Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > Even if he were…

Even if he were…

…he couldn’t have done more harm.

Back in the Cold War with the old Soviet Union, there was a lot of buzz about Deep Plant Agents. These were supposed to be children raised in Russia as spies to embed in the West, rise to positions of influence and then do the most damage they could – as directed by their KGB handlers.

A lot of spy novel authors came up with great stories on this theme. One of the things that made the stories interesting was that they were so plausible: a cunning, ruthless, dedicated enemy in a multi-generational war would do something like that. The end justifies the means was their mantra, after all.

And the Soviets’ desired ‘end’ was the most noble in history: freeing workers from evil capitalists and the decadent bourgeoisie. Under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. With Commissars to enforce socialist justice and that particular day’s version of the Party Line – while rightfully suppressing any hint of yesterday’s version. And the KGB and Gulags to protect everyone from awful Revisionists like Trotsky, or Organs of Imperialism like free speech.

In any case, the authors got a lot of mileage from it.

So one day in the 90’s, my boss, John, and I were working late at our adjacent desks in a four-desk, open-office cluster. He was a Senior VP in a 16 billion dollar company and I was a VP, but we both had work stations just like everyone else in the building. Thus proving that it doesn’t take all that much to ‘exploit the masses’ and torment the starving children of helpless workers. Anyway, John slaps down a report he’s been reading, turns to me and says out of the blue, “Dave, what to you think of Joe Smith?”

It was a heavy question for 7:20 PM on a day that had started at 5:00 in the morning. Joe was an influential member of the CEO’s staff and was his personal ‘czar’ of strategic planning for our chunk of the company. That meant we did the planning, and then redid it until Uncle Joe liked it. This usually meant that we had to pull the inside of the plan out through its belly button until it made no business sense at all. Up was down, good was bad, profit was loss, savings were costs, and higher efficiency meant more bureaucracy.

Joe had been the fair-haired boy and personal hire of our CEO a decade before, a top graduate from the Harvard Business School and veteran of a stint with a prestigious consulting outfit, where his mellifluous voice and delivery landed many a fat contract. Joe had the best credentials in the company. Only two problems: he was a vicious idiot, and he personally attacked anyone who disagreed with him. Vile distortions, outright lies and abuse of power and influence  — all wrapped in an FM DJ’s voice — were the main tools of his trade. And he clearly took dark joy in using them to hurt others.

Sadly for me, I saw this up close and personal; part of my job was to get the strategic plan that my own boss wanted in place approved by the CEO, and therefore, by Joe.

Long story short: I was really tired that evening and actually said what was on my mind instead of editing the thought into less undiplomatic phrasing. So, I wearily snarled, “If Joe were a deep plant agent from our top competitor, he couldn’t have done more damage to this company. And it gets worse every day.”

As soon as I’d said it, I knew how far out of bounds I was for our corporate culture. My boss just stared at me for what seemed like a full minute. Then he did something I’d never seen him do before, even after working with him for years – he burst out in a belly laugh, and said, “I never thought I’d hear that out loud! And, you’re right, it really doesn’t matter what Joe’s motivation is: loyalty or sedition or idealism. It just matters how much damage he’s done. And will keep on doing.” At that, John picked up the report he’d slapped down on his desk and tossed it in the trash. Where almost all of Joe’s ideas belonged in my opinion. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Hallelujah! I thought. Maybe there are better days ahead. Maybe we and our 60,000 fellow employees wont be collecting unemployment and pounding the pavement this time next year because Joe single-handedly put us out of business with his Siren Song in the CEO’s ear.

Thankfully after a month or two, John ‘handled it’.

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