Corporate Sanity Officer? Imagine That!

It was 8:30 on a Monday morning when I got in to work.  I was just back from my vacation.  My office was a shambles.  It had been torn apart. There was dust everywhere.  My whiteboard had been taken down and was leaning against a chair, the edge of which had rubbed out part of a work of inspired genius from a Friday “chalk talk” with our lead architect just before I left.   It was the perfect image of destruction.  Thank god I had taken my laptop with me.  My docking station was encased in a plastic cover, but that cover was full of dust.

In the middle of what once was my office was a stranger in a yellow hard hat staring at at the skeleton that was my wall,  with the aluminum studs exposed.   Another was on his knees, monkeying with the bottom of a stud that he appeared to be wiggling back and forth.

What the hell was going on here?

The answer was a few feet away.  Next door to my office, where the meeting room used to be was a brand new executive office, somewhat larger than mine. And also, unlike mine, it was not a disaster zone.  It was pristine.  The decorating and furnishings were complete right down to the name tag on the door.

Obviously, this executive, whoever they were, was higher in the pecking order than me.  They  had they trashed part of my office in the construction.  But they’d been certain to ensure that this new exec wouldn’t face the disaster zone that I saw.   From the look of it, they’d made my office a few feet smaller.   Whoever this was, someone had decided that it was better to ruin my day than to have a bad first impression from whoever owned this office.

Who could this be?  I had to know and it would be easy to find out.   The name tag, in burnished aluminum,  was already on the door.   I moved a few steps over to see it on the half opened door.  I read the name.  Helen McCulloch, CSO.

A cold chill ran through my whole body.

I knew Helen.  I should.  I had created her.  I mean really created her.  I made her up.  Her title – CSO started as a joke over lunch with a friend.   Some joke.

I wasn’t laughing now.   And if I thought my day had started badly, it was about to take a turn for the worst.

Walking towards me was my “nemesis from premises” – John Goodwin.

Actually, John was in charge of more than just premises.  He had started doing premises and moves — but over the years he had expanded his control and influence to the point where he controlled a much wider empire including  logistics and purchasing.  If you asked John, this control had done great things.  Over the years, John (by his own accounting)  had saved us a ton of money.

His cost savings  had also led us into conflict.  The money he had “saved” by changing vendors and even (occasionally) hardware configurations had put us into conflict on several occasions.  But these flashpoints were rare.   John didn’t often directly interfere.   What he would do most often was to put your order into a bureaucratic purgatory from which it would emerge only when he was satisfied that you had met all of his requirements.

These little squabbles happened with increasing regularity.   Until recently, I’d inevitably win the day, which made it even more frustrating, given the time it cost me to argue each individual item.  Why?  Several times he had made projects late by delaying needed equipment or blocking contractors.

I tried to get my own staff to stay ahead of his demands which necessitated ever longer lead times, but all too often I’d find myself going down to his office to go head to head on items that should have been routine or where my staff should have been empowered to make a decision — even, within reason — if they made a mistake from time to time.

That attitude was heresy with Goodwin.  Mistake?  Mistakes didn’t happen.  It was simply bad planning — or a lack of control.  If I would pay more attention, if I would simply review every little item my staff did, I wouldn’t have these situations.  Probably true.  But I wasn’t going to become a micro-manager.

I’ve lived with bureaucrats before.  I could have survived this one.  But what was making the situation even worse was that this attitude was rubbing off on my own staff.   On a recent projects, one of my architects said to me, “Why bother even pretending we’ll get it in on time?  This has to go through purchasing.  They’ll delay if for months anyway, no matter what I do.   So if we’re a few weeks late with the programming, what does it matter?”

That kind of thinking infuriates me.  Call it a failing, but I’ve spent my whole career trying to make organizations more nimble.  So most of the time, I was often at war with Goodwin.

