art by ShotHot Design
Values, Vision and Mission
by James Van Pelt
Across the tracks from the train platform, a dog barked into a cell phone lying on the sidewalk, a small brown dog that might have had some Cocker Spaniel in its lineage, but was otherwise undistinguished. My briefcase hung heavily, and I was afraid to shift it to the other hand. I had already smacked the woman's shins beside me once. So many commuters stood on the platform that I couldn't move away. In her grey pantsuit and severe expression, she looked ready to chop me off at the knees for breathing too loud.
She spoke suddenly. "We're not letting them off the hook with that interest rate."
Her eyes shifted toward me for a second. "I'm not kidding. They either sign this afternoon or they can find another agency."
She cupped her hand over her earpiece. "No, I'm not dicking around this time. Call Nock and tell him to build a fire under them."
Up the tracks, the train made the big turn, its single light cutting through the morning mist. Everyone shuffled forward, almost pushing me over the orange safety stripe.
I regripped the briefcase, ready to board. Still, the dog barked, short insistent yips. No one else seemed to notice. It crossed my mind that somewhere a businessman would miss his cell phone soon. It lay open on the cement. I grinned at the thought that there might be a poor slob on the other end. What would he make of the barking?
Sharon Sutter rested her arms on top of my cubicle. "I'm on my way to the values meeting, Crockett. Did you do your homework? Have you chosen three values?" She'd changed her hair last week from a straight hang that lapped her shoulders to a complicated braid tied in back, a style my ex-wife would have called a French twist. Sutter said it gave her a business look, which she thought would garner more respect during the bi-weekly strategy meetings.
"We sell paper products. What's wrong with last year's values?"
She held her thumb and index finger a quarter of an inch apart. "We are this close to being taken over, buddy. Your job, my job: on the chopping block. 'Persistence, Service, and Quality' are passť. Corporate wants snappier values."
"But I have work to do." I sighed at the deja vu-ness of the conversation. We'd done a similar one twelve months ago. "They're three words that don't mean anything, and we're always 'that close' to being taken over. Did you make a single decision based on any of those values in the last year? How about 'inefficiency, insolence, and incompetence'? A company lives or dies on how it performs, not on what it says it values."
Sutter lowered her voice. "Corporate is serious. If we don't align our values with our vision and mission statement, we won't present the kind of company that attracts new investors."
"Do you believe that?" A pile of invoice folders and work orders waited on my desk, some of them already a couple of days late. If I worked straight through lunch, I had a chance to catch up, but we had the values meeting. I said, "You know what I want? A boss who doesn't think work is a bunch of stupid pet tricks."
She pushed her glasses farther up her nose. Lars Boone in shipping had told me a while ago that Sutter didn't need glasses--her eyesight was fine--but she thought the dark frames gave her an intelligent demeanor. Sutter said, "They've scheduled meetings all week for this. It's a part of the collaborative decision-making model. You know, 'Better business through teamwork.' I heard that upper management retrained at that Tahoe retreat they went to last month. I chose 'integrity, respect, and service.'"
"You either already have those values or it's too late. Why not use the ones they practice, like 'interference, delinquency, and micromanagement'?"
"Your funeral." Sutter turned away from the divider and strode toward the conference room. I noticed she wore the red blazer with the puffy shoulder pads. Once at FAC, after one too many wine spritzers, she'd confided her anxiety over red or black. "Black shows power, and it's thinning, but red gets attention. When I don't have power yet, should I wear a power color? Is it presumptuous? Does red make me look heavy?"
I hadn't noticed an effect from either color. She told me at the same FAC, unasked, "I won't sleep with anyone who can't help my career."
The invoices would have to wait.
The crowd standing at the elevator clutched their values binders to their chests or under their arms. I went back to my desk for mine, and when I returned, everyone had already gone up. The elevator took a long time to open. The doors slid aside; a black Labrador Retriever stood in the middle, its head cocked to one side, looking at me. It trotted out, then headed down the hall toward shipping, claws clicking against the linoleum. I wondered if I should call security. I hadn't seen a dog in the building before, and certainly not an unaccompanied one.
I like dogs. Last year, when I finally could afford a condo with a little back yard, I bought a beautiful, dark-haired Yorkie I named Max. A streak of white fur on both sides of its nose, like a fu Manchu, gave him personality. Dogs treat you well. They don't make you go to useless meetings. They're good listeners. They let you get your work done.
Whoever set up the meeting had removed the long conference table that normally dominated the room and replaced it with five small round tables surrounded by folding chairs. Nameplates showed where we were supposed to sit.
