Monthly Archives: September 2009

Style vs Substance

I was having coffee with a colleague of mine Steve this week. Steve works in international sales for a highly successful Australian air monitoring business called Ecotech. Over coffee we were drawing a parallel between pain and knowledge. Basically pain doesn’t seem to hurt as much when you get older because you have a much larger “backdrop” of pain to measure it against. “Sure the cut hurts, but no where near as bad as the time I cut open the roof of my mouth, or broke my ankle”. Which makes kids tend to think you are superman  with a really high tolerance for pain.

In regards to knowledge, we both felt that there was plenty of stuff we knew and simply took for granted. Interesting and useful bits and pieces picked up over 20 years, don’t tend to stand out as a dramatic insight, especially when you have hundreds or thousands of the things stuffed away in your head. So it always comes as a surprise when you are asked to explain something that appears to obvious to you, but not to a graduate or someone at the start of their career. The type of person whom can explain the weighted average cost of capital – but gasps at an insight like managing your cashflow actually matters.

So this was the context I was thinking in when I got an email today from a Churchill Club member who asked me whether I thought clothing was important, even though it had nothing to do with a person’s substance behind the scene.   The position was kind of “are these things related?”

My answer was of course they are – but nothing as simple as the old saying “dress for success”. People who say that are almost certainly fools you should run away from, and never do business with.

I tend to think of the matter as a two axis graph. On the y axis (the up and down one) you have style, and on the x axis (the left to right one) you have substance. Style I tend to think of as how you present yourself, substance is your ability. Jon-Michail, whom spoke recently at the Churchill Club on the topic of personal brand says that style includes your clothes, language, habits and environment. Style is not just wearing a nice suit – its wearing a beautiful suit if you are in business, cutting edge clothes if you are in fashion and outrageous clothes if you are creative. Its creating the style to immediately portray what you are and how good you are at it.   As a contrast – Substance is not just your technical capability, but your depth of experience and authenticity.

Style V's Substance

When you put them together, you get a graph that suggests to me 4 types of people.

No Style & No Substance = Larry Loser

If you have no skills or capability and you don’t present your self in the best light – opportunities will never ever come your way and what you have will be eroded. If this is you do something now – don’t bug me about it though.

Style but no Substance = Fast Eddy

I see this person all the time. They tend to move up through the world very quickly, impressing the people ahead of them and making those left behind bitter and angry as they never actually achieve anything at all. They’re very big on weasel words, and in my experience – always come a cropper (the universe is brutally fair after all).

Substance but no Style = The not-so Quiet Achiever

This person endlessly whines about other people taking credit for their work and they never seem to get a break. They feel that their abilities are all important and only shallow people wouldn’t recognise this. Despite life long evidence to the contrary.  These people make good workers, not leaders.

Bags of Styles & Substance = Winner

Sometimes you meet someone and from that first moment they appear to be really good at what they do, and then surprise surprise they actually do what they say the y were going to. You can’t help but become a true fan and rave about these people. These “Winners” with both style and substance endlessly have first class opportunities offered up them and are forgiven for any mistakes they might make. One can only aspire…………

So here’s the guts of it. If your a technician and want to be known as a technician – dress like one (I have immediate confidence in the guy wearing blue kingees rather than blue jeans). But if you are a technician whom is trying to cross over to run your own business – start wearing a suit (a good one not a crappy), learn the language and act with confidence.   I reckon that all this is obvious but decided it was worthwhile mentioning, just in case it wasn’t obvious to everyone.

People in the Ecosystem

In recent years I have met with vast numbers of people that didn’t even come close to living up to how they represented themselves.  This has led to a desire for me (see how I’m avoiding angry words) to share some of my more bitter definitions of people in the entrepreneurship ecosystem.   Now these don’t apply to everyone; but because I am now bitter and twisted, I tend to take the position of “Your guilty until you prove otherwise”.

Warning – do not be impressed by these people, until they have proved themselves.

A person who says “I am an Entrepreneur” regardless of their situation.  I have met Entrepreneurs who were full time students, full time employees or even, as I discovered recently,  unemployed and looking for a job.

A person who started a business because they were consumed with the irrational belief that they can simply will the universe to change to how they want it to be.   And if It doesn’t change, they pretend it did.

Someone who was in the room when the decision to start the venture was made.

Founding Employee
A person who was desperate for a job and had no ability to asses risk.

Serial Entrepreneur
Someone who has difficulty learning from their mistakes, but finds it easier to start a company than get themselves job.

Company Director
Someone who just spent $600 to register a Pty Ltd company with $2 of paid up capital.

Independent Director
Someone who knows absolutely nothing about the industry and very little about the company, but looks good on paper and is happy to fly to exotic locations to receive briefings.

