Salute to the Common Denominator

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I spent a few days away from home, recently – in a city that I used to visit frequently on account of my job at the time. Being back in town, I was reminded of those days and nights I’d previously spent there, shuttling back and forth between the sterile, business-class hotel (free snacks in the lounge!) and my employer’s office. Oh, that office…

My trip down memory lane was gratifying, to the extent that it served as a reminder of how far I’ve come in the enjoyment of my livelihood. (I should probably not use that word until the thing I’m spending my time on actually earns me a living, but oh well.) This feeling of liberation applied in the general sense – regarding how much more I enjoy what I’m doing now, vs anything before – but also in the specific one: my prior business travel to that particular city holds a special place in my heart as an experience I’d like to never repeat. (While we’re here, I might as well mention that this was a not-insignificant factor in my choosing to leave that job in the first place.)

The purpose of this post isn’t to itemize the various unpleasantries associated with my travel to said city, of which there were…more than one. But, really, so much of what I didn’t enjoy about my time there did genuinely boil down to one thing. One person, in particular. That person and, more importantly, his part in informing what I am aiming to do with the rest of my career are the intended basis of today’s reflection.

At this point, I’m reminded by my own nagging conscience that I’m a self-respecting adult, and that a self-respecting adult – in addition to returning his bowl to the sink after gorging himself on ice cream in bed – tries not to dwell on the denigration of other people. So I’ll skip the details that serve only to describe the full(er) extent of my distaste for the person in question, and focus instead on the parts that are relevant to my future.

(I will allow myself this one little bit of editorial color, though, on the possibly false pretense that it might provide relevant context to you, reader: this was one of the top couple of people with whom I’ve had the greatest misfortune of having had to deal in my life. If you are someone whose aversion to a person is proportional to their sociopathic self-interest – that is, the extent to which their behavior is hostile toward anyone they perceive to be an impediment to their interests – then I suspect you might reach the same conclusion, re: this gentleman, as I did.)

 

The office was and – from what I hear – continues to be, I’m pretty sure, the specific reason for which the term ‘shitshow’ was coined. Histrionics, infighting, overt hostility, covert manipulation – you name it; this place had it all. And, no less, with a total population never more than 12 to 15ish. It would have been impressive, had it not been so frustrating.

Not surprisingly, the place was also marked by endless turnover. The more ‘junior’ positions tended to be revolving doors, of tenure lasting between a few months and a couple of years (tops). The managerial roles tended to stick a bit longer on average, but not much. Pretty much everyone eventually had enough of the environment and moved on to less toxic pastures. (In this circumstance, I’m certain the grass really was greener on the other side.) But, oh, I should mention that there was one guy who was there the whole time, and – what a coincidence! – always seemed to be central or just barely peripheral to the melodrama… Mr. Common Denominator.

To say that Mr. CD was a tyrant would, to me, imply that he at least had the rightful authority to be hard on people. He didn’t, so I would prefer to simply call him a lunatic. His apologists would casually dismiss his insane treatment of other people as “demanding”, or – worse – maintain that “his heart’s in the right place”. Those apologists were, of course, not the people on the receiving end of his regular outbursts of vitriol (complete with shouted obscenities), nor his indefensible personal affronts to those who earned his ire (everyone, at some point). He was not above telling a person how much better their predecessor (about whom he had invariably complained just as strongly) was, or about how the rest of the office couldn’t wait until he/she was gone, etc. You get the picture: these were the sorts of attacks that rendered moot whatever offence might have triggered them.

So who were these apologists? Why, management, of course.

And for what reason could these people possibly justify – over, and over, and over – looking past, or simply tsk-tsking his inexcusable behavior?

Easy: the Almighty Dollar.

Mr. CD happened to be the main breadwinner for that office. The sort of salesperson who combined extensive industry experience with ruthless aggression to become – depending on the disposition of the client – someone who bullied people into working with him or someone who “you want on your side”. Either way, not someone whose tactics I cared for, particularly as it related to his use of open hostility as a means of getting what he needed from those whose function was to support him/his clients. But, the unfortunate reality was, most of the revenue that kept the office afloat was in his ostensible control.

The debate was had quite openly at the management level (where I sat, by the way): we know his behavior is “unacceptable” (quotation marks mine, because evidently it was acceptable), but if we fire him, we run the risk of all his clients – i.e. those to whom he is the primary face of our company – walking out the door with him. So instead, we’ll do what we can to reprimand him for his outbursts (and, reader, let me tell you that these reprimands amounted to the most textbook of inconsequential slaps on the wrist) and hope that, now after all these years, he’ll decide to suddenly change.

Quite the predicament, on the surface. BUT – a few observations, if I may:

  1. Mr. CD was contractually bound to not do business with any of ‘his’ clients, for at least a fairly significant period of time, after departure from our company for any reason (including having been let go). This is relevant in consideration of whether any of his clients would have immediately sought to chase after him.
  2. Many of “his” clients were ones that he had actually inherited from salespeople that had predated him. So really, the fear was that these clients, who entered into a business relationship with our company at a time when Mr. CD had been a complete stranger to them, had become so attached to him as to all be willing to immediately uproot upon his departure.
  3. There was a ton of very tangible evidence that a good portion of these precious clients of his didn’t even like or trust Mr. CD. Time and again, he miscommunicated or under-delivered on things, for which his supporting team would have to backtrack and make amends. This was observable fact. So it seems unlikely that there would have been much of a show of solidarity for the man, in the event of his departure.
  4. What does it cost to have your entire office constantly turning over? To have your clients being forever introduced to a new customer-support team? To never so much as be able to retain other salespeople in order to solve the problem of business relationships being concentrated with one person? (Not to mention having at least one seemingly obstinate management-type throw up his hands and leave so as to no longer be complicit in such matters.) You will have noticed: these are questions, not observations. I don’t know their answers – but my guess is, in total, somewhere between “a lot” and “a fucking lot”.

So here we were, in a classic pickle: on the one hand, common sense, human decency and the assumption of some pretty obviously modest risk in pursuit of a real solution. On the other, abject fear at the overblown prospect of a single dollar walking out the door. Stalemate. Or, more accurately, a de facto vote in favor of the status quo. Absolutely maddening. (Not that I mean to tip my hand as to my opposition to my management peers…)

The point: all of what I just described is now a part of my life experience, and a significant part of my views on how a company ought to be built. Even in the context of a conventional, for-profit venture, I don’t believe that maximizing returns need necessarily be at odds with the greater good (of staff, customers, etc.). Whereas the myopic executive will not be able see past whatever short-term challenge (read: financial impact) is posed by a shakeup, the apparent ‘visionary’ will see the true cost of the status quo and the potential in building toward a state that staff and customers, alike, can be invested in. 

Of course, I’m not actually claiming to be a ‘visionary’ – my use of that word was meant as tongue in cheek. I think, in the dichotomy I presented, the myopic executive is instead pitted opposite the simple realist. Both may have the same objective; the difference is that the former is so consumed with greed that it becomes impossible for him/her to see the fortune-forest through the dollar-trees.

So, Mr. CD, I salute you.

I salute you for showing me the far end of a spectrum that I would never otherwise have seen: that at which basic consideration for the well-being of others (on your part) or even – for crying out loud – the optimal long-term maximization of the same profit we’re so concerned with (on a company’s part) can be neglected in the rat race for today’s cheese.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll even put your picture up in my office someday.

Wait – maybe you and I aren’t so different after all.

*****

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