Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Corporatorium: Happy, Happy, Happy (Episode 14)

The Global Director of HR’s webcast was scheduled for 9 AM EST which meant I actually needed to be in the office on time.  I arrived in the office, with two minutes to spare, to witness Ivy skipping down the hall and trilling, “I’m happy, happy, happy!”  TWO and the other two Cerberus stared after her in dismay.

“Look,” Ivy called over her shoulder, “I’m exhibiting brand behavior!”

“Do you suppose she’s gone off her meds?” Barbara the first asked with concern.

“Either that or she’s taken an overdose,” Diana answered.

It was a widely held supposition within our department that Ivy was on some sort of prescription mood altering drug.  The supposition was held despite an overwhelming absence of hard evidence.  Still, we clung to our collective belief much as one clings to the supposition that one’s overweight coworker must eat ravenously despite the fact that one has never seen her or him consume more calories than those contained in the occasional sip of conspicuously diet coke.

Learning that TWO had decided we would each dial in separately from our individual workstations, I went to my cell pretending not to see the Cerberus, led by the still skipping Ivy, filing into her office and closing her door.

***


As promised, the call was hosted by our Director of Global Human Resources.  It was a mystery how he—a man so remote, so lacking in basic human warmth, that one wit was prompted to declare, “He has all the warmth of Formica!”—could become the director of human resources.  Then again if you regarded people, employees, fellow human beings, as “resources,” scarcely more or less important than coal or gas, which, once mined, refined and manipulated to satisfy some human need, was easily replaced when depleted or forgotten when no longer necessary.

“In the global HR transformation space, winning organizations are rethinking their talent management and rewards programs,” he began.  “We’re no different.  It is our intent to become a destination for top performers.

“As you know, we have formed a decentralized Center of Excellence model for our business processes and client engagements around thought leadership, best practices and innovation in strategic talent management and new economy leadership.  Our Excellence model follows a multi-pronged strategy focused on maximizing the effectiveness of our top performers. Redefining our performance model, leveraging technology, innovative sourcing and reorganizing processes and roles will be the keys to our success.” 

Xavier Jiménez @Madame X
Translation, please.

Nigel Gale @MannequinMan
We’re screwing you to make money.  Again.

“Already the Center of Excellence model is contributing directly to shareholder value,” he continued.

Nigel Gale @MannequinMan
Translation: executive bonuses.

“As our CEO informed you yesterday, it is our intent to build a culture where every team member exceeds expectations every time in every encounter.”

Now this was, of course, impossible since if everyone always exceeded expectations in every action, it would be a clear indication to leadership that expectations were set too low and would have to be calibrated higher.

“To do this successfully, to encode excellence into our DNA, requires us to change our performance model and rewards program to ensure we inspire our team members to exceed expectations, every time and in every endeavor—and reward that behavior.  Thus, we are making some changes.  Effective immediately, increases in pay will no longer be tied to cost of living or length of service or even overall company performance but will be pinned exclusively to individual performance.  Any team member scoring ‘meets expectations’ or below in any given year will be ineligible to receive an increase in that year.  You must score ‘exceeds expectations’ at least 4 quarters in a row to receive an increase.  To be eligible for promotion you must score at least an ‘exceeds expectations’ 8 quarters in a row.”

TWO gasped audibly.  “That’s four reviews a year!”Clearly she was still having problems with her mute button. 

TWO could barely get through annual performance evaluations.  Besides being conflict-averse, she was also too disinterested in us to know what we did or how well we did it so, most often, under the guise of ‘self-evaluation’ we were required to write our own performance evaluations.  If you were smart, you approached your self-evaluation as if it were an essay entitled “Here’s Why You Should Not Only Not Fire Me But Give Me A Raise.”

I knew further that TWO would be enormously displeased by this new insistence that everyone should be an “exceeds expectations” because this was at odds with her stubbornly held and oft-voiced opinion that “No one is a five (the numerical rating associated with the ‘exceeds expectation’ rating).  No one is perfect.”

I couldn’t tell if this new performance appraisal model was better or worse than the current Forced Ranking Appraisal system, aka the infamous and much hated Bell Curve popularized by GE’s own Devil, Jack Welch.  Under the system managers ranked their direct reports from best to worst using a 5-digit scoring code, 1 being the worst, 5 being the best, and applied the rankings to a bell curve which would be used to determine pay as well as who would be fired.

But, I did know that everyone would see this as another cost-cutting measure.  The Corporation would save money since obviously under the exceed expectations model no one would qualify for a raise.  Ever.  Lizzie Borden was big on cutting costs—from laying off employees to cutting back on paper consumption. One of her first executive decisions had involved the suspension of the distribution of paper pay stubs or even paper paychecks.  If you expected to be paid, you had to sign up for direct deposit.

If you wanted hard-copy of your pay stub you could bloody print well it out yourself.  Preferably from home.  Using your own ink and paper.  Thus, the employee pay site was only accessible from outside the Corporation, i.e. from home.  When questioned about this IT cited the dreaded but irrefutable “irreconcilable firewall issues.”  This move had reportedly saved the corporation $300,000 annually. 

Lizzie Borden had proven once that you could, indeed, get blood from a stone and clearly she was hell-bent on proving it again.

“Furthermore—and this is great news for everyone on this call—we are launching a new reward program designed to reward you for excelling in your role.  Called the Best in Show program it singles out and rewards the highest performers—”

Xavier Jiménez @Madame X
For what?  Random acts of violence launched by disgruntled under-performers?

Brooklyn Sudano @Brooklyn NY
Best in Show?  Are we dogs now?

Nigel Gale @MannequinMan
Woof!

“We are so pleased with this reward program that our Talent Acquisition and Management Group is looking to package it and market it to our clients,” he added triumphantly.  He paused fully five minutes to let this news sink in. 

Xavier Jiménez @Madame X
Houston, we have a problem!

