Drill Pickle

Like pretty much every company, we have randomly held fire drills. It is not like we represent a potential liability for insurance companies. Our industry is not high risk by its very nature and our offices, operations and distribution centers are not in high-risk areas. This is important because insurance companies have become more discriminating about who they will insure and where.

On a sleepy Friday afternoon of a nothing week sliding headlong into a week-end of insignificance, we had one of those fire drills. It was like putting an exclamation mark at the end of a very dull sentence.

For each floor of our head office complex, we had assigned two fire marshals. In the event of a drill or a real fire, their job is to clear their designated areas quickly and without drama. Everyone in their respective zones must be accounted for. They have absolute authority once the alarm sounds. Evacuating our head office should take around three minutes.

Bryan C. is a mid-level manager. On this hypnotically somnolent day, the siren screamed at us all, shaking us violently out of our lethargy. It was a most welcome distraction. I was only too happy to lead the charge out of the building.

Bryan C. obviously was not. He kept working on his computer, undeterred by the ear-splitting cacophony of the alarm. And, unfortunately, unimpressed by the young female fire marshal who tried to wave him out of his office. The marshals can easily be identified by their red hard hats, so it’s not like he could say he didn’t know who she was or what her purpose might be.

The siren screamed at us all, shaking us violently out of our lethargy.

In 15 minutes, the drill was over and each of the Small Office denizens returned to his or her office. Our intrepid fire marshal was furious that Bryan ignored her requests, then entreaties, then demands that he vacate the premises. She subsequently complained to the Health & Safety Coordinator of the Black Widow’s human resources department.

There was quite a discussion held at the highest levels about the incident. Bryan’s boss did his best to defend his employee, arguing that he was facing strict deadlines and would not be dissuaded from completing his task on time. He should be lauded, not lambasted. The Black Widow tapped the tiled floor impatiently, then let out a silent hiss. Bryan flaunted the rules, she said, and disrespected an employee doing her job. She wanted an example set. Our legal mind, Rigor Mortis, addressed the question of whether following safety protocol was a condition of employment. The discussion went hither and thither till it landed square at the figure of our Solomonesque CEO, the Man from Glad.

He spoke softly but held the big stick. Bryan made a choice, he said. When it comes to safety, however, there is no choice. When it comes to respecting others, there is no choice. When it comes to adhering to company policy – especially one on which lives depend, there is no choice. If there is no choice, there is no need for discussion.

Bryan was suspended without pay for two weeks. He apologized to the fire marshal.

One to a Customer

“Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.” – Daniel Varè

With the end of the year approaching, we are already well into our first round of customer negotiations. It is a time of confirmation and of confrontation. It is the sum of all things and the end of some things. I especially enjoy this time of year because it is when strategy hits the streets.

Our guess was that our toughest negotiation would be with our largest customer. Several issues are conspiring against us. First, some new faces have been added to their senior management team. It is most likely that these newcomers will want to make some very public changes to show that they are in charge, that they have a new vision for their organization, that this is now their company. We have been through this before and we learned the hard way that, with new people in place, you have to tread softly while making your presence known. They have to believe they need your support before they’ll give you theirs.

We did our best to meet with them in the run-up to the negotiations, to hear what they have to say, to figure out where they are headed. Our perceptive, almost empathic CEO, the Man from Glad, has few peers when it comes to cutting through the clutter and figuring out what’s really what. But their CEO has been well shielded and his intentions well camouflaged.

Also working against us is that they have recently acquired a company that is already a customer of ours. Their volume is now that much larger and they are looking for new discount plateaus to recognize this fact. So far, we have made it clear that we won’t pay more for business we already have, but what happens, I wonder, when push becomes shove. Will our resolve tumble like autumn leaves?

It is a time of confirmation and of confrontation.

The biggest problem with this particular negotiation is that all our other customers and all our competitors are watching closely. Seeing us as vulnerable, our principal competitor is going after this business with all guns blazing. With nothing to lose and plants to fill, it is offering the moon. Even if it doesn’t get the business, it will let our other customers know that we had to beat out an outrageous offer and that their own respective deals now likely pale by comparison, that they will no longer be competitive, that it is time for them to switch suppliers. Some might take the bait. In short, with all eyes now fixed on us, we are basically negotiating for the whole market.

Our clear-headed and always calculating CEO had other ideas. He has his own take on diplomacy which he might well have borrowed from Wynn Catlin’s Kiss Me Hardy: diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.

So he phoned this customer’s CEO and arranged a one-on-one meeting at a local art gallery. After a considerable amount of frottage, our ever so foxy Man from Glad explained that, while there are a number of interesting, outside-the-deal arrangements we could make, it would do nothing for either organization to drop the whole market and upset the equilibrium that currently exists. There is no benefit accruing to new management when a deal is struck that reduces profits. The best arrangement for everyone is to just quietly extend the current deal and – my favorite thing to do – create a secret war chest for exclusive promotions. Some more frottage to frame the conversation and an understanding was reached.

