This story is about three things: dress codes, leadership, and common sense. 

It's about a $62 billion company with roots going back 100 years--the kind of giant, legacy organization you might think would get bogged down with bureaucratic minutiae. And it's about how it wound up with a dress code running only two words long.

The company: GM. The dress code, in case that's all you want out of this article: "Dress appropriately."

But there's more to the story.

Like, for example, how the code got pared down to something that's barely 9.5 percent as long as than this sentence. And what that pared-down language means for its managers and the CEO who leads them.

And why it's a policy that could be both brilliant--and also kind of dangerous.

"Dress Appropriately"

Like other companies its size, GM used to have a long, complex dress code policy, one that ran 10 full pages. But when the company emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, then-vice president of global human resources Mary Barra seized upon the dress code as a symbol.

She took a linguistic machete to the policy, as part of a desire to change company culture, recalled Barra, who later, in 2014, became the company's CEO. It was a chance to send a message that big didn't have to mean bureaucratic.

So, just those two words: "dress appropriately." And yet, some high-ranking managers, who'd been used to the longer, much more comprehensive policy, pushed back. To them, "dress appropriately" sounded in practice like another two-word phrase: "anything goes."

One manager complained to Barra that a female employee was dressing too skimpily or provocatively under the new policy. Another manager complained that his employees were interpreting the new rule too liberally.

As, Barra told Adam Grant in an interview in April, some of their concerns weren't totally unreasonable. For example, the manager who was concerned about employees dressing too casually said his team sometimes had to deal with government officials. 

"He was worried that if they were in jeans or something, that wouldn't be appropriate," Barra recalled.

The Big "A-Ha"

Barra began her career at GM as an 18-year-old intern, and she'd risen through the ranks like almost nobody before her. So she had some sympathy for those whose careers had advanced under the old style culture.

Still, she pushed back against the pushback, insisting, for example, that the manager with the jeans-wearing employees try to work out a solution. A few weeks later, they talked again, and the manager said his team had reached its own easy solution--come to work in jeans, but keep some nicer clothes at work in case they needed to change for an outside meeting.

"Problem solved," Barra said, adding that "the big 'a-ha' was that you need to make sure your managers are empowered, because if they can't handle 'dress appropriately,' what other judgment decisions are they not making?"

Good point. But it doesn't mean that paring down guidance and driving decision-making to lower levels is always the right call. Less leadership from the top means less uniformity in execution.

Sometimes the leadership that arises from the chaos is a really good thing. But other times, it can become dangerous.

Common Sense Versus Leadership

As a nation, we don't like bureaucracy. We like the idea of a two-word policy, and the idea that people can apply common sense to interpret it. Besides, if you have a simpler code, but different managers interpret it differently, it's likely not the end of the world.

Maybe you get a few jealous employees wondering why their peers can wear jeans but they can't. Maybe a few 40-something dads who work for you wind up looking silly and out-of-date because they haven't really updated their wardrobes since 1999.

But what if you tried to strip down other, more crucial policies, and issue similar bare bones guidance?

What if the sexual harassment policy just became something like "act appropriately"? Or if a company's expense annual review policy was just "treat people fairly."

Different interpretations could lead to disaster. And this is where true leadership comes in.

We talk a lot about the big picture leaders, who define objectives, develop strategy, and inspire people. It's crucial work.

But we sometimes give short shrift to the less glamorous side of leadership--things like being the kind of leader who can get everyone in an organization to execute the difficult, sometimes boring, stuff that nobody really wants to deal with.

Knowing the difference between these two dimensions--and being able to lead people in both of them? That's truly brilliant leadership.

Published on: Jun 8, 2018