Brooklyn Sudano @Brooklyn NY
The thinking behind this problem is so $@#% up that I doubt the problem can be solved.

Nigel, quoting Abbey Hoffman of the Chicago Seven, brought the conversation to an unexpected close.

Nigel Gale @MannequinManThere is no problem so big, nor so complex, that it can't be solved with a suitable application of strategically-placed high explosives.

This is the final episode of Season One.

Missed Episode 13, We Are Happy? Read it here.

Read the entire series from the beginning here.

Copyright © 2016 Larry Benjamin

D I S C L A I M E R
The characters and events described in this blog post exist only in its pages and the author's imagination.

Feel free to comment on this story, or share your own experiences in Corporate America below. Also, connect with me on Twitter & Facebook

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Corporatorium: We Are Happy (Episode 13)

“Churl! You—are—late!” Terry announced as I stepped off the elevator.

Now you may have noticed by now that I am almost always late.  Normally any statement of the obvious does not warrant my attention, but coming from Terry who was too keen, too creatively sarcastic to use the obvious as a conversational gambit, I turned around and raised an eyebrow.  “For?”

“The Lizzie Borden webcast?” he stated more question than answer, raising an eyebrow to match mine.

“Shit! Why aren’t you on it?”

He pointed to the discreet earplug jammed into his head and mouthed, “I am.  Your battleaxes are logged in from the conference room.” Then he shouted at my hastily retreating back, “It’s just starting.  Technical difficulties, you know, caused a delay.”  I could feel the eye roll.

I pushed into the room and no one looked up, damning testimony to the accepted fact of my habitual lateness.  Lizzie Borden’s voice boomed from the speakerphone.  Nigel pushed a chair out for me.  The Cerberus looked at me, disapproval at the ready, then looked at TWO for guidance.  As she was studiously ignoring my late entrance, they did likewise and folded up their collective frowns, though I’m sure somewhere another black mark was entered on my permanent record

“We are pleased to inform you that The Corporation is rolling out a new brand campaign,” Lizzie Borden began.  “As you probably know, a Brand is a distinctive identity that differentiates a relevant, enduring and credible promise of value associated with an organization and indicates the source of that promise. The promise must, of course, be tangible and predictably manifested in an organization’s business behavior and, ultimately, in its client relationships and services.

“What you may not know, is that a successful brand can enhance the perception of value of that organization’s product or services.  In fact, studies show that a brand name can command a premium of up to 19 percent over a  less well-known or respected brand.  That directly translates into a 19% increase in revenue!

“Our brand is what will define us and what will be our differentiator in the marketplace.  The core essence of our brand consists of consistently exhibiting to our clients a set of behaviors, what we’re calling our ‘brand behaviors’.”

Pressing the mute button, TWO asked incredulously, “So there’s going to be a new brand except instead of a new logo or a color our brand is going to be a set of behaviors?”

“Well, that’s just stupid! Why can’t they just change our logo?” Ivy blurted.

“A logo,” Diana, sighing, intoned, “Is not a brand

TWO glared at her.

“I’m just saying…”

My first encounter with “branding” had occurred years earlier when I worked at a well-established “white shoe” law firm whose name was well known but whose image was a bit outdated, much like the attorneys themselves. The firm had a tendency to refer to itself as, well…”the firm,” which I found both affected and annoying. In an effort to reinvent the firm, from a marketing perspective, it was decided that the brand would be “spit-polished.” The lynchpin of the new brand was a color, which would come to be known as “Firm Blue.”

Firm Blue.  The lead on the creative team, an aging but still buxom, still blonde, bombshell in the Marilyn Monroe mold, had convinced the managing partners, a trio of aging but still vital, respected but degenerate, lotharios, that this particular shade of “blue” had been shown in focus groups to lead to a perception of “higher value.”  Thus ,using that color would allow the firm to charge more for its services, while clients would be left with the feeling that whatever the cost, “it was worth it.”  A win-win for everyone.  Well except me who had the poor judgment to point out that “firm blue” wasn’t actually blue.

I was told in no uncertain terms that firm blue was indeed blue.  “Well surely,” I countered. “It’s the gayest of blues.  In fact, it’s a blue so gay it’s lavender.”  And that is how I found myself working in the Corporatorium.  I saw my time here less as time spent in hell than as time spent in purgatory until I could repent or be forgiven for pointing out the emperor was not so smartly dressed as he thought but was in fact quite naked and really my dear if he was going to debut that new look don’t you think he might have hit the gym the teeniest bit harder in preparation?

Remembering all of this now, I kept my own council about our new brand.

Resignedly, TWO unmuted the call as Lizzie Borden, picking up steam, continued, “Our brand behaviors are as follows: We are happy—we meet our clients with a smile and a positive attitude assuring them by our quiet confidence of a positive outcome.”

“Oh brother!” Ivy said, disgustedly, too loudly.

TWO slapped a finger to her lips and stabbed at the mute button.

Chagrined, Ivy  clapped her palm over her mouth.  The other two Cerberus shook their heads in dismay.  “Tsk. Tsk.”

“We are good stewards,” Lizzie Borden continued blithely, “We treat our clients as we treat ourselves.  Our clients’ problems and challenges become our problems and challenges.  We are as careful with our clients’ money as we are with our own.

“We are committed—We provide clients with creative and responsive solutions that meet their unique needs. We’re committed to delivering services and solutions that will best ensure their success.

“We have a passion for excellence—we strive to exceed client expectations one hundred percent of the time.”

She stopped abruptly, and then collecting herself, continued. “Our new brand is just the public manifestation of our intent to build a culture through which we will adopt and internalize these behaviors so they become the bedrock of our corporation’s future state!”

Diana, Nigel and I were a bit dazed at this point because we’d recently gone through a bruising global rebranding with a major client whose parent company was far removed—both in distance, being located in Switzerland, and in reality, obviously inhabiting the alternate universe their brand seemed to portray—from their U.S.-based subsidiary. 