I’d come down to his office and stand in the door until he could ignore me no longer.  Eventually the phone call would have to end.  The memo would have to be done.  I could wait him out.  I wasn’t about to send him an email.  I learned a long time ago — if you are going into battle, if you are angry — don’t send an email.  Go and look into the person’s eyes.  And I did.  I’d come down to his office and stand in the door until he could ignore me no longer.  Eventually the phone call would have to end.  The memo would have to be done.  I could wait him out.

One great thing about a C-level job?  I could pull rank.  Goodwin could argue, but I could claim “executive privilege” and eventually win the day.   But that changed a few months ago when Goodwin was made, to my chagrin, Chief Logistics Officer.  He was now in the C-level.

Apparently, ass-kissing does work.

Before you think I’m being unfair, you have to hear Goodwin waxing poetically at every executive meeting.  He was always “on the team”.   Goodman took yes-man to a new level.  Any idea that emerged from the lips our CEO was brilliant.

The rest of us, who thought that our job was not to be highly paid cheer-leaders were stuck with the tough work of questioning and testing new ideas.   To be fair, many times, our CEO was smart enough to back off his craziest ideas.   But you got the feeling that each “victory” for sanity came at a cost to you and your career.

Goodwin – the sycophant didn’t pay this price.  But neither did others – many of the others who would simply stay quiet, knowing – or hoping that someone else would be the voice of reason.   Increasingly, that someone was me.  They’s sit there stoically observing while I’d point out issues that we’d all discussed over coffee or in one on one meetings.

After our exec meetings there’d be that “atta-boy” pat on the back or quick comment.  But during the meeting?  They weren’t sycophantic like Goodwin, but they weren’t out on the battlefield of ideas like me.

I had one ally among the executive.   Andrew.  Our CFO.   I admired him and his quiet authority.  He never got impassioned like me.  He was always calm.   Andrew kept to himself.  He never joined in the office gossip.  If you tried to engage him in conversation about himself, he would quietly turn it around and have you talking about yourself.  At executive meetings, the closest thing to socializing that he did,  whenever an idea from anyone wouldn’t make sense, he’d just look up from his papers with what I came to call the “that dog won’t hunt” look.   He never had to argue.  One word from him and everyone would simply defer to him — even Melvin, the CEO.  I never knew why, I only knew his reputation.  He never fought.  He never argued.  But everyone knew you knew you did not cross him.

I used to joke that someday I would learn that Jedi mind trick.

What I never realize was that Andrew had a sense of humour.  I learned this on the day that Goodwin was promoted.  When Melvin announced that Goodwin had been promoted to the C-level, Andrew appeared unruffled as usual.  He sat there, as always making notes or simply doodling on the legal pad which he carried constantly.

I looked over to see a tiny, neatly drawn picture.  It was Goodwin.  Underneath it was his new title with the capital letters emphasized with a very artistic calligraphy.  I remember looking at it and thinking that Andrew had some serious artistic talent.  As a CFO he was full of surprises.  It  looked like a real congratulatory note, until I saw the addition he’d made to Goodwin’s title.   He had added  two words to Goodwin’s title – World Network.   I didn’t think it made any sense until I saw what the letters spelled out.  Chief Logistics Officer, World Network was of course — CLOWN.

It took a second or two to register.  But when it did, I saw that the sketch of Goodwin’s face which initially looked like just a good likeness, also had in the shading and the subtle use of light — a clown face within it.  This guy was good.   He’d missed his calling.  As Sheldon says on that TV Show “The Big Bang Theory” – Bazinga!

I looked at Andrew.  Like the shift of the clown face, I thought I saw, just for a second, the glimmer of humour in his eyes.   Did I imagine it, or did he put his lips together gently and — did he make a kissing motion?   Was he really saying that Goodwin was a clown and an “ass-kisser”?   I’d never know, because at that point, Melvin (our CEO) banged his hand on the table and the the moment was forgotten.

Jack?  Melvin was all business.  I looked over to Andrew but his face had also gone into corporate mode.  We were back in the game.  “Jack, your report here says that the new accounting system project is delayed?  This is mission critical.  What’s going on here?”

“Ask Goodwin.”  I said, calmly.   “Our equipment is a month late.”

