Monday, November 23. 2015
Chapter One: "Up & Out"
Earlier that morning...
“Here’s the deal Julie”, Bob started off as he closed the door to the small conference room near the executive suites at the end of their floor. Small talk didn’t come naturally to him and being a recent transplant to the Midwest he had not picked up on the importance of it. He just wasn’t really interested in what was going on in other peoples lives. He felt that his title and salary made him simply too important to have the bandwidth. He also felt that it created a necessary distance between him and his direct reports. "Don't fraternize with 'the help'", he thought, "especially when you're about to throw them under the bus.”
He slapped down a folder on the table and slipped into the chair across from Julie.
“Good morning to you too”, Julie replied and took a sip of her triple venti soy latte from the Starbucks drive-thru in her neighborhood. She had cashed in a reward she’d earned from her frequent patronage. “It’s the little things” she thought and licked the foam from the lip on the cup.
It was earlier on a Monday morning than she cared to be awake, let alone dressed and in the office. Perky was going to cost extra. She wasn’t sure why Bob had scheduled a meeting with her over the weekend. She did not mix business and personal life together and she almost missed the meeting invite had she not randomly logged into her work laptop Sunday night. While other employees seemed to enjoy having their personal lives disrupted by company emails at all hours, Julie simply would not give her employer the power to remotely erase her phone. She had seen it happen “accidentally” just one too many times at other companies to take the risk of losing all her photos.
Bob didn't bother looking up and instead peered intently at piece of paper he had pulled out of the folder that had hand written notes and several post-it notes attached to it. When he flipped it over Julie could see it was the email request she had sent him late last week asking for his support to be repositioned closer to the teams in the business that she had been working with for the past year.
"How was your weekend?" she asked taking another sip of her coffee. She set it down and cradled it in both hands in front of her, the warmth of it comforted her as did the implied barrier between her and her manager. She could tell he was up to something and the idea that the large cup of hot coffee was a sentry on hand to defend her gave her a reason to crack a wry smile.
"Fine." he said taking his glasses off and set the email down in front of him. Julie thought "coffee trumps paper" and for a second she imagined the scene she could create by accidentally spilling her coffee onto the table and the run of hot froth that would race towards Bob. She wondered how fast his reflexes were? Would he kick back from the table to avoid the torrent? She then imagined them engaging in a kung-fu battle above the conference room table parkour style off the chairs and walls.
"I volunteered at the Humane Society's adoption days event." she offered to the unreciprocated question.
Bob rubbed his eyes and then stared at her for a moment. If he squinted he could almost imagine her in her younger days. He then decided it was just going to be easier to find a 'younger model' to replace her, someone with less experience that he could mold in his own image. "An empty vessel for me to fill in more ways than one" he thought to himself and tampered down the urge to smile. No point in sending Julie the wrong message. He put his glasses back on and tapped the paper in between them.
"So, I got your email and I am afraid I can't support your request to transfer." he said with practiced patter.
“You certainly COULD, you just WON'T” Julie thought to herself. “In retrospect I should have just spilled the coffee. There’s still time!” She held her expression still with her eyes focused on Bob’s lowered lids. He was purposely avoiding her gaze. She snorted and smirked. “Why the urgent need to meet?” she wondered. “He could have just sent an email stating that. It looks like he’s papering over my file, likely in support of some kind of documentation for an action."
“I see” she said, “Can you share with me your reason for choosing not to support my request to get closer to the business?” Her subtle emphasis on the word ‘choosing’ caused Bob to go flush in the face and his eyes shot up to try and stare her down. Julie blinked a few times and smiled a little wider. She could see that whatever anger Bob had mustered from her insinuation was giving way to confusion.
“Does she think this is a game?” Bob wondered to himself and then realized that it was. He already resented her for trying to leave his team but the fact that she wasn’t taking him seriously really goaded him. He wasn’t used to having direct reports that were as smart as him and the thought that she might be one step of ahead of him was concerning. “One more reason to get her on a corrective action plan and out the door so that I can hire some pretty young thing to boss around” he thought and regained his composure.
“I just don’t think you’re ready for a promotion.” he said and smiled for the first time since he walked into the room. She knew immediately that he was lying. It was a nervous tic of his that she had observed by watching him interact with vendors. Whenever he stretched the truth or did not believe what he was saying he smiled. She had heard that he was great to have at a poker table because his tells were so obvious.
“With all due respect ‘Bob'”, she paused just long enough to sharpen the tone of his name, “I’ve held positions much higher than 'lead business process consultant.' You do know I ran a consulting company for over 10 years before joining this firm yes? I think I can handle the work. Besides the business wants me there. They are even willing to open a req for me.”
