Undecided

© 2016 by Tom Sparough

Undecided

Abe Demsky’s career had skyrocketed. In eight years, she had gone from a sales rep to a shift manager to a unit manager to a division manager to a regional vice president.

She had a way with words, a way with people, and a dead man sitting next to her in her car.

Her full name was Colleen Abraham Demsky. She was almost six feet tall and had curly black hair. She was named after her grandmother Colleen on her mother’s side and her grandfather Abraham on her father’s side. When she was a baby her father had started calling her Abe, and the name stuck.

Abe was on her way to a high-level meeting at her corporate office of Every Which Way Wireless, one of the largest telecom companies in existence. Her boss, the CEO of the company, Lionel Perkins, had called the meeting. Abe had flown in the night before, stayed at a hotel, and was now in the limo traveling to the meeting.

The dead man sitting next to her had showed up in her condo three days earlier, the same day she got the word about the special meeting of top execs.

When she first saw him, it was 1 a.m. and she had just closed her laptop. She was about to go brush her teeth.

There he was sitting in her grandmother’s chair in the living room. He was looking out the window. She gasped and let out a muffled scream, her hand over her mouth.

She would have been more alarmed, but he was old and seemingly harmless.

He did not turn his head as she stepped toward him. “How did you get in here?”

He didn’t move.

“Excuse me sir, I am going to need you to leave. I don’t know how you got in here, but it’s time to go.”

He tilted his head. He was listening.

Something was off, though. He wasn’t breathing.

“Sir, are you all right? How did you get in here? Are you lost?”

No answer. No eye movement. No movement of his stomach or chest.

She bent down and touched his hand. Her hand went through his and touched the arm of the chair. She reeled back and stood looking at him and then her own fingers.

She wondered, “Did that really just happen?” Abe was shaking. The man was clearly here.

In amazement, she placed her hand on his head and pushed it into him. There was a slight resistance. Her hand was inside his head. All she felt was warmth. It was like she had put her hand in a warm oven. She was in the cold, and inside him was the warmth.

She pulled her hand out and looked at it, then him.

She couldn’t think straight. She started to pick up her phone, but stopped. She was hallucinating. He couldn’t really be there. She needed to go to bed.

She washed her hands for nearly two minutes. Lying in bed, she could see him standing in the darkness. He was in her room. She turned toward the wall next to her bed. In the morning she would feel better.

She did not see him that next morning.   After work, she was in her kitchen, and he walked in. She closed her eyes.

“My name was Clarence Waterbridge.” His voice was soft and clear. “You have never seen me before, but you have talked with me. You were the helpful young lady that brought my wife and me into the cell phone era.”

He looked at her. Her eyes were wide open. She was standing at the kitchen island. She began to break apart the lettuce for her salad.

His voice quivered. “You don’t know me, but I know all about you. I have been watching you, listening to you, traveling with you.”

Abe continued fixing her dinner. She thought she was losing it. Losing it. Losing it. It wasn’t happening. This was the stressful price of too many 12 to 14 hour workdays.

“I am here to help my wife. I believe you are the one who is going to do it, the one who is not only going to make things right for my dear Ada, but for 123,537 other people, as well.”

Abe sliced the chicken. Losing it.

“Your meeting.” He nodded his head and raised his hand. “That’s when you are going to make a difference.” He walked out of the kitchen and sat back in the living room chair.

She ate dinner and got onto her computer. Nineteen emails later, she went to bed. He watched her trying to sleep. He knew that she could set things right. His sweet Ada shouldn’t have to suffer like this.

On the plane ride to Atlanta, he was there standing in the aisle, unaffected by turbulence.

In the hotel room, he sat in the recliner. He did not speak. She ignored him and focused on the business at hand, a never-ending stream of communication with her people. She had to hold a lot of hands to keep it all going, to keep the numbers climbing.

Now in the limo, Clarence turned to Abe. In his precise voice he said, “You told me when you signed us up for our wireless plan that everything would be easy. There was no risk, because we could always talk with the helpful people at your company.”

Abe glanced towards him.

“You even called me up after my first bill had come and made sure I understood the charges. I was so happy with you and your extra effort to make sure that we were satisfied that I gave you the names and phone numbers of friends and family that also might want to work with such nice people.”

He gave a short laugh. “I now know you were not being totally honest with me. I see how your company works. You are not the nice people I thought you were, but I know that you are not all bad either. It is time to make things right.”

The meeting included 12 people. It would be over long before lunch, because lunch would be at the club, and the afternoon agenda would be golf.

There was one empty chair in the boardroom. It was directly across from Abe, and the dead Mr. Waterbridge was sitting in it.

