Fair Enough

It’s the new year and time to empty last year’s OUT basket.

By this time, appraisals along with evaluations of long term potential, succession plans, promotions, raises, bonuses and so on are in the books. But, once all was said and done, it seems like something more should be said about some of the things that were done.

I admit to being particularly vexed by our bonus system. It is discretionary. That means, in theory, that we have a meritocracy and those who deserve greater consideration will get it. What generally happens, though, is that more senior employees gobble up greater chunks of the pie simply because they are perceived as more valuable. Which means that the bonus system is tiered, not by rating but by level. (See what I did there?)

Do you remember Jessica? She provides content for various social media platforms. She was able to play the system, getting us to pay half of her husband’s very expensive medical plan. That whole business left the Black Widow’s eight eyes looking out of a glass darkly for months. That’s a lot of glowering.

Jessica’s performance met expectations but did not go much beyond them. Whiny Baby, as usual, found reasons to dim the glow on any of her reports and Jessica did not rise above the dreary outlook on her department as a whole.

The Black Widow, with an octet of furrowed brows, was still chafing.

As we have pointed out on several occasions, social media is not an area that captures the attention, much less the imagination, of our senior managers. They generally feel that social media is set up for self-promotion or mischief. Neither contributes to brand building but both could serve as a motivation and a weapon in wrong but capable hands. So take no chances, give Jessica something – a couple of thousand, say – and call it a day.

I argued that we are giving her too much credit. Rigor Mortis, our wise but weather-beaten legal advisor, pointed out that awarding a bonus is a de facto judgment on performance that can be levered against us if we ever decided to terminate. The Black Widow, with an octet of furrowed brows, was still chafing. Jessica did enough to earn her salary, she said, but not enough to merit a bonus. “And would two grand even be enough?” she wondered aloud. To use an analogy from Winston Churchill, can you satisfy a tiger by feeding it cat’s meat?

Ironically, that last query settled the matter. Our practical and otherwise parsimonious CEO, the Man from Glad, figured that if no one was truly happy by the amount of the bonus, it must be fair. So, we shrugged two grand her way and moved on.

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.

 

Throne for a Loop

Quid rides? Mutato nomine de te fabula narrator. (Why do you laugh? Change the name and this is your story.)

So here’s a few things you’ve got to know about black widow spiders. Not the Small Office version, not our head of human resources, filled with venom and shrouded in mystery though she is. No, the real black widows. They are rather shy creatures, preferring to stay low to the ground, hidden in dark corners. They seldom bite unless threatened or (literally) pressed hard and, even then, won’t necessarily waste their venom on you; they’d rather save it for a meal. The venom won’t kill, though it could make you quite ill.

Black widow spiders are also kind of neat, with a very complex system of communication. They can transmit very detailed messages using vibrations and pheromones deposited on the silky threads of their sticky webs. The scent will tell visiting males if his female host has mated before and if she is hungry. Both would be of keen interest to the male if this particular female is the kind that consumes her mate after sex.

Now you are likely very confused, still unsure if I am talking about black widows in general or the one in particular. I cannot blame you; personally, I can hardly tell them apart.

Anyway, our Black Widow has an office with its very own bathroom. It makes sense to be self-contained; everything HR should be kept under wraps after all. And low to the ground and hidden in dark corners.

Earlier this week, she had an important management meeting to attend and, knowing it was likely to drag on, decided to lighten her load. On this day, however, fortune was not on her side. Her toilet blocked.

So more latin: Media vita in morte sumus. Smack in the middle of the day, her life going along just fine, everything came to a sudden stop. Our Black Widow was in deep… uh… trouble.

Now she was not totally helpless. She had a plunger standing at the ready in a corner. And a knife and fork for that matter. This happened before and Black Widow knew what to do. She plunged. But nothing. She plunged again. Nothing again. Plunge, plunge. Nothing, nothing. This was not a good thing. The hourglass tattooed on her abdomen was filling with panic. Plunge, plunge.

She tried to break up the pieces, but the hardness she showed others was coming back to her in spades and the pieces held firm. The cookies, shall we say, wouldn’t crumble.

A stifled shriek could be heard through the door.

Time passed. The meeting had already started. The secretary poked her head in the doorway. Is everything okay? she called out to her boss. Black Widow answered her meekly. Vibrations. Pheromones. She tried to explain her dilemma as delicately as she could. The secretary tried not to laugh. Don’t press the spider.

Well, whoever said “a trouble shared is a trouble halved” wasn’t in Black Widow’s office that day.