Goodwin bristled, “The paperwork was not properly done on this.  And we got it late – again.  We don’t purchase equipment like this.  ”

“The paper-work?”  I said, incredulously.  ” Cosmetic.  And we told you it was urgent.”

Goodwin pulled his famous line, “Lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on my part.”   At that point, Andrew looked up.   Everybody noticed.  After all, this was Andrew’s system.  In fact, even Goodwin seemed to realize he’d gone too far this time.  So he reached for his ace in the hole.

“And once again, IT had selected the most expensive vendor.”   Goodwin looked at me with that offended look he puts on.

“Yes.” I shot back.  “The one who COULD have delivered on time!”  I stopped myself before I banged my fist on the table, but the damage had been done.  I had raised my voice.

Our passive aggressive executive group was trying hard to not notice.  Everyone did this parody of looking off to the side.  Everybody, it seemed, but our CFO Andrew, who just watched quietly.  But nobody on this team liked conflict.  We had gone through endless team building sessions to avoid this sort of thing.  Melvin intervened.  “Gentlemen,” he said, “take this off-line, but fix it.”

Funny how we are in public versus how we are in private.  Nobody could belive that I had taken on Goodwin face to face and blow for blow.  None of them had the courage to say anything in public but privately they were “on my side”.  From that point on Goodwin had a new nickname that linked him forever to me.  He was Jack’s “Nemesis from Premises”.

So if anyone could make my day worse, it was John Goodwin.   John was a short man, well groomed and always carrying around a clip board — evidence of his organization and by inference, everyone else’s lack of organization.   Every pore of his body exuded control.

I always pictured him as one of those British Army officers you see in the movies with the  Kkahi uniform, swagger stick, straight back — you know the type.   He even had that walk — the stride of someone who ran a tight ship.  But today, he was looking a little displeased.

But if he thought HE was displeased, when he saw me, he realized that wherever he was, I was light years ahead of him.  I’m sure that he didn’t know the real reason I was “losing it”.   He couldn’t possibly know that my imaginary position had come to life.   No way he could have seen that I was in the Twilight Zone.   I’m sure that he thought my problem wrecking crew in my office.  Whatever it was, when I said,  “What the hell is going on here?” even Goodwin knew not to trifle with me.

“Awfully sorry, Jim,” he said with a very masculine sigh.

In my mind I heard him say “old chap” instead of my name.  It wasn’t endearing.

“I had hoped to have this done and cleaned up by the time you got in.  They had promised it would be done by this morning.  That’s why I’m here.  I wanted to personally take accountability for our inconvenience.  It’s something that seems to have gone out of fashion in the company.  No excuses.  I know that you IT people regularly run over deadlines, but in my world, this is simply unacceptable.”

I could not believe this guy.  He’s got my office torn up  and he turns it into an opportunity to criticize me.  I realize that IT is an easy shot in any company, especially here.   But this was low, even for Goodwin.

Or maybe not.  He had never accepted that a “techie” (he preferred that term) like me would occupy a C-level position.   He considered me a peer at best and in his dreams, I supposed —  a subordinate.  I was like the tradesman that he was criticizing as if they weren’t here.   My ascendance to the C-suite was an anomaly, a corporate error, one that would be rectified any day now – when the rest of the executives came to their senses and realized what they had done.

Goodwin had to grudgingly acknowledge my existence, but to keep his world functioning as it should, he treated me a a junior executive.   If I gave him a request he’s ask if Jake, our CFO had authorized it, as if I reported to Jake.  And not only did I not report to Jake, but I never had.   The previous CIO  had reported to the CFO, but when I came on board, I had insisted that as CIO I was either part of the executive team — or I was not even vaguely interested in the job.  I believe I had been blunt in the interview, “If you want a manager of IT – it’s not me.”

I meant it.  I had done the senior manager, the Director thing.  I’d been VP of IT.  My last company had grudgingly and finally given me the title of Senior VP of IT.   Too little, too late.   I wasn’t taking it anymore.   It was “go big or go home.”

