I lingered in the hall outside the boardroom for a few minutes, before heading back to my cube. The door was closed, and although I could hear the muffled sound of voices, none of the conversation was intelligible…and that was killing me.
Just a few feet away from me, on the other side of that door, a group of people were talking about all the work I had done with Molly and Art…work that my boss, Sergiu, was presenting. His being my boss didn’t give him any special knowledge of what I had come up with, beyond what he’d seen in the dry run. In fact, every time I tried to brief him on our progress, or the details afterwards, he had brushed me off. And then, despite his ignorance, he’d even had the audacity to change the presentation I’d prepared. There was no way he could possibly know the nuances and details that were in my head and not in the presentation. Because he insisted on presenting it, my work was going to look less than it really was.
That hurt my ego more than a little. The part that actually scared me, was that I was nearly at the end of my 90-day performance improvement plan. I’d done everything that had been asked of me on the plan, but apparently that wasn’t enough. There was some unwritten piece to it, and no one, not even Sergiu, seemed willing, or able, to tell me what that was. Not knowing what leadership wanted me to change in order to keep my job, while not being able to find out, was driving me crazy. I’d finally decided it was some kind of escape clause, to allow them to legally fire me, and then make up an explanation afterwards. The one thing I did know for certain was that if my proposal on KPIs was turned down, my remaining tenure here would be brief. Today would probably be my last day.
The worst part was, I didn’t even get the chance to succeed or fail on my own.
I was sitting in my cube, still cleaning up all my unread e-mail from the last few weeks and organizing it into categories, when a meeting invitation came in. It was from Sergiu. I hesitated for a moment. The presentation must finally be over. For him to schedule a meeting with me that quickly probably meant something had been decided at the meeting about my status.
I took a deep breath and opened the invite. I gave an audible gasp when I saw what it said. The meeting was for first thing in the morning tomorrow. The subject was, “Post PIP Assignment,” and in the body of the invitewas a brief comment from Sergiu.
“Congratulations on completing PIP. Meeting went very well. We need to structure your new assignment/role. Be careful what you ask for, you may get it.”
If I understood the body of the invite, I was going to be involved in creating a real performance measurement system across the company, or at least the service desk. This was fantastic. It couldn’t have turned out better. I had to share the good news with Molly. So much of the credit went to her.
I called her office.There was no answer, just her voicemail. I tried her cell phone.There was no response there either. I was so excited, I ran out into the parking lot and headed over to the service desk building to share the good news with her. Molly didn’t respond to calls from the security desk at the front door, so I had them call Jahmal, one of her supervisors. He came and escorted me to Molly’s office. Jahmal stood in the doorway as I stepped into Molly’s office. The chatter coming from the service desk agents on the floor was even louder than I remembered. The office was empty of any sign she had been there. All of her personal effects; her pictures, notebooks, blazer, and even laptop, were all gone. It looked like a fresh, new office just waiting for a new occupant.
“She packed up and took all of her personal effects a little while ago. You just missed her,” said Jahmal. “She said she had a plane to catch, and asked her supervisors to share her goodbyes with their teams. She didn’t want anyone to feel slighted because she hadn’t had time to thank each of them individually.” Jahmal handed me a sheet of paper. “She did send this out to everyone.”
It was a printout of an e-mail from Molly to the service desk team, apologizing for her rapid departure, and thanking each of them for all of their hard work, and telling them they were the best group of people she had ever worked with.
“Thanks. That’s just like her, always more concerned about her team and her people than anything else. Why did she take everything. Where was she going”?
Jahmal nodded. “Yeah, she really made this a great place to work…always so interested in making things better for you. Too bad she didn’t leave an e-mail address, so we could thank her.”
I looked closer at the printed e-mail. Jahmal was right. In fact, there was no mention of our company here either. It seemed a little generic for the kind of focus she always had. Maybe she’d just done it in a hurry. Employers can be very demanding. I knew that for sure.
I handed the sheet of paper back to Jahmal, as I headed out the door and back to my building. I was more than a little nervous. Was she coming back? She had been so central to my survival here, and now she was gone. Could I really do it on my own? Would I need to confront Art, or was he leaving too?
