Excerpt: Under the Bus

(excerpted from Under the Bus © Lori Berhon, All Rights Reserved)

The CEO was already standing on the windowsill with Mr. Microphone, when we started trickling in. It was a great and perpetual puzzlement, how he always managed to be up there before anyone arrived.

The monthly address was held in the Pit, of course. While few would disagree that a good sales force is essential to having a good business, there is some school of thought that equal value might reside in those who ensure you have a product to sell, and possibly even in those who keep the engine running smoothly. At Pinnacle, not so much. To Kippy, as he democratically insisted on being called by everyone from the President down to the woman who brought his tuna sandwich, Sales was the company. Under Scott Bell’s leadership, this crack team operated on the premise that “if the client asks for it, we have it; and if we don’t, then someone will have to make it happen.” The result of this strategy was a healthy vein of commissions for Sales and the boulder of Sisyphus for everyone else. Kippy often touted the company’s 94% retention rate, but that figure never made sense to those of us who were apparently achieving it. Word of defections regularly leaked from the Front (as Client Care’s section of the floor was sympathetically known). Nonetheless, in light of broken promises and the fumbles of the over-burdened, under-staffed Fulfillment teams, retention was greater than any of us thought reasonable. Someone suggested that it was like our own experiences with banks and phone companies: once a company commits to a service and embeds it in their own systems, switching is just too much of a pain in the ass.

Sales packed a bench of healthy young men with polished hair, polished shoes and brass-section voices. They pitched their game in white shirts and ties, suit jackets neatly smoothed over the backs of chairs or draped on hangers that were suspended from wire thingies that hooked over cubicle walls. Glenn Levine paced his cube like a caged tiger, swatting the air with a tot-sized souvenir Yankee bat whenever he hit a brick wall. When Roger Didilian was on a call, he always sat on the edge of his desk, squeezing a stress ball in one hand, addressing his chair as if the prospect sat there. Lesser lights remained anchored to their desks, headphones blocking out their neighbors’ trumpeted claims, oblivious to anything other than making that sale. We liked to say that a tornado could have blown a house out of the sky and landed it smack in the middle of the Sales Pit and no one would have even hit “hold.” Sales only noticed the quarterly fire drills because the bells were too loud to talk through. Otherwise, it took something as major as a World Series closer to disturb their focus. A CEO on a windowsill didn’t merit a turn of the head.

However, the team was all rapt attention now. The minute Kippy called out his first “move down!”, any sales guy (or, on two memorable occasions, gal) who wasn’t already working the line with a hot prospect, took off his headset and stood to face the sun. Some of us tried to stand near their cubes. These were good hiding places; Kippy spent so much time with the team that he tended to look past them at the monthly assemblies. It wasn’t healthy to have too much exposure at these events; you wanted to stay as invisible as possible. You’d be standing for at least half an hour, during which time you were likely to have to shift your weight from leg to leg or feel compelled to fidget or, most dangerous of all, feel an expression slap across your face too quickly to rein it back. There was an art to finding your spot for the monthlies. People lingering at the edges of the Pit would find Kippy corralling them in, calling out their names like a manic game-show host. You didn’t want Kippy to call out your name; there was a very real danger he’d remember it later, when he was trying to coax questions from the audience, and then you’d really be on the spot. Whereas Sales cubes were prime locations for hiding in plain sight, the bank of file cabinets made a reasonable leaning post for those adept at keeping our faces blank. The very best spots were by the cement columns, which were left over from the office’s first incarnation as a light industry space and will likely be the only architectural note to remain in the building’s next incarnation as a residential condo (floor plans available online). Their protective shadows supplied just enough visibility to debunk the idea that you were hiding. If you couldn’t score any of these desirable spots, you stood as still as possible in the aisles, hoping to blend in with the other prairie dogs.