Just so we are clear, I do have an ego.   I liked the title not simply for the status.  I knew I had a lot to offer.  I could have a strategic impact on the company.   I could help them leverage technology in ways that would make us incredibly competitive.  But I couldn’t do this sitting in my office while the “adults” went out and made the big decisions and then came back to me to implement what they thought was the latest and greatest.   All too many times that was simply vapourware or a great sales pitch.  I could not endure one more strategy that had a  “black box” in the middle where all I had to do was automate the impossible.  No budget, time or resources.   After all, it was easy. They’d read it in a computer journal or more recently in some blog.

No. I had spent a lifetime at the intersection of business and technology.  I had ideas of how we could really make this work.  But to do that, I needed to be where the decisions were being made, not simply an afterthought.  So I set my sites on the CIO position.

I worked hard to get there.  I kept up on technology .  But I also paid attention to business, to marketing, to the human aspects of organization.  I went back to school and night.  I read voraciously.  I had earned a seat at the executive table.  I wasn’t settling for any less.

What’s that old proverb?  Be careful what you wish for, you might get it?

Here’s something I forgot to ask at the interview.  How many other C level positions are you going to create over the next few years?   If I had known, I might have chosen differently.  It turned out that I was the first wave of a wave of new C level titles.  It was the new trend.  And if there is anything that our CEO, Melvin Humbaker, MBA (that’s how he announced himself) understood — it was the latest trends.  Best practices is what he’d call them.   He too read voraciously from all of the summaries of the best business books.  He listened to the elevator pitches and CEO briefing of every strategic consulting firm.  He read the cover and the article summary of the best business magazines.  He checked the industry leaders on his smart phone as they passed on three paragraphs of genius.  And he took it to heart.

But more than anything, Melvin saw himself as a man of action.   When he read that executive HBR summary that said  IT was strategic in the organization and needed a C level champion, he created the CIO position and the firm had hired me.

A few months later he read that marketing needed a seat at the table, and he created the Chief Marketing Office position.  We got Chris, our new CMO.  When Risk Management was the focus we got a Chief  Risk Officer – CRO.   Privacy – CPO.  HR was our first four character C-level title — CHRO.   Melvin drew the line at Ethics — one CEO was enough.   That  one moved us into five characters.   So we ended up with Social Responsibly and Ethics – CSREO.  I had hoped that would be the point where we would stop, but some damn thought leader managed to convince Melvin that logistics and nimbleness could only come about through the elevation of  logistics, supply chain and purchasing. That’s when we got our CLO – Goodwin, a.k.a. my “nemesis from premises”.

When you put it all together now, it looks pretty damned silly, but  at first we really didn’t notice what was happening   One new position — two new positions.  Each time we greeted the new person and welcomed them to the table as  Melvin’s grinned and introduced the new member of the team at our regular weekly executive meetings.   We had a large board room table so a few new people didn’t matter much either.   But soon the table was filling up. Where we once had felt like we had tons of space, we were now being crammed around the large board room table.  That was how I ended up sitting close enough to our CFO Andrew  to see his artistic renderings.   As each new  member of the C level group had come on board, they  sat to the left or right of the CEO and everyone else shifted down to make room.  The only one who held his spot was Goodwin, who through some magic managed to never lose his original proximity to Melvin.  The rest of us we were pushed farther and farther back until the older members of the group —  Andrew and I — occupied our present location and the end of the table.  It wasn’t all bad.  We could see all the action and we had relative privacy — me for my notes and Andrew for his doodling.   Unless one of us was speaking, all eyes were pointed towards Melvin —  the “capital C”  — as I liked to refer to him.

If the management bloat wasn’t immediately evident at our board room table, you couldn’t miss the impact on the offices that the employees called “executive row”.  We might not have noticed, but the other employees did.

We were continually adding more and more offices.   Where we once had walls with outside windows illuminating a mostly open concept office, we now had a ring of private offices and conference rooms around the perimeter.  The C level population explosion had consumed all available window space.  Next, the  conference rooms disappeared.   After a near revolt from the staff, we eventually froze the number of conference rooms, but in a burst of planning genius from Goodwin (needed to bring him into executive row and out of his cubicle)  we kept the number of conference rooms — we just shrunk their size.   Recently, even that had run out.

