"It isn’t time to bring in the bullpen already, is it?" Jack’s voice crackled through Stephen’s headphones as he prowled around the parking lot outside CouldBU’s office. As usual, Jack was making no attempt to hide his enjoyment of Stephen’s discomfiture. "Kinda makes you appreciate those guys who start projects, doesn’t it?"
"I don’t know about ‘appreciate,’ but it does make me want to buy them a sympathy beer the next time I see them," said Stephen, "and maybe apologize to Miller for calling his mother a whore. Does every project go horribly wrong at some point?"
"No, not every one," Jack said, then he thought about it for a moment. "Actually, yes, every one. Every project spends most of its existence teetering on the edge of oblivion, like a train riding on only one rail. It’s your job to keep the team balanced and on the track or you’ll end up with a front-row seat to a fiery train wreck. It’s my job to try not to cackle too much while I watch."
Stephen angrily jammed his free hand in his pocket and picked up the pace as he rounded the final row of cars and headed around the building again. "I can’t accept that: it’s defeatist. Aren’t I supposed to make sure that the project goes smoothly and every risk is accounted for?"
"Spare me the Project Management 101 B.S., kid. If projects ran smoothly on their own, they wouldn’t need us! You’re there to steer the team through around the hazards. Now steer.”
Stephen slowed as he finished another lap of the parking lot and approached the building’s entrance again. "I suppose you’re right," he sighed, pushing a hand through his already ruffled hair. "It’s just that, every time I’ve gone in to clean up someone else’s mess, I swore that I would never do this myself, that I could keep a project from going off the rails. And yet here I am, making my own fine mess."
"Never make a promise you can’t keep, kid, especially to yourself. God has a way of making sure those come back every time. Something about ‘opposing the proud,’ if I remember my catechism classes correctly. Anyway, this thing’s not a complete loss and you don’t need any backup. Just give them the time they asked for and they’ll settle down. Meanwhile, make sure David doesn’t do anything rash. If he hangs himself by one of those pretty scarves, then I have to learn French so that I can tell his family what a great artist he was. Please don’t make put me through that."
"All right, all right, I’ll go take away all of his scarves and other potentially lethal accessories until I know he’s OK," Stephen chuckled. He stopped walking. "Hey, Jack."
"No problem, kid. We’ll make a starter out of you yet."
After dawdling for several more minutes and bracing himself for what awaited him in the war room, Stephen returned to a scene of unexpected peace. Kelvin, Mark, Frank, and Stu all sat hunched over their laptops, pecking rapidly at their keyboards and happily ignoring reality. Kelvin and Mark were wearing headphones and listening to music to shut out the noise of the others. Stu didn’t own headphones, but seemed to be able to achieve the same effect through sheer concentration. Ricky sat morosely in a corner, staring off into space and muttering under his breath. David -- ah, that was it -- David was nowhere to be found.
"Where is he?" Stephen asked the room.
Ricky snapped out of his reverie. "Who, David?" He looked around. "Um… not here?"
"Yes, I assumed he wasn’t hiding under the table," Stephen snapped. "Do you know where he is?"
Kelvin glanced up from his screen. "Take it easy, Steffy. Ricky’s had a hard day, too, you know."
Stephen glared at him, including the rest of the room for good measure. "Now’s not the time, Kelly. I’m not going to let this project go down in flames, and I don’t need an AWOL designer on top of everything else. Now," he enunciated carefully, "has anyone seen David?"
Ricky looked under the table, just in case. "I haven’t seen him since he went out to smoke. He can smoke for an awfully long time, you know. Did you check out back, where the assistants and caterers park their cars? That’s where the smokers usually hang out."
"I was just outside walking all around the building. He wasn’t out there."
"Well, sometimes he likes to walk while he smokes, especially when he’s upset. One time, after a client rejected one of his designs, he walked all the way to Quincy before he calmed down. It’s a good thing he wasn’t more upset, or he would have had to take the commuter rail back."
"So, do you think he’ll be all right?" Stephen asked. "You’ve worked with him longer than any of us. Are there coping mechanisms somewhere under that extravagant exterior?"
