Archives for category: Consultants

Terrorized By The Righteous Rage

Haresh Shah

pointingfingers
I am impressed by the opulent looks of the agency. They show me around beaming with  pride at the facilities they offered. I, as a senior executive would have my own office, they tell me. Each office is named after the wonders and the major landmarks of  the world. Whenever possible, I would be assigned the Taj Mahal, they promise. I would have my own direct phone line and my personal voice mail.  I would have access to the support staff.

Hanging on almost every wall are expensively framed inspirational quotations by Dale Carnegie, Orison Swett Marden, James Allan, Malcolm Forbes, Lee Iacocca,  Albert Einstein  and such. The tone of the quotations assumes that you are down and out and are in dire need of pick me ups. Unlike clients in other businesses, we are the fired lame duck executives.

I still am not clear about what exactly I am supposed to be doing sitting in one of those little larger than cubicle offices, and more importantly, what it is that they would do for me. So I sit down with the president of Benson and Associates, Bob Benson and his partner Herb Lester, face to face for an initial interview. The interview itself lasts for more than an hour, during which they ask me whether my “separation” from Playboy was voluntary, as if there were such a thing!

For someone who is just fired after having twenty one years of fun filled life at the magazine, I am in fairly cheerful disposition. I have left the company with no hard feelings and am looking at my departure as an opportunity to do something else.

During the meeting, I make it very clear that I did not need any of the physical facilities that are customarily provided to all their clients. That I have all of it available to me in the comfort of my home. They tell me it would be great, we could work through faxes and phone calls. I share with them that  instead of trying to find another job in the publishing industry, what I would ideally like to do was to take advantage of the natural break in my career and try at least to see if there was something else I could do. I mention my fascination with the airlines. I wouldn’t be opposed to exploring either advertising or even the entertainment industry.

During and after the interview, Bob and Herb, excited, tell me that with my international experience, the language skills and the cross-cultural background, they could do wonders for me. Bob drops a few names of the chairmen and CEOs of the companies with whom he could set up appointments. They could send out 500 mailings! 500? But what do I know about how outplacement works?

And so it begins. They want me to come back for another two hour meeting so that we can go over CAPS (career and personal summary). CAPS contained what they called “materials”, an extensive questionnaire which establishes your existence as a total person.

‘Is this something you can mail to me?’  I ask. I sense an astonishing reluctance on the other end of the line.

‘I guess we can do that’ comes the lukewarm answer.

The next morning, FedEx delivers a bulky envelope containing fifty pages of questionnaire and almost as many pages of explanations/instructions detailing the procedures. Half of the questionnaire concerns itself with the work history and other work related issues. The rest asks you about the most intimate details about yourself, and each one of your family members, your relationship with them, what would you change in the way you grew up if you had to do it all over again, whether or not you had a good relationship with your spouse, what caused the divorce and why. The questionnaire stops short of asking  about your sexual preferences.

They contain psychological tests divided into several segments such as personal motivation and satisfaction, building blocks for the future, whether you were a leader or a follower, aggressive or passive, were an early bird or a night owl. Who was the best manager you worked for and the worst? Why? It is filled to the brim with buzz words of business school, good sounding but as useless as discarded banana skins. It takes me major part of three weeks, several hours every day, to answer those damn questions. By the time I am done, they had more information on me than would the CIA on President Clinton and his flings.

The outplacement agencies, like  funeral parlors, must  justify  their existence. This they seem to be doing well by playing on your vulnerability when you are at your lowest ebb.  Most of the discarded executives are absolutely devastated and destroyed when they are pushed out of their jobs on account of the revolving door management monopoly game called “reorganization”. The companies fish out big bucks to give you outplacement as a part of their severance package, mainly to absolve themselves of the guilt they would otherwise feel at having pushed you out after years of what may have  been loyal and productive service. One of my editor friends calls it “calling the priest”. They must take comfort in the knowledge that come Monday morning, you wouldn’t be completely lost, you will have a place to go to and people to talk to. There would be a phone and a make believe office and the secretarial pool, and even a pseudo-boss. Sort of sending you on to a halfway house, instead of discarding you cold turkey and leaving you out in the open all by yourself.

