Monday, July 16, 2012

The boardroom

I remember shite. I remember when we were summoned to the boardroom, me, JC, and Goldie. It was a red letter day. An effin thrill. Anxiety, sure, because who knew what was gonna happen when we got there, but elation too, for the mere summons was a sign. A sign that we'd finally made it into the inner sanctum. Getting called to the boardroom was an anointing. Bring out the effin chrism. It was like learning a secret handshake or being granted a master access code to the building security system. We would now be privy to the decision-making process. We'd become members of the Management Team. Take a bow, boys. By joining the effin priesthood we'd acquire a modicum of power over those below us -- just enough to keep our fucking nostrils above water.

Who claimed that pride and self-loathing were two sides of the same coin? They weren't lying. I wanted to write a book about it. How I Learned To Hate Myself By Working For A Big Corporation. Effin three stooges.

We ascended to the thirty-second floor where we were greeted with the implacable quietude and heavy monied stillness that signals the presence of An Important Being in the vicinity. It demanded respectful silence. We steadied ourselves in the cold recycled air and mouthed the words, "Which way is it? To the left or to the right?" There wasn't a soul in sight we could ask. We went to the right. At the end of a long hallway there was a double entry with wooden doors unlike any we'd seen on the other floors. We opened one of them an inch and peered in. There it was -- the boardroom.

The first thing we noticed was that the ceilings were absurdly high. Who needed that all that headroom? Even the CEO's head wasn't that swole up. Effin Max Headroom. The lighting was oddly muted and the carpets were thick, but the artwork was grim -- big off-white canvases dotted with loopy splotches of unremitting black. Perhaps the painter was a suicide. The room was a void. If your pre-corporate antennae were sufficiently sensitive, you could detect the noxious aura of inflated egos and traces of impotent rage still clinging to its paneled surfaces. Hell, the room was a goddamn set-up.

And yet this was the place that senior management deemed ideal for "blue sky" meetings? How about beheadings? We stood there and laughed inwardly. Outwardly we behaved like obedient children -- serious and self-possessed. You had to keep your nose clean when skulking around the thirty-second floor, poot. Especially if you were just about to be dubbed a member of the Management Team.

Most of the room was taken up by a twenty-eight-foot-long table said to be carved out of a single tree found only in Madagascar, polished and buffed to a high sheen. We'd been told that little foreigners came in every night to do the job. For some reason they were always smiling. Unlike us salaried employees. Everybody in the company was aware that the table cost a pile of beans but no one knew exactly how many beans. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe more. At least a handful of full-time salaries.

A few years ago, the CEO and his wife were over in Africa -- doing the champagne-safari bit followed by the let's-go-snorkeling-in-the-Indian-Ocean bit -- and came back with the table. Rumor had it that they christened it with a celebratory quickie smack in the center of its shiny burled surface. Rumors abound in any big corporation. Sadly, most of them turn out to be true. Just like real life.

The table was meant to intimidate. No one was allowed to set even a coffee cup down on it, let alone a bottle of water. Nothing that might leave a ring or make a smudge. You had to work dry in the boardroom.

What was the work? What did these characters do in the boardroom? It was hard to define but, judging from the faces of those who did it, it must have been difficult. My colleague D. likened it to steering a big ship. "Inertia is the main force against us. The corporation wants to keep moving in one direction while we're trying to turn it away from running aground." But it wasn't only inertia. There were other forces at work: the tide of history, the winds of change, the limits of human intelligence. The hardest part of the goddamn job was navigating a sea of tired metaphors. All that MBA bullshit the Ivy League arrivistes had brought with them when things started going south with the rise of digital technology.

What could we do? We were employees and we had made it to the boardroom. We were called on to be creative but not too creative. Too creative was bad -- it could upset the corporate hierarchy and would likely get us kicked out of the boardroom. No more Management Team, no more nostrils above water. We also were invited to "take ownership," become "stakeholders," and "buy into a common vision." That was just another bunch of tired metaphors. What the corporation really wanted was loyalty, long hours, and conformity. Those already in the boardroom would steal whatever ideas bubbled up from below and claim them as their own. Everybody else lived in fear of getting shit-canned. The choice was clear.

We had made it to the thirty-second floor and it was like public school all over again, those days when we were subject to the tyranny of the lowest common denominator. Exceptionalism creates anxiety in the unexceptional. Aim at the middle of the bell curve and you can't miss, poot. Here we were immersed in the enviable culture of the boardroom: mediocrity, longevity, good grooming, and the accoutrements of wealth sitting at the table. We looked around the room and said to ourselves, "What the hell are we doing here?"

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