Dragons - Chapter 57 (DRAFT)
This one was at least on schedule, in the sense that it had been three months since the last meeting and that they were supposed to be held quarterly. But it was also typical in the sense that no kind of agenda was circulated in advance of the session. For anyone outside the inner circle -- which evidently included me and anyone else who wasn’t Mary or Don -- all you knew was that you were supposed to show up in the company’s all-purpose room at nine o’clock sharp.
I got there at 8:57 AM, and most of the staff were already assembled by that point. Since all the chairs were taken, I squeezed my way into the room, and found a place to stand in one of the far corners. I avoided as much eye contact as I could on my difficult journey, brushing past Gerald at one point and walking behind Bethany at another. When I finally filled the only empty spot that remained in the crowded room, I had to reluctantly acknowledge Jurgis, who was already there, and who nodded to me as I assumed a position beside him.
There was a lot of chatter in the room as, true to form, neither Mary nor Don had yet made their appearance. The ambient volume was loud enough that I had difficulty hearing Jurgis when he addressed me.
“What?” I said.
Jurgis leaned in closer, revealing the color of the cream cheese that had adorned his morning bagel and which now adorned his grizzly beard. “They are unveiling the staff qualities.”
“What?” I said again, now looking at Jurgis square in the face. This time I had heard him distinctly, but doubted that such a thing was actually coming to pass.
Jurgis nodded knowingly. “Da. I heard them talking about it this morning. They are unveiling the staff qualities.”
I had no time to question Jurgis further, for at that moment both Mary and Don entered the room. Neither of them had any difficulty as the path to the front of the room was wide open, where a single table with two chairs had been placed. Don had a thick folder of what appeared to be loose paper in his hands. Mary appeared to have nothing but her wits.
The room quickly went silent as Mary and Don took their seats.
“Good morning,” Mary said. “Thank you all for attending this morning. As everyone here should know, last week we successfully navigated a major Annual Conference in Miami Beach. I thought I’d start this session by citing some of the impressive statistics from that event.”
And this Mary began to do -- listing, apparently without referring to any notes, a long slew of numbers and statistics that would have put a charging gorilla to sleep. Two hundred and twenty-one educational sessions. One thousand six hundred and thirty-two scientific papers presented in the poster sessions. One hundred and six exhibitors renting one hundred and forty-nine thousand square feet in the exhibit hall. Six thousand four hundred and twelve registered attendees. The recitation went on and on, the tone of Mary’s excited voice working overtime to convince us that each statistic was more interesting and relevant than the last.
From my vantage, it didn’t seem like she was convincing very many people in her audience. Other than a few sycophants up front, smiling and nodding as if being blown kisses from their lover’s mouth, most everyone else simply looked uncomfortable. We were stuck, listening to something we didn’t want to listen to. Doing something we didn’t want to do.
“It was the largest and most successful conference we have ever held,” Mary finally concluded triumphantly. “Eleanor Rumford and the rest of the leadership was VERY HAPPY with the outcome.”
That seemed typical, too. Eleanor was happy. Because that’s why we all worked so goddamn hard. Like you, Mary. All we want to do is make sure Eleanor Rumford is happy.
And it was that thought, sarcastic though it was, about all the work that had gone into the conference, and more specifically about the people that had done all that work, that made me realize, almost as an afterthought, that in her entire run-down of the event, and here, in front of her assembled staff, that Mary had utterly failed to even mention any individual staff person by name, and much less to thank them for what they had done to make Eleanor’s conference so large and successful.
Huh. I wonder why that didn’t surprise me.
“Now,” Mary was saying, already moving onto her next subject, “there is something else that we want to go over with everyone today. Don?”
Snapping to exactly like he had fallen asleep, Don clumsily got out of his chair and began passing out the creased and somewhat wrinkled pieces of paper that he had brought in his smudge-stained manilla folder. Giving a clump to several folks in the front row, he communicated with a grunt and a nod of his bulbous head that he wanted each to take one and pass the rest around to the other people.
“Don is passing around an extremely important document that we want everyone to read and come to understand as best they can. We’re calling them our Company Values, and we’re going to start using them to govern how we act around here.”
Oh my god. That’s how you’re introducing this? Despite my cynicism, and like everyone else in the room, I found myself suddenly desperate to get my hands on a copy of this important document. What did it say? What hoops were we going to have to jump through now? It can’t possibly be the list of ten staff qualities we had agreed on. Could it?
“As copies make their way around the room,” Mary said, “let me say that these Company Values were carefully chosen to help ensure the best possible performance among our various teams. While we were in Miami Beach I was able to review them with Eleanor, as I have reviewed them with the leaders of our other major clients, and everyone is in full support of their implementation within the company. They are absolutely essential to our success.”
If I was curious before, I was absolutely desperate now. Approved by Eleanor Rumford! Not even Moses, who witnessed the great and terrible finger of God carve His holy commandments into mundane stone, must have felt the anticipation I felt now. I had to see what Mary and Eleanor had done to our staff qualities. There was a reason, I suddenly knew, why I had not been told that they would be unveiled today. Clearly, they had been twisted into shapes beyond recognition.
