Thursday, November 5, 2009

I've done all I can

Mark the middle manager adjusted his red tie, checked his watch, lowered his head, and took two quick breaths, followed by a long exhalation. Trying keep himself under control. He was in the elevator going all the way up. Nosebleed territory. Clenching and unclenching his fist. Later, when he was sitting safely on the train going home, he would look at his reflection in the dark window and think to himself, "Man I was pumped." Something was up with the Boss. It was bad, not knowing what that something was.

It couldn't be the team. The team had done what had been asked of it -- they'd cut payroll, trimmed expenses, and squeezed their accounts. They were working sixty hour weeks. They were setting an example. It couldn't be helped if sales were down. Surely the Boss understood that they were operating at their limit. What more could you ask of them? It couldn't be the marketplace -- the marketplace was a friggin beast. It was out of control. No one in the company was responsible for the marketplace. It had a mind of its own. So what was it? Maybe it was the guys overseas. Those guys were up to their eyeballs in debt and the dollar was sinking like a lead ball. Which meant America couldn't bail them out. In addition, there had been talk of influence peddling and unauthorized payments in one of the divisions and now regulators were looking at operations with a fine-toothed comb. Yeah, it had to be the guys overseas.

The elevator stopped and Mark yawned so hard he almost dislocated his jaw. Ouch. This was murder -- getting called upstairs without knowing what to expect. Middle managers weren't good at surprises. Middle managers were good at execution. What they did was called adding value. There was a loud pop followed by shaking, and for one bowel-loosening moment Mark thought that the elevator cable had snapped. Later on he would say, "I thought I was going to fall. I almost lost it."

The door opened. He straightened up and stepped out onto the deep pile carpet. This was the only floor that had it. He turned right and headed toward Maria's cube. Maria had been with the company for nearly thirty years, working for eight different executives before the Boss tapped her to be his personal assistant. She was a diminutive woman, plain and mean. No one could get near the Boss without going through Maria. Mark looked at her sitting there, slowed down, and tried smiling, "Morning Maria, how are you today? The Boss wants to see me."

Maria didn't care for middle managers -- she knew where the power lay, and it certainly wasn't with them. She stared at him with the famous Maria-I-cut-right-through-you stare. Mark may have been a middle manager, but he was no dope. He stood his ground and stared right back at her. After a few uncomfortable seconds, she finally said, "That's right. He's in there waiting for you." Mark turned and headed toward the corner. This was the moment of truth.

He stepped into the Boss's office. "Good morning, sir. Everybody's talking about the trains in the lobby. They look great." His voice seemed very loud. Too loud. The Boss stood with his back toward Mark. He was looking out through a wall of glass, high above the city, watching a solitary red-tailed hawk ride the currents above the park, circling as it scanned the terrain for prey. "Please shut the door, Mark."

His voice was soft, drawn. "See that bird out there?" He didn't sound like himself. "That used to be me. There was a time when I was hungry every day, every day ready to pounce. Magnificent, isn't he? Here he is, living in the greatest city on earth, acting like he owns it. He knows he's got the power, he can rise above it all and strike like a thunderbolt. I knew that feeling once." Mark figured it was best to keep his mouth shut. The Boss shrugged and turned away from the window. "I've been offered an endowed chair at a major university. They want me to teach. I can't say who it is. But I've decided to do it. I think my time here is over. I've done all I can."

Mark was stunned. What was the Boss saying? He was leaving? This was bad. The team wouldn't understand. Even though they had issues with the Boss, they knew they needed someone at the top, someone who could make the tough decisions, someone who could lead them in troubled times. Mark was no good at improvising and didn't have a clue as to how a middle manager should respond to this kind of news. He looked down at his black wing-tips and the burgundy carpet. He cleared his throat. Just then, the Boss threw back his head and screamed with laughter. "Got your attention, didn't I?"

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