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Values, Vision and Mission

James Van Pelt teaches high school and college English in western Colorado. His fiction has made numerous appearances in most of the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. His first collection of stories, Strangers and Beggars, was recognized as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association. His second collection, The Last of the O-Forms and Other Stories includes the Nebula finalist title story, and was a finalist for the Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award. His novel, Summer of the Apocalypse was released November, 2006. The recently released The Radio Magician and Other Stories received the Colorado Book Award. James blogs at jimvanpelt.livejournal.com.

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."
"Pardon me?"
Her eyes shifted toward me for a second. "I'm not kidding. They either sign this afternoon or they can find another agency."
"Oh, sorry."
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.
When I checked the time next, it was 11:30. "Shoot!" I said into the empty office. Max hadn't been fed, and sometimes he'd go through both bowls of water if the day had been hot. I saved my work on the computer, and gathered my coat and briefcase before heading to the elevator. The city lights from below cast a dim illumination across the long room. Even though I was in a hurry, I veered toward the window to spend a minute looking over the city. Some offices were lit, but generally the buildings absorbed light, adding little of their own, standing quiet and tall and dark. I felt the traffic's vibration through the window like a distant beehive.
At one end of the tram car on the way home, an old man sat, asleep with a brown paper sack in his lap. Lying on a seat a few feet from the sleeping man, an alert looking terrier, his muzzle resting on the tram's worn plastic, watched me. I couldn't tell if the man and the dog were together. I moved to the car's other end near the door as we approached my stop. As streetlight after streetlight swept by, I thought about Max at home alone all day. He'd be scratching at the other side of the door as I unlocked it, and then run around my feet in the kitchen until I put his food down.
At 12:45, with Max fed, I was ready to go to bed, but he nosed the cabinet door open, gripped with his mouth the leash and collar, an understated length of black leather set off by a silver buckle, then waggled his head, rattling the buckle. I sighed. "Only a short walk, boy. Tomorrow will be a long day."
He's such a smart dog.
Cody had put vision folders in our boxes. Inside were inscrutable papers: a pink sheet with two crossing lines that divided the page into quarters, a yellow one filled with empty oblongs, a blue one that had four numbered rows on it, each number in front of a blank line, and, of course, a pad of sticky notes.
Accounting took the two tables next to the door. Catalog sales sat next to them. Advertising took the table in the corner, which left the table in front of the podium for shipping and warehouse, which was me, Sutter and Armstrong.
Sutter wore black. Armstrong brought salted nut rolls from the candy display in the work room for everyone at our table. I knew she hadn't paid for them. Sometimes, when I was feeling generous, I'd drop whatever change I had in my pocket into the payment box by the candy to make up for her pilfering.
Before the meeting started, an office boy handed Armstrong a grey memo. She read it, shrugged her broad shoulders at me, and left the room.
"Vision," said Cody from the podium. He'd clipped a lapel microphone to his suit, but in the small area the speakers crackled with feedback. After fussing with it for a few seconds, placing it farther away from his mouth until he'd moved it to just above his belt buckle, he finally turned the volume down, but he didn't take it off, and the cord kept bumping against his knees. "Vision is where we want the company to be in the future. By the end of the day, we will create a vision that will guide our efforts toward our next decade."
Last year we'd worked on a vision statement for the "next decade." How could we achieve a decade-away goal if we changed it yearly? I'd checked my emails and faxes before the meeting started. Despite last night's work, I was at least twenty-four hours behind.
"Tomorrow we'll work on our mission, which is a statement of our basic purpose. It explains why we exist to both our customers and ourselves. Last year's mission statement, 'Selling essential paper products to the world,' lacked specificity. We hope to do better this year. This morning, though, we need to create action plans for yesterday's values work. Remember, our action plans must be concrete and measurable. You can't write an action plan with an abstraction in it, like 'We will achieve our values through improved customer satisfaction.' 'Satisfaction' is not measurable."
I couldn't resist whispering to Sutter, "We can't get no satisfaction."
"Do you mean 'any satisfaction'?"