I saw a stack of crumpled paper making its way towards me, but Mary began reciting the list before it got to me.
“Let’s start at the top,” she said, assuming that everyone was now able to follow along. “Thrives in a team environment. This is absolutely critical to our smooth functioning as an organization. If you’re not a team player, you really don’t belong here.”
She paused, almost for effect, but more likely because she had already lost her place on the copy in front of her. As she did, the last few pieces of distributed paper had finally made it to the back corner where Jurgis and I stood.
“Shows initiative,” Mary continued. “This one is extremely important, too. We need people…”
My ears tuned Mary out as my eyes greedily scanned down the list before me. Almost beyond my belief, I saw that they all seemed to be there: the staff qualities we had worked so hard on, that we had felt so strongly about, that had come together almost magically in that stuffy conference room. But, wait. What’s this? Are there eleven of them? Yes, yes there were. Had Mary reinstituted the one about practicing a healthy work/life balance?
It felt like way too much to hope for, so now I forced myself to slow down and actually read the document. Under a banner that read “Company Values,” the words in some clip-arty script font not quite centered on a unfurling parchment scroll, I saw:
1. Thrives in a team environment.
2. Shows initiative.
3. Anticipates challenges.
4. Creatively applies resources to solve problems.
5. Maintains positive relationships.
6. Shows respect for others.
7. Supports the mission of the organization.
8. Obeys the rules to maximize productivity.
There were three more to read, but my eyes jumped back to number eight. Obeys the rules to maximize productivity. I looked up disbelievingly at Mary, who was busy talking about how important it was to apply resources to solve problems, her face turned down to her paper rather than up at her followers.
Obeys the rules to maximize productivity! I felt like screaming at her. Where the fuck did that mutated beast come from? From your twisted mind or Eleanor’s? Nothing like that came out of the inclusive discussion I had. It doesn’t even make sense. How does obeying the rules lead to maximum productivity? And what rules are you talking about? Are they posted somewhere?
“Maintains positive relationships,” Mary said, long since dropping into a bored monotone, and oblivious to the cyclone rampaging in my brain. “Now this one is important, too...”
I nudged Jurgis and pointed to the eighth item on the list he also held in his hand.
“What the hell is that?” I whispered.
Jurgis appeared to squint at the document, his eyes all but disappearing into the lines of his face. When he looked back up at me, he simply shrugged.
I looked up, scanning the room for the others that had been in that magical meeting with me. One by one I found them. Peggy Wilcox, our director of human resources, sitting in the front row, facing forward, with her hands neatly folded on top of the offending piece of paper. Two chairs down from her I saw the back of Scott Nelson’s head, his long and angular frame striking just about the same pose as Peggy.
“Shows respect for others,” Mary’s voice droned on in my ears, as if trying to lull me with a sleep spell like she had done with most of her audience. “This one is very important, especially when it comes to our interactions with our clients.”
God! They’re all important, Mary. That’s why they made the list. You don’t have to tell us that every single one is important!
I managed to catch Angie Ferguson’s eye. She was standing on the side of the room, her back against the wall, her piece of paper held up so she could follow along. She looked quizzically at me, as if not understanding the angry glare I was giving her. I mouthed “Number Eight” as clearly as I could, and I watched as her brow wrinkled in distaste. Evidently, she had not read ahead as I had.
“Supports the mission of the organization. Now this one may be the most important of them all.”
Someone coughed on the opposite side of the room, and as I turned to look, I saw my final two co-conspirators, Gerald Krieger and Bethany Bishop, standing together, and both looking intently at me. Gerald was bringing his hand down, his faux cough having accomplished its objective. As we stared helplessly at each other, Gerald slowly shook his head and Bethany looked for all the world like she was about to cry.
“Obeys the rules to maximize productivity,” Mary’s voice echoed, but then stopped short, as a deep silence fell over the room.
When it had gone on to an uncomfortable degree I forced myself to turn away from Gerald’s disapproving and Bethany’s disappointed eyes and realized with a sinking feeling of horror that Mary was waiting until she caught my attention. I had to clench myself to keep my bowels from loosening when her steely gaze bore into me and then, and only then, did she resume her sonorous incantation.
“I misspoke,” she said, her voice as dull and mechanistic as a soulless robot. “This is actually the most important of them all. Every business, every culture, every society has to have rules, and those rules must be obeyed if the people within that society, within that culture, within that business are going to flourish and succeed.”
There was another long and silent pause, and throughout its length it was as if Mary and I were the only people in the universe. The room, the building, the world, it all dropped away as Mary and I locked eyes in a silent and deadly battle of will.
You will lose, Mary’s eyes, her face, her whole bearing seemed to say, and say it as confidently as anything she had ever said in her life. In response, I could only slowly nod my head, understanding, perhaps now irrevocably, that I had indeed lost my battle with her.
And worse, if I didn’t mind my Ps and Qs, the dragon was going to win the war.
+ + +
“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.
This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.