“Going to lunch”? asked Sean, leaning over my cube wall. “Or more accurately, why don’t you stop what you’re doing, and you can buy us both lunch to celebrate your survival”?
I shook my head. “Thanks. You have no idea how happy I am about surviving. Normally I’d be thrilled at the idea of saving you from starving to death, but I need to finish sorting out all of these work papers from the KPI project, and I’m almost done.”
Sean shook his head. “Then consider that you now owe me a lunch for missing out on this opportunity to celebrate your accomplishment. Glad you made it.”
I laughed and waved him off. “Right. Now get out of here so I can finish up.”
By the time I was done it was well past lunchtime, so there was no one to go with. I was not going to eat vending machine food today. I’d had too much of that over the last few weeks. I headed for the parking lot and started going through my mental list of favorite eating places.
I was out the door and part way to my car when I saw him. There was Art, pulling a rolling bag along behind him. I grinned. Despite his best efforts at crushing me, I’d survived. I had beaten him at his own game. Even though he had tried to make me fail my PIP, with Molly’s help I’d survived and actually thrived. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to gloat a little bit. I was in the mood for a little confrontation.
Art saw me before I saw him,and immediately stopped. He was typical Art, standing there staring impatiently at his watch as I walked across the parking lot.
“Looks like you survived,” said Art. “I guess that means our proposal was approved by leadership.”
“Not our proposal…my proposal. You can’t claim any credit for doing anything other than throwing rocks in the way.”
“You wouldn’t know a rock in your path if it hit you. Sometimes rocks in the road are nature’s way of helping you around tough spots. It’s the boulders you need to be wary of.”
“Doesn’t matter. I still beat them all,” I said. I was really proud of what I’d accomplished. After the last few weeks, I was confident I could take on any challenge and succeed.
“No you didn’t,” said Art. “Don’t ever get so arrogant you think you did. Remember this above all else…‘No One of Us Is As Strong As All Of Us.’ What we accomplish we do with the insight and support of those all around us. You’re no different.”
“If you succeed despite them, you get stronger and more capable, and have confidence earned the hard way. And they pack up their things and move on to another situation, or another time.”
I looked down at Art’s rolling luggage. “So I noticed.”
Art shook his head and started walking again. I refused to let him go like that. I wanted him to admit what he had done, and that I had beaten him at his own game.
We stopped beside a small rental car, nearly identical to the one Molly had driven. Art opened the trunk and lifted his bag up with a grunt, before tossing it in. Rather than closing the trunk, he opened his bag and rummaged through the documents inside. He pulled out a sheet of paper.
“Chris, do you know the meaning of the word hubris”? he asked.
“Of course I do,” I said. “It’s being blinded by pride.”
Art shook his head. “Where is a good classical education when you need one? That’s close. It’s excessive pride or arrogance from an overestimation of one’s capabilities or competence.”
He handed me the sheet of paper. “No one in your company will show you this. It is confidential. But I think you have a need to know. I think it will only help you become better.”
I scanned the document. It was a copy of Molly’s recommendation to Sergiu on my performance, dated last night. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. She called my work sub-standard, with no regard for the needs of my company or users, that I had failed to gain the support of the teams involved, and that I had plagiarized much of the presentation from work that she and her consulting firm had produced…work she had shared with me, despite her firm’s policies against doing so, in the hope that it would teach me how to develop such a plan of my own design, not steal theirs. She took credit for the entire KPI plan and presentation. She summarized it by saying that not only had I failed the elements of my PIP as described to her by Sergiu, but that I should be dismissed immediately to minimize further damage to my company from my ineptitude.
I shoved it back at Art. “This is a fake. I know you are capable of low things, but this is beyond sleazy, even for you. Why would you do this? Do you hate losing that much”?
“Sure I loathe losing. You don’t understand what’s going on here. This wasn’tabout winning or losing. It was about doing the right thing.”
