Double Dipping

The Sundance Kid was always one of my favorites. He was a marketing manager who I once described as “a sandy-haired, terminally under-dressed fortysomething with an idea a day, some of which actually worked”. He laughed easily, but there was an underlying sadness about him, likely related to an ailing child for whom prospects were dim. Marketing was, for the Kid, both a vocation and an escape. He had been with the company for a long time – long enough, in fact, to be part of our Defined Benefit Plan. And therein lies the sum and substance of our discontent.

The Kid is now in his early fifties, his hair infused with grey, making it less espresso and more caffè crema. The sadness is now permanently etched into the corners of his eyes which no amount of collagen will cure.

As it happened, he received a fairly lucrative offer from our largest competitor, one he could hardly refuse. The additional salary augmented by a pension would result in a significant cash flow increase for his family. Loyalties and prejudices aside, the Kid could hardly be blamed for jumping at the opportunity.

This was no comfort for our senior managers who felt he was feeding at two troughs. Because he knew our programs, products and practices so well – many of which he actually put in place – he could help our competitor while we paid for the privilege.

He was feeding at two troughs.

Bull Terrier was livid when this competitor beat us to market with a device he remembered first being sketched on the backside of a restaurant place mat. He asked Rigor Mortis if there was anything we could do to prevent the Kid from revealing trade secrets that possibly we legally owned. And he asked the Black Widow if we could withhold his pension, in whole or in part. And because he knew the Kid was my protégé, he asked if I could do something, anything at all.

Bull was met with a chorus of shrugs, eight from Black Widow, two each from the rest of us.

In truth, while I am sorry to see the Kid gone, I cannot have my conscience be his guide. He served us well when he served at our pleasure and, now, he serves himself and his family. So, yes, I cannot muster more than a shrug and a furrowed brow for show. I feel only slightly bad that I don’t feel worse.

The Cats in the Hats

“It is our responsibilities, not ourselves, that we should take seriously.” – Peter Ustinov

Helen is the secretary/receptionist in our Tech Center. She is tall. Very tall. A cornstalk in a field of alfalfa. And it’s not like she slouches to be less conspicuous. She stands straight as a lighthouse on a promontory, a beacon for ships lost at sea. If Helen were a ship, she’d be… uh… a tall ship.

Late Friday afternoon, her daughter Nancy came to pick her up at work. They were going out for a night on the town. Or perhaps tea at Downton Abbey. Nancy is an impossible inch or two taller than Helen. The twin towers still stand… and glide in tandem down the Small Office corridors. Except on this day, they were going to meet up with their sisters in the Red Hat Society. They were appropriately attired for the occasion.

A cornstalk in a field of alfalfa.

To be sure, they would be easy to spot in their red hats and purple dresses even if they were not so statuesque. It should be added that their hats were exquisite with their Sinamay fascinators, tall feathers and hair combs. If I were a cardinal in flight, I would have found them impossible to resist.

They are vivacious, curvaceous, in equal measure buoyant and flamboyant, no longer young and not the least bit worried about it. I stared without shame and admired them without reservation.

What’s the Point?

We were on a fact-finding mission with a sizeable new customer. The objective was to understand how they saw the relationship, where they positioned us versus our competitors, which products they would carry, how they would introduce our lines to their staff, and so on. Because I was in the area, I agreed to drop in and lend some weight to the proceedings.

Jared, the sales rep, was there primarily to make introductions. The original plan was to have the Sales Manager do that, but a last minute screw-up with a flight put the local rep on the line. Jan, who was recently and with good cause promoted to manage our Customer Care Center, and the appropriate product line manager were also there. On the customer side, a half dozen souls showed up, several of which were still in diapers. I wondered who organized this session.

He quickly fell back into his comfort zone.

The meeting was not well planned. The rep was not part of the implementation team per se and it showed. He didn’t quite understand the purpose of a kick-off session, so he quickly fell back into his comfort zone. That zone is called PowerPoint. The Small Office PowerPoints everything eventually. The problem is, there was no need for a presentation at all. The sales job was already done. A contract had already been signed. It was now time to move forward, to get information.

There were questions, but they were mostly posed by the customer. There were muffins and handshakes and nice to meet you and looking forward to working with you. In short, the meeting was a waste of time.

Ike, the Sales Manager, felt guilty over his no-show and was grateful that Jared was willing to cover for him. Jan was new to this kind of meeting so she could hardly be blamed for what did or did not transpire. Ike didn’t want anyone to feel bad, so he told them he heard it went really well, great start, lovin’ it.

