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Archive for the ‘Recollections 9 to 5’ Category

Finding My Niche

Before I retired and became a man of leisure, I was an ordinary working dude. A nine-to-fiver. A white-collar wage slave.

Over the years, I came to know a series of corporate cultures that were every bit as Kafkaesque as the world of Dilbert, but without the humor.

Some of those places — actually, most of those places — were dreadful, borderline dysfunctional organizations. Bureaucracy, politics, and incompetence were constant obstacles. In truth, the organizations were not so much managed as mismanaged, and everyone knew it.

And, oh, how I hated it. The pomposity of the corporate caste system, the norm of inefficiency and waste — everything about it was offensive. I was in a state of constant indignation.

Probably, eventually, I was destined to leave corporate life behind. I had no idea what I might do to make a living, but I wasn’t making peace with the life I was leading.

Then, in 1989, when I took a new job in metro Atlanta, I got a lucky break.

The job was in the advertising department at Lithonia Lighting, a national manufacturer of commercial, industrial, and residential light fixtures.

The position, it turned out, provided a niche that gave me unexpected protection from the worst of the corporate crapola. I was able to do my work in a manner I found acceptable. It was a gift from God.

The details are a bit tedious, but I’ll try to keep it simple.

Lithonia Lighting hired me as the company’s first professional copywriter. The Advertising Department staff included graphic designers and marketing types, but no writers.

I soon learned that, in large part, I was hired to fix a chronic and maddening problem: the higher-ups were tired of being sued, sometimes by their own sales reps, over typos and inaccuracies in the printed material describing the products.

For a long time, the bosses had been reluctant to hire a writer. This was a company of and for engineers — real men — not some useless liberal arts major.

But they finally relented, and there I was, a detail-oriented guy with a knack for writing, grammar, proofreading, and similar skills that the engineers, poor things, clearly lacked.

The inaccuracies in the sales literature were having real consequences. When a contract is signed to supply the light fixtures to populate an office building, a factory, a mall, or whatever, the financial commitment is significant.

And lots of variables are involved — wattage, voltage, light source, lumen output, fixture dimensions, and more. If the products delivered are not precisely as quoted, and don’t perform precisely as promised, the manufacturer (or the manufacturer’s rep) is legally liable.

Lithonia Lighting was capable of manufacturing countless product variations. The technical specifications for all those theoretical products were maintained in a vast set of central files. The files amounted to a blueprint of what could and could not be manufactured.

When the sales reps needed descriptions of specific products to facilitate a deal, the company would refer to the official files and furnish the necessary information to the reps. In effect, documents describing any version of any product were available on demand.

When a product was modified or a new product variation was created, the central files were updated. Thus, theoretically, the sales force always had access to the latest and most accurate information.

In the years before I came along, the central files had been maintained and updated by a succession of employees — product engineers, marketing trainees, sales people, and others.

They were, to be sure, sincere and capable folks in their areas of specialty. But ensuring the accuracy of a huge mass of constantly-changing data was not among their skills. Hence, they decided to try someone like me.

Owing to the scale of the task, I was allowed to hire a few young copywriters fresh out of college. Like most writers, they were naturally detail-oriented and undeterred by what others might see as overwhelming and unmanageable.

And it worked. Within a year or two, we brought discipline to the system and restored the data files to a state of accuracy that was, if not perfect, at least acceptable. The lawsuit problems faded away. The bosses were pleased.

As a result of all this, management tended to stay out of my way. They were happy to let me do my thing, more or less undisturbed.

Because I was important to them in this manner, I was exempt from many of the petty annoyances of corporate life.

When a stupid management fad came along — Six Sigma, Core Competency, Management by Objectives — I wasn’t forced to endure the training sessions as were my peers.

And never once was I assigned to the universally-hated duty of helping to conduct the periodic inventories of the main warehouse, which was the size of the Pentagon.

As time passed, the people changed, and the tools we used and the tasks we performed evolved. But the work remained interesting and fun.

The Advertising Department, an enclave of creative types amid a sea of math and science majors, was never dull.

