© 2016 by Tom Sparough
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.
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?