Ricky shrugged, "I suppose so. I mean, no one likes rejection, and it’s even harder for a designer. He puts a little bit of himself into everything he creates, so when someone says they don’t like it, it’s like they’re saying they don’t like him. He’s a professional, though, so he’ll deal with it." He straightened and eyed Stephen disapprovingly. "I’m fine, too, by the way."
"I was getting to you. I just try to take care of the people who may be a danger to themselves and others first. So how are you?"
"Asked and answered," Frank interrupted. "Can you two take the group therapy session outside? The functional half of the team is trying to work here."
"Put your headphones on," Stephen rejoined irritably, but he and Ricky stepped outside nonetheless. As they walked past Mark, Stephen heard the tinny strains of a familiar tune blasting from his headphones. He stopped and tapped Mark on the shoulder. "Lola?" he asked.
Mark shrugged. "It’s one of my favorites." He put the headphones back on, singing under his breath, "La-la-la-la-Lola, La-la-la-la-Lola..." Stephen rolled his eyes and kept walking. There was no accounting for tastes.
"Like I said, I’m fine," Ricky said after they had closed the door behind them. "It’s not like we expected this presentation to go smoothly, anyway. I didn’t think we’d get fired, though," he concluded glumly.
Stephen held up his hands. "Hey, slow down! No one’s fired. We can’t build this thing without a user interface and I don’t see any other design teams lying around. I just need to talk to Rod and Robert -- and Brad I suppose, if I have to -- and find out where we go from here. We’ll be fine. Just give me a day or two to sort things out."
"If you say so," Ricky sighed. "Rod sounded pretty serious, though, especially about that ragtime stuff. What does that mean, anyway?"
Stephen scrubbed at his scalp as he thought. "I think it means that, as ‘Dan the Man’ would say, we’re not all singing from the same sheet of music."
"I see," Ricky stared at Stephen in bewilderment. "And that means…"
The Man himself popped around the corner. "It means you’re not on the same wavelength, that you guys have wandered off the written script and that we need to get you back on the reservation," he offered as he hustled over to join them.
Ricky bristled, "I’ll have you know that I am 1/32 Native American, and I find that metaphor insulting in the extreme."
Dan stopped short and backed away, hands in the air. "Hey, sorry big guy. I didn’t mean to insult you. In fact, I wasn’t even talking about that reservation. I was talking about, um, a nature preserve. You know, reservation land? I meant like, that you’ve wandered off the path and you need to get back on it or the ranger will come and, um… punish you…" he trailed off lamely.
"Uh-huh," Ricky glared at him.
Stephen let Dan twist in the cold wind of Ricky’s glare for a few moments before he spoke. His feelings for Dan were moving from cordial dislike to outright loathing, but for some reason this little parasite had management’s ear. Maybe he simply spoke their language, and his empty metaphors translated into meaningful sentences when they struck ears attuned to the incessant babble of Los Angeles. He laid a calming hand on Ricky’s arm and was struck for the first time by just how much muscle was hiding under that soft exterior. "Insensitivity aside, Dan may have a point. We’re clearly not speaking the same language. They say black and we hear white. We came in with art and poetry, and maybe they wanted more flash and sizzle."
Dan brightened, "Exactly! They want sizzle, and you gave them steak. They say ying and you hear yang." He stopped suddenly and looked at Ricky. "Uh, you’re not Japanese too, are you?"
"Probably." Ricky tried to glare again, but he had never been able to maintain a good glare for long. "Don’t worry about it. Just don’t start talking about ‘scorched earth’ campaigns or a kamikaze approach to the project. We’re still a little sensitive about that."
"Can I use Samurai metaphors?"
"What the heck are Samurai metaphors?"
"You know, hari-kari and stuff like that," Dan mimed stabbing himself in the stomach with a sword, sticking his tongue out as he did so. Ricky’s face twisted in disgust and Dan stepped back again. "OK, we’ll take that one offline and circle back later. Tell you what: I’ll circle the wagons," Ricky gave a low growl, but Dan hurried onward, "whip up a PowerPoint with various speech modes, and you can tell me which ones you’ll have a problem with. Think you’ll have some bandwidth around 3:00 to give it a once-over and bounce it back?"