And I stayed plenty busy. In addition to overseeing the product data, we produced product catalogs, prepared advertising and marketing material, wrote news releases and newsletters, and edited a steady mass of correspondence.

Yes, the place was still a typical large corporation. The bureaucracy was appalling. The mismanagement, at times, was spectacular and stultifying.

But I stayed anyway. For 25 years.

All because I got lucky and found my niche.

Managing

 

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On a balmy day in June 1964, I was handed two documents: my college diploma and my commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, the latter courtesy of ROTC.

Within two weeks, I was ordered to active duty. Before July ended, I was in uniform, serving at a base in New Mexico.

In those days, as you may know, the Vietnam War was at its height. One of the reasons I took ROTC in college was to avoid being drafted, handed a rifle, and sent into the jungles to my doom.

Yes, I dodged being drafted. But to my dismay, the Air Force still had plenty of chances to send me into the war. Fortunately, I was just a non-flight-status lieutenant, first an Administrative Officer and later a PR Officer. They decided they didn’t need me over there.

But plenty of my contemporaries got the call. How it was done was frightfully efficient.

In the Air Force, the usual practice with support personnel was to send you overseas on a TDY (temporary duty) assignment for three months. One day, everything was normal. The next day, you got the TDY orders. A few weeks later, you were in Vietnam.

What you did when you got there depended on your career field. If you were a Supply or Personnel Officer, you worked in Supply or Personnel. Had I gone, I would have remained in admin or PR.

My mentor and boss Major Walker was an experienced pilot. His Vietnam orders assigned him to fly military transports that sprayed the defoliant Agent Orange. Major Walker didn’t come home.

But in most cases, the person returned from TDY safely, greatly relieved to be back, praying that someone else would be sent next time.

However, there were exceptions. There were a few who salivated to get their orders. Who ached to be in the middle of the action.

One of them was my fellow officer Smokey Ellis.

In my experience, the non-flying junior officers were obliged to stick together. Most of us were young and single. We worked, lived, and socialized together because, as a group, we were disdained by everyone else; to the senior officers, the pilots, the NCOs, and the enlisted personnel, junior support officers are useless.

Smokey was an Air Police officer and a decent guy. He was cocky and loud, had a bit too much of a John Wayne swagger, but essentially, he was good-natured and good-hearted.

(Smokey had been his nickname since childhood. He was born Francis Charles Ellis. When he reached adulthood, because he was who he was, he had his name legally changed to Smokey Francis Charles Ellis.)

By the time I knew him, Smokey had a burning desire to get into the war while there still was one. And it wasn’t mere bravado. Like Mr. Roberts two wars earlier, he genuinely longed for his shot at glory.

He submitted Volunteer Statements. He sent letters up the chain of command. Nothing worked. There he sat, languishing in New Mexico.

Finally, he did something about it. He arranged to give up his Air Force commission and enlist in the Army.

Apparently, the Air Force saw no reason to turn him down. Knowing Smokey and his intense passion to be in the fight, I suppose it was the right decision.

Smokey left us rather hurriedly. He consented to a brief going-away party, but you knew his thoughts were elsewhere.

I last saw him in front of the Bachelor Officer Quarters as he walked down the sidewalk toward his car. Two large duffle bags were slung over his shoulder. He turned back toward us once, grinning and waving. You had to be happy for him.

We didn’t hear much from Smokey after that. There was talk that he was accepted for Green Beret training, that he went to Vietnam.

And eventually, the rumor went around that he had been killed in action.

Maybe the scuttlebutt wasn’t true. 56 soldiers named Ellis are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and neither Smokey nor Francis is one of them.

Maybe he met his fate in Thailand or Laos in some clandestine operation. Maybe he survived and is now a retired dude enjoying his grandkids.

Your guess is as good as mine.

the-wall

 

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Sometimes, a person needs to vent. And when you have a blog, you might as well use it.

It’s been nearly 50 years, and this one still sticks in my craw…

When I was in college in the 1960s, I was enrolled in the ROTC program, which was, and probably still is, the least painful way to become a military officer.

