Simplicity drives some CEOs to wear personal, company uniforms

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 463 views 

Business legends Steve Jobs and Don Tyson did it, and their successors Tim Cook and Donnie Smith also do it. That is they dressed down, so to speak, as CEOs and wore  the same personal or company “uniform” each day. Simplicity is a common reason CEO’s choose to wear the same thing.

Corporate governance expert Alan Ellstrand, a professor at the University of Arkansas, said the uniform can be a unifying tool. He said executives who choose to dress down do it for various reasons, from being part of the culture, to personal choice based on efficiency.

The billionaire Don Tyson, former CEO and chairman of Tyson Foods, donned the Khaki pants and shirts with the Tyson Foods logo stitched in red on the front left shirt pocket even throughout his retirement years. When Don Tyson rang the bell on Wall Street many years ago, he wore the same Khaki uniform which analysts remember decades later. 

Today, Tyson Foods CEO Donnie Smith also wears a Khaki uniform that Tyson employees in processing facilities and driving trucks also wear most of the time. Smith once told the media he liked the thought of not having to decide what to wear every day and there were a simplicity associated with wearing the Khaki. 

Ellstrand said just like Sam Walton who wore the signature ball cap, CEO’s use uniforms to help employees better relate to them on the worker level.  

The dress for success days have given way to “simplistic styling” which is why FaceBook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wears grey t-shirts with black hoodies. Perhaps Zuckerberg took a page from Albert Einstein’s playbook. Einstein reportedly bought several variations of the same gray suit so he wouldn’t waste time each morning deciding what to wear.

Personal branding expert and author William Arruda said executives like the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs and now Apple CEO Tim Cook wear what they did and do to be comfortable. He said comfort also leads to confidence. A byproduct of wearing the same thing everyday can also become a trademark look and brand building tool.

That was the case for Walton, who was known to give away his trademark ball caps to employees and customers. This week Walton’s ball cap is on display in the Smithsonian Institute’s Business Enterprise exhibition that spans 200 years of U.S. business history.

Wal-Mart’s new CEO for its U.S. division, Greg Foran, frequently wears the navy blue polyester vest that store employees are required to wear. He donned the vest during the retailer’s recent shareholder’s meeting.

“Uniforms can be also inspirational for the frontline workers. Perhaps that’s why Wal-Mart and Tyson CEOs often choose to wear uniforms like their large workforces. This can send a signal to the masses that if they work hard and things break right for them that they too, can move up the ladder,” Ellstrand said.

On a deeper level, he said CEOs wearing common uniforms or simple attire can help strengthen corporate culture demonstrating a commitment and while it’s a small thing even little things can make a difference.

President Barrack Obama told the Vanity Fair early in his presidency that he decided to alternate black and blue suits, which makes up nearly his entire dress wardrobe seven years later. The reason he gave was that deciding what to wear everyday was one less decision he wanted to make.

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