But this is not what I am thinking when I receive the CAPS package. After the initial amazement, I actually get into it with vengeance. The questions make me think and they give me a chance to analyze things I otherwise would have no reason to. I even enjoy digging deeper into my subconscious. By the time I am done, I have raked up solid twenty-three single-spaced typewritten pages, containing in excess of 8500 words.  Pleased with my handiwork, I send out to them the whole ball of wax.

A few days later, we sit down in Bob’s spacious corner office. For the next four hours, we review the pile of materials containing of close to a hundred pages. Bob goes down the list,  making notes, writing down his comments, asking me further questions – mainly asking me to elaborate on the answers I have already given in elaborate detail. I see Bob drawing  squares similar to tic-tac-toe and filling them with the letters D or P to determine what percentage of me was Dictatorial and how much I let my staff Participate in the process.

Moving right along, stopping just to go to the bathroom and refill our respective coffee and coke receptacles, I feel two distinct emotions. One, I am plain enjoying their probes into my personal life in a perverse sense. And yet, what constantly nags at me is the emotion that what did all these intimate details of my personal and professional life have to do with finding another job?  Why should I be telling these two complete strangers what was so personal and confidential part of who I was? They never as much as said it to me, but I could just feel their amazement and apprehensions at my answers to why Carolyn and I never got married but had gone ahead and had a child, had raised her out of wedlock and lived together for longer than an average American couple is married. When in the answer to the question “what would you like to change about your early family life and why?”  I said, “nothing, because I wish everybody was lucky enough to have been born in a family such as mine,” Bob throws a pointed glance at me with the curt, “nothing?”  As if it were some sort of crime to have had a happy childhood.

‘There is so much meat to this,’ concludes Bob.

‘Most everyone who comes to us wanting more of the same – but this is different!’ adds Herb.

I too feel a bit euphoric, like a kid who has just passed his orals with flying colors.

I see them again a little over a week later to partake in the Christmas party. It is interesting to meet with their other clients, curiously, majority of them are ex- CFOs. Though, the atmosphere of the party is cheery, I couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of sadness and desperation beyond those seemingly smiling faces. Not too long ago, they all must have been like roaring lions, mighty and powerful. And now, they must all feel like little lambs herded around by Bob and his sidekick Herb.

Soon after the holidays, I am invited to the agency’s the first fourteenth of the month luncheon. We talk for a while about our respective holidays and about the book I am working on and then he informs me that in order for them to proceed, he needed for me to “pull together” a country-by-country outline of my experience, knowledge, economic and political climate etc., of the parts of the world I had been in charge. I am not too happy about his request, but reluctantly, agree to do it.

While the pungent smell of the take out Chinese food still lingers in the air, he asks each one of us to share with the rest something about ourselves. One by one, everyone  bares his desperation to the group. Though there are some who aren’t quite as desperate and display sense of humor about the whole thing, all in all, here were the guys who had made it to the top of whatever their professional world was, and now suddenly they are left out in the open, with families to support, kids to send to college and mortgages to pay. Most of them, all dressed up in their crisp shirts and ties, coming in there day after day as if they still held regular jobs, answered phones, sent out resumes or whatever. It was sad. After  lunch, as we sit around to the chatter of our own voices, Bob complacently, if a bit self-consciously fishes out from his breast pocket what looks like Mao’s little red book.  He reads a bunch of “uplifting” quotes from it, as we all look on  apprehensively. Though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it and remember where, when and what it was that I had experienced – the whole scenario is reminiscent of something very similar and not very pleasant.

Soon as I have recovered from the holiday hangover, I pull together fourteen single spaced pages of my country-by-country  involvement.

‘The time has now come for you to work on your resume.’ Bob tells me.

I am not prepared for yet another “homework” thrown at me. If all they wanted was a plain and simple resume, prepared by myself, then I was missing the point.