“That’s impossible. Molly would never give this kind of feedback to Sergiu. You on the other hand... This is what I expected from you.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. You’re hardly worth my time.” Art reached back into his bag and passed me another sheet of paper. It appeared to be his recommendation to Sergiu. I scanned through it.
“This is kind of harsh, too,” I said.
“It’s realistic. It simply says what I’ve been saying all along. You’re ignorant of many things, and sometimes a little slow on the uptake. However, you do learn from experience, and I saw you become willing to stand up for what you believed in…to advocate in plain terms for what you believe to be right. Which is why I recommended Sergiu take you off the PIP and put you in charge of the entire KPI process. That’s a process that needs an independent thinker who isn’t afraid to stand-up for what they know is right. Every company needs those kinds of employees. If he hadn’t keptyou here, I’d have told my firm to find a place for you, because you’ve become the kind of person we hire.”
“Why would Molly write such a letter about me. We were good friends, while you and I…”
Art cut me off. “We’re not good friends, but we do accomplish our mutual objectives. Unlike Molly, I try hard to work with others. It is not my strength, so I try extra hard to do so in my own way because I know my limits. Molly doesn’t really work well with others. She is very good at getting others to trust her, and then using those people to achieve her objectives.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
Art slammed the trunk closed.
“Suit yourself,” he said. “Before you come to a final decision, follow the breadcrumbs. Who benefits if Molly’s recommendations are enacted”?
I opened my mouth, but before I could speak, Art said, “It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is she and her firm. She remains, and her firm staffs the KPI function and exercises substantial influence over your company, by controlling the data your leaders use to make decisions. That gives them the leverage to expand their consulting engagement with your company. If my recommendation is accepted, I move on to another assignment, and you achieve an increased level of responsibility and stability.”
I stood there silently as Art got into the car and started it up. He lowered the driver’s side window.
“Anything else? I have a plane to catch,” he said.
“Well, at least I don’t have to believe that you are secretly a nice guy,” I responded with a smile.
“Don’t ever think that for an instant, because I’m not. Oh, and in case he didn’t tell you, Sergiu is having us come back in a year toprovide an outside assessment of the status of the KPI process. You’ve got a lot of work to do, and my firm will probably send me. So you better get busy, because I expect the best. And if you are not up to my standards by then, I will kick your hind end all over the building.”
Art rolled the window up, and without even a wave, drove off.
I was standing there silently for a moment, trying to process everything, when a car horn bleated just behind me. It was Sergiu.
“Are you okay”? he asked.
I nodded. “Just thinking about my new assignment.”
“Sorry for having to use a meeting invite. Jessica had me in another meeting, so the only way I could share your success with you was via the invite. The meeting with Jessica is finally over and I’m famished. Are you interested in lunch? I had a vegetarian place recommended to me. It’s supposed to be fantastic.”
“Did Molly tell you about it”?
“Really”? he asked. “Okay. Hop in and let’s get going.”
“Great, I’ve got some more ideas about KPIs, and I’d really like your feedback.”
Tips that would have helped Chris
Everyone has an agenda
Agendas are not bad. Everyone has them. Agendas are simply a path to obtain the goals you want to reach. Understanding the agendas of the people you work with is very important. Always assume positive intent. Understand that what is positive for them, may not be positive for you. The crime comes not when they have a different goal, rather when they pretend you have the same goal, to take advantage of you.
Style is not intent
Sometimes you will work with people whose style is the antithesis of yours. Don’t assume that means they are opposed to you, or your agenda. Pay less attention to how they present themselves than you do to what they do, even if working with them seems painful in the short term. When in doubt, follow the benefits trail. Who benefits the most if different events occur? Many very successful businesses have been created by people with opposite styles who shared the same objectives.
When things go well and you achieve your objective, you have every right to be excited and share that with those around you. While they will be happy for you, if you expect them to be just as excited, you may be disappointed. It does not mean they are jealous or upset with you. It is just that your success is more personal to you. This applies to everyone around you, from your peers to your manager. The closer their goals were aligned with yours, the more excited they will be. Set your expectations accordingly, and learn how to celebrate your own success.