Some time in the early ‘90s I was invited to a rather smart wedding at St James’s Palace. As it was a formal affair, there was a requirement for morning suit, which I’d never worn before. Eager to fit in, I made my way nervously to the nearest Moss Bros, where an expert assistant of few words but reassuring manner guided me through the process of hiring my outfit.
Step by step he found me an elegant black morning coat, a dashing pair of grey striped trousers, a buff silk waistcoat. He advised me on how to manage my top hat on the day. It was really quite simple and straightforward. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought: if I comb my hair, I could possibly pass muster as an authentic English gentleman. I began to feel very much on top of things.
And then the assistant posed a question:
‘We just have one last decision to make. Will sir be wearing a tie or a cravat?’
‘Well, I don’t know. What will everyone else be wearing?’
‘It’s purely a matter of personal preference, sir.’
I hesitated for a moment. I had no experience to draw on here – no recollections of formal weddings from my childhood, no memories of days out at Ascot. However, having grown up in the ‘80s, I had been an admirer of Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, of the cavalier style of the New Romantic movement. And so my natural inclination was towards something a little more theatrical.
‘I’ll take the cravat,’ I said with conviction.
And so one sunny Saturday morning I marched jauntily down Pall Mall to St James’s Palace in full morning dress, my outfit flamboyantly finished off with a red silk, paisley-patterned cravat. I was going to enjoy my brief excursion into the world of the aristocracy.
The moment I arrived at the wedding venue, I stopped and surveyed the scene. To my horror I realised that every one of the other male guests was sporting a rather understated grey necktie. Of course! They all appeared so natural and appropriate, so casual and at ease. I, on the other hand, looked like an extra from an ‘80s pop video. I was mortified.
Reflecting back on what had gone wrong, I realised that my time at Moss Bros had been marked by increasing confidence. I became less alert at the end of the process than I had been at the beginning. My guard had slipped.
There’s a lesson here, I think, that commonly applies in the world of business.
We all know that we should be concerned about complacency; that we need to be ever vigilant, wary and watchful. But complacency is not a uniform condition. It has peaks and troughs. It seeks us out when we least expect it. It finds us when we’re most confident and self-assured.
Just at the last moment, we get careless and cocky. Our concentration slips, attention dips. And we make that critical error.
So as you reach the end of your pitch or project - as you approach the finish line - stay alert to slapdash slip-ups. Sustain an eye for detail. Always remember to dot the ts and cross the is.
'Man, you gotta take heed.
'Cause that same thing might happen to you someday
Everybody makes a mistake sometimes.
I know, because I've made mine.'
Otis Redding, 'Everybody Makes A Mistake' (E Floyd / A Isbell)