Advisor versus film: Working Girl (1988)

Expert: Ken Smith, business strategy consultant and co-author of The Art of M&A Strategy: A Guide To Building Your Company’s Future.

Accuracy rating: 9/10

Working Girl (1988) exaggerates the drama of the mergers and acquisitions industry, but much of the film shows what it was like to be an outsider in the business.

So says Ken Smith, the co-author of The Art of M&A Strategy: A Guide To Building Your Company’s Future and a business strategy consultant.

The movie’s portrayal of working in 1980s finance, making deals and networking are “all exaggerated but based on reality,” says Smith.

Working Girl shows “the challenges of getting good talent recognized when it doesn’t come from the best schools or isn’t the traditional package, the art of the deal, and the importance of being part of the business community.”

Melanie Griffiths stars as Tess McGill, a young secretary in the M&A department of a Wall Street firm. A working-class woman, she takes the Staten Island ferry to work and got her degree at night school, but she wants to put her keen business intuition to use.

Her boss Katharine (Sigourney Weaver), a contemporary with superior style, seems supportive of Tess, and encourages her to share her business ideas.

Later, Tess discovers Katharine pursued one of Tess’s merger ideas behind her back. Tess takes her revenge by using Katharine’s wardrobe, status and network to make her own name.

Tess thinks the firm’s client, Trask Industries, should invest in a radio company. She pitches owner Oren Trask (Philip Bosco) using Katharine’s persona because she thinks she lacks credibility as a secretary. Along the way she meets and falls in love with Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), who helps her with the merger.

When Tess is caught in her charade, it appears the deal is over. But she comes clean to Trask and he’s convinced that she, not Katharine, came up with the merger idea. Tess completes the merger with Trainer’s help. She impresses Trask and is offered a strategist job at his firm, complete with an office and her own secretary.

So, what’s real and what’s not?

The importance of appearance

One of Tess’s most famous lines is: “If you want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair.”

While the movie exaggerates the importance of professional appearance, Smith says it still plays a role. Since people make snap judgments about people based on appearance, “looking the part can be helpful.”

But such standards are becoming more lenient, he says. “Many people are coming to accept that bright minds can come in different packages.”

“It’s not all that unusual to see men without ties, for example. There’s a broader spectrum of what would be acceptable wardrobe today, and hairstyles.” And, popular dress has definitely changed from Tess’s era of big hair, shoulder pads and bright fabrics.

Talent management and creativity

One of the most exaggerated parts of the movie, Smith says, is how quickly Tess was promoted.

“Breaking through from the administrative to the professional side [is] unusual. Doing it in such a massive step, as in the movie, was extraordinary.”

In real life, firms are biased toward recruiting university graduates, he says.

“We tend to go to sources that are richest in terms of the number of people that we can see, so if we get a lot of good people from [a] university, we’ll spend more time there,” he says. But, “we all know we’re missing talent when we do that.”

So, Tess’s move is still possible.

“There might be a tremendously bright person who’s in some other university, or in this case, night school. When we’re presented with them in another way, smart leaders will identify that kind of talent and try to give them an opportunity.”

Working Girl’s emphasis on the art of the deal is one of its most accurate aspects, says Smith. “There’s more to [the] business [of] M&A than the numbers.”

Because of that, M&A firms are increasingly looking beyond business schools and to liberal arts programs for recruits.

Merger inspiration

In the film, Tess finds inspiration for her Trask merger idea in a tabloid. Trask wants to enter the media market. While everyone else believes he should enter through television, Tess thinks he should enter through radio because of trends she sees in popular culture.

Though it may not be best practice to trust tabloids, says Smith, creative ideas are one of the pillars of mergers and acquisitions. “The message from the movie is that ideas can come from anywhere. They can come from the media or something funny that happens in the park.

“People who are serious about their profession are thinking about it all the time.”

Another reason Tess’s idea was so well-received by the client was because of her organization and conciseness, says Smith. “It had creativity but was, as most good ideas are, expressed in a very succinct and compelling way.”

Business barriers and integrity

One of the most accurate aspects of Working Girl was Tess’s difficulty accessing senior executives, says Smith. To get to Trask, she crashed his daughter’s wedding.

“I wouldn’t recommend that,” says Smith. “What it does demonstrate is that often, senior folks are blocked from ideas by middle management. It’s a constant battle in professional services to get to the right people.”

Instead of crashing weddings, Smith recommends “networking, participating in the right kind of charitable events and organizations..”

And, masquerading as your boss to seem more knowledgeable generally won’t end as well as it did for Tess. It could go the other way, as it did for Katharine when she stole Tess’s idea.

“If somebody’s going to be a jerk, as the movie demonstrated, that will eventually catch up to them,” says Smith.

The verdict

Smith gives the film’s accuracy a 9/10. “There was plenty of exaggeration, but exaggeration of reality.”