Over the follow-up telephone conversations with Bob, it becomes apparent to me that they weren’t happy at all at having to do the resume for me. Some two months later they fax me  what they have put together for my perusal. As I discuss the contents of it with him, Bob couldn’t contain his frustration anymore and let it be known that “it is you who should be doing the resume and us editing it. Instead, you are having us do it and you editing it.”

This confirms to me what has been nagging at me for some time, if I did everything, then what did they do for me? After all, I was their client, wasn’t I?  My company was paying big bucks for their services, and all they said they would do for me was to “coach” me how to go about “marketing” myself. I choose to ignore him. The resume goes back and forth  several times. There is nothing in it that I couldn’t have done myself, or if I wasn’t up to it, the Alpha Word service across the street would have done a better job for a mere $25.00 and would have even printed it for me. It had more typos than I could count, some of it was plain redundant, and most of the resume swung between the present tense and the past.

Towards the end of the day on a Friday, once again we sit across from each other in his office to “fine tune” the resume. He takes the edited version of the resume to his secretary for her to make the necessary changes. As he once again takes his place across from me, he is fidgety, or more accurately, not happy. Finally, he lets it out.

‘You know, I am frustrated with you.’

‘Why is that?’

‘Because I am at a loss as how to position you. We have all this information on you, and I don’t know how and what to present to someone like Phil Schmidt while I myself  am not comfortable with it.’

‘Who is Phil Schmidt?’

‘He is the chairman of Brandt, Schmidt and Kohl. He is one of the best there is in the advertising business. He is very open minded and the kind of person who would be willing to try new things.’

‘If you are frustrated Bob, it is obvious that I am as frustrated, if not more. When I first came to see you and  met with you and Herb, I had made it very clear that with all the international exposure and experience I have, I would like to explore communications fields other than publishing. At that time, you and Herb seemed excited.  I don’t see where there can be a misunderstanding, but it seems to me that we have misunderstood what you are supposed to do for me.’

‘Yes, we have.’

‘The way I see it, this isn’t quite working, is it?’

‘No it isn’t.’

‘Where do we go from here?’

‘We need to boil down the list to the top ten places to send out resumes to.’

‘Okay, so let’s look at the possibilities. United Airlines is based in Chicago, so are Foote, Cone & Belding and Leo Burnett. Maybe they could be the beginning.”

By this time he has moved to the other side of his desk. His face tenses as he eases his hand over his hair.

‘Only that I don’t know anyone at United, FCB or at Leo Burnett.’

I look back at him with bewilderment, remembering all those names he had dropped during our first interview.

‘We have a whole bunch of reference material in our library. I encourage you to spend four or five days and pour through the material.’

I am still looking at him with bewilderment, now mixed with a bit of confusion. What he is asking me to do I could do sitting at the Evanston Public Library.

His secretary interrupts us with a couple of hard copies of the resume. He holds those in one hand while retrieving another bunch of paper from his desk drawer. He lamely puts those on the desk.

‘Here are some sample cover letters that you should look at.’ I briefly flip through the bunch.

‘You know Bob, cover letters are not a problem. First we need to agree to the list of ten people to whom we should send the resume, and I can easily make up individual cover letter for each one of them. You know, I can do them without much of a problem.’

‘Then do it!’ He slaps down my resume and the diskette on his desk.

‘Fine. But I don’t see a reason for an outburst.’

‘Take that and get out of here.’

‘Come on Bob, let’s just agree that this isn’t working out, let’s just shake hands and forget about it.’ I extend my hand in a conciliatory gesture.

‘I said get out of here!’ He has raised his voice and now the contorted expressions of his face show flames of anger bordering on violence.

‘Fine, this is your office and you can throw me out or anybody else for that matter. Let’s just  shake hands and I will be out of here.’ And once again I extend my hand towards him. By now he has moved to the edge of the desk, diagonally opposite to where I am standing. Perhaps to acquire enough distance from my extended hand. He pulls his hands closer to his chest.