Stephen decided to stop the madness. "Let’s take it one conversation at a time, shall we? Ricky, why don’t you get some lunch? There’s not much else you can do until we get this sorted out, anyway. Dan, walk with me. Let’s grab some lunch offsite and see if we can figure out how to fix this."
Dan followed Stephen excitedly. "I have some great ideas for shifting your paradigm so that you can get in phase with the key stakeholders, and maybe even leverage some of your legacy deliverables. It’s all really out-of-the-box stuff."
Stephen sighed and tried not to roll his eyes. "Yeah, that’d be great." He rummaged around in the locked parts of his brain, places where he had sworn he would never go again, for some more Consultantese. His brain rebelled, was overruled, and began throbbing vengefully as he spoke. "And maybe you can tell me again how you, um, clarified your go-to-market proposition with Rod so that he retained your services after the regime change rather than right-sizing you out of existence."
"Oh, that’s a great story. It reminds me of another time, when I was working in Vegas for a mob family. Let me tell you, they had the worst incentive plan I have ever seen. Purely disincentive-based management. When they decided to put an issue to bed, they usually included a horse’s head with it. These guys had serious throughput issues, and morale! Sheesh, don’t even get me started. I almost got involved in leading a headcount reduction action for them until I found out that they meant it literally…." Dan continued as they wove their torturous way through the corridors toward the parking lot.
Stephen rubbed his temples as he walked. The things I do for my projects.
"… so anyway, that’s how I ended up working as a showgirl for six months," Dan concluded, spraying pieces of his second sandwich on the tablecloth. "I learned more about motivation from those girls than in all of my correspondence courses, let me tell you. They knew how to grab an audience by the balls. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Well, most of the time." He leaned across the table to nudge Stephen with his elbow, but only got as far as his water glass, which was ill prepared for a good nudging. While they mopped the table, Dan asked, "So, what did you want to talk about?"
"The situation with Rod. You seem to have some sort of rapport with him, or at least I assume so, since he renewed your contract. How did you…" Stephen grappled for the right jargon, "sell him on your value-add?"
Dan waved his salad fork breezily, flipping a crouton into a neighboring diner’s coffee cup. "Oh, it’s all about buy-in. Once you get them signed off on your strategic paradigm and set an actionable plan, it’s just a matter of shifting their covalence before they lose sight of the continuities and get out of alignment with the larger mission statement."
Stephen stared at him for a moment before speaking. "You have no idea what you’re saying anymore, do you?"
Dan briefly puffed up with righteous indignation, but then he deflated. "No," he said quietly, "I don’t."
Stephen tapped his tooth with a breadstick while he considered the plan forming in his head. Dan just slumped in his seat, pathetically playing with a couple of ice cubes that were slowly melting on the tablecloth. The silence was rather enjoyable, so Stephen let it linger for a few more minutes after he had made his decision. When Dan picked up a fork and spoon and challenged himself to a table hockey match with the remaining ice cube, Stephen decided that it was time to make his offer.
"Look, Dan, let’s be clear: I don’t really like you that much and we’re not going to be buddies. Dan, are you listening to me?"
"Slap shot in the upper corner! Sullivan wins the game again! Oh, sorry. What were you saying?"
"Something about not really liking you."
"Oh, that’s OK. No one likes me. That’s why I dropped the motivational speaker gig and took up consulting. In our business, unlikeability is an asset, right? So I decided to play to my strengths."
Stephen stopped to process that comment, decided that it would only insult him if he did, and soldiered on. "OK, good, as long as we’re clear. Now, even though, as I said, we’re not going to be buddies -- you heard that part, right? -- I think that we can help each other. Dan, please put the silverware down. Thank you. Somehow, you seem to be able to get through to Rod, Robert, and Brad. I need you to help me corral them so that they stop screwing up my project. You help me with them, and I’ll help you not sound like a braying jackass every time you open your mouth."
"That sounds fair," said Dan, then stopped. "Hey, I thought you couldn’t curse!"