William Cody, a tall, slender man in his fifties, whose blond hair, parted in the middle, just touched the collar of his gray suit in back, ran the meeting from a podium he'd set up beside a projection screen. He was a prissy sort of fellow who reminded me of Bartleby the Scrivener, if Bartleby had somehow risen to management. Whenever I asked him to talk to our warehouse manager about improving communications, or to the catalog department to update our price list, he'd say, "I prefer not to," and then I'd have to get his secretary to do it. Once, a kid from the mailroom called him Buffalo Bill and was canned on the spot.
William leaned over the podium and smiled. "We choose these values so that all employees will work together to achieve our company's shared ethical standards. They guide our hiring, shape our day-to-day decisions, and infuse the company's culture with the confidence that our workers uphold the same principles. The company will improve because we'll base our actions on what we know is right rather than what seems easy."
Allie Armstrong, a short woman with broad forearms and scarred knuckles, who shared a desk in my cubicle, wrote on her notepad, "Do what is right." I recognized the pad: it was a "Smiles Special," a product popular with our Chinese distributors but not available in the United States. The only way she could get one was by sneaking it out of the warehouse. She had a stash of them in the bottom drawer of her desk, along with packages of promotional pens, extra staplers, "liberated" blank CDs, and candy she'd taken from the break room but hadn't paid for.
On the right side of the paper, she'd written a "To do" list. Number one was "Shop for Friday." Number two was "Send out resumes." Maybe the rumors about a takeover were true.
Cody clicked on a PowerPoint as the lights dimmed. "Building a Strategic Framework for Significant Success," read the first slide. The light from the screen cast interesting shadows on everyone's faces. It occurred to me that if I got one of those netbooks or a tablet computer everyone was so hot about, I could do actual work in a meeting like this. I didn't have to be at my desk to handle customer emails or coordinate the deliveries from the branch warehouses, and if I used it during a meeting, management might think I was taking notes. I could check out the computer outlet stores over the weekend to see what they had.
"Our strivingness is for success," said Cody.
I thought, "strivingness?" Because I didn't have a computer, I tried turning "success" into an acronym while Cody flicked through the rest of the presentation. Suicidal Underachievement Causes Corporate Entities Social Suckatude was the best I came up with.
Cody showed the last slide, then flicked the room lights on. He pointed to sticky notes and felt-tip markers in a basket at the center of each table. "What I want you to do now is to write as many of the values you believe are important for our company to embrace on the sticky notes. Put your notes on the butcher-block paper on the back wall. Come on, folks. Be creative here."
We spent two hours writing sticky notes, organizing them into categories on the butcher-block paper, and then talking in small groups about what the values meant to us in our positions.
We'd done the sticky-note exercise last year too. Just for fun, I had copied every sticky note suggestion, and then compared them to the final result that corporate gave us. Not a one of the sticky notes made it into the final document, despite the explanation of how employee input had shaped the content. What was funny was that corporate also sent the file to everyone as a PDF which had a creation date two weeks before we'd started the sticky note process. None of the time we'd spent mattered in the least. They'd made all the decisions before we started the "collaborative decision" process.
They catered lunch, and by 4:00, I was ready to toss William Cody and his values talk out the window.
"We've made good progress today," Cody said brightly while he straightened his papers at the podium. "Tomorrow, if you will come in with ideas of how to integrate values into your work, we'll break into implementation teams to make action plans. In the afternoon, we'll start working on our vision, and by Thursday we should be able to formulate our mission."
"These meetings are so productive, don't you think?" said Sutter. A bit of mustard clung to her red blazer. Red may be a power color, but a mustard stain ruins the effect.
By 9:00 p.m. I'd organized the stacks of invoice folders into a "must do now" stack, and the ones I could put off until tomorrow. The setting sun had poured through the windows fifteen minutes earlier, turning the office into a gallery of long shadows and mellow, buttery light, but now the horizon was darkening and lights flicked on along the street below. I didn't mind working in the office after hours. Everyone set their phones to voicemail, so there was no ringing. No rumble of conversations. No shuffling papers or file drawers sliding open or closed. No one draping over the top of my cubicle to chat about last night's baseball game or to gripe about management. Only the air conditioner's whisper and my keyboard's soft cricket clatter as I answered vendor queries or sent shipping orders on their way. My "must do now" stack pleasingly evaporated, each finished folder representing another satisfied commitment.
While I was typing in the empty office, I heard a sharp rhythmic clicking. My breath froze in my throat for a second. Then a brown-and-black Beagle passed my work station, its stubby legs moving briskly, a file folder gripped in its mouth.
"Here, boy," I called, but it didn't pause as it turned into the hallway toward the elevators. By the time I'd pushed away from my desk and followed it, it had disappeared. An elevator door finished closing, but I couldn't see who the dog belonged to.
The idea that someone else was working late and had brought a dog to the office pleased me. I returned to my papers.