Neels & Company - Strategic Business Communication
Trusted Advisor
Gretchen Neels
Gretchen Neels, President, Neels & Company

Dear Trusted Advisor

Just what does “business casual” mean? I know for men it’s usually the standard polo shirt and khaki pants, but what’s appropriate for women? I ask because often I attend networking events where the dress is “business casual” and I see everything from jeans and a sweater to pinstriped suits and heels. A little clarity, please?
J.B., Providence, Rhode Island

Dear J.B.,
Yes, many are confused about what exactly “business casual” means. And for the record, for men it means more that the Blockbuster uniform you describe, but that’s not what you asked.

Networking events are places where you hope to meet people with whom you can develop long-lasting, mutually beneficial professional relationships. Therefore, you will want to look your best to inspire trust and confidence. Forget what the invitation says, and dress for success. This means a suit (pants or skirt), blouse or fine gauge silk or wool sweater, smart shoes, classic jewelry and plenty of business cards.


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If you missed the fantastic WSJ article "Law Without Suits," read it here. Enlightening commentary can be found here and here.

Got Relationship Equity?

I’ll never forget the time I happened upon an alumni book—a two-inch thick directory of past attorneys who worked at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where I started my legal career as a secretary back in the late 1980s (ok, maybe not that late). Anyway, here was a listing of many, many smart, talented people who all shared the common bond of working at one of the country’s most illustrious firms, some for many years, some just for a few. I wondered why anyone would compile such a thing.

At most places I had worked since Skadden, attorneys who left for in-house positions or a competing firm got the “here’s-your-hat-what’s-your-hurry” routine. Yes, maybe a cake, a few beers, and a word or two from the managing partner, but once he or she was out the door, they were no more welcome than David Gest at Liza’s next Broadway opening.

Fast-forward to 2008, and I see that Skadden’s 1995 directory was the precursor to the alumni group—corporate America’s answer to Facebook or LinkedIn. An alumni group allows past and present employees to stay connected, keeping everyone in the loop on all kinds of topics, including new products, new business, promotions, press releases, published articles, and individual and organizational success stories. Think of a college or university alumni group—same thing, different setting.

Here are a few ways to use an alumni group site at your firm:

  • Need an expert? Let others know what/whom you are looking for.
  • Need an “inside” contact somewhere? Search by company name.
  • Need to recruit top talent? Post your job opportunities.

Many companies, such as IBM, Cisco Systems, and Ernst & Young have super deluxe alumni association sites which include sophisticated search engines, online magazines, job postings, webinars, listed events, etc.

You may think yours has to measure up the same way; it doesn’t. An alumni group resource can be anything from an informal email distribution list to a subgroup on LinkedIn, all the way to the grand scale of IBM’s Greater IBM Connection.

Allison Nussbaum, Esq., Manager of Business Development at Goodwin Procter in Boston, knows all about the power of an alumni group. Her firm is in the forefront and put together an awesome example with the help of SelectMinds, a company that “makes it easy for people to connect and for businesses to benefit.”

“We counted three reasons to build an alumni site,” said Allison. “The first was to develop ‘soft landings’ for people who were looking to leave the firm to do other things. We wanted to help in any way we could to ensure a successful transition. The second reason was to connect with alumni who would refer business to our firm, and the third reason was to create a place for people who shared a common experience—working at our firm, whether for a long time, or only a short while—to stay in touch.”

Goodwin’s alumni network has over 1,000 participants and includes lawyers and senior staff members. Has it been good for business? In a word, “Yes,” reports Allison. “One of our goals in helping with transitions was to make sure that the people who left became strong business partners in the future - of course we want them to become clients themselves, but we also want them out in the community as ambassadors for the firm. We feel they can be our best spokespeople.”

Cash may be king, but relationships are the currency by which firms separate themselves from the pack. What sort of relationship equity does your firm have? Could it be better? Why spend millions of dollars to advertise all that is unique and special about your firm, when you can have lots of past employees do it for you?

Take a page out of Skadden’s book: When given a creative and positive forum to maintain connections, former colleagues can be your best allies for building more business.

© 2008 Neels & Company – All Rights Reserved

We provide soft skills training and consulting to professional services firms covering all areas of business communication.

Neels & Company – Strategic Business Communication
P. O. Box 623, Boston, MA 02117
800-975-7031 ext. 701
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