Bull Terrier, our V.P. Sales was then dispatched to iron out the details of an extension. His minions were told to quickly and quietly secure any customers that may be at risk. It was the equivalent of Winston Churchill’s advice not to disband your army until you’ve got your terms.

We have our marching orders.

Know It All

Last Friday, at the very end of the day, we fired the General Manager of one of our divisions. K. Kalani is Hawaiian, which may explain why he seldom seemed ruffled by poor results. When he made it clear that he had no obvious solutions to the issues that plagued his division and no reasonable expectation of a quick turn-around, our considerably more intense and less patient CEO, the Man from Glad, let him go. If you don’t have a solution, you are the problem. The firing occurred last Friday, well after hours, long after all the other employees left the building.

Sometimes, on my walk from the parking lot to my office, I take a detour through shipping. I enjoy counting trucks (my simplistic early morning proxy for sales). And I enjoy listening to the truck drivers talk. Somehow they get scoops and, sometimes, they have insights that we… uh… less mobile types miss. So I stand behind the counter and shuffle papers that mean little to me so that I can blend in. And I listen.

It’s 7:00 a.m. Monday morning. The early worms have already succumbed to those conscientious greenfinches and blackcaps that have been up since well before dawn. Someone notices the success of those early birds and writes an adage.

News clearly travels at the speed of sound.

The truckers are in no hurry because we provide coffee and doughnuts. We have facilities and are generous listeners. One of these truckers – by his looks and gravelly voice, a card-carrying member of the Duck Dynasty clan – inadvertently let the counter staff in on a scoop. “So,” he bellowed, “I see you guys dumped the Chinaman.”

Putting aside his inelegant and ignorant dispatch from the front, it astonished me that he could have known about Kalani before anyone else. News clearly travels at the speed of sound. How are truck drivers so tapped in? Of course, the sun does not set on news. And the week-end is no barrier to communications. But the truth is, even I did not know what happened, only that it was likely.

The counter staff looked at me strangely. I barely looked up, though the more attentive among them might have detected a slightly arched eyebrow. I never realized how interesting Bills of Lading could be.

Circumstances alter cases, but my approach in such instances is generally this: See everything. Overlook most things. Say nothing.

Astonished though I may have been so early in the day, I did all three.


In the Cross Hairs

Interviewer: “So Frank, you have long hair. Does that make you a woman?”
Frank Zappa: “You have a wooden leg. Does that make you a table?”

A while ago, I described our west coast sales manager as a man with weirdly movable hair. It is movable, of course, because it has been simply plopped into place. A good stapler would have been of great service to Don and considerable relief to those around him. I once came close to stabbing that precarious postiche with a club sandwich toothpick. In 2012, an iceberg the size of Manhattan broke free from Greenland’s massive Petermann Glacier. The massive chunk of ice slid into the sea. The process is called calving. Well, Don’s head always looks like it is about to calve a wad of hair.

Henry works in Credit. Henry has blue hair. Well, at least the kind of indigo blue that you get when you comb in a clump of Kiwi shoe polish and rub to a perfect shine. I imagine that without the goop, his hair would be gray. I also imagine that if he washed out the indigo, his hair would fade to a peculiar shade of periwinkle. Which would look odd next to his olive Mediterranean skin.

A good stapler would have been of great service.

Dolly Parton once said that she was never bothered by dumb blonde jokes. First of all, she knew she wasn’t dumb. And second, she knew she wasn’t blonde.

Albert, who works in our Customer Care Center, does not have blonde issues. He does, however, have food issues. He is an eating machine. He surrounds himself with crinkly bags of Cheetos, piles of sunflower seed shells that make his desk look like a killing field, and leftovers from other people’s lunches. Not surprisingly Albert is… uh… lumpy. Today, Albert came to work with his head shaved. He is participating in a campaign to raise money to help kids with leukemia. There are men who look cool with their heads shaved. Like, say, Vin Diesel or Michael Jordan or the Dalai Lama. Albert does not. His head is oddly shaped and… well… lumpy. But – what the heck – he’s cool anyway.

So what is the lesson in all this? I guess it’s that you shouldn’t judge a head by its hair. Real or otherwise.

Q for Reason

Q was the name we gave our former head of R&D. Yes, it’s a little Bond, but it was also a play on his name, McHugh. I had written a story on him several years ago, how in his 60s he saw the end of his career rolling in with the tide of youth. “I am too young to start looking back,”, he told me once, “and a little too old to be looking ahead.”

Anyway, I was shuffling through old papers and I found what he called The 10 Q-mandments of R&D. Q had taped it to the door of his lab. The sheet was a bit rumpled and had yellowed over time. The remnants of Scotch Tape were still visible on the edges. I read it over again though, really, I knew it by heart.

He saw the end of his career rolling in with the tide of youth.

1. Question – Everything…in particular the status quo.
2. Quibble – The answers are in the details.
3. Quantum – Seek quantum, not incremental, improvements.
4. Queue – Set priorities, keep to them.
5. Quick – First to market gets the advantage.
6. Quiet – Loose talk gives the advantage away.
7. Quality – Not to be sacrificed for expediency.
8. Quixotic – Quirky doesn’t make it creative. And it’s not creative if it can’t be done.
9. Quit – Know when to walk away; failure should be avoided, not fixed.
10. Quagmire – Where you are when you don’t walk away.