Which brought us to where we were today.  It turns out that Goodwin – my nemesis – had once again put his genius towards solving this new problem.  He needed to create a new office for this new C-level position.  Since he couldn’t shrink the conference rooms, he’s  ake some space from other offices.   I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that I was on vacation when he sold  this idea to Melvin and used my own words to do it.

“I didn’t think you’d mind.” he said to me.  ” And when I reminded Melvin that you were the one who said that you didn’t care — you could work anywhere, he gave the go ahead.”   Goodwin had a way of taking even the best in people and using it against them.  “Look on the bright side,” he said, ” We only cut a few feet from your office.  George lost most of his.”

Poor George was the last and lowest of the C-level appointments.  We had discovered Social Media and embraced the concept (against my objections) by creating yet another new C-level position – the Chief Social Media and Community Officer — CSMCO.    This last move was a “bridge too far” and it created a great deal of dissent and gossip – the old fashioned form of twittering.  Once again, the office “twittering” disappeared when Melvin was in the room.

Well, at least now we’d have something new to fuel the coffee room chatter.   Our longest C level abbreviation would now have have the smallest office.  Half?  What was left after this reno was little more than a closet.

Even Goodwin, not known for any subtlety could not fail to notice the irony.  But he just shrugged it off.  “Oh, well.  These guys are supposed to operate virtually, aren’t they?”

Now he was turning that same care and concern my way.  “So you could have done worse. And to be serious for a moment, you have always said you didn’t care about your office. I just took you at your word.”

Goodwin had me there.  I had always been clear that I didn’t care about the office and the status.   Even if I did, as we added more and more C-level execs, there was less and less status to even care about.  Far from it.  What we had amongst our staff was  more and more cynicism.

I’d love to say that I rose above it all, but I didn’t.  At first, I tried to justify the new appointments to my team. As they grew more and more cynical I became less and less energetic in my defense.   Finally I decided that if my ability to lead my team meant I had to maintain some credibility I’d have to stop defending every new C level creation.   At first I would frown knowingly at jokes relating to our top heavy structure.   Eventually the frown became a cynical, twisted grin.

That’s how I was publicly.  Privately, I had gone over to the dark side long ago.  I remember even as I tried to muster some way to chide my staff about their cynicism, I was making up new Dilbert comic lines in my head.   “How is our company different than the Titanic?  Over half of our crew  is above C level.”

I didn’t share these with my team.   I didn’t share them with the executive either.  I learned long ago that it was irony was dangerous.  I learned it the hard way.

After one particularly exhausting executive meeting where everyone delivered the latest platitudes and we had firmly decided to pursue the latest slogan I had stood up at the end of the meeting and quipped, largely to myself, “You know, if we tried really hard, we could manage to convince ourselves that we did something valuable today.”

I thought it was witty.  Nobody else laughed.  Nobody even smiled.   Especially Melvin.  He was not smiling more than anyone.

I figured it out. Finally.   The fact that I’d get the “atta-boy” at the coffee machine or in a private meeting did not translate to support in the exec meeting.  With no allies, except the occasional support from Andrew — and a powerful critic in Goodwin, I knew that I had to choose some new tactics.  Even with my relative lack of skill in  corporate politics, even I was astute enough to realize that my career couldn’t withstand having two roles — devil’s advocate and class clown..

So after that, I kept to myself.

I thought this epiphany would make things easier for me.  Instead, I became more and more frustrated.  Goodwin made it even worse.  He became more and more insufferable.  Now he was lording his new title thing over everyone.  Memos came out from the CLO about strategic procurement, logistics strategy — you name it, he’d own it.

If I thought we’d reached the heights of bureaucracy, but I was sadly mistaken.  It seemed that every day a new process would require approval from logistics and central purchasing.  More and more, every strategy had to be cleared with Goodwin.  What made it worse was that he enjoyed every minute of making my life miserable.

