Merv Kaufman comes to realize that in business, adversity is what you work through, not quit on.
The usual procedure, when a new CEO arrived from our home office in Paris or a current chief executive decided to retire or move on, was for the corporate publicist-speech writer to craft a beneficent and positive-sounding message. It would be disseminated, first, as an official e-mail and then as an important-looking on-paper newsgram.
Not in this case. Our Frenchman-in-Charge abruptly withdrew, with hardly a goodbye or bon chance from any of his erstwhile colleagues. Within a week, following a terse staff announcement, a new CEO moved in. American, this time. His curriculum vitae seemed thin and unimpressive. So was his name. Buzz Something or Other, I think.
In the first of very few staff messages that followed, he professed to being glad to have come aboard but said nothing to indicate any eagerness to work with a talented staff or to grow the company into something resembling a money-making colossus.
“He’s here to kill us off,” said a seasoned cynic who sat two cubicles south of mine. And that idea rattled around our corridors awhile until it was reasoned that a new CEO, whatever his background, was hardly needed if the plan was to simply fold the whole tent. No, we surmised, something else was afoot.
In the weeks and months that followed, it became clear that management, such as it was, was prudently cleaning up its act—no, not striving to make our products overtly better and richer but pruning what had actually been profitable, shaking down contracts for long-term projects and getting rid of what was considered unredeemable dead wood.
Gradually people began disappearing, their projects halted or sold off. They left behind empty offices with file drawers hanging open and shelves stacked with books and thick folders. Printers vanished, then desktop computers began disappearing. They hadn’t been sold, merely stolen—by whom we never knew, nor could any of us imagine how such items could have been spirited out of a supposedly secure building.
One day there was a crash: a tall bookcase that had been pulled away from the wall suddenly collapsed, scattering its contents across many yards of commercial carpeting, faded and worn. That suite of abandoned offices looked dispiritedly like burglarized space.
What would be done? A team from Facilities needed to come in and, under corporate supervision, determine what should be kept and what could justifiably be dumped. But by then, Facilities had been pared to a pair of overworked, though earnest, young men. And corporate had become a unquantifiable unknown. Thus the mess remained.
A feeling of doom was in the air by now; people avoided eye contact when passing in the hall; there was no chatter in restrooms or elevators. But neither I nor any of my colleagues walked out. We had jobs to do, after all, work that had been scheduled and needed to be finished.
Then one day we learned—from the grapevine; there was no official announcement—that our department was scheduled to move to the other end of our floor, an area that had recently been evacuated.
Somebody managed to obtain a copy of a new floor plan. We huddled over it and, each with self-preservation firmly in mind, attempted to tweak it a little. To our surprise, such revisions were accepted. We began feeling good again; it seemed that our future, as a unit, had been assured.
Aware that Facilities comprised only two men and four hands, we began borrowing dollies and moving a lot of our stuff ourselves, backbreaking chores. Of course we left our desks to the pros to move and sustained the hope that IT would quickly reinstall our computers so we wouldn’t lose our slots in cyberspace. We became a well-oiled team, almost giddy with the realization of what we could accomplish ourselves, together.
Moving our department piecemeal took several days to accomplish, but finally everything was in place. Our phones were working, our computers were running, and we were even getting our mail.
It was a Friday morning when our art director finished crafting clever signs for each of us to mount on walls or doors, so people would know who had landed where. A few hours later, early afternoon, we were summoned to an Important Meeting at 4 p.m. in the corporate conference room.
We arrived weary from having unpacked and settled in quickly, hopeful that our efforts would be heartily commended. We felt like surviving pioneers on a brand-new trek. That wasn’t to be, however. We’d been brought together to be told that our unit was disbanding and that within the next 14 days all but a handful of us would be out the door.
We were stunned. Wiped out. Why had we been moved, if we were slated to be crushed? A corporate miscalculation, a missed message, a grievous injustice, a communications lapse? Call it what you will, but it certainly amounted to a colossal and truly untenable fuckup.
Back in our new but certain to be temporary offices, we broke out a bottle of wine that someone had found in a desk drawer. We toasted each other and tried to put a happy face on the uncertainty every one of us now faced. It was 2008, after all, a wretched time to begin hounding the job market.
No one was immediately snatched off to some snazzy new gig. Instead, we dutifully came in until each of us had completed what we’d begun. Were we stupid, hopeful of a favorable recommendation from some obliging higher-up? Hardly. We didn’t know who was managing us and, worse, had come to understand that nothing but exits was actually being managed.
Dutifully, we showed up every day, as though being observed by hard-bitten bosses. Why? Because we felt professional—and responsible. We couldn’t just turn our backs and bug out.
Yes, of course, we used the phones and fax machines and beat the hell out of e-mail logs. There was only so much time when we would have access to such amenities—services once taken for granted but now considered precious.
The thing is: We got our jobs done. Every one of them. We could go out like valiant warriors having won our last skirmish. Misplaced loyalty? Not really. The loyalty we now felt was to each other—men and women alike—and to our mutual need to finish the work we’d been hired to do.
I left that company feeling so proud of my colleagues—not of their foolishness but of their dedication and their dignity. What about management? No words of respect or kindness were ever uttered.
Buzz? Whoever he was, he was merely the faceless tool of a foreign conglomerate. His tenure was deliberately temporal. “Sell it and get out” had been his likely mandate—and perhaps that sounded less harsh when delivered in French.
In the years since the slim remains of our company were finally sold off, we survivors often get together. We talk of our families, of new prospects, of possible freelance work and, in some cases now, of promising new jobs. We never talk about the old days; we’ve happily left them behind us.
We remain proud of what we did, and of what we achieved together. We left a disintegrating company with dignity and not with the ignominious smear that those faceless managers will never be able to blot.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Sheffield. All rights reserved.