Terminal Velocity

“Hell… as every frequent traveler knows, is in Concourse D of O’Hare Airport.”  – Dave Barry

I have spent, over the course of my career, too much time in airport terminals. Chicago’s O’Hare, which in the past I have cited as the only airport in the world that screams at you, is endlessly dreary. Your senses and sensibilities are under continuous assault. You are surrounded – or, more accurately, engulfed – and invariably jostled by people who want to be somewhere else. And, oh, good luck finding Concourse D!

I was travelling with our overly methodical and obsessively punctual CEO, the Man from Glad. We were waiting to board a plane; since we were flying United, we knew waiting was more a reality to be endured than a process to be followed.

Suddenly, his cell phone began to ding. Ding. Ding. What the heck is that? To his horror, our CEO realized that he had screwed up time zones and we actually (theoretically?) had a presentation to give in 10 minutes to a major investor.

First we ran to the United desk and cancelled our flight. Then began a frantic search for a quiet spot with Wi-Fi where we could set up. Restaurants along Concourse B were not going to provide the privacy we needed, most certainly not Tortas Frontera with its griddle-baked pork chorizo tortas, Wolfgang Puck Café or the Garrett Popcorn emporium. Eventually, with only minutes to go, we found a place approximately near nothing in particular, under stairs, with little but a narrow ledge to sit on.

He unceremoniously ripped into his own giant foil bag of chips.

We were able to hook up with the investors and, cool as ice, as if presenting on the fly was standard practice, began our Powerpoint presentation.

Just one slide in, an airport ground crew employee in navy ARC-rated coveralls pulled up alongside, tore open a crinkly bag of Doritos, and launched into a very loud, open-mouthed chew. Munch, munch, crunch, crunch. Soon a buddy of his joined in, with a hoot and a high five. He unceremoniously ripped into his own giant foil bag of chips. Crunch, crunch, munch, munch. Seriously? I thought to myself. I mean, seriously?

What’s that noise? inquired one our straight-laced investors. Chomp. Hold on for just a minute, replied our insouciant CEO. Munch. He leaned over to our two interlopers. Lunch. Would you mind so very much moving elsewhere so that we can make a presentation? He pointed to my laptop with an exaggerated air of resignation and shrugged heavily. Sure thing, mate, said one of the crew. The two cinched their chip bags closed, rose with a noisy flourish and sauntered off.

It all reminds me of a line from Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of publishing giant Random House: Good manners, he said, is the noise you don’t make when you’re eating soup.

There’s Something About Mary

I like Mary. She was an executive recruiter and did a pretty good job of it over the years. Plus her daughter, Kim, is training to be an astronaut. I must say that this is a source of great fascination to me and any updates I get on Kim sends my imagination to far away places, all of them more expansive than, say, the Small Office.

A couple of months ago, Mary started having issues – headaches, blurred vision, dizzy spells. She went to a neurologist and had an MRI. It turns out she had not one but two tumors behind her right eye. This is an unusual and unusually dangerous situation. Most of the time, these tumors are only found during the autopsy.

Fast forward… Mary underwent surgery. They removed one of the tumors but were afraid to touch the second, recognizing that if it ever dislodges, Mary becomes a fond memory. While she did survive the surgery, there was some brain damage. Essentially, she found herself unable to think quickly, to follow normal conversations, to focus intensely for any length of time. Clearly she could no longer do the job for which she was so well trained.

But Mary had done well for the company. She had been the company’s first contact for a number of senior managers, including me. And there is the whole astronaut thing.

However this turned out would be of our own devising.

At our Executive Committee meeting, our on-staff arachnid, the Black Widow, opined from her silken perch that we could not very well cut Mary loose but we could not keep her either. Black Widow’s mandibles clicked madly as she talked. Putting Mary on long-term disability would be one option. Rigor Mortis, looking at the legal side, suggested that Mary would likely not have the means or the energy to take us to court, so however this turned out would be of our own devising.

It was left to Bull Terrier to come up with a solution. Our V.P. Sales is wiry with buzz cut hair and a tenacious hold on his perception of reality. He has invariably been there and has almost certainly done that. Bull is a foe to be reckoned with and a friend to reckon on.

As automated as we are, he figured, there are stacks of reports to be filed. This is something Mary could do. She could work three or four days a week, at a slightly reduced clerical salary, but with her benefits package remaining intact. Rigor Mortis pointed out that there is precedence for such a solution since we have, in the past, put employees hurt on the job on reduced workload.

I watched with some satisfaction as my fellow managers worked their way through this issue. And I remembered the words of John Bunyan: “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”

Beer O’Clock

“The opposite side has its opposite side.” – Japanese Proverb

We have a consulting division that advises industrial and commercial customers on security installations. Obviously its financial metrics are totally different from what our product-based divisions use to measure their effectiveness. Things like inventory turns and return on assets are fairly meaningless. The team is comprised, for the most part, of techies. They are young and far-flung, working out of small, often home offices, in a dozen different cities.