This was payback for all the times I’d over-ruled him.  It was his MO.  If anyone complained or made trouble, they’d discover the power of Goodwin’s ass-kissing.  Melvin loved the fawning and praise and  frankly, so  did many of the other executives.  Goodwin’s sucking up was legendary.  If we were asked to cut, Goodwin cut more.  The fact that he did it by taking away from our departments was besides the point.  And it  was more than that.  Goodwin had charts and figures to show how much he had saved us, how efficient we were under his guidance.   He was the great cost cutter and the great communicator all rolled into one.

Goodwin’s power grew and he knew how to use it to distribute both pain and rewards.  Even those who disliked him or had problems with his processes learned not to cross him.  If you did, he’d find special way to make life miserable for those he regarded as beneath him — like IT.   Even in the early going, when he didn’t have the  stones or the power to take me on directly, he would make life hell for my staff.  Eventually, he extended that power to all of us — well, almost all of us.

The only one who was immune was Andrew, our CFO.   Until that fateful day when  he got caught in the cross fire of Goodwin’s need to teach my staff a lesson. He had decided to send back a raft of purchase orders and refuse logistics support for a key project because of errors and a lack of lead time.

If I’d been on my game, I would have spotted this.  I’d been handling Goodwin and the likes of Goodwin for years.  But at this point,  I was in my own little world.  I couldn’t share with my team or the executive team.  I went to the one person who would understand — me.  I began to make jokes for the audience of one.

At first it was harmless.  I’d write down notes and speeches full of moronic bafflegab and then giggle to myself.  Then I moved on to imagined conversations between executives based on situations that I’d observed.  I remember one where I wrote about a CIO who took over as the head of marketing.   It was based on the idiocy of our new CMO.  When we added our Chief Social Officer (CSO) I wrote a piece about a homeless guy who became a Social Media expert.  There was no shortage of inspiration.  But for every idiocy, I would have a story.   I  laughed and laughed as I wrote them.  I had developed not only a meaningful therapy.  I had also developed a real talent for satire.

While I loved my audience of one, I couldn’t keep them to myself forever.  So I started publishing my stories as fiction stories under an assumed name.  At first I worried that people from our office would notice, but apparently they didn’t read any of the CIO level blogs I posted in.  If my staff read them or recognized them, they didn’t let on.

In the early days I  wondered if anyone read them.  First of all, they were too long for blog posts. Then I would get the occasional  comments.   When I wrote one about the CIO who trades places with the CMO and then won’t give the job back I got a few comments – many from CIOs who loved it.  When I wrote another about a homeless guy who becomes the Social Media guru it was, I thought, an obvious satire lampooning the current state of Social Media.   But unexpectedly, I got comments that made me think it was too realistic.  One asked how I had found this guy and wondered how he was doing.  Others applauded this affirmative action program.  A few, not many, but a few chastised me for making fun of this man’s struggle.

I thought I was being satirical, but my satire was often too close to reality.  I should have realized that this was bound to have consequences.  And it did, but not in any way that I could have imagined.

My last bit of writing was my “piece de resistance” in terms of pseudo-reality.  It was an internal memo about the appointment of a new C-level executive.  But this one was different.  She (it had to be a she) would put an end to the nonsense and puffery that permeated the executive levels of corporations – like ours.  I originally wanted to call her the CBSO with the BS being the relevant part.  But that seemed too heavy handed and contrived.  It lacked the subtlety necessary to make the point.  Then my lunch with my friend Ruth where we comisserated about corporate insanity gave me the title  —  Chief Sanity Officer — CSO for short.  From there it just blossomed.  As I noted earlier, and for reasons that I thought obvious, this new position would be held by a woman, but more than just any woman.  This lady would be smart, principled and made of steel.  She’d cut through corporate BS and crap the same way she smashed through the glass ceiling.  Nothing could stop her in her quest to make us more authentic — more real.  She’d bring back sanity.