"How does everyone—? Never mind." Stephen scrubbed a hand through his hair. He’d been doing that a lot lately, he realized. "OK. First, I’ve had a very hard day, so I think I deserve to say whatever I want. Second, for the record, ‘jackass’ is not a curse word. It’s a name for an animal that emits a sound when provoked that reminds me strongly of you when you’re trying to sound smart. Now, do we have a deal?"
Dan thought about it briefly. "Sure. I suppose I could use a little mentoring, and you’re as good a player-coach as anyone else. Steffaroo, you’ve got a deal!" He stuck his hand across the table, narrowly missing Stephen’s recently refilled water glass.
Stephen was not ready to shake. He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. "One more thing: my name is Stephen. Not Steve-o, not Steffaroo, not Stevedore. Stephen. You are not even allowed to call me Steve. You will have to earn the right to use anything other than my full name." Now he leaned forward and placed his arms on the table, his chest inches from Dan’s still extended hand. "I have answered to many names in my lifetime: Stephen, Steve, Stevie -- though only my mother could ever call me that without bleeding for it -- Pal, Buddy, Chap. On a project with a Russian development team, I even went by Stefan Mikhailovich. Never, never, has anyone annoyed me so much simply by calling my name. To me, you represent everything reprehensible about consultants and, frankly, a few of the more annoying traits of the human race in general. I can’t fix all of that at once, so we’ll start here. No. More. Nicknames. Is that clear?"
Though Dan’s smile wavered, his hand never did. "Crystal. And thank you for being friend enough to tell me."
Now Stephen shook his hand. "You’re welcome, but as I said, we’re not friends."
They walked slowly back to the office, taking their time in the midday heat. Stephen’s brain knew it was November, but his body was starting to get used to the idea that summer had never ended. He soaked in the sun and chose not to think about the fact that it was 42 degrees and raining in Boston. "I hope that today’s blowup doesn’t get everyone down," he worried aloud. "Unless Rod decides to send us all home today, these guys are going to be here for the next few weeks while I’m back in Boston. I can’t afford to have them distracted, wondering if they’re working for nothing."
"I wouldn’t worry about it," said Dan cheerfully. "Rod didn’t seem to be in a firing mood today, so I think you’ll be fine after he sorts things out. He doesn’t really lead by facts. He more… senses the mood in the room and sort of rides it. Then he makes his decisions based upon a sort of psychic consensus, so everyone agrees with him."
"Psychic consensus, huh?" Stephen grunted. "Maybe I should be talking to Connie instead of you."
"I’m not saying he’s actually psychic. He’s just talented at sensing people’s moods and hidden agendas. That’s what makes him such a great leader: he takes people where they wanted to go anyway, and uses them to get there. What amazes me is that he can do it without even being in the room. He’s getting all of that just from voices. No body language, nothing!"
"So what happened this morning, then? Were everyone’s brain waves out of synch? Should we have asked them all to hold hands and hum together before we started the presentation?"
Dan continued, unperturbed by Stephen’s cantankerousness. "There’s no need to get pissy. I’m just explaining my theory to you. Take it or leave it."
Stephen was taken aback. This was not the Dan he was used to talking -- or rather, listening -- to. Now that he had dropped his act with Stephen, he seemed to have gained a calm that had never been there before, and now Stephen felt like the irrational one. He didn’t like that feeling. "Sorry," he mumbled, "it’s been a long day already."
"It’s OK. My point was that there was no consensus, psychic or otherwise. The group was all over the map -- and in a few cases, off the map altogether -- so Rod couldn’t get a read. He aborted rather than make a decision that might be unpopular. That’s why I don’t think you have to worry about it. Rod hasn’t decided against you, he just hasn’t decided."
Stephen glanced over at Dan, surprised at his insight. "You seem to be reading him pretty well yourself. You got all this from a few staff meetings?"
Dan looked away sheepishly. "Well, I… overheard some other meetings that I wasn’t invited to. There’s a very cozy spot behind those big speakers in the large conference room that’s good for more than just napping."
And we’re back, Stephen thought. He started going over his own recent conversations, wondering if there was anywhere in that building where someone wasn’t listening. "That’s one way to get to know the new boss, I suppose…. Say, I wasn’t in any of those meetings, was I?"