‘No! Get out of here, right now and never come back. I never want to see you again.  All the years that I have been in this business, I have never been as frustrated as you frustrate me.’

‘Just give me your hand once Bob and I will leave.’ The more I try to calm him, the angrier he gets. Now there are definite traces of violence on his face and if I had any sense, I should have gotten the hell out of there in a hurry.

‘Okay, fine.’ I say and pick up my files. His huge two hundred and fifty plus pounds body looms over me. He is breathing heavily and saying to me, as if in a chant – out, out, this very minute, pushing me out of there with his shadow. He follows me to the door, and it occurs to me that my leather jacket is in his closet. He charges back to the office, retrieves the jacket and throws it at me. By now, I should have been scared for my life. But as if possessed by a devil, I catch my jacket, looking straight into his eyes.

‘Give me your hand once, and you will never have to see me again.’

‘Get out!’ He roars.

‘I have been in this business since 1975, and I have never met anybody as lazy and frustrating as you.’ He delivers the coup de grâce before slamming the door on me.

As I wait for the elevator, suddenly I feel all shook up. He had not as much as touched me, but I could feel that he was on the verge of doing me physical harm. When I get in to my car and drive out of there, my entire body is shaking and suddenly I am terrified.

●●●●

And then I remembered.

It was almost thirty years earlier that I had sat around a dining table in a suburb of London, talking, in a similar manner as we did during that first fourteenth of the month luncheon. Our hosts were Mr. & Mrs. McLain, who had invited a bunch of us foreign students for dinner. In what I had thought to be out of the goodness of their hearts, turned out to be an attempt by Mr. McLain to shove Christianity down my throat. It was obvious to me from the grace Mr. McLain had said earlier that the bunch had gotten together to talk about Jesus. And talk they did. I sat there listening and not saying a word for about an hour.  I respected what they all believed in and there was nothing to argue. That is, until Mr. McLain began to knock down all of the world religions in general and  Hinduism and  Buddhism in particular. When I no longer could stand his barrage, I stepped in, however unwillingly.

‘Excuse me, Mr. McLain, but you are lucky that it’s me and not my father sitting here at the table.’

‘How do you mean it Mr. Shah?’

‘Your berating other religions of the world doesn’t make Christianity any better.’

Friendly Mr. McLain’s face suddenly turned tense. In the next few minutes he became a different man, hysterical and furious.

‘We will pray to the Lord, Mr. Shah, that he forgives you your ignorance….’

‘Please don’t Mr. McLain, I can take care of myself.’

‘Mr. Shah!’ he screamed in desolation.

Realizing there was no sense in me belaboring the point, I excused myself and made a quick exit. Mr. McLain followed me out in the front yard, screaming like a maniac. Christ will never forgive you Mr. Shah, you will pay for your deeds, you will go to hell, your soul will never find salvation. I pretended he didn’t even exist. This made him even more violent, he even attempted to hit me.  Fortunately, his wife had followed us, and was able to hold him back.

I had walked to the station on that cold January night. As I waited for the train, I began suddenly to shake and break out in a cold sweat. Echoing in my ears were Mr. McLain’s Christ will never forgive you Mr. Shah, you will pay for your deeds, you will go to  hell, you will never find salvation. And now, Bob Benson’s outburst, out, out, this very minute. As I stand in the garage, all shook up and sweaty, it is a déjà vu with both their screams and anger super-imposed on each other — beating on my brains like the African drums.

● Shorter version of this was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

© Haresh Shah 2015

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks

SISTER SITE

http://www.downdivision.com

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Butting Heads With Experts

Haresh Shah

whattime_revised

My ex-girlfriend Susan (Serpe) was a successful management consultant. And yet, I never quite understood what it was exactly that she did. Once in a self-deprecating mood, she told me a story of three consultants, which has probably been told and re-told or perhaps not.

A large international corporation in need of a consultant invites proposals from some of the top professionals in the industry. From the huge pile of applicants, they have boiled down the list to the TOP three that seem most likely to fulfill their needs. They are to be interviewed by the CEO himself. He seats them down around the conference table in his office.