In it’s original form, my creation was simply a rant on the idea of all of the C-level titles.  But as the character became more and more real in my imagination I placed her into more and more situations.    In my mind I witnessed  her intelligence, her cutting wit, her down to earth philosophy as I pitted her against every act of corporate lunacy.  I even got to the point where I could sit back and smile at the insanity of Goodwin.  Whenever I saw something incredibly stupid, instead of arguing, I’d turn to the fantasy of Helen and imagine how she would handle this.

People commented on my new found serenity.  Some thought of it as “giving up”. They weren’t willing to fight the battles themselves, but they missed — or secretly resented me not doing so.  In fairness, I didn’t live totally in my imagination.  When situations affected my team or where something was so outside that I felt that I had to say something, I would.  Only now I’d choose my words carefully.  No displays of emotion.  No rancor.  No arguing.   I’d ask myself, “what would Helen do?”

Most of the time, I kept my cool.  The joust with Goodwin had been my last big blow up.

Instead, my energy went into to continually creating Helen and her magic sword of sanity.   At one point, I even went so far as to create a Linked-In profile for her.   I  didn’t solicit any links.  I made sure that the company names sounded real but were absolutely fictional.   I confess that I did answer a few questions in forums.  But when the requests to link up started to roll in, I backed off.

The more rich the fantasy became, the more I realized that Helen was just we we needed in our real world.   In our company.  So I hired her.

Okay, I’m not totally insane.  I didn’t do it for real.  At least I didn’t think I did.

I created a phony memo, from Melvin to the executive team.  announcing the appointment of this new CSO.  I summarized her job description in our “mission statement format”.  I wrote up the announcement notice as I’d seen them.  Only this one was straight to the core.   Helen was joining the company to help bring an authentic voice to the organization.  It would be here job to restore sanity to our processes and structures.  She would ensure that customers and employees would find us to be a truly lean and progressive organization.  She would bring us purpose.

I had a great time writing this.  I howled.

Then something happened.  When it came time to delete it,  I just couldn’t.  This is going to sound crazy, but I couldn’t keep Helen to myself any longer.  I knew that I had to share her with someone else — and not some unknown audience out in the void.  It had to be someone I knew.   I had crafted this last piece so specifically with our organization  so clearly in mind that I couldn’t publish it to the world.  My other satire was heavily disguised.  This time if anyone saw it, it would reveal far too much about us.

So for the first time in my new career as a corporate satirist, I took a chance.  I shared  this piece with the only person I knew that might get it and where I was equally certain it would be completely safe.  After all, Andrew had let me see his CLOWN joke.  He trusted me.  I could trust him.   I also thought he’d  find it funny.  And I was sure he would know it was satire.  That was a few weeks ago and  if Andrew had read it, he said nothing.  Eventually, I gave up hoping he’d mention it.  Then I went on vacation and forgot all about it.

Until this morning, when it all came flooding back.

The impossible had happened.  Helen had somehow come to life?  This was impossible.   I looked at Goodwin.  I had to hear it from another human being – even Goodwin.  “Who did you say this new office is for?”

“Don’t you keep up?”  said Goodwin.  “Doesn’t anyone tell you ANYTHING?  Then he blushed.  Oh, my heavens.  I’m sorry.  You were out of the loop.”  He tried to hide the memo on his clip board.

I was beyond niceties at this point.  I did what Helen would do.  “Hand it over,” I said, but I didn’t wait.  I grabbed Goodwin’s clip-board and began to read.   But Goodwin didn’t really fight me for it.  I’d figure out why in a moment.

And there it was.  My email.  Only this one looked exactly like it had been sent by our CEO.  His email address was there.  It was sent to a private mailing list just like he did.    And it was labelled PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL.  Now I got the full significance of what Goodwin had said.  He thought I was out of the loop on the appointment.  I wasn’t on Melvin’s private mailing list.

Since the office was there with the name on the door, Goodwin didn’t really have to keep it confidential.  In letting me take the clipboard, he could prove his suspicion  that I was out of the loop.  The joy of that outweighed any confidentiality and it ran through his face as I read the note…

“Her name is Helen McCulloch and she’s our new CSO.” said Goodwin, never one to escape the obvious.