Back then, as you may know, guys my age were being handed a rifle and sent to get killed in Vietnam. I wanted no part of that, so I opted for Air Force officer training. Not the Army, and not the Marines, thank you very much.

I took a series of Air Science classes during college (in addition to the regular curriculum), and in a ceremony the morning of graduation, I was sworn into the Air Force as a second lieutenant.

Two months later, I was called up to active duty. I served from 1964 until 1968 and was, in succession, a deputy squadron commander, a full-blown squadron commander, a P.R. officer, and a squadron commander again.

I did a damn good job. As a young and unlikely boss, I tried to be as fair, impartial, and  non-dictatorial as possible. In general, the men seemed to like me, even respect me. Especially compared to other COs on the base, some of whom let power go to their heads.

Just so you’ll know, I was, at age 21, the youngest unit commander in the whole blooming Air Force, with 500 men reporting to me.

Although I knew right away that soldiering wasn’t for me, and one four-year term would be enough, I enjoyed the experience and was proud of my service.

However, in 1968, when I left the Air Force and returned to Atlanta and civilian life, armed with what any rational person ought to consider valuable experience in managing people and organizations…

… nobody cared.

Nobody.

To my dismay, the companies where I had job interviews considered my military service to be not just meaningless, but an actual detriment; to them, I was a college graduate with zero experience, AND I was four years older than the other greenhorns.

Had I served as a fighter pilot, or a tank commander, or a Green Beret — had I come home highly decorated or wounded or both — maybe my service would have meant something to them. Maybe.

The Air Force, however, had made me a desk jockey and assigned me to a training base in New Mexico. No medals or glory for me.

But the Air Force, God bless it, gave me enough responsibility to last a lifetime.

My job as a unit commander was to ride herd on the hundreds of airmen and non-coms in my charge; to see that they were housed and fed and trained; to praise, reward, and promote them when they earned it; and to mete out the appropriate discipline when they got into bar fights, ran up too many debts, went AWOL, or got drunk and decked their wives at the NCO Club on a Saturday night.

My First Sergeant and I, sometimes together and sometimes singly, stayed busy tending to an eclectic and unpredictable bunch of boys and men.

We pinned on their new stripes, got them out of jail, bragged on their babies, intervened with their creditors, met their wives and girlfriends, and went to their homes to try to patch things up after a spat.

When most of them were called on the carpet, the seriousness of the situation got their attention. They responded to straight talk and reasoning and thereafter stayed out of trouble.

With others, it took cajoling and more stern measures. Maybe placing a Letter of Reprimand in their files. Maybe with the understanding that if they behaved, the letter would get tossed.

More often than not, the infractions were minor, and things worked out. But not always. Some matters were either unsolvable or just too serious, and they had to be referred to the Base Legal Office.

Nobody wanted that to happen — to see a man going on trial, possibly demoted, discharged from the military, or locked up. During that four years, I was involved in 50 or more courts-martial and Article 15 (non-judicial punishment) procedures.

But when I became a civilian again, no, I couldn’t handle the entry-level copywriter spots at the ad agencies.

I wasn’t right for those marketing trainee jobs with Delta and Coca-Cola and Lockheed.

I was a bad fit for the beginner jobs with state government, the newspapers, the Chamber of Commerce, and all the rest.

At the time, I was married with a kid, and I had to find gainful employment. Finally, I took a job as a collection agent for an Atlanta insurance company.

Every day, I sat at my desk and, speaking into a Dictaphone, composed letters to poor saps who didn’t have the money to pay their policy premiums. They were in arrears and thus were in the company crosshairs for cancellation.

In the letters, I informed them that if this office did not receive the past due amount of (insert amount here) no later than (insert date here), we would have no choice but to (insert drastic action here).

Every afternoon, someone from the typing pool picked up my magnetic tape containing the day’s dictation. The next morning, a pile of typed letters appeared in my inbox. I signed them, placed them in the outbox, and commenced another round of dictation.

After a few months with the insurance company, I stumbled onto a curious classified ad in the newspaper seeking a “wordsmith” for an unspecified position in state government.

I applied, and it turned out to be the Governor’s Office, looking for a speechwriter. I got the job. I’ve been in the writing business ever since.

