Horror of horrors, I was now another empty suit. I had never wanted, dreamed of or even considered the possibility that someday I would be a business executive. I had never wanted to get to the top of my profession. I never even wanted a goddamned profession in the first place! I wanted to play music and get laid! And now, here I was, the youngest executive in company history, and, for the fourth time in my career, the recipient of a promotion that was breathtakingly undeserved.
If this was the fulfillment of the American dream, where was the hard work that was supposed to lead to that fulfillment? My ascension to the executive suite was the result of a series of accidents. Anyone looking at my trajectory would say, “Man, you got pretty damned lucky.”
I sure didn’t feel lucky, though. I felt like a sell-out. And now I had to go to my first executive team meeting with all those conservative Republicans with trophy wives whose primary goal in life was to gain power, whose energies were devoted to political manipulation and who didn’t give a shit about the people who worked their asses off to pay for their country club memberships.
I trudged down the long hallway to the executive conference room like a prisoner facing execution, found the least conspicuous seat at the table and resolved to speak only when spoken to. As I have learned over my career, this is how most HR executives play the game, which explains why most of them are terribly ineffective.
After a few minutes of bullshit pleasantries, the executive team got down to business. Business consisted of looking at a spreadsheet projected onto a screen showing the monthly financials. The President would call on one of the suits to explain an unhappy figure and the suit would inevitably point the finger at another suit whose department was fucking everything up. The other suits carefully watched the President to see which side he would take and once the President had made that call, descended on the victim like a pack of hungry lions picking off the slowest in the herd.
This went on for three fucking hours, during which I had the revelation of a lifetime.
These people were human beings. Frightened human beings.
You didn’t need to be a psychologist to make that diagnosis. They all displayed the symptoms of a person in fear. Defensive body language. Fight-flight responses. Shifty eyes, darting around the room in a desperate search for support. They were absolutely terrified of losing their jobs, their status, and above all, the meaning they had attached to making it to the top. Instead of seeing them as arrogant and all-powerful, I realized they were extremely vulnerable and psychologically fragile. They were only frightening in the sense that all frightened animals are dangerous. They derived power from their fear.
I wasn’t frightened of them anymore. I felt sorry for them and wanted to help, but I also knew that they would never allow me to help. To do that, they would have to drop the thing shielding their vulnerability and that was simply out of the question. They lived by the credo of never letting an opponent see your weak spot—and everyone in the world had to considered an opponent.
I figured that if I did what they asked (as long as they didn’t ask me to do anything illegal or unethical), I could handle them. Falling back on my earlier revelation that I had a team of people who were there to help me, I asked them lots of questions and took their input seriously. We solved the previously unsolvable sales turnover problem in about six months. We handled employee relations problems with exceptional finesse and kept the company out of court. The one area where we could make no headway was with our managers, who were desperately in need of training. The President wouldn’t spend a dime on that, believing that leadership was a genetic trait. So, we organized our efforts towards protecting the company and the employees from the stupid things our asshole managers always wound up doing.
In other words, I kept my head down and did my job. The President was happy that I confirmed his belief in the Portuguese work ethic and left me alone. Things were . . . okay. I still felt uncomfortable with the whole executive hoo-hah.
Then things really got interesting. The short version of the story is this: The President and CFO were in cahoots to manipulate the numbers so they could get their annual bonuses. A cozy relationship with the financial auditors facilitated their scheme. When the parent conglomerate decided to sell our entire line of business to a group of outside investors, a fresh team of accountants was sent to evaluate the American company. The President hightailed it out of there and wound up with our leading competitor. The CFO stayed on, figuring he he held a strong hand: he was an expert on the financial mess he had created and was probably the only person on the planet who could explain it. He also divined that the new owners would want to cut, cut, cut and with the President gone, he could do the dirty work and get rid of the excessive fat at the top of the organization in exchange for a very sweet severance package.
Unfortunately, he needed an accomplice, and when you terminate people, that accomplice has to be the HR person. Not having any other job options and having a family to support, I had little choice but to go along. Together, we fired ten executives in the space of one month. The CFO handled the financial negotiations, I handled the human considerations. All of the conversations were extraordinarily painful and intensely embarrassing to the victim and despite their arrogance, their threats and abusive language, I felt terribly sorry for all of them.
Now we were five . . . five executives without a CEO now leading a near-bankrupt company that had just been bought by a group of faceless investors. It didn’t help our optimism that America was in the midst of a recession and the job market for executives with experience in failing companies was not particularly bright. There was nothing we could do but wait for the new CEO to come in and finish off the rest of us.
—to be continued—