Lionel Perkins sat at the head of the table. He was 6 foot three inches, 260 pounds, Ivy League MBA. His laugh could be heard through the glass walls of the corporate meeting room.

They began on schedule. Abe brought her laser focus into the content. Like the last 15 quarters, the numbers were up. Then came the announcement.

“We have decided,” said Lionel, “that we are going to expand the period of positive engagement with undecided costumers from six months to two years.”

The CEO let that message settle in. “This will bring our termination rate down to a trickle.”

Abe knew exactly what this meant. Her mind flashed ahead to countless issues that would arise, countless creative conversations she would have with her team. She looked across the table. Clarence Waterbridge was staring her down.

She was uncomfortable with his gaze, but more so with what her boss had just said. Adrenaline poured into her system. She looked at her boss. Her courage came to her lips. “Do you think that is wise?”

Lionel smiled. He was a leader that didn’t like discussion about decisions that had already been made. “Of course, it is wise. Like everything, it has pros and cons. But are we to focus on the negatives or move forward with the positives? We already know how much this policy has helped us. Let’s leverage this situation to get the most out of it.”

“Excuse me, Lionel, but may we address the elephant in the room?”

“No, we may not. There is no elephant. Some things remain unspoken. We know what needs to be done. We don’t gather the best and the brightest to follow a set formula.”

Abe stood up and pushed back her chair. “Oh come on, Lionel. You know damn well that I am among the most loyal and hardworking, but this policy is going to pull our company down. How you can’t see that is beyond me.”

“Sit down, Abe, you’re done here.”

“No, I am not, Lionel. It is time to say what needs to be said. Everyone, including you, is thinking about it. People who choose to leave our service should be cancelled. They shouldn’t be called ‘undecided.’ And it is not ‘positive engagement’ to keep billing them for services they have chosen to opt out of.”

Lionel was silent for a moment and looked on in disbelief as Abe continued.

“Take the case of Mrs. Adeline Waterbridge. She has recently come to my attention. I looked up her details yesterday. Five months ago she called to cancel service. She got disconnected. She called back and she got stuck in the call-in navigation. We keep records of this. She called back nine times over the next three months trying to cancel.”

“That’s enough.” Lionel stood up.

“Yes, Lionel, it is enough, but please sit down and hear me out.”

“No, you are the one who is going to sit down, or you are going to walk out of here and never return.”

“Fine. Fire the VP of your hottest market. But before you do, I am going to speak my mind.”

Abe turned her focus from Lionel to the other members in the room. The chair across from her was now empty.

Lionel let out a shout of protest, but then went silent.

Abe continued, “Mrs. Waterbridge followed up her phone calls with two letters to cancel, but we kept billing her. We claimed to never have received the letters. That is not ‘positive engagement.’ And she is just one of 123,537 people who are being ‘positively engaged.’ They are on artificial respiration. That business is dead, but we keep billing them, and then we turn their unpaid bills over to collections. That is bad business, and it is going to kill us.”

Abe sat down. She looked at Lionel.

Mr. Waterbridge was now standing next to Lionel and appeared to be whispering in his ear. Lionel was in his seat grimacing.

Mr. Waterbridge was actually biting Lionel’s ear. He had his teeth locked onto that ear so that the big man couldn’t move or speak.

Lunch was about to be delayed. The numbers for next quarter were going to decline by more than 3%, a huge loss in revenue. Heads were going to roll.

The next CEO of Every Which Way Wireless was going to be a woman who had an honest vision for growth and who was willing to stand up for the little guy that silently sits in the room.

But even the little guys have teeth.

 

Reflection

It is true that not everything needs to be said. However, an environment where policies are put into place that people disagree with and never get to officially speak their opinion is toxic. It kills morale, creativity, and loyalty.

One aspect of being a strong leader is the ability to listen to dissenting voices, and be open to the wisdom in the dissension.

When a toxic environment exists, all kinds of dysfunctional behaviors arise.

How can an employee make a positive difference?

 

 

Going Down

© 2016 by Tom Sparough

Going Down

It could be said that alcohol was at least partially responsible. The drinks were flowing all night for the celebration.
Whatever the case, when the CEO of Your Shocking Friend, Inc. walked up to the podium, there was a standing ovation before he even said a word.

Bennett Kirk had transformed his company. In the last 12 years he had taken it from a two-person startup to the powerhouse of the defibrillation industry. His company was outselling all of their competitors combined.

It was profitable work and this celebration was designed to pump up his sales team.

After he had talked for a few minutes, he told them, “Do you know what a ghost is? A ghost is that little voice in your head that tries to keep you from being your best, that fills you with doubt.”