A stunningly ill-conceived brand, the brand palette consisted of the colors red, black and a yellowish-green so that everything we produced for them looked like a wound. The brand-approved photo library consisted of “people in motion” meaning the photos were all blurred as if the photographer hadn’t known how to focus.  And every person was blonde, impossibly tall and thin doing what only blonde, impossibly tall, thin people did –skiing, playing cricket, lunching at cafes at the foot of impossibly photogenic snow-capped mountains with other blonde, impossibly tall and thin people.  The fact that these photos were not at all representative of the actual employee population bothered no one but us and the company’s U.S.-based HR department.

Clearly, our own leadership team was not at all disturbed by the fact that none of these brand behaviors were currently exhibited, nor were they likely to be convincingly exhibited any time soon.

“Originally, our director of global HR was going to co-host this webcast but we have decided to schedule a separate webcast for tomorrow during which he will explain how our new performance enhancement methodology will support and reinforce our new brand going forward.  This affects every employee so please make every effort to attend.   Thank you for your time today.”

As usual no questions were allowed and she rang off at which point all eyes turned to TWO who shrugged, uttered a singular, “Indeed,” and rose to her feet.  The Cerberus quickly rose as well and forming a phalanx they left the room.

Missed Episode 12, The Brett Factor? Read it here.

Read the entire series from the beginning here.

Final Episode of Season One, Wednesday, August 24.

Copyright © 2016 Larry Benjamin

D I S C L A I M E R
The characters and events described in this blog post exist only in its pages and the author's imagination.

Feel free to comment on this story, or share your own experiences in Corporate America below. Also, connect with me on Twitter & Facebook



Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Corporatorium: The Brett Factor (Episode 12)

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the flashing blue of the Jabber message window. I felt—like the cold hand of death grasping your shoulder—rather than saw the dreaded name.

Brett Buttler: Are you there?
Theus Jones: I’m here
Brett Buttler: Did you get my email?
Theus jones: No.
Brett Buttler: I sent it last night at 10.
Theus Jones: I was offline.
Brett Buttler: Offline?
Theus Jones: Did you need something?
Brett Buttler: Read my email. Set up a call for 9:30. Ping me with the call-in info.
Theus Jones: ‘K

Ten minutes later I’d read his emails—the first of which contained few words and little information and the second of which contained many more words and no information—assembled my team: Nigel, Diana, and Barbara the first whom I’d gotten out of bed—and dialed into the conference call where we waited fifteen minutes for Brett to join.

“How can he be late for his own call?” Barbara the first asked.  We could hear her fixing herbal tea in the background.

“It’s a power thing.”

“Yeah he probably read about it in The Petty Tyrant’s Guidebook,” she grumbled; we could hear her furiously stirring her tea.

“Brett...has joined the call,” the disembodied English-accented voice announced.

Ciao. Ciao!” 

“Tweet! Tweet!” Nigel grumbled.

“Sorry?  What was that?” Brett boomed. “Is everyone on?”

“Yes,” I said. Everyone started to say good morning as if to prove they were indeed present. Brett cut them off barking, “Okay!  Listen up people!  I’m in Washington DC.  I’ve been invited to a prospective client meeting with our colleagues in Talent Acquisition and Management. We have a huge communication opportunity. We need to win this one—”

“No,” Nigel mouthed.  “He needs to win this one.  It’s been six months and he hasn’t sold anything.”

“—I need this team to deliver a solution that will blow them away.  The decision makers will be at this afternoon’s meeting.  The decision team is led by—.”  And here he dropped a name that was one of those names you thought you should recognize but didn’t quite.

“Who?” Diana, the most courageous of us, asked.

“The Vice President’s son,” he snapped exasperated.

The Vice President.  A man rumored to have died during the previous administration but whose death did not prevent him and the still-living President from campaigning and winning re-election. Death also did not prevent him from making the occasional appalling statement or sitting on the boards of some of the largest companies in America and making policy decisions in their best interests. And he remained influential enough to get his son appointed to a high visibility position within an obscure governmental agency. Just imagine the damage he could have wrought if he still walked among the living.

“The opportunity is around recruiting but I want to provide them with an electronic communication solution.  I’m scheduled to meet with them today at 12:30.”

“Today, at 12:30? But that’s three hours from now.” Barbara the first, the very voice of reason pointed out.

“Correct.”

“How are we supposed to come up with a solution in less than three hours?” I asked, even though I should have known better.

“I don’t know!  And I don’t care but you are the solutions guy so I will expect you and this team to figure this out.  You have your team now get to work.  Diana, I’ll need you to come up with two design concepts—they should be edgy and sophisticated and of course adaptable to electronic media.  Nigel, you’ll act as Theus’ deputy doing whatever he needs you to.  Barbara?”

“Yes?” she said softly, while her Harvard degree fairly shouted: “Go away!  You have no power here.”

“Um,” Brett began, sounding less cocky, almost unsure of himself. “I’m…I’m not sure we need you right now.  Maybe later.  After we win this.”

“Okay.” And she promptly dropped off the call. 

“Barbara...has left the call,” the same disembodied English-accented voice informed us.

“Diana I will email you my PowerPoint presentation—I’ll need you to create a couple of slides on the solution that I can speak to.  Theus ping me in an hour with a status report. Ciao. Ciao.”  

“Tweet. Tweet,” Nigel chirruped softly, but louder than the first time, a sure sign he was stressed.

***

“So let me get this straight,” Diana began.  “You want me—”

“—Not me. Brett—”

“—Okay. Brett wants me to come up with a design concept for a solution you haven’t created yet, for a client I haven’t met who works for an organization no one understands.  Is that correct?”

“Yep.”

“That’s impossible,” she spat making me jump.

“Nothing is impossible,” I said.

Diana glared at me.

