The Devil Visits

Larry is in town. And when Larry is in town there is almost inevitably trouble for someone. He is a business leader of the old school. Not for him new fangled three hundred and sixty degree feedback gathering, team effectiveness programmes, diversity targets or style awareness training. You can tell he still secretly hankers after the nineteen seventies with its teak boardrooms, company jags and private dining rooms for management, short skirted secretaries and lots and lots of shouting at people.  But Larry is also smart. Smart enough to realize that there’s no place anymore for dinosaurs in the modern workplace and thus he rations his tyrannosaurs-like outbursts into small 21st century sized doses, dished out behind closed conference room doors when no-one important is watching, to unsuspecting subordinates who he seems to have become convinced constantly spend their time striving to invent new and unusual ways of displeasing him through their stunning incompetence. Nonetheless I like him because you know where you are with Larry, albeit sometimes that’s not a place you would ever willingly choose to go without a colostomy bag. He can dissect the trickiest of problems in a heartbeat, detests anything that has a whiff of spin, waffle or fluff about it, always delivers results and always expects others to do the same. I suppose I find his approach refreshing in this era of message tracking and horizontal networking. I also cannot help but have a secret schoolboy-like admiration for someone who liberally intersperses his vocabulary with the word “fuck” for no good grammatical reason whatsoever. For example: “and I’ll accept no fucking substitute, do you understand?” or “abso-fucking-lutely not, just tell him to go get it fixed”. I view it as the linguistical equivalent of having a big cock. You just can’t help but impress people if you get it out in public. Or so I’m told.   

So, I stand at the front of the room, finger hovering over the “enter” key waiting for his grudging approval to move onto my next slide. I feel like a gladiator waiting for Ceaser’s nod. It’s a well known fact that vicious dictators are often small and I’ve found that it’s a truism in life that you need to watch out for small people because they are very tricky. It is no coincidence that Larry is small, beady eyed, wispy thinning hair and thin lips. He weighs my words and my slides carefully, his appreciation of the topic laser sharp as always. The mistake I’ve seen others make with Larry is to assume he doesn’t get it. They will repeat themselves or try and take him through endless detail to build his understanding and he quickly becomes impatient, desperate to cut to the chase. Larry is interested in climax not foreplay. I’ve seen presentations to Larry unwittingly turn into one of those scenes you see at the zoo where some fat kid is tapping at the cobra’s glass cage with his chubby finger, trying to goad it into striking. I remember one time when, after six slides crammed full of bullet points and graphs trending in the wrong direction accompanied by a monologue of excuses as to why we’d missed our system reliability targets, Larry ran out of patience. He picked up his pen and, with an elaborate flourish, drew two diagonal slashing lines across the front of the handout he had in front of him, then proceeded to threaten to personally tattoo the number 99.5% onto Sheridan Hutchins forehead because it was the only-fucking-thing that was important and he obviously needed some help remembering it every morning when he looked in the mirror before going to work. Sheridan had looked sheepish, mumbled an apology and busied himself gathering up his papers before crashing out through the door like a man who needed to check his tetanus booster was still up to date. But for the grace of god go I. We obviously noted the action step for the meeting minutes and quickly moved on to the next topic, troubled only by the dilemma of whether tattoo parlour expenses were VAT deductable or not.  

To date I have avoided incurring Larry’s wrath and in fact, I think he quite likes me, at least in the way any vicious cold blooded reptile likes human kind. For the moment he obviously sees expediency in keeping me alive, probably because he views me as one of his henchmen, a man with an appetite for the nasty jobs in life, a bit like him, generally unencumbered by any great sensibility for other people’s feelings. I know these are not traits which are attractive but I’ve learned that this great monolithic company where I work is not a place for Mahatma Ghandis or Martin Luther Kings, whatever it may say on our extravagantly illustrated recruitment advertisements. These luxuriously textured brochures contain some secret world I do not recognize, filled with pictures of young and beautifully coiffured, ethnically diverse, harbringers of change, who it seems spend a disproportionate amount of their time pointing at whiteboards and smiling or gathered around PC screens looking at bar graphs. This is not the type of change harbinging that I am familiar with in this corporation. But, I suppose it would not do to show middle aged hatchet men with blunt blades wandering around in the background swinging them about and scowling.      

