneered in Gone With the Wind of eating at home before the party is a good one, although not always practical with today's schedules, traffic, and geography. Not only would that free your hands from eating, it would ensure that you eat before you drink. It is nutritional as well as social suicide to skip breakfast and lunch, and then try to make up for it with last-minute hors d'oeuvres or drink on an empty stomach.

Working a room may be a mystery to at least two generations who have grown up in front of television and computer screens. Never leaving our rooms long enough to go to a cotillion or even to have dinner with Mom and Dad may mean that we do not have the social skills or table manners to meet and greet potential clients, dine with the boss's wife, or work a trade show.

Increasingly, companies are requesting business and social etiquette coaching for their young and new hires as well as potential executives whose manners may be lacking.

The vice president of a major financial firm confided to me, "Our young financial advisors almost always know more than the clients about investing, but a sophisticated, worldly client doesn't want to invest their time or money with young men or women whose grammar or etiquette suggests that they are not savvy enough to manage money."

Ready for Media's textbook client in the 20th century was the brilliant college dropout who had begun the technology boom in his garage and had lots of media interest in himself and his 3- to 5-year-old $100 million public company. This century's clients are bright MBAs, PhDs, Esquires, and all the rest who can't make it through a client meeting or business dinner with out faux pas. Their bosses are gold-standard clients who are the successful, entrepreneurial, Ivy League–educated leaders of both public and private companies as well as law firms who want polish and propriety for them.

Table manners, grooming, and punctuality won't make, but can surely break, a power breakfast or business dinner.

Table Manners

A simple rule of thumb is to follow the lead of the host or most distinguished person at the table. Remember that the meal and drinks are actually secondary to the social interaction or conversation. Do make your menu choices similar to the host's, decide quickly, and ask that things be passed to you instead of making a boarder house reach across the table. Don't shovel food, talk with your mouth full, taste another's food, begin to eat until everyone is served, or drink more than one glass of anything with alcohol. Invite the host or hostess to order first and then match it as closely as you can in price, complexity, and detail, allowing for your own individual limitations.

As the host or hostess, be gracious by making everyone feel welcome and entirely appropriate. There is a favorite story, whether true or not, that the Duchess of Windsor, a very fine hostess, once took her cues from a boorish guest of honor and all of her other guests followed suit so she could make the stranger feel totally appropriate and at home. The moral is "When you know the rules, you can break them." Otherwise, it's just plain ignorance.

Wardrobe and Grooming

Even in the world of business casual, the manner in which you dress is not only an indicator of your rank today, but also of your future. As much as possible, dress for the position you want to move into. And only impeccable grooming will do.

I'm often asked about facial hair such as beards and mustaches. Look around; it's mostly the look for artists, professors, students, and techies — not for those in the corporate suites. The same can be said for combovers. Today's very close cropped hair or shaved head for a balding man is the perfect solution to an inevitable situation for many.

The Early Bird

The early bird gets the worm, as they say! So be on time or, better yet, a little early. There is a surprising sense of power and control when you are the one who is waiting for the others rather than rushing in at the last minute full of apology and not knowing what you've missed.

Small Talk

Small talk is a big subject. Where do you start? What's appropriate? What's not? How long do you engage in it before transitioning to your reason for the meeting? Who makes the transition? Is it worse to talk too much or too little?

Opening topics are typically the venue, the occasion, the weather, the traffic, sports, even the news if it's not too political or gruesome. You are looking for commonalities. Areas in which you can agree or have similar experiences. Do your research ahead of time and know as much as possible about the person or people you will be meeting. Never go into a meeting, job interview, or event without having read that morning's newspapers. It never fails that the person with whom you are meeting's company or industry will be on the business pages and you want to know about it before you get there.

Ahead of time, request biographical information from assistants or "Google" the people you'll be meeting to get a leg up on where they went to college or grad school, their interests and hobbies, what boards they belong to, etc. Your job is to get them talking about their favorite subjects, experiences, and ideas. Be a good listener. Ask thoughtful questions. People like to learn from conversations, and if they can learn from your interest in them, so much the better!

No scripts here, but keep your head about you. What you say and how you say it will have a lot to do with how you and your company are perceived. So edit yourself and think before you speak. Avoid slang, swear words, or expressions that typecast you. Imagine the reaction of customers to a beautiful but naïve young lady who was in the habit of proclaiming, "Holy sh*t!" every time something surprised her.

Trade Shows

For the sake of efficiency, companies use industry trade shows and association events as opportunities to showcase or sell new products to the trade, and as client or professional interface and networking opportunities.