Nothing says life has to be fair. But after all this time, I still deeply resent having my Air Force experience dismissed and disrespected. The succession of people who turned me away back then — they blew it.

I wish I could magically sit them down, one by one, grab them by the lapels, and make them understand what clueless idiots they were.

But I guess I’ll have to settle for airing it out in a blog post.

That's me in 1966 -- 1st Lt. W. A. Smith, Commander, Headquarters Squadron, 832nd Combat Support Group, Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

That’s me in 1966 — 1st Lt. W. A. Smith, Commander, Headquarters Squadron, 832nd Combat Support Group, Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

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The cubicle, the familiar modular workstation used in offices everywhere, was invented in 1967. It was the brainchild of designer Robert Propst, head of research for Herman Miller, Inc., the American manufacturer of office furniture.

Cube-1

Propst was assigned to identify problems in the modern office environment and find sensible solutions. The project was a good-faith, objective, scientific undertaking.

Back in those pre-cubicle days, Propst said, “Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is a daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”

He and his team looked for ways to reduce material costs and use office space more efficiently, while at the same time, boosting worker productivity. That would be done by providing a degree of privacy, limiting distractions, and making the workplace more comfortable and more inviting.

The result of Propst’s efforts was the “Action Office,” which featured inexpensive modular components that could be changed easily.

The design facilitated interaction with co-workers, but allowed privacy when appropriate. The placement of the components encouraged workers to move around instead of remaining sedentary.

Propst was convinced his concept would transform the business world and lead to major increases in employee productivity.

Ironically, it succeeded at the former, but at the expense of the latter.

Capitalism, true to its mercenary nature, simply used the “cubicle” concept to pack as many workers as possible into the available space.

As the reality of the situation dawned, Propst was appalled and outraged. “The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity,” he wrote.

But the corporate world does not care what idealistic do-gooders think. Cubes and cube farms quickly became ubiquitous in the modern office — a symbol of enforced uniformity and the pitiful, stultifying life of the lowly office drone.

Today, Herman Miller still manufactures the Action Office and still promotes it as grandly envisioned by Robert Propst. But the effort is hollow and forlorn.

Cube-2

My own introduction to the scourge of cubicles in the workplace came in the late 1980s, when I was working as a copywriter in the advertising department of a large manufacturing company near Atlanta.

The company was Lithonia Lighting, which built residential, commercial, and industrial light fixtures. The company employed a few thousand people in several states. Business was excellent.

By that time, I had been with Lithonia Lighting for almost 10 years. I had joined them as their first-ever professional writer, and they liked the results — so much so that I was ordered to hire and train a few more of my kind.

The job of us copywriters was to write the sales material that went out to Lithonia’s customers and sales reps around the country — brochures, catalogs, product data sheets, etc.

Most importantly, we were expected to proofread everything with ferocious intensity to be sure it was accurate.

Before we wordsmiths came along, the company was taking constant heat from sales reps and customers about inaccuracies in the literature. Because of pointless typographical errors, the company literature couldn’t be trusted to provide accurate product specs — e.g., the precise weight and dimensions of the products.

When you’re dealing with an order of ceiling lights to fill a skyscraper, numbers count.

Because of earlier inaccuracies, the higher-ups had lost several painful lawsuits. They had become very unforgiving of typos.

I mention this to establish that proofreading was an important part of our work as copywriters. Our duties required close attention and concentration, and most  of the time, we worked quietly and alone. When a copywriter’s office door was closed, you knew to come back later.

Cube-3

That was the situation when plans were announced to renovate/upgrade/modernize the Advertising Department offices, for the first time in several decades.

As a manager, I would have a private office. But my copywriters and the rest of the underlings in the department faced wholesale cubicalization.

When I saw the schematic for the first time, my anguish was almost palpable. Surely — SURELY — I thought, the company wouldn’t needlessly hamper the ability of the copywriters to do critical work for the sake of some trendy concept.

Of course they would.

With no real hope of getting anywhere, I decided to lodge a formal objection to the plan.

Being mentally hard-wired as a liberal, I resolved to use logic. I would reason with them, appeal to them on a factual level, help them see the light.