“Theus is right,” Nigel murmured.  We both turned to look at him. “Look,” he continued in his usual near whisper, “Brett isn’t interested in what’s possible he just wants us to deliver…something spectacular.”

“But that’s impossible.”

“No, it’s not,” I insisted. “Just stop thinking in terms of possibility.”

“What?”

“Suspend reason,” Nigel said. “Look we have a dead vice president who campaigned and won re-election even after he had gone quite cold.  Do you think that would have happened if the administration allowed reason to enter into their thought process?” 

“Nigel has a point—” I began.

“Besides, remember our mantra,” Nigel continued picking up steam. He began to whisper it and we joined in on cue:

“We the willing, led by the unknowing are attempting to do the impossible for the ungrateful.  We have done so much for so long with so little we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”

“So what have you got?” Diana asked me.

“Okay soooo…we have a mysterious agency that needs to recruit employees and Brett wants an all-
electronic solution, right?  So to kick off the campaign we’ll create print ads—maybe billboards that tell you to text a word, for example “info” to a phone number and then you receive a link and a personalized password which lets you into a micro site.  Now this site starts off with a promotional video.  Then you come to a short game.  The game will be designed to measure for the presence of certain competencies.  We’ll capture that info on the backend and use that to send back a text message directing the prospective employee to another site.  Where they’re sent will be based on their score.  The further they get in the process the more info we’ll reveal through videos and animated presentations and such.”  I ran out of steam.

Nigel whistled.  “Can we really do that?”

I shrugged.  “Okay, let’s get started.  I’ll call our IT guys and the games guy.  Nige, I’ll need you to work on pricing.  Call our video guy and tell him what we have in mind.  Diana, you work on your concept and get your pricing to Nigel. Okay.  Anything else?”

Nigel looked embarrassed. 

“What’s up?”

“Look, I was really hoping to leave at noon today.  I found a perfect Chanel suit on eBay and it’s being delivered today.  I can’t wait to see it on Crystal.  I know the other girls will be jealous so I’ll have to change their clothes as well and maybe do their hair...”

I could sense him drifting away.  “Okay, you can still do that.  This is due at twelve-thirty.  Let’s regroup at noon and then you can leave right after.”

***

Diana had done it.  Rather than fight our lack of knowledge or invent information, she’d simply chosen to embrace the unknown and build a concept around “Do you have what it takes to do what we do?”  The whole concept played off the mysterious nature of the agency and made much of the “IT” factor—that certain indefinable something, that je ne sais quoi one needed to be considered for the agency.

“I like it,” I said. I turned to Nigel. “So what does pricing look like?”

Nigel slid an excel spreadsheet towards me. Highlighted at the bottom was a sizable amount.  Looking over my shoulder, Diana whistled.  “Does that include The Brett Factor?”

Because Brett operated as a government agency—inefficient, vague, slightly hysterical and with a complete disregard for budget—The Brett Factor had been created to try to predict the inevitable cost overruns associated with Brett.  It was a simple mathematical formula under which you multiplied the cost of any project involving Brett by The Brett Factor which was equal to the number 1.6.  The factor was based on “Toiletgate,” the scandal in which it was widely reported that the Department of Defense had paid $640 for a toilet seat.  To arrive at The Brett Factor, we took the amount the DOD had paid for the toilet seat in question and divided it by the cost of a high priced Toto toilet seat at The Home Depot, thus arriving at a factor equal to 1.6.

“Okay,” Diana said briskly, “I’ll send this off to Brett.”

“Wait.” I said.  “What if we can’t actually execute on this?”

“Now? Now, you ask this?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Nigel said.

What?  Of course, it matters.”

“No.  It doesn’t,” he insisted. “Look, it’s not like they’re going to buy this.”

“Nigel’s right,” Diana ever-practical said.  “This solution is too out there, too cutting edge.  Don’t get me wrong—it’s brilliant, but it’s something that would attract all kinds of attention and the last thing this agency wants is to get noticed.”

“So you’re saying we go with it?”

They both nodded.

Theus Jones: I just emailed the presentation with speaker notes explaining the solution, and the design concept and price quote to you. 
Brett Buttler: Thank you.

***

One of the admin assistants had stopped at Nigel’s cell and was staring intently at a large framed photo.  “Hi,” I said.

“Hey!” She jumped.  “Who are all those women with Nigel?  What is he? A pimp?”

“Look, again,” I suggested.

She peered closer. “They’re…mannequins?” 

“Uh huh.”

She whistled. “Weird.”

“Why?”

“I meant weird that he would have that photo here.”

“Why? You have pictures of your ten cats.”

“Yeah, but they’re my family.”

“Well, maybe they’re his family.”
 
She looked at me oddly for a moment, shrugged and then walked off.  I perched on the edge of Nigel’s desk and held the photo in my hands staring at it for a long time.


Nigel Gale @Mannequin Man
depression, failure, an unexpected undertow drawing me away. my girls grab hold, sensing my inability to save myself, they will save me

Missed Episode 11, Bats? Read it here.

Read the entire series from the beginning here.

Next Episode Wednesday, August 17.

Copyright © 2016 Larry Benjamin

D I S C L A I M E R
The characters and events described in this blog post exist only in its pages and the author's imagination.

Feel free to comment on this story, or share your own experiences in Corporate America below. Also, connect with me on Twitter & Facebook



Friday, August 5, 2016

The Corporatorium: Bats (Episode 11)

As I wrestled my outsized binder down the hall, I passed Diana handing out print samples with unusual energy. “Oh, good, you’re back,” she said in her let's-get-straight-to-the-point manner. “You’re debriefing us at the production meeting. Meeting’s moved to 10. TWO’s running late.  Bats.”

Bats?

I was distracted by the familiar “ping” of an incoming MOO.  Soon followed the familiar chorus of resigned sighs that seemed to whisper “What now?”

M E M O R A N D U M  O F  O P P O R T U N I T Y !