A feeling of panic swept over Bob and for a moment he almost felt sick. It was one thing to have an employee try to leave on their own terms, but to have a star performer poached by another part of the business meant war. As far as he was concerned she was in on the conspiracy and could no longer be trusted. She was not on the bus with him so that meant there was only one place to put her.
“Listen Julie”, he paused for equal effect, "we agreed that your big deliveries this year were going to be the business process optimization effort as well as getting to be known as 'the expert' in the eyes of the business as the 'go to' person for efficiency. The BPO was a complete disaster. I can’t believe how much money we spent on it!” he said, leaning back in his chair and tapped his fingers together. Bob liked to steeple his fingers whenever he felt like he had the upper hand.
“Whoa whoa whoa. Hang on a second here BOB!” she said bolting upright. “You’re the one that hired Delwood and Associates against my recommendation. I was concerned about the low return on investment we would realize from bringing them in from day one, but you said the decision had already been made. Delwood was taking the lead on the assessment and we were to play supporting roles to facilitate introductions, remove barriers, analyze findings and contextualize the results. All of which I’ve done to the nines!” she said motioning like an orchestra conductor.
“Here’s the deal” he said again. Julie braced against the urge to gag upon hearing the ‘Bobism’ — the kind of trademark saying that her manager was infamous for overusing.
“I’ve taken the personal time to gather some feedback from your peers” he said as if it involved scouring African plains in search of sustenance for his tribe. Clearly he wanted to convey that he was put out and wanted to be stroked for actually doing something.
“This should be good”, Julie thought to herself. For the past nine months she had been so deeply embedded in the business that she had hardly spent any time with her peers. Many of them were as involved in their own projects for other lines of business that it felt like a Hallmark ‘Homecoming Episode' every time they passed each other in the halls. She doubted that she would be able to offer any feedback about their performance and wondered now what they could possibly have to say about hers. "As for the job that ‘Deadwood’ provided, it’s true it was a complete disaster.” she thought. “And this job was totally out of their league, but for some reason they had been selected to take the lead on the BPO."
“Did you ‘gather' any feedback from my customers?” she asked, short circuiting the script Bob had prepared and likely practiced. “Seems to me that the kind of feedback that would matter most is from the teams I’m actually supporting on a daily basis. Honestly Bob, I’m not sure I would be in a position to say how one of my co-workers was performing.”
Bob closed his eyes and shook his head from side to side. “I asked fifteen people what they thought of your performance and they all said the same thing.” Bob said stretching the truth further than he felt a hundred percent comfortable admitting. "The number was certainly between one and five” he thought and grinned.
“Come on Bob, you can’t get fifteen people to agree on lunch let alone what happened at the scene of an accident.” Julie said grabbing her coffee cup and gesturing around the room as if they were both victims of said accident. In her mind they were floating over their now lifeless corpses arguing about whether there would be a bright light to beckon them forward into an after-life. She imagined a trap door opening beneath Bob and sucking him down to a special level of hell while she simply went on to be reincarnated as an un-plucked snowy white edelweiss flower on the side of a high alpine cliff.
“I asked fifteen people what they thought of your performance,” Bob repeated, willing it to be true, “and to the person they all said that you have a problem with your ‘say do’ ratio.”
“Huh, that’s interesting, I’d LOVE to know who said that, because you’re the only person I know that uses that phrase.” Julie said instinctively crossing her arms over her chest. She knew that it was a classic defensive signal but considering that she had just been attacked she felt justified in the response. “Unless by ’say/do’ you mean the kind of things the sycophants and hypocrites you surround yourself with seem to get credit saying but not doing...” she thought to herself puzzling over who might have an issue with her. She had heard recently that someone on her team had been taking credit for others work in an effort to look busier than they were, but for the life of her she could not remember who it was.
“I’m sorry, I can’t disclose my sources. This is 'anonymous feedback.' I’m sure you can understand?” Bob said air quoting. He lowered his eyes again, avoiding her gaze. He dragged his finger across the marked up letter on the table and tapped on a post it note that just had the words ‘say’ and ‘do’ written on it in his handwriting.
“Can you give me an example?” Julie asked.
“Well, they all said there was a gap between what you said and what you did.” Bob tried to look casually at the fingernails on his outstretch hand. She knew he was bluffing and imagined him holding a sock-puppet and conferring with it in private, it’s head bobbing in agreement.