Being mentally hard-wired as conservatives, the bosses had no logic gene to appeal to. Seeing the light was not in their nature, or their interest.

Well, that statement is not entirely accurate. Although I lost the war over the cubicalization of my staff, I won a minor victory in the initial battle.

Cube-4

When I approached my immediate boss to protest, I made the point that the proposed cubicles actually would cost more than standard offices with walls.

I knew that was true because I had talked to the construction guys. They said the cubes would be built by cutting off the plasterboard walls at a height of six feet and topping them with metal caps. In the end, that was more labor-intensive and more expensive than installing standard wall panels from floor to ceiling.

My second point, of course, was that the loss of privacy would be a detriment to doing our jobs.

I predicted flippantly that if the copywriters were allowed to have real offices, the ROI in productivity would be about two weeks.

My boss was sympathetic, but understandably impotent in the matter. Only the higher-ups could make exceptions to issues of such gravity.

Cube-5

A week or two later, time enough for the issue to float up to the decision-makers and come back down, I had an answer.

To my amazement, the copywriters would be allowed to have actual offices. With floor-to-ceiling walls.

But the doorways, they decreed, would be doorless.

Epilogue…

About five years later, in another wave of modernization, the copywriters were swept out of their walled-but-doorless offices and into a sea of standard cubicles, joining the rest of the rabble.

Cube-6

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I worked in the advertising business for many years, so I’m well acquainted with the tendency of corporate executives to meddle in ad campaigns.

When it comes to advertising and sales promotion, management is especially prone to overruling the staff — creating the themes, coming up with the slogans, writing the copy.

It’s easy to see why. Compared to the mundane crap the executives usually face, advertising work is SO much more fun.

And, as a rule, nobody in their employ has the fortitude to tell them the truth — that their ideas are almost always amateurish and lame.

Some years ago, when I worked at Lithonia Lighting, one of the senior vice presidents (we had lots of them) had a eureka moment and proudly announced to us a new company slogan that he, himself, personally had created. It was this:

Lithonia Lighting… A Place Where People Count.

He was so, so proud.

At that time, Lithonia Lighting already had two official slogans, both absolutely sacrosanct and untouchable: “Best Value in Lighting” and “Easy to Do Business With.” Those slogans dated back to the early years of the company and were as revered as Mother Teresa.

The “People Count” slogan certainly wasn’t intended to replace either one. No way. It was merely a tactical thing — something to hang an ad campaign on because, well, we were overdue for some kind of promotional paroxysm.

The SVP instructed us to go forth and promote the slogan throughout the corporation with great vigor. Which we did.

Now, fundamentally, A Place Where People Count is a perfectly nice sentiment. But as I explained to my boss, it had a fatal flaw.

“It will be ridiculed,” I told him. “People will begin literally to count — ‘one, two, three.’ The whole idea will be reduced to a joke.”

Maybe my boss didn’t believe me. Maybe he feared retribution from the SVP. Maybe he wanted the campaign to fail. For whatever reason, he wouldn’t take the matter upstairs.

So we went ahead with the campaign. Promotional items bearing the slogan appeared. It was promoted aggressively throughout the company.

Within days, the inevitable happened.

An employee would pass an acquaintance in the hall. After they exchanged greetings, one might say, in a deadpan manner, “One, two, three…”

To which his friend might reply, equally straight-faced, “38, 39, 40…”

And it quickly spread. Soon, similar exchanges were taking place in company offices as far away as California and Indiana.

The counting phenomenon lasted for a few weeks and eventually faded. After a time, the slogan and the campaign likewise died.

My guess is that upper management, and the senior vice president in particular, never knew that the mockery had taken place.

To the rank and file, however, it was a welcome and amusing distraction.

God knows, the poor wretches deserved it.

A Lithonia Lighting ad from 2010 that sticks to the basics.

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Leaving Fort Lauderdale

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced you to one of my former bosses, Harry (not his real name), and wrote about his epic clash with Art (not his real name), a soon-to-be-fired employee.