From: The Office of the CEO
           The Office of the Director, Global Human Resources
To: All Employees

A company-wide web cast has been scheduled for this Friday at 12 noon EST. 

While we realize you may have client obligations that will preclude you from attending this webcast, we strongly encourage you to make every effort to attend.  We will be announcing important changes we are implementing as we reposition our firm for increased success in the competitive global marketplace.  These changes will affect many of our processes and procedures and will impact every employee.

This important webcast will be recorded and uploaded to our employee message board so you can listen to it in its entirety at any time.
A Lotus Notes Calendar invitation with login/dial-in information will be disseminated shortly.

Uh oh! Until now, the new Leadership Team, unable to tell us what we should do, despite the millions poured into their collective purse each year, told us instead what we had done.  The Leadership team, without understanding what was wrong, had apparently now decided to take corrective action.

Nigel was standing in the doorway of Ivy, one of the Cerberus as she read the MOO. “Oh Psshaw!” she exclaimed on finishing.

Ivy was our Miss Havisham her yellowed, torn dress, the way things were under The Previous; a tattered much read procedures manual clutched firmly to her aging chest, Miss Havisham’s faded bouquet.  And like Miss Havisham, Ivy steadfastly refused to believe the world had moved on, her dream vanquished. Dedicated to what had been, she would have had the clocks stopped at the moment The Previous fell if she could.

The Previous was the leadership team who had been summarily dismissed and replaced by the current team led by Lizzie Borden and Capital B.  The current team was thus referred to as The After.

“You should come over some time,” Nigel suggested quietly. “You’d like my girls.”

***

Ten o’clock.

“So,” Barbara the first said delicately. “Bats?”

“Yeah, again,” TWO said resignedly.

The Cerberus gasped sympathetically.

“Where?”

“In one of the upstairs bathrooms.  Evidently Bruce thought the room was stuffy so he opened a window.  The screen fell out and the bats flew in. The Batman is coming this afternoon.  I left Bruce to deal with him.”  Bruce, her beleaguered husband, like gold hammered thin.

“But how awful,” Barbara the second said. “Why would bats want to fly into your house?”

“I blame Hollywood and that awful Anne Rice,” Ivy said. “After all, they were the ones who made vampires seems so glamorous. And then next thing you know they’re being received in polite society and you just knew that once that happened, it wouldn’t be long before their less desirable cousins—the bats—would be pushing themselves in where they weren’t wanted—like decent people’s bathrooms!

“Indeed,” TWO said noncommittally.

“Indeed.” repeated one of the Cerberus. 

“Yes, indeed,” one of the less original of the Cerberus said.

“So tell, us—how was the meeting?” Barbara the first suggested quietly, adroitly changing the subject.

“Yes,” TWO said picking up the cue. “How is Miss Valdosta Feed and Grain?”

The Cerberus giggled.  My mouth literally dropped open.  TWO rarely indulged in this sort of open aggression.  She was too passive-aggressive for that.  Something must have happened on the Officers call this morning.  

“Well…” I began.

“—Wait! Who?” Barbara the second asked.

“Miss Valdosta Feed and Grain,” Barbara the first repeated, “She means Savannah.”

“Oh.  Why do you call her that?”

TWO gaped at Barbara “You mean you don’t know?  I thought everyone had heard that story.  Savannah is a former beauty queen from Valdosta, Georgia.  And winner of the Miss Valdosta Feed and Grain beauty contest—”

“—three years running,” I put in.

“So can you debrief us on your meeting?  Or is that confidential?” Diana asked hoping to get us back on track so the interminable production meeting would end sometime in the current century.

Dutifully, I explained the Center of Excellence concept and the placement of “Excellerators” within each region.

“Excellerators?” Barbara the first giggled.  “Really?  That’s what they’re calling you?”

“Uh huh.”  I nodded miserably.

“Well,” said Ivy with uncharacteristic vigor, “The Previous may not have known what they were doing but clearly neither do these people!” 

The words hung in the air, a stunning betrayal of The Previous.  Scandalized, the other Cerberus tutted in disapproval. TWO’s bloodless lips drew into a thin line.  A single word: “Indeed,” issued forth with all the finality of a slammed door.

The meeting ended abruptly and TWO and the two Cerberus still in favor left the room.  The rest of us, stunned, remained, cast into the darkness for heresy, for our collective silence had been construed as complicity.

Ivy stared dully at us. She looked dazed to find herself abandoned, left alone to face a future she hadn’t seen coming.

***

My phone danced on the nightstand. It was after midnight. I knew, without looking, it was a tweet from Nigel, for only in the stillness of that hour did Nigel feel able to give voice to his discontent.

Nigel Gale @MannequinMan
Aging quietly, noisily. joints crackle like kindling. pubic hair coarse & fine: copper wire & silver thread. my ageless girls brittle as I

Missed Episode 10, Excelleration? Read it here.

Read the entire series from the beginning here.

Next Episode Wednesday, August 10.

Copyright © 2016 Larry Benjamin

D I S C L A I M E R
The characters and events described in this blog post exist only in its pages and the author's imagination.

Feel free to comment on this story, or share your own experiences in Corporate America below. Also, connect with me on Twitter & Facebook


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Corporatorium: Excelleration (Episode 10)

I spent most of the following two days trying to avoid Brett; as he seemed to be trying to avoid me as well, this was accomplished easily enough.  Besides, he seemed too busy with Savannah to bother the rest of us.


Watching Brett and Savannah interact was endlessly amusing for while they publicly professed to adore each other—Brett going so far as to announce boldly, “We’re twins separated at birth!”—they seemed to actually despise each other. Publicly, they always had their heads together leaving the impression that they were conceiving The Next Great Thing.  More likely though, they were plotting against the rest of us.  Presumably when they were alone, they plotted against each other.