“So you’ve said Bob, but I’m looking for something specific, measurable, or actionable.” Julie uncrossed her arms and sat up straight in her chair and leaned in. "Just repeating that assertion doesn’t give me any kind of guidance or context! And just so you know, I’ve found that ‘anonymous’ feedback isn’t very credible. I have no way of determining what motivation any of your purported feedback providers might have had? Are they jealous? Are they competitors? Are they themselves under-performing and looking for some kind of deflection or a scapegoat? For example, it would be really interesting if some of that feedback had come from a Delwood associate? Surely if you talked to fifteen different people independently over some period of time, you must have ONE example.”
Bob shifted in his chair uneasily. He wasn't prepared to have someone push back. He was clearly used to just making stuff up, speaking authoritatively and having his word go unquestioned. His plan to walk Julie through his justification for putting her on a corrective action plan was unraveling before his eyes. He looked nervously at the pages he had drafted that lay just inside the folder to his left. He cleared his throat and looked for the bottle of water he thought he had brought with him.
“Uhm” he began, “I guess I could probably reach out to a couple of them and see if they would be willing to meet with you to provide some coaching and feedback directly.” His mind was racing trying to figure out who owed him favors, who had the biggest grudges against her. He realized anyone he selected would need coaching themselves, assuming any of them had the courage to be in a room alone with her. Then there was the pesky issue of HR getting involved. She could certainly demand to have an HR associate present during the feedback. He moved the folder off the table into his laptop bag on the chair next to him. "Time to take a different tack.” he thought.
“I would welcome that! Because for all I know the gap is that I am not taking credit for everything I’m doing!” Julie said bright eyed. “Now, I’ve got an example for you if you’ll indulge me?”
Bob looked stunned. He opened his mouth to say something but only the sound of his hot breath came out.
“Mouth breather.”, Julie thought and smirked.
Bob regained his composure, leaned back and smiled. “Yes of course!” he lied, "What have you got?”
“Well, the first time we met, before I took this job on your team, you told me that you’d be hiring technical writers to augment the business process consultants. In fact half-way through the Delwood engagement I specifically sent you a reminder and ask, suggesting that we could do the work ourselves at a fraction of their bill rate.”
“I’ve been too busy with the capital request budgeting project!” he said defensively.
“I hope you understand that I say this with the deepest respect Bob, but that is kind of my point. We all say things that we’d like to do, but then 'business happens.'” she said, softening her voice and turning her palms upward to suggest vulnerability. “If you’re willing to give yourself an out, I would ask that you consider cutting the rest of us some slack too?"
Bob coughed hard and squeezed his eyes closed tight. “Think! Think Bobby boy” he thought to himself. What else what else can I nail her for?” He opened his eyes and picked up the printout and flipped it over once and then again. He spied one of the other post-it notes.
“Ah ha!” he said a little too excited, "The second metric you were being measured on”, he began anew, “was becoming the 'go to' expert for the business. I have heard nothing about that. They should be coming to me to tell me how awesome you are. I consider that a failure as well. You need to own that!”
“Well, again, did you ‘interview’ any of my stakeholders? Was ANY of the fifteen people you claimed to have received this supposedly anonymous feedback from anyone in the business?”
“I can’t say.” he replied. It was Bobs turn to cross his arms.
“Oh yeah that’s right” she said leaning back and mirroring his stance, “what with it all being ‘anonymous'. Sure that’s fine Bob. I can certainly ask anyone of the what? Four contacts I work with in the business on a daily basis to see what they say? In fact we have a happy-hour later this week after the next big release, I’ll just ask them there."
“Here’s the deal Julie. I didn’t ask anyone in the business about your performance because I had already heard what I needed to from your peers.” he said face flushing red again his bluff called.
“Well BOB, I don’t know how you can measure me on something like being perceived as the 'go to' expert in the business if you don’t bother to ask them? As far as I’m concerned until you have some specific examples of your ‘say do’ ratio thing COMBINED with gathering feedback from our business partners, I’m not sure we have much else to talk about?” she said picking up her coffee and pushing back from the table.
“I guess not. I’m really sorry it didn’t work out.” he said defensively and pushed back as well standing.
“Yeah me too.” she said standing as well.
“Expect to get an invite to talk with Dennis in HR? Maybe he can help us sort this out”, Bob said reaching for the conference room door and muttered “stupid bitch” under his breath after he thought he was out of ear shot.
“Sure Bob. Dennis in HR. Sort it out.” she repeated. "Have a good day!” she called out as he disappeared around the corner.
“What the hell just happened here?” she wondered and paused to look out the window towards the employee parking lot. “All I did was ask for my managers support to get closer to the business where I could be more effective for the company. He’s taking it way too personally and now this? He’s putting his own interests before the companies!”
“Time to update the resume" she said softly to herself as she flipped the light switch off in the conference room and went the other way.
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