"You mean did I eavesdrop on you? No, I never saw a need to. You don’t decide whether I stay or go, and you never seemed to be a threat to me. Plus, you never had a meeting without me. I appreciate that."
"Well… you’re welcome, I guess."
Suddenly, Dan had a new idea. "Hey, if you’re worried about your team’s morale, I could brush off my old motivational speaker skills and try to perk them up a little. I still remember a couple of ‘up and at ‘em, take that hill, go the extra mile’ speeches that really went over well in Bakersfield."
Stephen had a brief, enjoyable vision of Frank lifting Dan bodily, carrying him to the roof, and throwing him, still talking, onto Brad’s car four stories below. He shook his head. "No, that’s probably not necessary right now. Thanks for the offer, though. I’ll keep it in mind in case we need a pick-me-up later."
They parted ways at the entrance to CouldBU’s offices, Stephen to find Robert, and Dan to his post-lunch nap. On a whim, Stephen paused by the gigantic front desk and called up to the receptionist. "Hello, any messages for me?"
The secretary smiled down at him prettily. "And your name is?"
"Rod. Rod White."
"Oh, yes sir." She disappeared from view amidst the sound of shuffling paper, reappearing a moment later with a handful of pink message slips. Peering at each slowly, she read, "Mr. Obadiah called about some oil wells. He wants to know whether they should buy some more that just became available. Let’s see, Mrs. White wants to know when you’ll be home, and asked that you call before you arrive. She didn’t say why, but the part about calling first seemed important. Mr. Wellington called from Princeton, saying that they have an extra honorary doctorate for this year’s commencement and he wondered if you would like to make a donation to the -- what’s that word?" She leaned forward to show the slip to Stephen, nearly falling out of her desk and her blouse.
"Endowment," Stephen read.
"Oh, I know what that is!" she replied brightly. Then she read the note again and frowned. "Or maybe I don’t. Oh well!" she shrugged, causing her own endowment to heave invitingly. Stephen stepped forward, just in case she overbalanced. At least, that was what he told himself.
"Any other messages?"
"Yes, two more. A Mr. Ling Pao in Taipei -- or was that Mr. Taipei in Ling Pao? -- returned your call. He said that he would be in Hong Kong next week if you wanted to meet there for dinner. And finally, Chuck Marquette called to say that he’s considering your offer along with several others and he’ll get back to you next week."
"Did he say which offer?" Stephen asked. When the receptionist looked down at him questioningly he added, "There are so many out there, it’s hard to keep track."
She nodded knowingly. "I think he said it was about the VP position in the New York office. He asked me if I would come out there and work for him, too! Can you imagine me leaving LA?" she laughed.
I can’t imagine you finding the airport, Stephen didn’t say as he laughed along with her and took Rod’s messages. He tucked them into his pocket as he walked into Robert’s office. Robert was gazing out his window at the traffic below, lost in what looked surprisingly like thought.
"Knock, knock," said Stephen.
"Who’s there?" Robert replied automatically.
"Aaah!" Robert jumped and spun around in his chair. "Oh, it’s you, Steve. You scared me silly. Why would you do that to a man?"
"Sorry," Stephen smiled, "I didn’t mean to scare you. I did come to talk about Rod, though."
Robert sighed and leaned back in his chair, irritably twirling his car keys on his finger as though contemplating a getaway. "Everyone wants to talk about Rod. I hired him so that everyone would stop talking to me about their problems, and now they all come to me to talk about their problems with Rod."
"That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. Why did you hire Rod? I mean," Stephen hurriedly continued as Robert’s expression darkened, "clearly it made sense to hire a CEO. You have a lot on your plate, and this company is growing by leaps and bounds. But why Rod?"
"It was his book. Do you have a copy yet? I have a couple here in my desk still. Rod shipped us several crates of signed copies right after we hired him. Called it our hiring bonus."
Stephen raised his hands defensively. "I have one, thanks. So reading his book made you interested in him and you brought him in for interviews along with the other candidates?"