Evidently she wasn't a Stones fan, plus she had no sense of irony. I'd heard that she'd tried to seduce Cody at the Christmas office party. Cody got flustered and cut her out of his email mailing list. For weeks she didn't get any of the questionnaires or busywork the rest of us received and was more productive than she'd been since she'd been hired. Upper management noticed, so Cody had to give her an employee of the month plaque in February. She beamed and he blushed. The whole affair had cute written all over it.
After fifteen minutes of sticky-note work, I took a "bathroom" break, but dashed back to my cubicle. The warehouses sent inventory and shipment orders mid-morning and needed me to confirm them before they restocked or released the trucks. I could hear the copier running before I passed the copy room door. Someone else was dodging the meeting too, but when I looked in the room, a stocky bulldog, standing on a stool, was leaning on the control buttons. I laughed at the image. Maybe this was bring your dog to work week. I ignore most of the announcement memos. I figured a dog wouldn't waste any more paper than management did, so I kept going.
The office wasn't empty, though. Armstrong was in her cubicle, angrily thrusting personal items into a cardboard box.
"What's going on? Why didn't you come back to the meeting?" I said.
She laughed bitterly. "The meeting is a sham. Someone bought out the company this morning. I've been downsized." She crammed a box of pencils on top of several printer cartridges. A framed picture of herself in hiking gear from a trip she'd taken last summer joined the rest of the stuff in the box.
I stiffened. How deep would the cuts go? Were we all going to be let go?
A dozen messages blinked for attention on my computer: order confirmations, shipment requests. Choices to make. Order. Accomplishment. I sat down and opened the first message. A while later, I looked up. Armstrong was gone. Her desk was bare. I'd been working for almost an hour and a half. Now I could go back to the meeting with a clear conscience. I might be fired any moment, but I'd done my job.
Back at the meeting, Cody said, a bit desperately, "Come on people, put your thinking hats on. An action plan needs all of our input." Half the tables that had been full when I left were empty. The employees who remained looked shell-shocked. They wrote listlessly on their pads. Sutter rubbed her wrist against her cheek. Her mascara smudged a little.
A fellow from advertising who I didn't know well walked by the meeting room's open door carrying a cardboard box, his shoulders slumped.
Ten minutes later, Cody was handed his own gray memo. He looked at it for a while without speaking. I watched to see his reaction. In one hand he held four sticky notes he'd pulled from the butcher-block paper. In the other the grey memo fluttered. His hand shook slightly.
He grimaced, then said bitterly, "Management just drove this company into the ground. Visionless bastards." He dropped the sticky notes before walking stiffly from the room.
"I guess the meeting's over," I said.
Cody deserved sympathy, and so did Sutter who looked small and lost in her slimming black dress with the padded shoulders, but mostly I was thinking about tomorrow's orders. Was the company shutting down, or would it continue? Should I leave a note for my replacement? There were tricks I'd learned to speed the process, to make the work more efficient. Surely the company wasn't being folded all together. Product was in the pipeline. Customers had weeks of unfilled needs. I headed back to my desk. They might fire me, but I'd go down doing my job.
The afternoon wore on. In the back of the office, someone swore steadily and unimaginatively for ten minutes straight. Desk after desk emptied. I clicked away at my keyboard, made phone calls.
"I heard it's a slaughterhouse up there," said the distribution center warehouse manager in my ear.
The spreadsheet for his operation popped up on my screen. I moved through his inventory, checking what needed to go out on the morning's trucks. By 5:00, I'd accomplished more than I had in the previous three days. No one was in the office to stop by and chat. Cody wasn't sending emails that had to be read and responded to that weren't about work.
I'd told Sutter once, "Never have a meeting for something that could be handled in a memo."
"What's wrong with meetings?" She had a book under her arm entitled Stable Strategies for Middle Management. I didn't have the heart to tell her it wasn't about what she thought it was about.
"You know why companies have meetings?" I said.
She shook her head.
"Because they can't actually masturbate."
Sutter hadn't laughed.
You're the last," said the messenger. He handed me a grey memo.
"What about you?"
The messenger might have been seventeen years old, bad haircut, a splash of acne across his forehead. He'd only been in the office for a week. I think he was one of the accountant's sons, a high school kid. He said, "I'm CEO of an Internet startup, myparentssuck.com. We split our stock last week, and I'm considering a buyout proposal from another company right now. At the end of the year, I might retire. I just do this because Dad thinks I should get out of the house."