The Corporation was big on discovering The Next Great Thing.  A year before the financial collapse it had been helping clients win the war for talent.  Now it was Centers of Excellence.  So the search was on for the next Next Great Thing.  They had even formed Innovation teams to answer the Innovation Challenge whose winning entry would be, by definition, The Next Great Thing.

Meetings began each day at 8 a.m. with a “working” breakfast which meant that you were forced to listen to Savannah while you ate.  I attended each meeting fortified with the contents of Nigel’s survival kit, Savannah’s near-senseless words a near-constant assault against the skein of my Xanax-fueled indifference. This indifference had the invaluable effect of sparing me confusion.

Savannah’s monologues were frequently accompanied by stupefying PowerPoint presentations full of Excel spreadsheets, whose tiny print was impossible to read, pie charts and words like “noble purpose,” and “synergy.”

Each day of exhaustive listening ended in a mandatory “mixer.” The stated purpose of said mixers was so we’d each get to know each other better as the Center of Excellence model called for us to function as a cohesive team. 

“To create unmatched teams,” Savannah said grandly, “We will harness all of our diversity.” She opened her arms to encompass the room—a room in which, it should be pointed out, all the faces, save mine, were pale and anxious. And while we were about evenly divided between male and female, the women all looked like boyish imitations of the men, a favored daughter pretending to be “dad,” playing up the slight resemblance between them by dressing like him and adopting his mannerisms.

“Doesn’t she mean ‘mismatched teams’?” someone whispered.  

“These teams,” Savannah explained raising her voice to silence to offending whisperer, “will create for clients a ‘high touch’ experience stressing sharing and understanding a common set of core values that align with each client’s vision. Each team will work to identify and present a mutually agreeable solution that can be achieved by outsourcing HR Administration and set benchmarks and goals that can be monitored.  You’ll promote mutual accountability with focus on having the administrative services align with the pre-identified goals and objectives thus ensuring that the participant experience and performance metrics match expectations.  Any questions?”

There was just one asked by a young woman who was either new to The Corporation or intent on committing career suicide. “Yes, I have one.  What exactly is it we’ll be doing as part of the COE?”

“That’s the beauty of the COE model for us as communicators,” Savannah answered. “We don’t have to do anything.  Under the model we’re provided a global network of resources through a single local point of access.  Each of you will be the local point of access for your particular team.   The Implementation team does all the work through deployment.  We are simply the ‘Excellerators.’ That means your only job is to listen for future opportunities to expand our scope of services and to build a relationship with the client so that you can become a trusted adviser.”

We all fell silent.  Well, except for Brett who was barking into his cell phone, his face aflame, like a beacon of terror.  He must have felt the daggers of enmity Savannah threw his way because, without lowering his voice, he shot her a withering look, and stormed from the room.
“Any other questions?” Savannah asked of the vacuum his exit left behind.

As no laptops, tablets, or cell phones were allowed during the interminable meetings (Brett seemed to hold the lone exemption), you had to do all of your work after the nightly mandatory “mixer.”  Thus it was after midnight when I got the message from Diana.  Characteristically short she said simply: “Call me.”

“Hey,” I said when she answered on the first ring. “What’s up?”

Sleepily she mentioned the name of our biggest client, the eagle daily eating my liver.

The client was the world’s leading purveyor of inexpensive assemble-it-yourself furniture and home accessories of every stripe.  In their stores you could not only design your own kitchen, you could assemble the cabinets, which came in a kit, yourself.  You could buy paint, tile, and appliances.  You could even furnish your new kitchen right down to the pots and pans and dishes, and then buy the groceries to make the meals you’d cook in those pots and serve on those dishes—all without leaving the store! 

You got your own merchandise off the shelves, wheeled it through the store to the check out where you checked it out yourself and then bagged it yourself—assuming, of course, you brought your own supply of bags.  They employed thousands yet I was never sure what these employees did except “direct consumer traffic.” 

In a stunning example of truth in advertising, the retail giant’s tagline was: I Did It. Myself.

The few times I’d attempted to shop there the expedition had ended badly. I’d fight the scores of shoppers who wandered about slowly yet determinedly, as if sleep walking—looking for the one thing I’d come to buy. I’d find ten other things that had nothing to do with what I’d come to buy, and which I wasn’t sure I actually needed. After hours of walking I would no longer remember what I’d come for, or what I actually needed, and once I saw how long the check-out lines were, I’d abandon my cart and leave swearing never to return.

Yet despite what was hardly a unique experience, the store remained wildly popular and was hugely successful.  Management was also, unfortunately, insane.  To make matters worse, their billionaire owner was a notorious penny-pincher and “sensitivity to cost” had become part of their culture and brand.  The sly old devil had managed to turn penny-pinching into a virtue by embedding it in their Core Values and “Value Proposition.”

We were in the process of helping them rollout their Employee Value Proposition—a proposition so outlandish, and so complex that words had not yet been invented to describe it. That task had fallen to me and my team of mushrooms; we’d replaced words with “graphic representations” illustrating the value proposition.  This worked well for the company as they were known for “universal” instructions which were simply a series of illustrations as clear as hieroglyphics that purportedly “walks you step-by-step through the assembly process.”

I stifled a groan. “What’s wrong?”

“They want to reprint the Employee Value Proposition booklets.”

“What? Why?” I gasped, “Is something wrong in them?”  I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case—as I’d made up everything in the booklet. Still I was worried.  Once we’d printed 10,000 refrigerator magnets with phone numbers for various employee resources for a client.  Unfortunately, the client had transposed a pair of numbers and no one had verified the numbers by calling them as was standard practice within the peer-review process. As a result of the oversight, distraught employees suffering the loss of a beloved pet, or on the brink of divorce, who called the Employee Assistance Program, were connected to a phone sex line.

