TRAVERSE CITY, MI – When I first started coming to the Management Briefing Seminars here in the mid-1980s, you could always spot the newbies. They were the ones wearing business suits.
Show up early in the morning at the sessions wearing a coat and tie, and you instantly felt out of place. The outfit signaled to everyone you were not a member of the club, and there would be lots of knowing smirks and sideways glances by the “members” at your expense.
My first taste of this reminded me of the time when I was a college student working summers at an auto plant, and my fellow United Auto Workers members informed me it was inappropriate to work during my 15-minute break.
The ostracism at MBS was more subtle and involved a lot less swearing.
As with many executive “retreats,” the MBS dress code was flipped upside down. The movers and shakers wore golf shirts and khakis, because they were headed for a day of power lunching and deal-making on the links in the afternoon.
Only underlings and speakers wore suits at MBS back then. So if you weren’t headed for the podium, a suit won you no respect.
But since Detroit’s fortunes started declining after 9/11 – and everyone’s job became a bit more precarious – the culture of casual has been in a death spiral at MBS.
Attendees first started dressing up more for Wednesday and Thursday sessions, just in case their bosses spotted them in the crowd.
But now the formality is creeping into Monday and Tuesday, when the manufacturing-session guys used to enforce the no-tie rule with an almost UAW-like zeal.
Now newbies as well as veterans – even journalists – are using their suits to proudly announce they are here for business, not golf, and us veterans no longer can shame them out of their fancy duds.
Seriousness and a bit of desperation permeate the air as attendees show up early and stay late. They are searching for answers to problems, instead of tee times, and they want everyone else to know it.
Veteran members of this club, most of whom don’t have time for golf anymore, no longer have the nerve to mock them.
The most we can hope to do is quietly intimidate them into at least removing their ties.