Her colleagues, wondering where she was, decided to check in on her. The first to arrive was – fortunately for her – Rigor Mortis. He has a calmness about him that is contagious. Is everything okay? he asked the secretary. Not quite so, came the reply. Does she have a plunger? Yes. Always. Does it have a flange at the bottom? He asked our awkwardly inconvenienced arachnid though the door. Is the flange out? I can help you if you need. Noooo!, Black Widow wailed.

General Ledger then appeared, straight as an arrow. To the heart. Then Bull Terrier. When the nature of this particular beastly situation became apparent to him, a wicked smile began to form at the corners of his lips. Can I help, he asked our mortified araneomorph. Plunge, plunge. I don’t want to bowl you over with advice, he went on. All that plunging must have made you quite flushed. He snickered.

The Black Widow went into a frenzy, pumping so hard, the soupy mess splattered all over her pants and shoes. A stifled shriek could be heard through the door.

Our supportive and mostly sensitive CEO, the Man from Glad, entered the fray. As did his bosomy secretary, Miss Pigeon. The circumstances may not have been auspicious, but you have to give Black Widow credit: she is certainly able to draw a crowd.

Well, Miss Pigeon may be top-heavy and hard to take but, as in the Desktop Affair, she took matters in hand (so to speak) and shooed everyone out of the room. She called down to maintenance and apprised them of the situation. Then she told Black Widow to clean up and get out. This she did… and well she did because the maintenance guy appeared shortly.

Undeterred by the odiferous and oleaginous slop, he worked on the blockage and quickly resolved the issue. He left with a tip of his cap and without a word.

Aesop’s fables made use of humble incidents to teach great truths. There was no great truth to our tale, however, no moral to learn, no aetiological function to derive. There was nothing to learn from it at all except, perhaps, that misery does not really love company. But, like a traffic accident, it certainly manages to attract it.

Hired Gun

“The average girl would much rather have beauty than brains because she knows the average man can see better than he can think.” (Ladies’ Home Journal)

Linda is responsible for social media. To be honest, the Small Office pays lip service to social media, being more of a “push” kind of company than a “pull” one. It focuses on the channel first and the end user second. Few of our C level executives know the difference between Instagram and Pinterest and most can’t imagine why they would care. They know about Google, but Google+? None would ever tweet or blog. The notoriety, accessibility and reciprocity that make social media work make them nervous. So Linda has her work cut out. And she works for Whiny Baby, which has its own challenges.

So it was a big deal when the company agreed to hire a second person to work for Linda. The title would be content marketer. The job is to create interesting and relevant material that will drive visitors our website. The person would have to be creative and talented and have a university degree.

Linda was in the process of interviewing candidates when one of Whiny Baby’s superiors came in from left field and offered up a candidate of his own. The message was: do the interview and, if everything is good, hire her. Case closed. So Linda interviewed this person. Everything, however, was not good.

What this person had going for her was a very healthy ego and a very useful connection. What she did not was creativity, talent or a university degree. She was not worried about being able to do the job. After all, how hard could it be? And is Linda really going to be her boss?

So Linda told Whiny Baby that this particular candidate was not right for the job, thank you for asking. Can she continue on with her original list? The message came back that, in fact, the job was pretty well promised to this person, so make it work.

Linda complained that, if she is to have an employee, she should be the one to decide who that employee would be. The message came back that this is her first hire and that she should not get ahead of herself.

When Linda protested again, an impatient and rather impetuous message came back suggesting that perhaps the issue here is that she is threatened by another woman, that perhaps the other woman is prettier than she is. Linda went ballistic.

The illusion of strength is his greatest weakness.

At this point, I was asked by Whiny Baby to intervene. Find an old cat to catch an old rat, I suppose. She came to see me, frustrated both by the situation and the need to ask someone else to resolve it. It was, she believed, a serious matter and no one, she suspected, would take her seriously. I invited her to sit in a comfortable leather chair I keep for just such occasions.

The unfortunate thing here is that once Whiny Baby’s superior “stepped in it”, it could be difficult to remove the stink it will almost certainly cause. He could well become very defensive and aggressive down the road, resentful that Whiny Baby went over his head. With seniority, after all, comes prestige and prerogative and she had challenged both.

Bertie Forbes, the founder of Forbes magazine, once said that it is not a disgrace to be defeated, but it is one to stay defeated. The thing about our senior manager is that he behaved inappropriately and then compounded his difficulties by being even more inappropriate. For reasons and, perhaps, obligations that only he would know, he dug a hole for himself. And then kept digging. He had better hope that our no nonsense CEO, the Man from Glad, does not come upon the hole and spot him there.