He took a sip of his beer and smiled at the team. “Well, I am here tonight to put another voice in your head. Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Bennett laughed. “That’s right, when you have challenges, when you have people that are roadblocks to your success, my voice is going to echo in your head. Don’t let the bastards get you down. You are on your way up!”

Bennett made a fist and pumped it in the air shouting, “Let’s have our best year ever!” He nodded to the band, and they immediately started playing the fast section of “Stairway to Heaven.” The room erupted with applause.

There was one person in the room, though, who seemed lifeless. He had been standing next to Bennett, occasionally whispering something in his ear.

The next day the most memorable thing from the night before was a hangover. Bennett was jetting across the country to an evening fundraiser. He was trying to clear his head and focus. He was glad there was a corporate jet so that he didn’t have to talk to anyone else. He was best when he made his decisions without interference.

The lifeless man from the night before was seated at his side. The man leaned over and said to Bennett, “You know what day it is and you act like you don’t care.”

Bennett knew that it was his daughter’s 10th birthday. He was going to miss her party. He had pressing business obligations. He couldn’t be there for every little family function.

“You haven’t seen her in six months,” said the man.

Bennett exhaled hard. I call her all the time, he thought.

“You haven’t talked to her in more than a month.”

Bennett took a drink from his seltzer water. Tonight in Seattle he had a chance to really make a difference. He had big plans for his company. Nothing was going to stop him.

New markets were his specialty. He had learned that there was no better way to open up a market than to have mandated regulation. Bennett’s current emphasis was to get a series of units in every high school sports stadium in the country.

In his strategic mind, you had to be able to tug on heartstrings. Every kid who collapsed at a sporting event was a poster child for his company. Bennett had learned of a state legislator whose daughter had died on a soccer field. Your Shocking Friend, Inc. was about to make a large donation to that representative and was going to suggest language for a state bill that could save young lives every year.

The ghostly man sitting next to Bennett was no stranger. He had been with Bennett since the beginning. He continued to whisper, “Will it ever be enough? Why are you really doing this?”

Bennett tried to focus on the business at hand.

The whisper came again, “Yes, business is good, but what about your daughter, and your wife?”

The divorce happened five years ago. Bennett could visit his daughter every weekend if he had time. But he didn’t.

One day his daughter could join the company. One day, all of this would be hers.

Bennett thought about his daughter who would be having a pool party today at the house. His jet was going to be flying over Springfield, Illinois. That was where he grew up and where his ex-wife and daughter still lived.

Bennett had big plans. He rarely thought about anything but business. His daughter’s party helped him to remember one of his fondest dreams. He had hopes of legislation that would require a defibrillator in every home that had a swimming pool. In his mind, every person who died in a pool was a marketing coin in his bank.

The shadow of a man sitting next to Bennett was considering an intervention. Whispering wasn’t enough. His name was Jacob Leymar, co-founder of Your Shocking Friend, Inc. He had been Bennett’s best man at his wedding. But ever since Jacob’s heart attack and death eight years ago, Bennett was consumed with business. He had no time for memories of his friend, no time to heed warnings, no time to grasp what really matters in life.

Jacob was a businessman. It was time to leverage this situation.

His lifeless body floated up the aisle and entered through the cockpit door without opening it. He took control of the plane. It went into a nosedive. The helpless pilot tried to correct the plunging aircraft, but there was nothing he could do.

Bennett’s drink was on the floor. “My god, what the hell is the matter?”

“I don’t know sir.”

From 33,000 feet to 20,000 feet Bennett thought about how this was going to interrupt his plans for the evening.

From 20,000 feet to 15,000 feet Bennett tried to help the pilot.

From 15,000 to 5,000 feet Bennett’s life flashed before him. The scenes of his life unfolded, who he was, where he had come from and whom he had always loved. His daughter was foremost in his mind, a dozen pictures of who she was and what she meant to him restarted his heart.

From 5,000 to 2,000 Bennett prayed for his life. He pledged that if he made it through this alive he would change. He would be there for his daughter. He would apologize to his ex-wife. He would not live his life only for business.

From 2,000 to 1,500 he swore again and again and again that he would be true to his word.

The plane righted itself and began climbing.

“I think we are going to be OK, sir, but I am heading to the nearest airport. It is Springfield, sir.”

“Springfield?” asked Bennett with a quiver.

“Yes, sir.”

Trembling, crying, Bennett imagined arriving at the house for his daughter’s party. Could he actually show up?

Would he be welcome?

He closed his eyes, tears making their way out of his closed lids.

“Don’t worry old buddy,” whispered a little voice. “It’s all going to work out.”

Reflection

Listening to the voice of wisdom is important, but certainly not easy. Most of us have conflicting ideas in our head about what is most important.

What do you notice about Bennett’s behavior in this story?
What is a story that shows your attempt at keeping your life in balance?