But, unlike Ike, I was there. And I was not lovin’ it. To paraphrase Churchill, the cause was there, the people were there, the chance was there. And we left chance behind. One of us would have to let them know so that it wouldn’t happen again.


“Nothing is often a good thing to do and always a good thing to say.” – Will Durant

“Before you say anything, count to 10 and then don’t say it.” – My mother

One of our important customers made a request that I considered a non-starter. As it happened, this request turned into a saga with a most inauspicious start and an uncertain end.

Duncan L., their VP responsible for purchasing and logistics, has worked with the Small Office for many years and has known me for at least half of them. Our relationship is cordial, stopping at the level of mutual respect.

Duncan looks a bit like Clark Gable would have looked if he were less good looking. He is humorous in the deadpan way of Steven Wright and would be as funny if Steven Wright were actually less funny. In short, he has a lot going for him if your expectations were slightly reduced.

I received an email from Cowboy Bob who was forwarding a query from Duncan. Apparently, one of his company’s competitors had a promotional special that month and Duncan was looking for support to match the promotion. But specials are built into each customer’s purchasing agreement and there was a lot of room in the deal Duncan had to work with to easily match this promotion if he so desired. Which he shouldn’t because the special wasn’t interesting enough to be impactful anyway.

My organs… began to shut down.

I was having a tough day and was in no mood for the verbal sparring that I could imagine Cowboy Bob had to endure in what is always a back and forth when Duncan is on the case. I decided to get right to the point and typed a curt NFW. Which, of course, merely stood for Not Financially Workable. Or, equally, No Funds Warranted. Or, perhaps, Newcastle Fashion Week… which is surely on the top of someone’s social calendar. I then clicked the SEND button, satisfied with the content and brevity of the response.

In the very instant my finger touched the SEND key I realized, to my horror, that I did not just REPLY but that I replied TO ALL. Duncan and all his colleagues who he had copied would have received it too. My heart stopped beating. I felt dizzy as the blood drained from my head. My organs – starting with the liver – began to shut down. My thoughts then went to Poor Cowboy Bob who, I could imagine, was now quaking right down to his Limited Edition Cognac Caiman boots.

Now you don’t need a Nobelpreise Fuer Wirtschaftswiss to figure out how Duncan responded when he received my reply. Apparently it was circulated widely, then printed out and posted on the bulletin board in the company’s main conference room. I was told it was now being used as a dartboard.

The first rule of holes is that when you are in one, you stop digging. I decided the best approach was to lay low in the firm belief that this too shall pass. I went dark. And just like that, I had No Further Worries.

Short Story

We were planning a trip to Atlanta to visit a certain large retailer headquartered there. We argued about flying Delta, which touts itself as the world’s most trusted airline but can be primarily trusted to delay your departure, divert your flight, and somehow lose your luggage on the way. (To be fair, I prefer even Delta to Northwest, but that’s another story.)

Cowboy Bob, comfortable in his It’s Not a Boot, It’s an Attitude Durangos, was calf-roping poor Tom Haas who has been, on more than one occasion, the object of CB’s pranks. The ostensible plan was to take Tom to a strip club in the Buckhead area of the city. A midget stripper named Pinky was well know in certain circles to heat things up by shaking her outsized booty to the sound of thunder claps.

Truth may make the devil blush.

Tom was so enthralled by Cowboy Bob’s off-color descriptions of Pinky’s unbecoming behavior that he hardly noticed the winking and the shaking of heads around him. Bull Terrier accidentally snorted beer through his nose. (Not to worry, he has a small nose and it was no more than, say, a depth charge sized snort.)

Now I know that there used to be a pretty raucous bar scene in Buckhead, but things have become significantly more… uh… civilized. Buckhead is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods, not just in Atlanta but in all the Southeast. With its impressive mansions, exclusive boutiques and fine eateries – my favorite being the Holeman and Finch Public House – Buckhead has earned a reputation as the Beverly Hills of the East.

One never knows for sure with Cowboy Bob, but I suspect Pinky is just another urban legend and I fear Old Tom will be disappointed.

Then again, maybe not. Truth may make the devil blush but, I imagine, it will be Pinky that takes care of the rest of us.

The King of Id

“If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” – Donald Trump

There is an account we have been chasing almost as long as I’ve been in the Small Office. It is not a huge account and securing its business would not materially change our fortunes. But it is strategically important in that it is a segment leader and politically well connected in its home state.

The president is generally unlikeable. He is a stump of a man with chia pet hair and a poor complexion. He has a sly smile and a sizeable gut, giving him the appearance of one who had swallowed both the cat and the canary. Now I’m sure it’s not his fault he’s ugly and I’m sure he has had his reasons for spurning our advances, but one could wonder if life is too short to chase after a prize not worth winning.