“So I couldn’t believe this weather when the car picked me up at the airport!” Kippy showed a third-grader’s enthusiasm for a snow day. Those of us who’d risen at 5 AM to shovel out the drive or trudged through hip-deep snowplow banks to get to stuttering mass transit were less chipper. “Yesterday it was summer and today this! I don’t know if you knew this, but I just spent the last two weeks in…” he took what was, for a man who discharged words like machine-gun fire, a long dramatic pause. “…Africa!!” Any other speaker would have waited for a reaction from his audience, but Kippy always took the expected as given and rattled on to his next point.

“We went as chaperones with a group from my son Alex’s school. They were building a library for this village. What a place! Didn’t even have running water. This was for the Senior Class Humanitarianism Project, a terrific program they have, to give back to the community. It’s so important for kids to be exposed to another culture, especially a disadvantaged one.”

Those of us taking seven or eight years to finish school at night, while scrounging to cover the cost of anything beyond rent and food, were interested that one had to go to Africa to do this. Those of us who were African-American and would probably never have the money to set foot on that continent had other thoughts.

“You can’t imagine how poor. Dirt floors. Our kids left their all their work clothes behind and you should have seen how excited these people got about a buncha t-shirts. Here we are with so much, taking everything for granted. And the people there, I’m telling you, they had absolutely nothing. But the spirit there! We could learn something from these people about how to be happy with what we have. They were so happy! With nothing! The last day we were in the village, they had this big party in our honor. You should hear the kinds of music they can make with just drums and singing. Okay, I know I’m not the most musical guy, but to me it sounded just as good as The Lion King. And they had all the paint on their faces and the animal teeth bracelets and all of that. Ha! They put on some show. Well,  our boys wanted to do something in return. Someone had packed a basketball, so he pulled it out and we helped rig up a hoop. Who knows if they’d ever seen a basketball before in their lives, these village kids, and most of them didn’t have more than a word or two of English, but our kids showed them how and they played a game….Let me tell you that was something to see. All these kids, African and American, playing together like that. I was really moved. I mean, that’s what it’s all about, right? So the next day, after we saw the class off to the airport with the teacher, Marcy and I and the other couple who’d chaperoned, we took our kids and went to a game park for the weekend. Because how can you go all the way to Africa and not see the animals, right? I tell you, this is a trip all of you should take some day. They were terrific! Magnificent! Seeing them in their natural habitat? Ha! Nothing like the Bronx Zoo! One morning I tripped, almost fell into what looked like a pothole? It turned out to be a hippo’s footprint. Who knew they were that big? Enormous! But that’s not what really impressed me. Here’s what that really knocked me out. They had us walking down this trail to get to where we they’d parked the Land Rovers and, standing there, in the middle of nowhere, I see this….how can I describe it? This tower. I mean, it was taller than Walt.”

Everyone laughed politely. This was an old joke. Walt Sacco wasn’t outrageously tall, but he was taller than his boss of twenty years. Kippy used the laugh to take a breath. His round blue eyes were glittering now.

“Seriously, this thing was maybe twelve, fourteen feet tall. I thought it was some sort of sculpture, like those carved poles we saw up in Alaska? Only in clay or something. I asked the guide and…you’re never going to believe this, because I couldn’t. It was a termite mound. A nest. That’s right! And not even a big one. The guide said they can go as high as 30 feet, easy. A termite nest, can you imagine? Think how small a termite is. In human terms, this would be like what? Anybody know? That’s like building a skyscraper a coupla hundred stories tall. Ha! Out of spit and dirt. That’s what they build them out of, all these tiny insects, thousands of them, working together. It takes generations to build to that height. One generation dies, the next just keeps building right on top of them. Their skeletons or whatever become part of the place. They spend their whole lives building this thing, and they never see how it comes out. But the nest or hive or whatever wouldn’t have succeeded if all those generations hadn’t banded together and sacrificed to do all that work. I looked at this termite tower, and I couldn’t help thinking about what we’re trying to achieve here. How the goals we have as a business are so much bigger than any one of us. It’s only by working together that we can build this powerful structure, this great company we’re all trying to build. And if little insects can get this done, imagine what amazing things we can do if we all work together and don’t give up. None of our competitors are growing as fast as we are. We will win this race! So give yourselves a round of applause, for the greatest managed office services company in the world!”

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