If you are a "booth sitter," you are the greeter and gracious host. Welcome all visitors to your booth and product demonstrations with a smile and an offer to be of assistance. Your friendly personality will put a face and a name on your product line and company in customers' or potential customers' minds. So put yourself out to enhance the major investment the company has made in your being at the show.

However, your willingness to help should be in finding rather than being the media spokesperson who talks to the press, unless you are specifically coached to do so. Instead, facilitate media coverage for your company by knowing who the designated hitters are and offering to introduce them and provide their contact information through business cards.

Talking to the media without being ready for it is playing with fire. Don't spoil years of hard work getting ahead in your company and career by letting your name be attached to a sound bite heard round the world, industry, and company. I can't forget, or forgive, the forest products company employee who was quoted by the press as voluntarily saying, "If that means cutting a 14-foot (diameter) Sequoia, that's reasonable to prevent (forest) fire." The next day's Associated Press retraction that he actually said cutting a 14-inch (diameter) only repeated the injury and the insult. Although the word cutting is common in his industry, to choose it for public consumption in the same sentence as Sequoia only fueled the fire of his outraged and indignant environmental opponents.

In this Age of the Sound Bite, what you say is every bit as important as how you say it. Probably more so because the words will be quoted out of context, usually in print and by others without the inflection or meaning that you perhaps intended. I remember years ago how important it was in coaching the Canadian Ambassador, who was in Los Angeles for a popular radio talk-show to use the word harvesting instead of his environmental opponents' phrase of slaughtering baby seals. The truth was that the animals were farmed just like chickens, hogs, and beef cattle to provide food, clothing, and other necessities of human life. And I taught him to say so.

The reason that environmentalists often seem to win in the media's court of public opinion is their obvious passion for their cause. In an effort to be professional, too many equally caring and concerned businesspeople forget to show their passion in the name of purpose.

Association Mixers, Cocktail Parties, and Networking Events

If these events remind you that you were a wallflower in high school and nothing has changed, here are some tips:

In other than business casual situations, men's ties and women's jewelry are still their personal statements and thus, are usually a safe area for compliments. Avoid commenting on other items of clothing, hair, or eye color, particularly if you are of the opposite sex. It seems too personal and may be read as an inappropriate flirtation.

It seems a small thing, but there is a right and a wrong side for your name tag. Put it on your right side, so the people you meet can see your name and your company, written legibly, when they shake hands with you.

Usually, at events held in the United States, business cards are not exchanged until the end of the conversation and then only if the conversation has created a reason to stay in touch. By that time, everyone has pretty much forgotten each other's name and exact title, so the business card is a good reminder.

It is good etiquette to ask for another's business card before presenting yours. It also puts you in the power position to have his or her contact information to continue the business relationship. In the United States, it is perfectly acceptable, and even recommended, to note on the back of another's business card the date and place of the meeting and the action steps for following up with a good contact.

However, don't do this in Japan! Observe the Japanese practice of treating a business card with utmost respect by not writing on it or shoving it into a wallet or card case. Rather, accept it with both hands in a manner similar to its presentation and politely comment on some information on the card. At table meetings, the hierarchical Japanese have taught us to exchange cards upon first meeting and to keep them in front of us as a reference for name and rank throughout the meeting.

More Cultural Differences

In communications that span different cultures, mannerisms are important, too. When people from my company coach Asian clients to meet Westerners, we always have to assist the Asian executives in making direct eye contact and strengthening the firmness of their handshakes. Conversely, expect a very gentle or seemingly wimpy connection when you shake hands with Asians, particularly the women.

In the United States, anything other than direct eye contact makes a person seem shifty-eyed or even guilty. The open, direct gaze that we favor often seems too confrontational to Asian executives. My favorite public relations executive in Tokyo is extremely deferential, even stand-offish, to his Japanese woman client so as not to offend her.

For the most part, people from western Europe expect dinner-table conversation to be about art, literature, even sports, but not business. Whereas the values Americans live by include a strong work ethic — isn't business why we have a business dinner anyway?

Tailor your practice to the culture and country in which you find yourself. In short, the American can seem very much the bull in the china shop when doing business in these cultures. Practicing a "less is more" approach is wise and prudent to creating a good business environment.

Thank You Notes

Saying a few words in a thank you note after a job interview or other first meeting makes a very good impression. Simply acknowledge your appreciation for the opportunity to meet him or her in person, talk about, and your anticipation of the next steps.

Your choice in personal stationery need not be expensive, but should look as professional as possible. A simple white or ecru card or folded card with a border and matching envelope is very appropriate. The stationery can be personalized with your initials embossed or engraved in a dignified and tailored style but isn't necessary. Write in blue or black ink and affix with a stamp that is appropriately dignified, as well.

The best etiquette is following a version of the Golden Rule, do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

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