HOW TO SPOT AN EMPTY SUIT This breed of modern manager looks good and gets along splendidly with the brass. But is he contributing anything?
By WALTER KIECHEL III REPORTER ASSOCIATE Sara Hammes

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Let's give a hearty welcome to a pejorative expression just now making its way into the vernacular of business: ''empty suit,'' as in, ''Boy, did he turn out to be an empty suit.'' Among the hip, it's sometimes abbreviated -- ''Oh yeah, she's the suit sent by Corporate to ride herd on us.'' Even if you're unfamiliar with the term you can probably divine its approximate meaning: much form, style, and dress-for-success dash; little substance, skill, or managerial accomplishment. While the exact etymology remains unclear, the best speculation suggests that the expression got its start, understandably, in the interstices between advertising, public relations, and politics. Critics have applied it to both Presidents Reagan and Bush, for example. But why does the term seem to be spreading through business? Could it actually be that more empty suits are walking company halls these days? Nobody knows for sure, but if you want to do a bit of research in your neck of the corporate woods, herewith a brief field guide to the species. People who have thought seriously on the subject say there's a core type -- call him the generic empty suit -- and a few subspecies: the high-patina, high-level executive model; the rising MBA style; and the salesman suit. THE BEST PLACE to go looking for a generic empty suit is a large organization. Harvey Hornstein, a Columbia professor, consultant, and author of Managerial Courage, has been trying to isolate the organizational conditions that lead people to be more or less self-aware. He says that's important because where employees go in for self-scrutiny, they tend to speak up more, even against the prevailing wisdom, and may act more creatively. Empty suits hate speaking up and are not much given to reflection. Watch for them then, Hornstein's research suggests, in organizations that favor hierarchy over participation, formality over warmth, and uniformity over pluralism. In a milieu rich in rules and procedures, the empty suit has ample opportunity to focus on doing the correct thing, not as means of getting real work done, but as an end in itself. If the standard corporate drill is to have a weekly meeting with staff, he will have that meeting faithfully every Wednesday, whether or not anything is accomplished. Usually nothing is, in part because the suit doesn't want to say yea or nay. Observes Keith Halperin, a human resources consultant with Personnel Decisions Inc. of Minneapolis: ''Often he wants to make everybody feel good, so he goes around agreeing with what everybody says. Carried to the extreme, it can lead him into trouble when he agrees with two completely contradictory positions.''

What typically saves the empty suit is the tenuous relation between what he or she does and any actual business results. This may be a function of the job he's in: a staff post, with lots of power to nix others' initiatives but no responsibility to make or sell anything. Or a pocket of avoirdupois in a still-too-fat corporate bureaucracy, the kind of position that causes underlings to scratch their heads and wonder, ''Gee, do we really need all these vice presidents?'' Or the empty suit may have come up through a system that rotates fast- trackers through a new job every 18 months, even though the effects of his tenure don't become evident for two to three years. He hardly had time to get any grounding in the work his people do, and he may have royally screwed up the few decisions he was compelled to make, but when the chickens come home to roost, he has flown. If somebody has the bad taste to try to assign responsibility, the suit can easily fuzz the matter over by suggesting that the blame rests with his successor or former subordinates. The generic empty suit, you see, is not dumb. Indeed, as David Campbell of the Center for Creative Leadership suggests, he may be ''bright and effective, but in a very predictable, very cubbyholed way.'' Call him Mr. Expedient. As such, he can come in particularly handy at an organization still suffering the aftershocks of restructuring: Others have their heads down, desperately trying to avoid calling attention to themselves. But a few nasty little loose ends still remain to be tied up -- costs, or people, to be cut. At least that's what the guys at the top want. And what the guys at the top want, the empty suit delivers. For what the empty suit does best of all, first and last, is to sell himself upward, as they say. Want to see him at the height of his craft? Watch him prepare a presentation to be delivered to his superiors: every detail of the slides or audiovisual magic agonized over; the room cased; rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal. Though less obvious to his co-workers, similar levels of effort may go into his extracurricular strivings to ingratiate himself with the brass. Says a marketing man who knows the