I will give him a way to climb out, though I imagine he’d have to hold his nose the whole time. First, he would have to lose his imperious attitude. Then he should invite Linda to his lofty perch and talk with her about her job and the new posting that she is trying to fill. He should neither mention nor apologize for the “looks” comment; the less said about that, the better. Then he should tell Linda that he trusts her judgment and she should hire whoever she thinks is right for the job. And don’t worry about the person he suggested; he will take care it. After the hire is made, drop in to see Linda and ask her with the most sincere voice he can muster how it is going. If he is lucky, that is the last anyone will hear of it.

Now this senior manager may think he has no need to be contrite. But he is not nearly as strong as he thinks he is. Indeed, the illusion of strength is his greatest weakness. And thinking he could leverage that strength was his greatest error.

Dead End

Today is fire, tomorrow is ashes. This adage-like statement owes its roots to the Inuit, but has been lifted and flipped around by a heavy metal band called As We Fight. It is the title of a song in their album, The Darkness of the Apocalyse Has Fallen Before Us. (And so on and so forth.) I have not been able to differentiate the song from the apocalypse, the noise of the first being the finest expression of the second. But that’s another post for someone else to write on a terribly dark and stormy night.

One of our young and very promising accountants, James T., was transferred to a recently purchased, wholly owned subsidiary to become its Director of Finance. He is a math wizard who is able to make the numbers say whatever we want them to say. Which is one of the reasons he now finds himself in a mess not of his own making.

The subsidiary is not doing well. It is trailing its targets by a fair bit. The President of that company has been there for years and knows full well what it is capable of achieving between now and year end in the hyper-competitive market in which it is competing. All indications are that the company will lose share and probably money this year. But those are not the indications it is giving the Small Office. The numbers finding their way to General Ledger, our CFO with the Frisbee ears, show an upward swing in the second half of the year. The turn-around will be sparked by some aggressive pricing tactics the company has already initiated on a few core products. Apparently, at least one major customer conversion is in the mix.

Never a believer in the “big December”, I headed down to talk to their senior managers and commercial folks to get their view of things. While there, I dropped in on James.

His door was slightly ajar. I should have knocked. Well, I did knock, but I should have waited for some acknowledgment. When I entered his office, I found James hunched over his computer with tears streaming down his cheeks. I was certainly not ready for that. I gently closed the door and sat down, waiting for him to regain his composure.

James was being gored by the horns of a real dilemma.

James turned around slowly. His chest heaved as he sucked in oxygen. “What the heck is going on?” I asked softly. He shrugged. Then, after a pause, he unwound a very tangled tale of financial woe. Apparently, our fears were justified. There was no way the planned initiatives were going to change the results in any appreciable way. There was certainly no way they were going to meet their forecasts. Everyone in the company knew this, but the President was insistent that they move ahead with their plans and that James sticks with his numbers.

Now James had a fiduciary responsibility as chief accountant to go behind the President’s back and make all this clear to General Ledger. But that would mean betraying his boss to whom he was loyal. If they didn’t make the numbers and all this came out – that he was hiding the truth – both the President and James would be instantly fired with cause. James was being gored by the horns of a real dilemma. Or, to borrow from our adage, James was under fire and would soon see his career turn to ashes. He could see the end but could not find a way to avoid it.

Whether or not a turn-around is really in the offing, whether or not the year can be saved, it is absolutely imperative for James to come clean. General Ledger would then be in full possession of the current facts and correctly advise the analysts of what to expect; he cannot afford to lose their trust.

I told James that I do understand his situation and I sympathize with him. But he shouldn’t have to fall on his boss’s sword. If he can’t get himself to go over his boss’s head, then confront him and refuse to fudge the numbers any longer – even temporarily. Or, as the politician said, “There comes a time to put principle aside and do what’s right.”

So now, let us zip to the end of the story. James did listen to me. He drew a line in the sand. His boss informed the Man from Glad that, despite their best intentions and best laid plans, it was unlikely they would meet the numbers they had only recently provided head office.

Our no-nonsense CEO reacted swiftly. Both the President and James were summarily dismissed. An interim General Manager, one from General Ledger’s White Shirt Brigade, was appointed.

All of this proves that it is easier to die for a cause than to live for it.

To the curious reader: The actual Inuit adage referred to above goes: Yesterday is ashes; tomorrow wood. Only today does the fire burn brightly. The message is about hope, redemption, resurrection, that the burnt forest will soon regenerate and become green again. So, perhaps, there will be a new, brighter beginning for James ahead. Then again, perhaps not.