The Man with the Scarlet Socks.

Years ago, the last job I held before moving to Hawaii was with the big insurance company known simply as “The Hartford.”  At the time, the city of Hartford was headquarters for some of the biggest insurance companies in the country, including the Travelers, the Aetna, the Phoenix, the Connecticut General, the Connecticut Mutual and others.

Insurance companies are generally pretty conservative—not surprising given the nature of their business. For example, at precisely 8:30 every morning, uniformed security guards appeared at all entry doors of the massive Aetna office building to take the names of all employees who arrived late for work. With x-number of tardies, it was alo-o-o-ha!

At the Hartford in those days, you could make an educated guess as to how important an executive was by the furnishings in his office. 

If he was in a private office with a carpet on the floor, you knew he was on his way up. And if there was a silver water decanter on the credenza behind his desk, you knew that guy was headed for senior management. It was a very rigid hierarchy and it existed in one form or another throughout the insurance industry.

One of the young executives at the Hartford all those years ago was a brilliant young man in his late 30s named Harry.  He was an actuary, one of the people who work with statistical data to figure out how much an insurance company can charge for any given policy and make a substantial profit. Obviously, good actuaries are highly prized in the insurance industry.

Anyway, Harry was really, really smart, and he was also the prototype of the young executive the company was looking for. Yet his progress up the corporate ladder had stalled . . . and we all knew why. 

Every few days, Harry came to work wearing scarlet socks.

I asked him about it once. “They’ve never had the guts to complain about the color of my socks,” he said, “I just want them to know that they will never be able to get ALL of me into their little executive mold.”

“What will it take for you to stop wearing those socks,” I asked.

“The first female executive in this company,” he said.