Like most people, I worked for some competent, fair-minded people over the years. At other times, I suffered under villains and fools.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but for the most part, I remember the fair and competent bosses as being relatively nice folks. Often, the inept ones were self-serving jerks — unpleasant types you would avoid if you had a choice.

About a year after the eyeball-to-eyeball showdown between Harry and Art, Harry announced his resignation as our Executive Vice President. As Chamber of Commerce executives are wont to do, he had quietly negotiated a job with a larger Chamber in a larger city that paid a larger salary.

Chances are, the fellow he replaced in the larger city had done the same.

Which left our little Chamber with an EVP vacancy. The Board of Directors promptly began a search.

A couple of the board members thought I might be a good choice. I was Manager of Communications, Public Affairs, and Governmental Affairs. I was a good worker, had several years of experience, and understood the local business and political pecking order.

But I wasn’t right for the job, and I knew it. I’m wired to write a speech, not deliver one. I worked best as a staff man.

In the end, the board brought in fresh blood, someone from a smaller Chamber in another state who was looking to advance.

The new fellow, Ken (not his real name) was an odd duck. He was quiet, businesslike, and humorless, but had a practiced air of authority.

Frankly, he never really accomplished much, but it didn’t matter. New EVPs always have a year or two of grace before the Board of Directors holds them accountable to any degree.

As Ken’s reign got underway, things were routine enough. He hired a new Membership Sales person to replace the legendary Art, and the rest of us carried on with our duties.

For the record, I did a solid job for the Chamber. I got things done and got along well with the people I worked with, members and otherwise.

The first time Ken called me in for a performance review, he was quite complimentary. He criticized exactly nothing about the work I was doing. Keep up the good work and all that.

Several months later, Ken announced another new hire. He was bringing in a fellow who worked for him at his previous job, a young man he knew to be exceptionally skilled and valuable in many capacities.

After considerable thought, he said, he decided that the new guy would be Manager of Governmental Affairs.

What?

Think of it as relieving some of your heavy burden, Ken told me. This will allow you to devote more time to Communications and Public Affairs.

Hmmm…

Let me put it this way: I pride myself on having a finely-tuned BS detector. It is a skill I have possessed since childhood, and I trust it unreservedly.

The hiring of Ken’s buddy to take over a piece of my job caused my internal alarm to clang like a fire bell.

The new fellow was Steve (not his real name). Like Ken, he was single. He was young and eager and outgoing and made friends easily.

Even though I was not pleased with the new situation and unquestionably smelled a rat, I welcomed Steve and assisted him the best I could.

A few months passed. It was clear that Ken and Steve were mediocre talents at best. It was clear, as well, that they were very fond of each other. Very fond.

That fact probably was not evident to anyone except the staff. But to us, it was crystal clear.

If this had taken place in 2010, Ken and Steve no doubt would be open about their relationship and living together. But this was 1979. If they came out, they would lose their jobs immediately.

Their sexual orientation didn’t color my opinion of them. I disliked and distrusted them for other reasons.

Before long, my internal alarm proved to be correct.

One day, Ken sent me a memo setting aside a time for the two of us to talk. That alone was suspicious. Something was up.

At the appointed time, I went to his office. He closed the door, took the seat, and clasped his hands on the desk.

Slowly and deliberately, he stated his conclusion that my job performance was not up to the standards that he demanded.

His argument was long on hyperbole and short on evidence. The truth was, my job performance was quite outstanding. He knew it, and I knew it.

And I told him so.

“This is unbelievable,” I said. “You can’t be serious. I do a damn fine job here. Everybody knows that. You know it, too.”

“In spite of your inadequate performance, I have decided not to terminate you immediately,” he said calmly. “But I suggest that you explore your options elsewhere.”

“That’s simply a lie,” I shot back. “You want me out to make room for your young buddy Steve.”

Ken said nothing. He sat looking at me, expressionless.

“Why didn’t you push me out a year ago?” I said. “Why that elaborate crap of dividing my job? Are you making this up as you go along?”

“I have no objection if you use Chamber time to find something else,” he said. “But try to make your arrangements in, say, the next two months.”