"Read? Interviews? Candidates?" Robert snorted. "What do you think this is: an Ivy League school? That’s not how we do things here, Steve. I saw his book, but I didn’t read it. I have people for that. I gave it to one of my top readers and he told me that he thought it had great potential. He gave me a brief summary. Here." He handed a single page to Stephen. Looking at it, Stephen recognized the text from inside the jacket flap of Rod’s book. At least he retyped it, he thought.
Robert continued. "With his recommendation and this summary, which I did read, I decided that Rod was our kind of guy. So I had my people call his people and set up a dinner. We made the deal over sushi and that was that."
Stephen’s stomach gave a lurch that was becoming painfully familiar. "And now he’s in charge of the company? Did Brad or any of the others have a say in the decision?"
"Brad and I are the majority shareholders, so we make the decisions. The other guys are smart, but they’re still just the talent. Brad was supposed to be there, too, but he got into a fender bender with some cutie on the 405 on the way to dinner and ended up sleeping with her. I made the call. As for being in charge of the company, well..." Robert rubbed the back of his neck with one hand and looked back out the window, unable to meet Stephen’s gaze. "Yeah, I guess he is. I just wanted someone to handle all of the administrative crap for me, but he seems to be in charge now."
"And what happened today? Do you agree with his decision to stop our work on the visual design of the site? Are we being fired?"
Robert looked back at Stephen. "Fired? That’s a very harsh word. I wouldn’t say you’re fired! Maybe half-fired." Stephen’s stomach, done warming up, skipped the lurches and tried for a full back flip. "No, even that’s probably too final. Let’s just say that the creative work is on hold for now, but the technical stuff," he waved his hands vaguely, "should keep going. After all, we can’t fall behind schedule."
"How can we keep building if we don’t even have a user interface? How will people use it?"
"Hey, you’re the computer guy, not me. You figure it out. I’m sure Rod has some kind of a plan, anyway. That’s why we pay him the big bucks. And believe me, they are big bucks, so I’m sure he’ll come through. Until then, you just keep your team working and wait for Rod to tell you what he wants."
"And how long will that take?"
"Based upon my experience so far, about a week. He deals with all of his companies round-robin, so he should get back around to us by next Tuesday or Wednesday. He gave us some extra time this week so that he could attend your presentation."
Noting Stephen’s stormy expression, Robert suddenly leaned forward and pointed a finger at him. "Look, I’m sorry I can’t help you more, but I’ll be frank: you guys screwed the pooch in there! We gave you all the creative guidance we had, and you just didn’t get it! Not only that, you failed to sense the shift in the winds and you whiffed on your one opportunity to impress the new boss. A good producer never does that, not if he wants to keep working. So I’m sorry if your pitch fell flat, but that’s the way it goes. You may get another chance, you may not. Either way, getting pissed isn’t going to help." Robert sat back again and lowered his voice. "At least half of your team is still working. If I were you, I’d be grateful for that and make sure they’re OK."
Stephen swallowed his ire and stood. "Thanks for the advice. By the way, the receptionist gave me these." He pulled Rod’s messages from his pocket and tossed them on Robert’s desk.
Flipping through the pink slips, Robert paused briefly when he came to the message from Chuck Marquette. "Oh, great," he muttered under his breath. Then he rose and went to the liquor cabinet on the other side of his office and poured himself a Scotch, which he held up to Stephen. "You want one?"
"No thanks. It’s a bit early for me." Stephen demurred.
"Not for me. In fact, Brad’s probably five or six ahead of me by now. I gotta learn to stay in Malibu." Robert tossed his drink back and was already pouring another when Stephen excused himself.
After taking another walk to cool his head in the afternoon heat, Stephen returned to his team’s war room. As he approached, he heard voices. He stuck his head through the doorway and looked in. Frank, Kelvin, and Ricky were hard at work, and Mark and Stu were at it again.
"What about a phonograph?" Mark asked.
Without looking up from his laptop, Stu responded, "1857, yes."
Stu stopped typing, fingered his bushy beard, and smiled at Mark, "What do you think?"
"I know you don’t, but could you?"
Stu resumed his rapid coding, "1928, no."
Obviously, this group was resilient. Stephen turned and left to take yet another walk and call home.