“Nothing’s wrong with them—except they think they look too expensive.  Remember we used that glossy stock so the cover illustrations would pop? It didn’t cost any more than the matte stock, but now they think it looks too expensive so they want to reprint on dull stock and while we’re at it can we use thinner paper for the inside pages…”

“But we can’t absorb the cost for that since nothing is wrong and they signed off on the stock!”  I sputtered.

“Oh,” Diana said in her typically droll manner, “They’re perfectly willing to pay for both print jobs.”

“We printed what? Thirteen thousand brochures?  That’s going to cost them a fortune—times two!”

“They know that.  They don’t mind paying a fortune; they just don’t want to look as if they did.”

I know nothing if not when to concede defeat.  “Fine.  Let’s call and get the printer to reprint.”

“Already done,” she said crisply.  “It’s a rush job so they’ll run a crew through the weekend and we’ll ship to locations on Monday.  Via Fed Ex overnight so we still make the deadline.”  Her efficiency fairly crackled over the phone line.

“Fed Ex overnight?!  What’s that gonna cost?”

“You don’t want to know!  And again they will pay for it.”

“Thanks, Diana. You’re a Prince among artists.”

She tutted me.  “I’m married now, remember? So I’m officially the artist formerly known as Prince.

Damn!  Her name change screwed up some perfect cleverness.  “Speaking of which, why are you still in the office?  Don’t you have a husband to go home to?”

“Oh, him.  It’s been so long since I’ve seen him, I’m not sure I remember him.  I’m told he’s very nice though.  Do you find it at all telling that you called me in the office even though it’s well after midnight?”

“Good point.  I’m going to bed.  Oh, do I need to call the client?”

“Nah.  It’s taken care of.  Besides if you call them, you’ll have to bill them—and you know how sensitive they are about money.”  Laughing, she hung up.

***

On the final day, we were each issued enormous 3-ring binders containing hundreds of pages and multiple flash drives which themselves contained innumerable PDFs, which I would have shipped to me at great expense via Fed Ex as I couldn’t possibly carry it with me on the plane because I was already “over weight” according to the TSA.  No doubt because of all that lotion.

Missed Episode 9, Caipirinha? Read it here.

Read the entire series from the beginning here.

Next Episode Friday, August 5.

Copyright © 2016 Larry Benjamin

D I S C L A I M E R
The characters and events described in this blog post exist only in its pages and the author's imagination.

Feel free to comment on this story, or share your own experiences in Corporate America below. Also, connect with me on Twitter & Facebook


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Corporatorium: Caipirinha (Episode Nine)

“Huh?”  I asked helplessly.  We were in the middle of yet another production meeting, and I thought I’d heard my name mentioned. 

“You’re going to…” and here TWO named our southern office located in some North Carolina backwater.

“But, why?”

“Training,” TWO said.  “Capital B has decided to decentralize certain functions now centralized there.  We’ll need you to get up to speed as you’ll be the chief liaison between the Northeast and Southeast regions.

“Why me?” I asked.  My fear of flying is well known and to her credit TWO did an admirable job hiding her glee at my discomfiture.

She gave me an answer but what it was I don’t know as her words were drowned out by the sound of smoke being blown up my ass.

“Oh,” she said rising.  “One more thing: Brett will be going with you.”

***

Nigel sidled up to my cell, glanced up and down the hall and slipped into the narrow space.  “Here,” he said thrusting several small glassine packets at me.

“What’s this?”

“A survival kit for your trip,” he said mysteriously.

***

At the airport, I was accosted by a burly, grumpy woman in a TSA uniform as I attempted to clear security.  I am convinced TSA does their recruiting exclusively among ex-Nuns discharged from their teaching duties for extreme cruelty, and who were only too happy to substitute the Word of the Director of Homeland Insecurity for papal infallibility.  I caught her eyeing my hand and I knew instinctively she was wishing she had a ruler instead of a gun.

“You can’t take this on the plane,” she said brandishing a large bottle of lotion she had found in my carry-on.

“But it’s lotion!”

“I don’t care what it is!  You can’t take more than three ounces of liquid on a plane!”

“Since when?” I challenged.

She gaped at me.  “Since, like, forever!”

“Oh, I don’t fly much,” I admitted.

“Don’t you read the newspaper?”

“Um. Actually, no.  So depressing…anyway back to your three ounce rule—I’ll be gone for three days, I need more than three ounces of lotion!”

She stared at me incredulously.

I tried again: “I have very dry skin.”

I was forced to check my bag.  By now it was so late I didn’t have time to worry about what our latest travel policy said about checking luggage. Luggage checked, I sprinted down the corridor to the bar closest to my gate where I ordered two Churchill Martinis (pour gin over ice in a jigger, nod towards France, and shake).  Martinis are the perfect drink for pre-flight jitters, providing maximum alcohol but with little volume thus eliminating the need to get up and pee mid-flight. (Is there anything more terrifying that standing over a toilet trying to pee while suspended in midair?)

Semi-drunk, I arrived at the boarding gate to discover my plane was delayed an hour.  It would, in fact, be more than four hours before we took off by which time I was sober and the airport bar closed.  I am a barely tolerable flyer drunk; sober I am impossible.

***

Despite the seductive lateness of the hour and the paucity of witnesses I resisted my usual post-touchdown ritual which generally involved genuflecting, kissing the ground and shrieking gratefully, unbelievingly “Land!”  I picked up my upgraded economy rental which turned out to be a small unmarked armored truck and got on the “highway,” a long winding road one lane wide, sometimes two with a constantly changing speed limit: 40, then 50, then 45…40…50…40…so that you were always going too fast or too slow.  It was impossible to get lost as the road ran one way in each direction, from the airport through the center of town and on out to the suburbs where the office complex was located.  Even someone as directionally challenged as I was couldn’t get lost.  It was dark though and that caused a certain amount of anxiety.