Every Friday evening, they get together online for what they call Beer O’Clock. They share information, anecdotes, jokes, favorite Pins and stories on Digg. For every member of the team downing a pint in his basement lair, another has a toddler scooting through the dining room without her Huggies on. Skype keeps no secrets.

That said, the concept of Beer O’Clock intrigued a number of our Small Office denizens. What if every Friday afternoon, the Marketing Department, say, knocked off early, sauntered off to the local pub and, over beer and nachos, discussed strategy, shared project updates, told war stories.

The topic came up at one of our management meetings. In attendance were the usual suspects. Rigor Mortis, who heads up our legal department, seemed thinner and more distracted since his wife died. The Black Widow, our VP Human Resources, dangled overhead, a spectral presence, peering down on the unwary passer-by.

She could find nothing in it that is morally uplifting.

Rigor Mortis warned us that any company initiative that involves drinking could well end up in a lawsuit if a booze-related accident occurred subsequently, even if there is no direct link. The jurisprudence exists and the liability is significant. The Black Widow, questioned the motives of those who were promoting the idea. She could find nothing in it that is morally uplifting or economically productive. She comes from the same school as Washington Irving: They who drink beer will think beer. I have to admit I’m more from the University of Frank Zappa, who cleverly observed that you cannot be a real country unless you have your own airline and your own beer.

It took our sagacious CEO, the Man from Glad to bring closure to this discussion.

“If any employee wishes to extend our office to another location”, he said, “then they should continue to follow the rules of our office. Which means no drinking on the premises.”

And that’s that.

What’s Up, Doc?

A half dozen of our senior managers were on a two-day leadership course. The topics ranged from negotiation tactics to handling troublesome employees to effective communications. One of the attendees was Cowboy Bob, resplendent in his Corral boots – the ones with the whiskey goat inlays and square toes. General Ledger, our dour CFO with the saucepan ears was also there.

We had several different instructors and group animators. Cowboy Bob had his eye on a woman named Mandy who looks suspiciously like Kate Winslet. She is high-class and high-spirited, and was clearly the object of his affection. Her outfit was conservative in theory but suggestive in practice. To be sure, Cowboy Bob was ready to practice. He is no youngster, but his broad shoulders and infectious smile easily melt away the years. Both he and Mandy were very professional but neither was above flirtation.

Her outfit was conservative in theory.

At the end of the second day, we were all handed out certificates. One by one, we were called up to the front of the room. Mandy would hand out a certificate and kiss the participant on the cheek. I could not miss the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms when it came time for my close up. Eventually, it was Cowboy Bob’s turn. Mandy called his name, but he didn’t budge. She looked around, caught his eye and smiled seductively. He still didn’t move. I leaned over slightly and said, hey Bob, what’s happening? He looked at me with helpless eyes and whispered, “I can’t get up”.

I looked down with a grin. Poor Cowboy Bob. Hoisted by his own petard.

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas

I was travelling with our usually restrained and carefully guarded CEO, the Man from Glad. He never says anything that he might regret later. He knows that people could well misinterpret his words, binding the company to a perceived benefit that he had no intention of extending, so he is well versed in the art of waffling when asked for a commitment. He is warm without being intimate, helpful without overstepping his bounds.

So it was a shock when, waiting for a taxi at the airport, I heard him on his cell cooing to an albeit important client, “I love you Hans”. Hans is a million dollar customer and knows it. He is an old style Prussian with little patience for the niceties of relationship building.

I bravely queried our otherwise punctilious leader.

I have to admit to being really uncomfortable with the terms of endearment and, after he hung up, I bravely queried our otherwise punctilious leader.

“Excuse me? I love you Hans? Really?”

My travelling partner looked at me quizzically. “What?”

“I heard you talking to Hans. You said…”

“I was talking to my wife”, he interjected. “I said, ‘I love you Hon.’ What is wrong with you?”

“Oh,” I said, staring off into the distance, admiring a fluffy cloud that looked ever so much like a cow. “I knew that.”


Kyle C. is a no-nonsense Yankee clipper who grew up in a small fishing village in northern Maine. He laughs easily, is hospitable in the way of small town folk and way too sensitive. He can be, by his own assessment, rude and ignorant, especially when he feels wronged. But he is honest and has a big heart – for this reason above all, customers up north love him to bits.

Kyle was helping man a booth at a trade show in Boston. He wasn’t feeling well and, at the advice of colleagues, left the venue and went to a nearby hospital. It became pretty clear that the clam chowder he had at lunch had become unsettled. He thought at the time that it tasted a bit sour, but figured there was sour cream or something of the sort in the mix. He was wrong.