Non-Executive Director
Someone who is not committed to the business and clearly not adding enough value to get paid more than a graduate salary, however they are prepared to fly to exotic locations for board meetings.

Professional Non-Executive Director
Someone who likes to hedge their bets rather than commit to one company and is committed to getting Chairman’s lounge membership because they spend so much time on a plane.

Someone who is convinced that their ideas are first class, but would not risk their own money to actually validate them “in real life”.

Someone with grey hair who likes to answer questions with questions (and isn’t a German psychiatrist).

One of the 22% of working Australians that completed a University degree.

Commercialisation Expert
A public servant who went to University and completed an MBA.

I pass this on in the hope that you will pause and reflect, before falling into the trap of being instantly impressed.  And my humble disclosure – I have used at least 5 of these labels to describe myself at various times.

Networking Up

Yesterday I had a cuppa with a good friend of mine where she chatted about some issues at her workplace. She works for a not-for-profit with national reach and a couple of thousand employees. Although the discussion covered a variety of topics, an issue she mentioned was  the all to common problem of  coordination and liaison between similar functional units within different business units. And although everyone was kind of aware of the issue, it was difficult to get any traction to resolve it as they were all just simply too busy and nobody owned it.

This friend also wanted to enjoy a better profile within her organisation as someone whom could make change happen so I let her in on a couple of little secrets of mine…..

Secret number one
The problem with specialisation in an area is that you tend to be blind to how other areas solve the same problem. As she works in HR,  she just doesn’t ask herself – how would a salesperson approach this problem?  Cross pollination of ideas from different professions (or even just plain theft of ideas) is a massively simple route to innovation that’s all too often overlooked.   But getting to the point – I as the business development guy told her what I would do.

Secret number two
Dinners are great ways to get a group of people to focus on an issue. I have talked about running discussion dinners before, but the benefits are:  You get their complete attention for an extended period, you get to connect with people through the informal discussion & anecdotes, and its much more pleasant than a 45min meeting programmed into a meeting room.  I like to have a formal agenda that I split up over a set menu.   The issue with dinners though is how do you get people to attend outside work hours? See Secret Number Three.

Secret number three
Nobody wants to network down, they want to network with equals or people perceived to be more senior than them. So you need to get someone seriously senior at the dinner (and not necessarily from your organisation).  But how do you get someone seriously senior? Well firstly they need to be the “guest of honour” with clear expectations of their role ( no homework, just wise insights on the topic).    Secondly you need to work with their schedule, not yours.  Almost every discussion dinner I have ever run (some years 20 plus dinners) has had someone whom was initially a stranger happily accept the role of guest of honour because its a highly appealing offering to most people.  And once you have got your guest of honour, the other invitees will move their life around to ensure they make the dinner, because they all want to network up.  The added bonus here is that you if you get a senior person in your organisation to attend, the chances of having your dinner sponsored improve dramatically.

The interesting thing is that this approach doesn’t just work for large enterprises.  I have regularly engaged small business owners and sole practitioners at dinner.  The only trick is figuring out how they define “networking up”.

Networking and Manners

Last week I met with a woman who facilitates cultural change within large enterprises.  The discussion was around business development for sole practitioners, plus a small Joomla based website that we were deploying for her to manage some communications issues.  She had realised that her client base was starting to thin out a little whilst she was distracted working on a large project for 12 months, and consequently needed  to give things a push along.  Since her offering is what I would call “soft” she needed to get some new relationships happening (as compared to spending her bucks on SEO for her website).

Because of this, I decided to connect her up with another woman I had been dealing with recently who worked in a similar field.  My thinking was that there were some potential synergies and I was amused by the fact that they both had man’s names so there was a potential surprise for both of them.

My email went like this:

Hi X &Y.

1.   I like both of you, and am working with both of you.
2.   You are both sole practitioners operating in similar areas.
3.   I think you should meet  / have coffee / see if there are any synergies.

X is in Inner West, Y is in Inner East.   Ball is in your court.

X’s Contact Details

Y’s Contact details


I do this kind of connecting at least once a week as I am a big believer in paying it forward.   Sometimes I even do it on demand, but only if asked nicely, as per this great HBR article .  An interesting side effect of me doing this connecting  is I get an almost instant insight into the character of people.  From some people I get an immediate thank you, a note that lets me know whether contact is being made and another downstream to let me know if there is any outcomes from the connection.  From others I get silence, then usually  an email two months later asking for the contact details again.  So guess who I feel obliged to help out and will connect up again?

Just a reminder in a time of social media and personal brand, that manners matter.  And its difficult to measure opportunities lost, when you never knew they existed.