“Now, are you sure?” Larry asks, tilting his head slightly and peering at me slightly oddly through one eye.

Danger lurks here I can tell that much. At face value the question sounds innocuous but I know I am about to be lead over the precipice unless I tread carefully. The thing about Larry is that he is brilliant; like so many of life’s psychopaths are. He is almost always right, and so he is undoubtedly onto something. He has spotted some chink in my flawless plan. This in itself is not surprising. Few of my plans are flawless, cobbled together usually with half an eye on avoiding work yet still enabling me to claim the successes garnered through the fastidious efforts and attention to detail of others.

“About which point specifically, Larry?” I hedge, needing to somehow discern at least the outline of the trap before I take any more steps. Clearly “Yes I am sure” would not be the right answer here however. This is Larry’s apple of temptation, juicy and red.  

“Go over this timeline with the German works council again for me, I don’t buy it”.

As I squint at Larry I remember a news headline from my youth. I forget his name but one of the country’s top bomb disposal experts was killed in an explosion after trying to diffuse a device left by some animal rights activists in a McDonald’s restaurant. I recall thinking what a disappointing end this must have been for him. He had won a fistful of medals, served with distinction during the war, had outwitted the IRA during the darkest hours of the troubles, had criss-crossed the world saving children from landmines but had finally met his match amidst chicken nuggets, formica tables and Ronald’s oversized red clown shoes.

“Well, my local HR contact tells me we will go with the proposal in the meeting on July 15. We will then need about 6 months to negotiate the details with the works council, followed by a further 6 months of lead time from sourcing study through to notice period and termination”. I need to try and find out where he’s headed. Does he think this is too drawn out or unrealistically short? Blue wire, green wire, which to snip? In my mind’s eye I see Larry’s shoes protruding from underneath the desk, big red and clown like: blue wire, green wire?

Larry peers at me again, wordless. We are headed for a tumbleweed moment in the conference room. He is expecting a response and will stay silent until he gets one. My immediate boss who is also in the room will be no help here. He will not throw himself on this particular unattended, ticking rucksack. In fact I can almost see him edging his chair back towards the corner. Soon he will don a flak jacket.  

“I believe with diligence and hawk-like focus we can make this timeline work, Larry. In the project economics we’ve allocated conservatively in Germany for any redundancy costs and I believe we can offer up a portion of that reserve fund to reach agreement during negotiations. Worst case we would look to drive a wedge between the two distinct work groups, proceed with the head office consolidation which contributes the bulk of the savings and deal with the plant separately. In reality it will be the plant that will be more difficult from an employee relations perspective”.

I snip and wait. Larry considers this for a moment.

“OK, got it, let’s move on. But I want to deliver the Germany savings in total. We don’t leave that plant for-fucking-ever, understand?”

I nod vigorously, thankful at least to be out the other side alive. With hindsight I am pleased with the use of the adjective “hawk-like”. I think it may have helped. He is the sort of guy who likes analogies to adept aerial killing machines. In my mind’s eye, Larry’s red shoes draw back under the table. For the moment at least the danger has passed.

The balance of the presentation goes well and I finish early. This is success with Larry: cut to the chase, quick climax, allow him to metaphorically wipe himself on the curtains, have time to get a black coffee, make a few calls on his cell phone then straight back into it again.

“So what’s next?” I hear him ask my boss as I make my exit, feeling a bit like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape

“Previous quarter systems reliability review with Sheridan,” says my boss.

“Oh not that fucker again” I hear Larry exclaim.