His stomach was now churning, his lunch, breakfast, dinner the night before, perhaps one from a week ago when he was in Milwaukee, were returning to the scene of the crime.

He thought at the time that it tasted a bit sour.

Well he pitched and he spewed and he cast out the chyme and the chyle of his innards along with, he was certain, whole chunks of his thorax. His bowels disgorged all the evils in the world in a chum like sauce. He groaned and he grimaced at the sight of his soiled gown.

And then, as he looked up, to his horror and dismay, in walked one of the dealers he knew. And then another. One by one. Then two by two, like his room was Noah’s Ark. Word had spread at the show that Kyle had fallen ill. Well they loved him to bits after all and they all felt the need to offer their support and best wishes for a speedy recovery. In person.

Kyle covered his face with a pillow, groaned again, then pulling the pillow away began to laugh. He laughed in the way of small town folk.

Mad Men

Once a year, several of our top executives take the senior brass from one of our large buying group customers to a fancy restaurant to celebrate the successful conclusion of negotiations.

The host is Cowboy Bob, our Manager of Home Center Sales. Though in his late ‘60s, he is tall and handsome, with silver hair, a broad smile and a subtle drawl. He is dapper right down to his custom-made, M.L. Leddy alligator skin cowboy boots.

We arranged for limos to pick us all up at the hotel and made our way to what has to be one of the most expensive restaurants in New York. We rented out a private dining room with high ceilings and windows that overlook Madison Square Park. The room manages to be spacious and cozy at the same time, a neat trick. We had been told that the menu was clever, almost playful. From the jasmine and passion fruit soup to the Cotswold lamb to the cucumber sorbet, there was no doubt we were in for a treat.

The bottles were for sale for a mere $15,000.

Tom, the president of the buying group is a small but very persistent presence. He insisted on sitting next to our always-debonair CEO, the Man from Glad, hoping, I imagine, to absorb the stature of our chairman by osmosis. Tom is a bully. He bullies everyone and, although it would not be much of a stretch, no one is willing to stand up to him.

When we entered the restaurant, there was a wooden crate of fine wine in the lobby. Several bottles were nestled in straw. Also nestled was a handwritten note that said the bottles were for sale for a mere $15,000.

During the meal, Tom held court. To the accompaniment of a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (which we suspected he picked not because he knew his wines but because it was the most expensive bottle on the list), Tom regaled us all with stories of his trip to Tuscany last Fall and described in excruciating detail the oceanfront house he had built practically by himself. And did we know he used our electronics throughout, thank you very much for the donation. And wasn’t that wine out in front so very special and wouldn’t it be nice as a closer to our negotiations if we bought it for him too.

The ever-circumspect Man from Glad smiled and cagily changed the subject. But, as the meal progressed and as we made our way to the dessert – pear poached with honey and acorn – it became clear that Tom was not fooling around.

In the end, as always, he got his way.

Abraham Lincoln once said that he would rather be a little nobody than an evil somebody. Tom somehow manages to be both.

Just Ducky

“Asses would rather have hay than gold.” – Heraclitus

There were six of us in the meeting. That’s approximately two more than the number of people it actually takes to get something significant done. The more people in a room, the less likely ideas will be proffered, the less certain real debate will occur, the more likely donuts will be served.

Among those attending was John Drake, a buttoned-down bore with glassy eyes and rubbery lips. He is as remarkable as weeds in a field, conventional in his thinking and bland as tofu. At 30, he has already succeeded in accomplishing nothing. The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but the quacking duck gets shot. So Drake has made his career by going unnoticed. He paddles silently in the pond and when the flock finally goes airborne, he flies well back in the V, sucking off the draft of the duck in front.

He flapped when they flapped.

Our company makes electronic sensors and security equipment for consumer and industrial use. We have a broad range of ZigBee-based wireless sensors and remote controlled building automation devices. Turn turn out the lights, set the alarm, that sort of thing. We are now thinking of adding a line of space heaters that can be operated remotely by phone. So we invited someone each from industrial design, software development, marketing, and finance as well as Drake from sales and distribution. The object of the meeting was not to debate the merits of adding these devices to our product offering but to figure out how to make and sell them profitably. Drake was selected to represent his department because, I suppose, his boss assumed he would be at least as useful as, say, weeds in a field.

The meeting lasted two hours. Our man Drake contributed by listening generously and providing continuous feedback, that is to say, he fed back whatever others said first. That is to say, he flapped when they flapped. At one point, we were looking for a volunteer and I noticed Drake had disappeared (ducked?). He was bent over, his head under the table, ostensibly looking for a pen that had dropped or perhaps he was desperately seeking Susan. It must have been the pen because, when the meeting was over, his notebook was as empty as it was at the start. Almost everyone had a list of things to work on. Drake somehow came away from this working session with no work to do himself. Which is exactly how he had planned it.

Then he waddled away. He waddled away. Waddle waddle. Till the very next day.