‘Good morning to you all. And congratulations for making it to the top three. That’s quite an achievement, considering that we had received more than a hundred offers. You guys are the crème de la crème and it would be an honor for our company to work with any one of you. Unfortunately, all we have is only one position open, so here goes it – the final round. I do not wish to take up much of your valuable time, so without much a do, I’ll come right to to the point. Before we decide, I only have one simple question to ask of you, which is: Can you please tell me, what time is it?  Confused only momentarily, the three realize it’s one of those trick questions. Everyone could see clearly on the wall clock in the CEO’s office that its 2:30 in the afternoon. The first of them clears his throat.

‘We all know that right now it’s 2:30 in the afternoon central standard time here in Chicago. But it’s also 3:30 in New York, 1:30 in Denver and 12:30 in the afternoon in California.’

‘Excellent. I like it that  you see the time in a broader perspective of the entire country and not only from where we sit here in the Midwest.’ He shifts his gaze to the consultant sitting next to him. A slight smile crosses his lips as he begins to answer.

‘Well, my colleague here is absolutely right. We no longer can look at the time in the narrow confines of where we are currently. But since you’re an international organization, we need to go beyond the confines of the United States and look at the global time. For example, when it’s 14:30 here in Chicago, it’s 21:30 in the Western Europe and 03:30 in the morning the next day in Hong Kong.’ The CEO is obviously impressed by the second consultant’s world view of his business venture and hands out appropriate appreciation to him with an encouraging  friendly smile while shifting his gaze to the third and the final candidate, who seems to be somewhat lost in her thoughts. Feeling the pointed gaze upon herself, she puts down her memo pad filled with scribbles and doodles and a series of Xs and Os, gently putting her pen on top of the pad, plants her elbows firmly on the table, rests her chin on the bridge of her entwined fingers, she levels her gaze with that of the CEO’s and smoothly lets out.

‘Well, what time you want it to be?’

‘Guess, who got hired?’ Asks Susan with the cutest dimpled smile, which can only be erased  with a kiss. So that’s what she does!

I wish one of the consultants I had to deal with were as sweet and sexy and as professional. In fact, the consultants I was subjected to were all men, dodgy and full of themselves. Pontificating, pretending and patronizing bastards. I have had one too many brush with the bunch of them and as a result had come to disdain most of them. I can sincerely say that there was no love lost between them and me when and if we were forced to cross paths.

Some of my contempt for the consultants came from my days at the GATF, where I got to experience first hand how intimidated the people were when we walked in to audit their plants. A couple of total strangers are there to observe and analyze and report on them. Everyone is nervous, trying to be on their best behavior and therefore not being their natural selves. And that’s what most of the consultants are counting on.

There was a phase when us Playboy managers were made to attend a series of consulting sessions with the so called experts on the modern management. The first one of such surveys titled Management Practices and Tactics Feedback Report, had me placed as one of the company’s most popular managers or as John Mastro put it, I’m not as damn popular as you’re. The very man who had hired me, based on his gut feeling and some feedback from the plant supervisor at the printing company. John had his ways of doing things, and yet, no one would argue that he was one of the best in the industry. But unfortunately, that’s not how the young consulting Turks saw it.

The second set of consultants focused on the inter-departmental synergy and reported me to be not a team player. (read, I didn’t fall at their feet and touch their toes with reverence!) Because I refused to fall for their ruse of finding faults in my relationship with my direct reports. The conversation went something like this:

‘You mean to say you have absolutely no conflict with one or more of the people who report directly to you?’

‘Of course I do too. When you work with a group of people day in and day out, some conflicts are bound to happen. Like my good old mother would say: when you throw silverware together, they also make noise. But nothing the sort that the two of us involved can not resolve between ourselves.’

‘Well?’ The leader of the consulting team points his gaze at me. I can tell, he doesn’t like my answer. Years later, I would face a similar gaze from another such consultant, who didn’t like my answer to his: If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be? ‘Nothing!’ was my answer. Because I am one of those people who has realized that you can’t turn back the clock – or make things un-happen that have already happened. But to use the corporate/consultants cliché, going forward, play the cards you have been dealt the best as you can.