type: ''He will take a whole day to get a foursome with just the right person above him. And he'll make sure he does it every quarter.'' IF HE IS TRULY ARTFUL about this, proceeding quickly through a succession of glamour jobs, he may attain the status of high-patina, high-level executive suit. Says Allan Cohen, a management professor at Babson College: ''The higher you go, the longer it takes anybody to tell whether or not you're doing a good job.'' By this time, the suit will have learned all the buzzwords of leadership: He will talk vision, maybe even values. Ah, but just let those below try to find out exactly what that vision entails, or what his values are . . . An empty suit is the precise opposite of a true leader. Could the spreading use of our locution possibly have something to do with the greater number of MBAs reaching positions of authority in corporations today? Mark Pastin, director of the business ethics center at Arizona State, sees an increasing mistrust of the garden-variety MBA: ''It's a sense on the part of senior people that they're dealing with a cipher. In the late 1960s, maybe you didn't like the values of young people, but at least you knew where you stood with them. Not any more, and it's increasingly a problem as MBAs penetrate to the core of the organization.'' Some of the other complaints about MBAs that Pastin hears: In talking to them, you pick up no sense of strong feelings toward political or social institutions. There's an easy deferral of commitment. They are not interested in getting to know subordinates. And yet, the professor of ethics concludes, ''this is not a hard-spirited or ill-disposed group of people. What can seem mean-spirited in them really comes from a lack of engagement.'' Indeed, engaged, in the broadest, most salutary sense, is precisely what the empty suit is not. The sales suit, the third subspecies, may not even care what it is he's selling. He specializes instead in knowing everybody in the business, including at least a few of the so-called important people at every company. Think Willy Loman in an $800 suit or with a 3 handicap. If he has risen high enough that he no longer has accounts of his own, subordinates who do have the accounts may wonder aloud just what difference all those contacts make in filling anybody's order book. Empty suits may brighten a place up for a bit -- all that elegant haberdashery, you know. But in the long run, they are bad for an organization's health. A couple of obvious liabilities: They are not risk takers. To the contrary, their indecisiveness can make a corporate hierarchy even more sluggish. A greater danger: The empty suit may open a gap between his level and everybody below him. It's not just that he occasionally sells subordinates out, if that's what it takes to sell himself upward. As psychologist Harry Levinson notes, ''People who handle things expediently are often people who can't sense what's going on beneath them.'' Information stops flowing upward. The best people, tired of looking to their empty-suit boss for direction that never comes, soon go elsewhere. The only person even worse off may be the occupant of the empty suit. Imagine what it must be like if he has any sense of himself: the constant feeling of being in slightly over his head; the terror of being found out; the weariness that comes with always trying to figure out what someone else wants, without ever asking himself what he wants. It isn't exactly a regime that sends one home a proud, confident spouse or parent. Says Pastin: ''These suits stay empty when they become pajamas.'' To avoid donning this particular outfit, it helps to think about what your values are. What do you stand for? What do you know how to do, and what do you need to learn? Strive for wit, in the sense of Stendhal's aphorism: ''If you want to be witty, work on your character and say what you think on every occasion.'' WELL, MAYBE NOT every occasion. As Babson's Cohen notes, in any large organization a manager must learn to manage upward. The trick is to do it diplomatically but without compromising your principles. Cohen tells of watching a middle manager complain to a senior manufacturing executive that personnel cuts were hurting product quality. A couple of days later, the man was taken aside and told that he had been out of line. Cohen observes: ''What he should have said to the executive VP was something like, 'We're all really excited about the campaign for reducing fixed costs, and we're behind you on it 100%. I have a few concerns about how these personnel cuts may affect quality, and I'm sure you share those concerns . . .' '' Too much of this, though, and you're headed for Inauthentic City. An exec who worried that he was turning into a suit tells what it was like: ''I found myself being less outspoken. I'd hear a question, but rather than give an honest answer, I'd say to myself, 'There's no point.' It made me feel I wasn't doing right for the people working for me. I felt cowardly, edging toward impotent.'' So he quit and struck off on his own -- a slimmer wallet, perhaps, but a fuller suit.