Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Business meetings: New School vs Old School

I happen to be having lots of business meetings at the moment, where effectively I'm pitching to the other side. It's striking how these meetings fall into two categories.

The first sort of meeting has a friendly, collaborative atmosphere where the theme is 'what can we fellow professionals achieve together?' The second feels more like an interview, even to an adversarial extent, where the question hanging in the air is 'what do you think you can do for me? (And I'll be the judge of whether you actually can)'.

The first sort of meeting is one where no-one wears a tie; the second is tied, suited and booted (you can almost always tell what to wear by looking at the company's website - it's amazing how clearly they can shout 'we are a tie-wearing company!').

You tend to liaise directly with the principals as to the 'whens' and 'wheres' in the first sort of meeting. Those you're meeting in the second sort invariably have PAs. You get the impression that email is something that's akin to the post room - i.e. they expect to have whatever's arrived there fetched up for them.

Finally, the first sort of meeting is with people under the age of 45; the second is with people in their 50s. And I'm afraid I think this is the determining factor.

I'm not saying everyone over 50 is like this - I know from my own wider experience they aren't - just that in my recent experience an awful lot are.

But why the watershed, why the generational shift from 'Old School' to 'New School'? My guess is that it stems from age of exposure to the new, web-driven economy.

It was in the late 1990s that people started adopting the tieless, casual, collaborative culture that first emerged in Silicon Valley and, by the time of the dot.com crash, had spread even to law firms and investment banks. Someone of 45 would have been 35 around about then.

So it may be that people are pretty much open to adopting new cultural attitudes and behaviours to business until their mid- to late-30s but only rarely beyond. This is supported by one of the axioms of the advertising industry. Advertisers tend to target the 18-34 age group as their buying habits are still relatively fluid, tending to crystallise around certain brands from 35 onwards.

As I'm 42 this is pretty scary if true. What am I currently missing out on which will make me look like a leftover from a different era in 10 years time? On the other hand, this sort of cultural shift probably only happens once every generation or two. So must keep my eyes peeled for when it happens next.

But then why should I implicitly assume that New is better than Old, that New necessarily represents progress? Which sort of meeting is really the most effective? Old School is more obviously hard-nosed. But then although New School is more relaxed, I'm sure there's a lot of hard-nosed appraising going on beneath the surface. I guess the traditionalists would argue that Old School is just a more honest, frank and, I suppose, business-like approach?

In any event, I prefer the cuddlier New School even if it may be a bit disingenuous. And I think my fundamental reason for this is that it's simply a more pleasant experience. Happily, I believe this in itself is an aid to effectiveness. But then this may just be one of those woolly, idealistic, late-1990s inspired attitudes typical of my generation of business people.

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