‘Nothing?’

In the corporate world and in the consultant speak, this would be sloughed off disdainfully as  status quo. A BIG NO NO. Even though one of Hugh M. Hefner’s favorite axioms was, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Another was Why do we need to reinvent the wheel? Whereas, for most of the consultants, I felt the motto was: Never mind if it ain’t broke, let’s break it and then we’ll fix it.

‘You know Haresh, with your experience of years, you can actually help your colleagues sitting around the table!’ The message was clear. Smug and sarcastic and self-righteous. My answer: If I understand it right, you want me to have problems so that you can fix them? I look across the table at my boss – Bill Stokkan. Even in his attempt to remain neutral, I could read in his face that it was okay. It nevertheless earned me the reported reputation of not a team player.

●●●

Up until yesterday, I had completely forgotten about the days and the days a whole bunch of us spent cooped up at the Drake Hotel’s Astor Room participating in what they called the Ideation sessions. It was basically what normal people call Brain Storming. But there is no consulting if not for buzz words and euphemisms to make things sound important. The fact that I had even forgotten all about it and don’t remember even a word of what conspired during those days, in itself proves that whatever ideas the team of the consultants threw at us were ever seen worth putting into practice. The sessions lasted so many long days that we had to have an official break of a day or so to go back to our offices and make sure that the barn wasn’t burning in our absence. What my staff was curious about was: what was it that we talked about for so long? When I gave them a run down on what was it all about, one of them comes up with: sounds more like Idiation to me. Bravo!

●●●

The session I remember the most and could have even been fired for my impulsive response happened in then Playboy offices on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. It was to focus on our international businesses which included product licensing, magazine publishing and the video/television divisions. A well renowned international consulting firm was hired and a team of experts presided by their famous president, lined the opposite side of the conference table. All of our international divisions had achieved various degrees of success in the markets away from home but at this point having already reached the saturation point and/or reached the point of marginal returns, we are experiencing bit of a lull. Let alone the changing market conditions, competition and the altering dynamics of economies of an individual country. But there could have been factors that had escaped our scrutiny. Hence the consultants. The guys facing us were supposed to be the expert international hands with more intimate knowledge of the international markets. For my division, the focus was going to be Japan.

Each of us divisional heads had prepared our own presentations and delivered them one by one, which was basically our own analysis that included input and cooperation of our partners from around the world. I made my presentation with all facts and figures. The team of experts seemed diligently to be making notes in their legal size yellow pads, looking ever so attentive and contemplative. We thought with the intent of addressing the problem areas to discuss further and then suggest some practical solutions – things we may have missed.

Instead, during the second round when my turn came, their Japanese expert shuffles the papers in front of him, puts the pile down in a neat square and shoots: So Haresh, what do you think went wrong and what can you do to correct it? Didn’t I just give him the whole nine yards of what was happening and the measures we have taken and were planning to take? Was he sleeping? Drugged? Doodling instead of making notes? High on something? Pulling my leg?

No, but I wasn’t thinking any of it. Flabbergasted, the answer just rolls out of my mouth, smooth  as the toothpaste slithering out of its tube. I thought you are the ones going to tell us that! And as if I had popped open a can of laughing gas, everyone on my side of the table bursts out in a roar of laughter. Later when we break for refreshments, the group clusters around me and Bob Friedman – the Entertainment Group President walks up to me, puts his arms around me and goes: Haresh you are our hero!

© Haresh Shah 2014

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks

SISTER SITE

http://www.downdivision.com

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Next Friday, March 7, 2014

TENDER TRAPS

They are everywhere, especially if you’re looking for them. But even if you aren’t, they find you. After all, that’s what they do for a living. Someone who traveled as much as I did, always staying in the top hotels and frequented the most trendy spots around the world, you are more likely than not, stumble upon one of those pretty and tempting ladies of the night.