Apple briefly overtook ExxonMobil last week as the world’s biggest company and pictures of its chief executive in his trademark black polo neck, blue Levi’s jeans and trainers were everywhere.
For a moment at least, cool, it seemed, had finally stormed the last citadel of the establishment and a cool company run by a cool executive ruled the corporate world. That it had ousted a decidedly unhip energy company only made it cooler.
But is being cool an unalloyed asset in the world of work? “Given the times we find ourselves in, I’d imagine that coolness is a very valuable asset,” says cultural commentator Stephen Bayley, describing cool people as calm, independent, intelligent and somewhat contrarian.
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School, splits cool employees into two sub-types. “You have good-looking, confident people with good social skills; they tend to be people like corporate lawyers. And as long as they have a minimum of talent, they do get ahead, possibly more so in the US than Europe.”
The second type, he says, are eccentric cool. “They are the people who really do think ‘outside the box’ and are likely to come up with ideas that no one else has. Because they are successful, they are allowed to be different.”
He says that you ideally need a mix of the two. “The latter probably are of more use to the business, although the former do make things run smoothly.”
The value of being cool varies by industry, according to Peter York, a style commentator and management consultant. “Bear in mind that being wacky cool is seen as juvenile in some quarters. So, there might not be huge premium on cool in a professional services firm, although it probably helps a bit,” he says. “But if you work at a cutting-edge architects or in a design agency, you probably need to put quite a bit of effort into being cool.”
Of course, being cool in an already cool industry can be a job in itself. Mr York says that the daily effort to keep your persona several steps ahead of the mainstream can be a quick route to burnout. “I know people who work in high-visibility creative industries who take advice not only on what to wear, but also on what culture to consume.”
Mr York says that the only core attributes of cool “are being original in thought, manner and dress. You need to be distinctive and inventive.”
This may be the key to workplace cool. If you invent, rather than adopt, you may be ahead of your peers and better at coming up with off-the-wall ideas.
There are examples of executives whose distinctiveness is part and parcel of their business success. In the dressed-down world of Google, the three-piece suits of the company’s chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf mark him out at the company.
By contrast, in highly stylish Italy, Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne stands out by not wearing a suit, which is almost an anti-style.
Even Warren Buffett’s lack of ostentation looks cooler to many than Larry Ellison’s latest superyacht.
These styles are cool because they are authentic and consistent with those who adopt them. They make their owners recognisable and even iconoclastic.
Still, Mr York cautions that one needs to get the balance right between sticking out from the crowd and fitting in . At investment banks, for example, “if you wear the uniform, it shows you’re a player. Deviate too far from what’s expected and it can damage your career and mean people don’t take you seriously”.
Of course, the idea of anti-establishment as cool may itself be a misnomer. In The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank argues that from the 1960s onwards, cool was co-opted, encouraged and often even originated by the advertising agency world of Madison Avenue, as personified by ad executive Don Draper in the hit television show Mad Men.
So perhaps, rather than being a genuine anti-establishment stance, cool is what the “the man” has always wanted – and corporate cool is the only kind there is.
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