What's In Your Office?

The way you decorate your work space may say more about you than you think

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A friend of mine just got a bigger office. I'm mulling over whether to buy him an office-warming gift. That's because he really has no taste, and any gift--a miniature date palm, an Ansel Adams print or a simple, crystal Baccarat frame--would be lost on him. (The stuff in his office now runs the gamut from autographed footballs that he never threw to Nagel prints of women he never dated.)

As part of my job, I visit a great many executives in the technology industry. Their office environs reveal as much about them as the clothes they wear or the words they choose. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, for example, has a functional office with a great view. But it has less square footage than some junior vice presidents elsewhere. Cisco CEO John Chambers has an office straight out of a Herman Miller office-furniture catalog. Well, except for the framed photographs of him with a U.S. president, and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang. His office says "frugal-but-connected-like-you-cannot-imagine." Who wouldn't want to do business with that kind of guy?

What does your office say about you, I wonder?

For example, many guys surround themselves with sports memorabilia. They love the autographed balls from 49ers quarterback Steve Young and rookie baseball cards of Sammy Sosa. Many localize their affinities. Guys in Wisconsin are big on Packers stuff, while Irish guys can't get enough of Notre Dame football or anything Larry Legend. Even executives with taste above low-brow foam fingers get into the act. I remember interviewing then-Informix CEO Phil White in his office. Think safe, corporate art in expensive but not "my-God-alert-the-board-of-directors" tasteful frames. And then tacked onto the wall with push-pins was a banner from a Ryder Cup event. It was signed by several of the golfers and, I'm sure, worth plenty to a collector. But did ol' Phil wait to frame it? Not on your life.

As much as I enjoy sports, I don't think sports gear in the office sends the right message. First off, it says to customers and partners alike that your mind is elsewhere, like, say, Saturday or Sunday. You really want a customer worried about network downtime thinking that? Second, sports gear may reveal a bit too much about your priorities. Customers want to see evidence of your work and stability. The framed photo of you ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange sends the right message. But that framed 24-x-36-inch basketball photo? It sorta says, "Sure, I love work and the twins. But, my God, John Stockton's three-pointer over Charles Barkley's head that put the Jazz in the Finals--now that's what I live for..."

Over-the-top-kid stuff is another question mark. Nothing better than Janice's first drawing of Mommy for the executive-office suite. But 20 of them? Best left for the fridge.

Another tip: Think about each object you place in your office, especially if it's likely to draw comment from someone visiting you for the first time. Here's what I mean: Remember Jeff McKeever, founder of MicroAge? Great man who achieved many things. He had a photo of a beautiful, young woman displayed prominently in his office, so much so that it begged comment. "Jeff, is that your daughter?" I asked him. How I wish I would have said "wife." But that's my point.

At some companies, executives treat themselves like kings. Ming vases. Persian rugs. Others? They opt for a "man-of-the-people" image. Think Andy Grove in a cubicle at Intel. Great image, but not exactly an ideal work environment.

Maybe you don't have a framed photo of yourself and Li Peng yukking it up, but you certainly have something better than a ticket stub from Fenway or a model of someone else's race car. Let me know at tcdoyle@cmp.com.

T.C. DOYLE (tcdoyle@cmp.com) is senior executive editor of VARBusiness magazine.

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