Company Business - chapter three


Chapter three: The Assignment

You have to make the corporate personal!” Bud declared, sipping his frothy caffeinated drink.

James tried to ignore Bud’s lactose mustache while puzzling that phrase.  In management consultant-speak, a phrase like “making the corporate personal” was either a guiding principle, or code for being fired, or “counseled out.”  Had James failed his last review?  Was the path to partnership kaput?  What did Bud mean?

“Your factors are all fine,” Bud noted, glancing at some reports on his desk.  Their consulting firm, Noble Management, had found a way to systematize all its thinking.  In this case “factors” referred to Intelligence Factor (or IQ, a snatch for most at the firm), Human Factor (building relationships –trickier for consultants, most who sadly lacked this quality), and Analytic Factor (the stronghold of all consultants).  

“We want more from you, James.”

While James pondered his corporate demise, Bud droned on.  “You know at Noble we’re a caring meritocracy, not a hierarchy.”

If you’re part of the hierarchy, James mused. Title meant more money, more prestige – town cars, not the hellish train. But now, his every move was dissected. Noble Management demanded the best from its brightest.

“We’re like the Marines here, James.  Primed for action.” 

“Parachuting into boardrooms and offices, ready to do battle,” James half-raised his fist to appease his evaluator.  He’d endured endless training sessions and workshops, role-playing, engaging, communicating, messaging, all in the name of acquiring the necessary skills to be a thought-partner, or corporate counselor, or whatever term du jour they were calling the consultants.  It was boring, grueling, competitive, thought-building calisthenics meant to weed out the weak, infirm, or lazy, while pitting the over-achievers against their peers.  The survival of the fittest, gone Ivy League.

“We need to tap into your passion, James.  We need to get to the core of you!” 

James quaked.  When had passion become the catchall for the working world?  The firm was filled with passionate people, obviously smitten with the worlds of corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, even the cement industry.  Consultants the world over were hot and bothered performing virtual frottage with org charts and spreadsheets. 

I’m passionate for a comfortable life, thought James.  I love rock and roll. A hot dog makes me lose control.  I want my kids to be proud of me, my wife to go down on me, my parents to leave me alone.  I’m passionate about my new 3-D TV, my 4-person hot tub, vacations in the Bahamas.  I want all good things with as little work as possible. 

And then out loud he said “I’m passionate about helping our clients realize their best.”

Bud raised his index finger, as if the answer had hit the well-annunciated bullseye.  With that finger he scooped up some cream that had landed on his Ferragamo tie. “I’ve got a new assignment for you.  An important one.”  He engulfed his cream-covered finger with his enormous mouth.

“I should be wrapping up the Allied study in the next month…” James couldn’t wait to get off that tedious nightmare.  Although it was closer to home than previous studies that found him flying around the world, it was dull, fact-laden work.  He was tired of being perceived as a hatchet-man, a suit meant to down-size and outsource.  A new assignment would be a relief.

Bud looked at his Patek Philippe “You’re starting in one hour.  I spoke to Pete on Allied.  They can do without you.  This is more important.”

One hour?

“American Industries.” Bud slurped some crappuccino from his upper lip with a thick tongue.  “One of our old clients who went AWOL.  But we’ve got an in with a new guy moving up.  Malcolm.  Former Noble partner.”

James sat up straighter. American Industries was more than just huge – it was universal.  Vice Presidents started wars with smaller companies.

“We’re ready to go to an agreement, but we need you.  I’d do it, but I’ve got a conference in Palm Beach. The study’s long on facts, but short on charm.  We need an artist. You do that thing you do and we’ll be just fine.”   Bud patted James’s knee, father to son. 

James flinched. As always, consultants mistook cleverness for art. Born with the gift of glib, James was well aware of his talent. That thing he did was the key to his elusive success. But this was big. Bringing in another Engagement Manager at this point in a study spelled trouble. James stood and paced a bit, trying to imagine how all this would work.

He took a moment to survey Bud’s photos– his billboards of achievement.  There was young Bud, a surprisingly handsome and fit man punting in Cambridge. Bud with a stunning bride, his cummerbund still flat against his midsection.  Lovely family shots:  kids, dogs, country excursions. Bud with CEOs and CFOs.  Old wife exchanged for new. In each subsequent picture, the fit young man gradually morphed into the blob sitting opposite James; his girth increasing in direct proportion to his success. If anything, Bud had learned how to make the corpulent personal.

“Who’s EMing the study now?” James asked, curious which Engagement Manager he was usurping.

“Shari Perkins.  She’s your class, right?”

Noble still retained the old school notion of “class” – reflecting its decades-long association with the Ivy Leagues.  Consultants who started the same year were all part of the same “class” – and would forever be grouped as such.  And James knew the skinny brain from his Harvard days and countless “team-building” events thereafter.  Perpetually perfect Perkins.

“I think I know her, yes,” he said elusively.  Keeping a safe distance was recommended in situations such as this.

Bud’s telephone rang; he grabbed the receiver, but held it to his paunch.  “I’m counting on you.  You get through to American like family, and the future is yours.  We need your golden touch.”  He patted James on the back, as a friend would, if he were a friend.

“Bud speaking,” he said into the phone. He leaned back into his chair, put his feet up on the desk and proceeded jovially with his call.  In apparent elation, he reached over to an old pendulum toy on his desk, flicking a ball bearing, which caused four others to click and clack repeatedly.

Click clack.

Once again, James felt his stomach clench. The noise became the train. He looked away from Bud’s picture window for fear of seeing that face.

Together with this new assignment, he felt sick all over again.  He didn’t know which horror was worse.

Read chapter four

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