He opined in his smarmy, oleaginous way that our major competitor is larger than us, ironically expressing his belief that size matters. Our rangy and very aristocratic CEO, the Man from Glad, decided it was time to give him a run for his money. So we invited him to visit our largest operation, a state-of-the-art facility that looks more like a university campus than it does a manufacturing plant and distribution center. The site covers every bit of 14 acres.

What is play to the cat is death to the mouse.

“Judge me by my size do you?” said Yoda. Our long-legged leader walked our prospect from building to building, inside and outside, hither and thither, through engineering and our test labs and the warehouse and the sales office, retracing his path, crisscrossing and re-crossing and double-crossing our foolish prey. With his long strides, he had our visitor running ragged, desperate to keep up and, more importantly, look like he was keeping up. What is play to the cat is death to the mouse. Rivulets of sweat ran down Chia’s layered forehead and sagging cheeks. By the time he returned to the conference room to resume discussions, his ego had melted into a soggy, sorry mess.

Oh yes, for good measure and best effect, just after the two had set off on their magical mystery tour, we turned up the heat in the conference room just a notch.

And so it was that Chia was suitably humbled, the dismissive seeds he had sown coming back to him in exact kind.

Pop Goes the Weasel

I was asked to assess the performance of a portfolio manager who I have, in the past and for good reason, referred to as The Weasel. He has a tiny face with sharp teeth, small round ears and the blackest of eyes. His neck is thick and his torso slender, so that the one flows unimpeded into the other. He is a silent hunter, skulking around in the high grass and thick hedge. He is a very political creature, squeezing in and out of tight spots, a master of innuendo, implication and impeccable timing. There is no question he gets the job done, but one always has to wonder on whom he is doing it.

I took him out to lunch, a favored custom in The Small Office. Food – going out or ordering in – is not just what we do; it is a way of being. True, it would be odd for it to be just the two of us, but I took him to a restaurant down the street from the office where you can always count on others to be within earshot. In other words, it was very public and perfectly safe. So even a clever beast like The Weasel would not be able to sniff out a rat… which I wasn’t because, in truth, I was being more the weasel. I would be wending my way into his burrow. Those of you who think it takes one to know one might imagine that he would see me coming. But you would be mistaken, for few ever recognize themselves.

He took my casual approach as good news.

My purpose was primarily to get his take on how things were going, how he felt he was doing, where he saw himself fitting in the organization. I wondered if he saw himself at all as others saw him, if he would overrate or understate his accomplishments. I gave no sign, no hint, no inkling of dissatisfaction. And since his ears were always cocked for the slightest sound of shuffling, he took my casual approach as good news. His basic mistake was in gauging my manner instead of reckoning my purpose.

Clearly he believed he had done an excellent job in the past year – even if his singular achievement was in portraying how excellent it was. So it came as a shock to him when he received a 2 (out of 5) performance rating, which translates in The Small Office system as a Requires Improvement. He was too concerned with bureaucracy, procedure and politics to take risks, to think out of the box, to engage in meaningful teamwork, to sacrifice for the good of the whole. He kept valuable information under wraps and offered up insights only when they could be foolproof and fully ascribed to him. All this not only kept back the team, but made us wonder how far he personally could progress. Stalking is, after all, a solitary business.

The Weasel came to me a few days after his appraisal. He wondered aloud why I led him on, why I was not honest with him. He disagreed with our assessment, of course, but that was beside the point. Well, it was the whole point but his questions were fair. I wasn’t dishonest with him, but I certainly wasn’t forthcoming.

Full of courtesy, full of craft, eh? All I could do was shrug.

Right from the Gecko

Gilles came to see me in my office, a look of consternation on his face. He is a Parisian who speaks English with a strong accent. He can’t pronounce his Ts, so he says things like “I’ll see you Thoosday.”

He asked me if I could help him with a language issue he’s been having. I told him to sit in the comfortable leather chair I keep for just such occasions.

As he tells it, he has heard people use the expression “from the get go”, which doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. Or maybe, the expression is “from the gecko”. But that makes even less sense. So, he asked me, which is it?

I’ll see you Thoosday.

To believe with certainty, it has been said, one must begin with doubting. Well, then, Gilles must have been very certain indeed. One colleague explained carefully why this was this but another assured him, as a friend, that this was that. A third said both were fine but meant very different things. Well enough was enough. He knew that he could count on me to clear this up once and for all.