“CSO?”  I feigned ignorance.

“Chief Sanity Officer.  It’s the latest thing.  Every company is getting one.  Or they will.  Once again, we’re leading the way.  It says so in this memo,” as he grabbed the clipboard back , “And in my mind, it’s about time!”   He almost huffed.  I couldn’t believe it.  Could things get any stranger?  As it turned out, yes — they could.

In the next moment, Andrew popped out of his office and came to look at the construction.   He never paid attention to what happened in the office.  This was rare.  But he was checking it all out.  As he surveyed the situation, I knew — I didn’t think —  I knew — I saw a twinkle in his eye.

Next,  I heard Melvin’s booming voice came down the hall with those words I’ll remember to my dying day, “GOODWIN — Get in here!  NOW!”

As I looked over I saw Andrew —  smiling?  I had never seen him smile like that.   As he went into his office and closed the door, I swore I heard him say, “Bazinga!”.

I’ll never really be sure. We would never talk about it.  Well there was something I did know for sure.  There were two people in this organization knew both how to fake an email from the CEO.  And there was one who knew how to make sure that this spoof was untraceable.  Which is what I reported to the CEO.  Who spoofed his address?  Whoever it is, they were good.  We’d tighten security, but whoever it was was untraceable.  All the logs had been wiped.

Did I send the email?  Here’s what I said when Melvin asked me.  “Melvin, I can tell you with all honesty that I did not send it.  I could speculate, but would that be fair or professional?”

“And no, to the best of my knowledge there was no real Helen McCulloch.”

And here’s what I didn’t say.  “But if you wanted my opinion, there should be.”


Filed under Change, Organization, Strategy

2 responses to “Corporate Sanity Officer? Imagine That!

  1. Serge Art

    Brilliant! However, I didn’t get the moral of the story… Did you actually send out the memo about CSO? How did the story end?

    On the serious note, what do you do when some something like this starts happening in the company that you want to prosper?
    1) Do you grab corporate politics 101 textbook and start a full-out war a for CEO’s ears? Do you start recruiting the army of followers and try to fight off the CLO-WN who has a PhD in corporate politics?
    3) Do you keep it to yourself and see how all Hell breaks loose and the company loses any sense of direction?

    In addition, I’d like to raise one more ethical questions: are we hired to just do our job (whether is managerial position or c-level position) or are we hired to do whatever it takes to take the company to the top?

    • therealjimlove

      Thanks for the comment.

      I’m not sure there is a moral. I think that corporate life is too complex for simple morals. I’m hoping that each individual takes something away from it and thinks about their own situation.

      I hope that I gave my ideas of what to do in these situations, but I can only give my experience. Fiery arguments don’t work. But neither does giving in. I think that the dispassionate strategist is the only role that makes sense. You keep your own focus on the right things and wait for your opportunity to make your point. There’s an old joke that goes, “Why can’t you argue with an idiot?” Answer: “Because once you let them drag you down to their level they can pummel you with experience.” That’s my big advice. Don’t stoop to their level.

      Get a book? Absolutely. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books that have helped me. Shelle Rose Charvet’s book “Words That Change Minds” totally changed the way I tackled difficult situations. There have been many others and friends of mine have also recommended many books. The trick, however, is not to get a book, but to follow the advice. My consulting mentor, David Maister said it best in one of his books. “The old testament prophets didn’t pray for one more commandment. They prayed for the strength to live by the commandments they were given.”

      You raised a great question in terms of ethics. As a consultant, it’s an easy question to answer. Maybe not easy to do, but easy to answer. I have a code of ethics that says that ultimately I work for the company and not the individual. Most people don’t know that, but that’s what a certified management consultant (CMC) should do. But what do you do if you are an employee? What is their obligation. You would think it was the same — to do what it takes for the company, but we’ve lost our way on this one. In fairness, so have companies. What is their obligation to their employees?

      Great questions. I know I didn’t answer them, but I’m glad that this raised them.

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