I carefully pressed the page and slipped it and a protective cardboard into an envelope. I brought it to Whiny Baby and asked her to have it framed and sent to Q.

It’s about time.

Let Me Paint You a Picture

It was a quiet Monday morning. I was at the office early. The sun broke over the horizon that we call a parking lot, casting an orange hue on otherwise grey buildings. For the next few minutes, an industrial park became a Turner landscape. The Small Office from the Porch of Madonna della Salute.

I enjoy the early morning because it is lighter than the rest of the day, because the press of humankind and its obligations have not yet made their presence known. It is not even that the energy is latent. There is no energy required of me at all. Except to sip my Gevalia dark roast, medium bodied, coffeehouse quality blend with just a hint of fruit.

And then Whiny Baby appeared at my door.

She apologized for coming unannounced but explained – in a soft voice so as not to disturb the morning calm – that she had something she wanted to tell me so I’d hear it from her first. Well, that was intriguing enough, so I showed her in and asked her to sit on this comfortable leather chair I keep for just such occasions.

She dove right in. “I am seeing someone in the company”, she said.

“Oh?” I replied, truly surprised at where this was now going.

“Yes, and I didn’t want you to hear rumors and wonder.” She paused, took a deep breath and then, with great effort and greater relief, blurted it out. “It’s Andrew!”

“Andrew?” I looked at her quizzically.

Andrew Green… in Accounting!” she said almost proudly.

“What about Andrew Green… in Accounting”? I asked obtusely. Green is an older man, thin, slightly balding, a perfect fit for General Ledger’s White Shirt Brigade. Whiny Baby is in her early 40s, quite attractive and, while not the life of the party, not dead yet either. This pairing would be a case of apples and boomerangs.

“You know.” Whiny Baby exclaimed. “He’s who I’m seeing!”

“Oh?” I replied, truly surprised at where this was now going.

It was still not computing. There was absolutely no connection between Andrew Green and Whiny Baby that I could see. They were on different floors, in different time zones, perhaps from different planets.

I remember when Whiny Baby first opened up to me about her marriage. She and her husband had not communicated in any meaningful way for years. They shared space and time, most of the time, but little else. In the end, their marriage ended not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but in dreadful silence. There was nothing left to say that was already left unsaid before. Ashes to ashes.

“So who ARE you seeing?” I asked, getting back in the moment.

“Andrew!” she replied again, without hesitation.

“What about Andrew?”

We went on this way for a while, Whiny Baby becoming increasingly flustered and me still out in left field.

And then… suddenly… I got it. She was serious.

And then… suddenly… another painting appeared to me. The Scream, by Edvard Munch. In his diary, Munch wrote: “I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream.”

Ditto that.

Dark Horse

It was after supper. My wife and I were getting set for an evening of Downton Abbey with a side of some delicious apple crumble cake. I heard a familiar ping coming from the distant counter where I dump my keys and cell phone. A text was coming in. I could have just let it go and focused my attention on the misadventures of the Crawley family, vicariously joining so many suitors for the hand of Lady Mary. Instead, I allowed curiosity to get the best of me and checked out my message.

There was no name attached to the text, just a phone number. I didn’t recognize the number or even the area code. The message was short: Hi. I’ve been in an accident and am at the hospital undergoing tests. Will call you tomorrow.

What the heck, I (more or less) said to myself. This is serious. Someone I know is hurt and I have no idea who. I checked the phone numbers of colleagues at work and, when I came up empty, friends and relatives. It bothered me all night.

The next morning, I asked my assistant, Sue O’, if she recognized the number. She told me it was Phil Haggerty’s cell phone. Phil is one of the young upstarts we have looking into new ventures. He had just returned from a vacation in Europe. Phil may just be the healthiest person I know. (He is one of the all-organic lunchtime gym crowd I recently wrote about.) He has a beautiful daughter named Abigail who shows up at the Small Office from time to time. She would have been with him when the accident occurred.

He wasn’t sure to whom he was speaking and why.

Phil did phone me the next morning. He explained in a halting voice that he had gone horseback riding and was thrown by his horse. He landed on his back. Phil continued talking, but his speech was becoming increasingly slurred. He thought he heard a crack when he landed and he felt a searing heat go through his body. He couldn’t move. He was afraid for a second that he would be paralyzed. He then told me that he had undergone a number of tests and that the doctors had not said much to him. He had been given a shot of morphine not that long ago. By this time, the morphine was clearly fulfilling its intended purpose; I think that, at one point, he wasn’t sure to whom he was speaking and why.

Phil is a man in his prime. But he is also now in traction and possibly in trouble. It is an abrupt and startling turn of events.

Life has its highs and lows; we have to learn how to handle both with grace and dignity. Hence the wisdom of this American Indian proverb: It is not enough for a man to know how to ride. He must also know how to fall.