This training was led by Savannah, the local practice leader, a Valdosta, Georgia native and a graduate of the southern beauty queen circuit.  This three-time Miss Valdosta Feed and Grain would cut your throat or throw you under the bus as easily and thoughtlessly as she had once issued the “pageant wave.” Yet she would deliver the death blow so genteelly and smile so beatifically that you almost wouldn’t mind.  Imagine, if you will, Suzanne Sugarbaker with a shiv and the mind of Machiavelli. Her rise within The Corporation had been breathtaking.

That morning, she greeted everyone with a Miss America smile—lips stretched over Vaselined lips and held for the beat of a flashbulb—a  smile no less dazzling for its insincerity.

As the meeting started at 7:30 a.m.,  there was a breakfast buffet: fish and grits, and something called “chicken biscuits.”  A quick survey of the buffet table and I settled for an apple juice and the contents of Nigel’s survival kit: Vitamin C, Pepsid AC, and Xanax, of which I took two.

“Good morning,” Savannah began.  “We have a packed agenda so I’m going to get started now.  We’ll be running straight through until 6:45 when we’ll leave for dinner.  We’ll have a working lunch around noon.”

Preamble over, she launched into the heart of the session.  “Most companies today face a range of HR challenges around role definition, fuzzy process design, capability gaps within their HR function, and inadequate in-house support.  Quite simply put, most organizations don’t have the bandwidth to effectively manage HR processes.  That’s where we have opportunity with our outsourcing solution.
“HR business process outsourcing has moved beyond cost reduction and now plays a strategic role in helping companies improve workforce performance, enabling them to gain the agility they need to prosper even in this economic downturn.

“We are forming a decentralized Center of Excellence for HR Process Outsourcing around thought leadership, best practices and innovation in strategic talent management and new economy leadership.  Our Center of Excellence model follows a multi-pronged strategy focused on maximizing the effectiveness of each company’s HR function. Redefining the HR operating model, leveraging technology, innovative sourcing and reorganizing HR processes and HR roles are the keys to our success in this space.”

As much was said and not much of it was sensible, I stopped listening early on, choosing to daydream rather than be perplexed.

We were in that twilight state of consciousness that often follows a heavy lunch and a boring speaker when Brett arrived.  Pulling a pile of luggage behind him, he was wearing a very tight belted suit.  A black-and-white checked shirt whose checks were easily fist-sized exploded out of the narrow opening at his neck and from his sleeves.

“I have been to thirty-two countries but this was my first time on a shuttle bus!”  The words snapped in the air like a pennant.

“Hello, Brett,” Savannah said icily.  “You’re late.”

“I know!  I’m soooo sorry,” he said while making it clear that he wasn’t sorry in the least.

The afternoon dragged on, the endless talk punctuated by the near-constant buzzing of Brett’s iPhone.
Dinner was an equally dreary affair until Brett with his usual self-absorption said,” Don’t you know?  It’s all about me!”

“No,” Savannah drawled, contradicting him. “It’s all about me.”

The woman next to me, dropped her napkin and as she picked it up whispered to me,” Oh, don’t you wish someone would just drown them both?”

Midway through dinner, Nigel tweeted me.  We hadn’t been in touch all day as cell phones, Blackberries and laptops were banned so we could all focus our attention on the wisdom Savannah had committed to sharing as part of the decentralizing effort.

Nigel Gale @MannequinMan
How is it?

Prometheus Jones @THEUS
Egos at war. Like watching 2 super powers collide. Thx 4 the Xanax.

When I tuned back in Brett was speaking.  “So I jump into the Town Car and I look up and there was Anna Wintour glowering at me!  And then I realized I had gotten into her town car by mistake!”

This anecdote was greeted with silence.

Note to self: Name-dropping only works if your listener knows the name you’re dropping.  I sighed. “Anna Wintour,” I repeated.  “You know, the Devil Who Wore Prada.”

Murmurs of recognition.  Brett shot me a look that would have been gratitude in anyone else.  As it was the look seemed to be making a notation against me.

Eyes rolling across each other and locking drew my attention away from Brett.  I could almost hear their shared thought: They really do have their own language!

Dinner was over at last. Just as everyone started gathering their things to leave, Brett said brightly, 
“Let’s all go for a nightcap!”

Everyone froze.

“There’s a bar across the lobby. Let’s pop in for one quick drink, then off to bed for everyone,” Savannah said. "We have a full agenda tomorrow!” She added with false brightness.

From the twilight light provided by the jukebox, I could see there were peanuts on the bar and sawdust on the floor.

“Well! Isn’t this quaint!” Brett bleated. “You’d never find anything like this in New York!”

Savannah stiffened. Her haughtiness, borne of the fact that she was Savannah, three times Miss Valdosta Feed and Grain, seemed to fade for a minute. She looked both lost and baffled. That she, she, should be condemned to life in this Carolinian backwater, looked down on by the likes of Brett, was just too much, and typical of the unjust cruelty of Fate.

Brett sashayed up to the bar. Even in the dim light, I could see the bartender’s eyebrow rise and his “well would ya look at that” grin.

“I’d like a Caipirinha!” Brett fairly shouted.

“A what?” the bartender asked.

“A Caipirinha!”

“Never heard of it.”

“Surely you must have—it’s all my friends and I drink. It’s the national cocktail of Brazil!”

“Well,” the bartender drawled, “Maybe you and your friends should go back to Brazil.”

“Fine. I’ll have a martini—very dry, very dirty—You’ve heard of that, right?”

The woman standing next to me whispered, “That bartender is so going to spit in his drink.”

I ordered a beer, which the bartender lazily handed me.  Domestic. Served in the bottle.  It was going to be a long night.

Missed Episode 8, Into the Fire? Read it here.

Next Episode Wednesday, July 27.

Copyright © 2016 Larry Benjamin

D I S C L A I M E R
The characters and events described in this blog post exist only in its pages and the author's imagination.

Feel free to comment on this story, or share your own experiences in Corporate America below. Also, connect with me on Twitter & Facebook