Now geckos are endearing sorts – for lizards anyway. They chirp, they change colors, and they can reproduce without copulation. They also have adhesive toe pads. And they lick their eyes to keep them clean, which is important indeed for nocturnal creatures that eat mosquitos. So pretty much anything from the gecko is cool, right? Geico figured that out long ago. And now so will Gilles.

I looked directly into that Gallic face and said with an air of solemnity that enough is seldom enough and that he should have known this from the gecko.

Balancing Act

“But I’m not so think as you drunk I am.” – J. C. Squire, from the Ballade of Soporific Absorption

Manny B. was my first boss. He was always good to me. I learned years later that he would give me full credit for things we had done together, setting me up nicely for the next steps in my career. He was a bit rough around the edges, though, and, as such, not everyone’s cup of tea. He looked like Brezhnev, heavy set with bushy eyebrows and slicked back hair. He was a gruff and manly thing and would come out with rather ghastly expressions like “well, it’s better than bear shit in the buckwheat!” He accused his boss of changing his mind more often than a whore changes pants. Once, when he was swamped, he exclaimed, “why don’t they stick a broom up my butt and I could sweep the floor at the same time!” He did not abide Mondays and, most annoying, he had the ability to postpone eating until he was through at least two martinis. I’ve personally seen him break two teeth on olive pits. He was with martinis a bit like Winston Churchill was with whiskey; through diligent effort, he learned to like it.

He teetered and tottered, falling this way and that.

So when, at the end of a long afternoon, he was seen lurching to his car in the parking lot, the assumption was that he was drunk. A colleague helped steady him and texted me to get over there right away. Which I did.

I’ve seen Manny after a few too many. He was always a happy drunk, laughing easily if a tad too loud. But Manny was not laughing now. On the contrary, he was clearly distressed. He teetered and tottered, falling this way and that. I piled him into my car and took him home. It was an effort for me and his wife to get him down the walk and into the safety of his living room.

When I got back to the office the next day, there was a buzz about Manny, that he was falling down drunk at work and that we practically had to scrape him off the parking lot. At the Small Office, being drunk on the job is cause for dismissal.

Manny didn’t show up that day. Late in the afternoon, his wife Claire phoned me to say that he was in the hospital. It turns out that he had a viral infection of the vestibular nerve in his inner ear. The result was severe vertigo. Drink had nothing to do with any of it.

Dean Martin was quoted as saying you’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on. Turns out he was almost right.

What’s That Smell?

I am a pretty good judge of character. Character is a good thing when it falls within that fairly narrow band of behaviors we generally accept as normal and when it comes in moderate doses. To be sure, we get a lot of characters applying for jobs; it just takes a keen eye and about six minutes to weed out the dubious and the downright strange. Of course, that depends on your definition of dubious.

The Small Office makes the hiring process difficult for applicants. They must run a gauntlet of interviews and submit to a series of written tests, along with background checks by the NSA and blood work by SETI looking for alien DNA. Well, not quite, of course, but close enough. And even so, some ditzes, defectives and duds slip through the cracks.

Not on this day, however. For some reason, I was asked to meet with a prospective mid-level accounting clerk named Glen. I only received Glen’s CV minutes before the interview and so I had to look it over on the spot. The footer of the CV had the name Amanda on it. I asked him who that was. He said it was his girlfriend. I asked why her name was on his CV. Despite being outed so early in the game, he replied with no apparent discomfort that she had written the CV for him. I then noticed that his reference was also named Amanda. I scratched my head in mock misapprehension. Is the Amanda that gave you the reference the same as the one who wrote your CV? Sure is, he answered proudly. A friend in need, eh?

I scratched my head in mock misapprehension.

I once had to interview a prospect for an executive assistant post. She was a bit matronly, her hair tightly wound into a bun in a way that made it look like she was asking a question. A silk scarf hung loosely around her neck. When she walked into my office and sat herself down in the leather chair I keep for just such occasions, I detected an odd but familiar scent. As we talked and compared her experience with the job’s requirements, that smell and its mysterious origins became a distraction. Menthol? Camphor? Old people? She talked, I sniffed. Is that smell harmful to pregnant women? Cats? I sniffed, she talked. Then it hit me. “Got it!” I exclaimed aloud, startling her. It’s Bengay. Hah!

There was a lip smacker, an eye roller, a persistent farter, and a Gen Yer who, in a stupefying moment of Darwinian self-destruction, when asked what she liked about her old job responded that she appreciated how all her colleagues covered for her when she missed assignments or came to work late.

H.L. Mencken claimed that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Perhaps. But you could well go broke hiring them.