I nodded. The note told me to report to the corporate meeting room on the top floor. I'd only been to corporate twice since I'd started working. Both times were for vice president retirement parties. Real leather covered the office chairs in corporate and they sported adjustable lumbar supports. I hadn't noticed vision statements on the walls up there.
The hallways were empty between my cubicle and the elevator. Open doors revealed vacant offices. Posters had been taken down. Potted plants were gone. The elevator doors waited, as if they'd known I'd be coming. On the way up, I fingered the note.
Did I care, even, that I'd lost my job? I spent so little of my time doing the work. Between Sutter, and her endless machinations to advance, Armstrong and her relentless pilfering, Cody and his meetings, I barely could do the fulfilling work. The work is what I would miss, of course.
My reflection in the mirrored doors stared back at me.
Entering corporate was like stepping onto another planet. It wasn't just the leather chairs and the real wood wainscoting on the walls or the carpet instead of linoleum. The atmosphere smelled different. At the lobby's end, a secretary greeted me from behind a beautifully buffed, cherry wood desk. He wore a comfortable-looking suit jacket and no tie. "End of the hall," he said, with a wave toward a set of double doors. Now was the time to meet the new owners.
I suppose I should have been surprised when I went in, but I wasn't. At the head of the table sat a black Labrador Retriever. It could have been the one I saw yesterday. In the chair next to him, the bulldog from the copy room turned its head toward me. Four other dogs, a Pekinese, a Collie, a Poodle, and a Golden Retriever looked at me, their eyes alert, their ears and postures relaxed. The Collie, who sat nearest to me, slid a piece of paper in my direction.
It was a continuation of my contract, with a raise. I didn't know what to say. The dogs sat silently, still. The Labrador bit at something on its shoulder for a second, then met my gaze evenly. On the wall, the clock ticked gently. Otherwise the room was silent.
"Thank you," I said as I signed it.
The secretary in the lobby smiled as I approached, my copy of the contract tucked under an arm. "You know what kind of a world they say it is out there, don't you?" He nodded toward the double doors.
"Yes, I do."
On the elevator ride down to the ground floor, I thought about work tomorrow. I'd arrive early, check my schedule of contacts, read the morning orders, and then organize the trucks. I was thinking about spreadsheets and efficiency numbers when I walked onto the sidewalk where the late afternoon sun cut through the top of the buildings, leaving the street in shadow and windowy reflections, a lovely tableau of shaded shapes and shimmering brightness. A breeze swept away city smells, and in it I caught a hint of parklands and running water and the hills on the horizon that the sun had just touched.
The backdoor of the taxi I hailed opened as it pulled to the curb. A pair of Rottweilers, thick in the chest with solid square heads, jumped out before I climbed in.
"It's a new order," said the cabbie as he started the meter. "Good tippers. A bit quiet though."
I was quiet myself on the ride home. When we stopped at a light, a man in a business suit stood on the corner only ten feet away, looking lost, holding the handle of an open briefcase. A paper on top of the little pile that had spilled out, stirred in the breeze. I watched him until the light changed and we pulled away. He never moved, even when a Basset Hound paused to sniff his leg before trotting down the street.
Max waited for me at the door, his tail wagging, ready for me to set out his food. I filled his bowl, enjoying the dry meaty smell from the dog food bag that told me I was home. My new contract went into the file cabinet, and I had just settled onto the couch, my feet on the coffee table, a newspaper nearby, and a snifter of Grand Marnier in hand when Max clicked around the corner, a leash and collar in his mouth.
I smiled. We always took a walk in the evening. It let me know the day had ended.
"Come here, boy,"
He padded across the carpet. I took the collar from his mouth, weighed it in my hand. It was different: longer than I remembered, a bit heavier.
Then, I understood.
I wrapped the collar around my neck. Threaded the buckle's tongue into the leather by feel, clicked the leash to the metal loop.
He waited for me to open the door, the other end of the leash in his mouth, and together we walked through the hallway, down the stairs, and into the evening.
The night was fine, so fine, a fine night for a dog and man to be out.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 6th, 2011

Author Comments

The impetus for "Values, Vision and Mission" came from attending one too many meetings where we were trying to establish the right wording for our organization instead of actually doing any work. Like many stories, this one started from me being unhappy about something. I knew the story was working when some of my first readers nodded their heads in recognition.

- James Van Pelt
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