“I’m curious,” I said. “Were you aware that I was considered for your job — not all that seriously, but considered? Did you know it, or is this simply a case of taking care of your boy?”

“I think two months is very generous,” he replied without a hint of emotion.

So ended my Chamber of Commerce career. There was no point in fighting it or whining to the Board of Directors. Ken was in charge, and he would get his way.

Naturally, I wanted to deck the guy. I wanted to quit with my head held high, as the legendary Art had done. But I was married with two kids. Having a job would be a huge advantage while I shopped for a new one.

As a reward for knuckling under, Ken gave me a highly positive letter of recommendation. Which said quite a bit about his integrity.

Years earlier, before we moved to Fort Lauderdale, I had worked in Atlanta in the Governor’s Office. My boss at the time, the Chief of Staff, was Zell Miller. Zell went on to become a fairly decent Governor and later a mentally unhinged Senator.

Back then, Zell was Lieutenant Governor. I wrote him to see if a prodigal son like me could return to Georgia state government.

Of course you can, Zell assured me. Get your family moved back to Georgia, and I’ll find a position for you — possibly in Tourism, or Recreation, or maybe Economic Development. Not a problem!

I didn’t entirely believe him, of course. But we were ready to leave South Florida anyway, and we proceeded to made our arrangements. We sold the house and transported ourselves back to the Atlanta area. From temporary quarters in Mom and Dad’s basement, we began looking for a house.

As I expected, Zell’s assurances proved to be hot air. He dumped my case onto an underling, who soon announced that they had nothing for me. Sorry.

Before long, we found a terrific house. Although I was unemployed at the time, we had a fair amount of savings, and I seemed honest, so the bank gave us a mortgage.

Honest — they really did.

Soon after we moved into the house, I found work. I was hired by a large manufacturer, Lithonia Lighting in Conyers, as a copywriter in the Advertising Department. I worked there very happily for the next 25 years.

I have no idea what became of Ken and Steve after we left South Florida. I hope they developed migraine headaches, or underwent root canals, or got caught cheating on each other.

But later, I heard a satisfying report about my previous boss Harry.

In the early 1980s, a friend from South Florida wrote me that Harry had been fired from the job he had taken as Chamber EVP in that other Florida city.

My friend reported that the Chamber of Commerce building there is several stories high, and on top is a garden area.

One afternoon, several board members were taking in the view from the garden, when one of them noticed movement, some kind of activity, in a car parked on the secluded street below.

Upon closer observation, they saw that it was Harry and one of his female employees, engaging in an act of carnal knowledge.

Harry was summarily dismissed from his position and escorted from the premises.

It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy.

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It began as a routine staff meeting.

For most of the 1970s, my family and I lived in South Florida, near Fort Lauderdale, one of the jewels of the Gold Coast.

In our case, the jewel was a rhinestone. We couldn’t afford to live in Fort Lauderdale proper, or anywhere near the ocean. The only house we could afford was in the suburb of Sunrise, 15 miles inland. I could see the Everglades from my house.

Not really, but alligators sometimes emerged from the canals at night.

At first, I worked as a copywriter in a small ad agency. But the economy in South Florida was shaky in those days, and the agency eventually went under.

So I took a job at a Chamber of Commerce in the area. I was Manager of Communications, Public Affairs, and Government Affairs. Among the various hats I wore: PR person, press liaison, speechwriter, printing and publications specialist, meeting scheduler, fly on the wall at City Council meetings — you get the picture.

The Chamber staff was small. It consisted of the boss; a general manager/admin guy; a couple of clerks; me; and one fellow who sold Chamber memberships.

Memberships are the lifeblood of a Chamber of Commerce. Many local businesses join the Chamber because of the social and business connections, but some do their best to avoid it. They see the annual dues as a pointless waste of their money.

Thus, the Chamber employs one or more aggressive Membership Sales people whose job is to go out every day to coax, cajole, hound, and embarrass the recalcitrant businesses into coughing up the dough.

Membership Sales people are clever, smooth, persistent, and highly skilled. They have to be.

Our Membership Sales guy, Art (not his real name), was tall, thin, and somewhere in his 50s. A seasoned pro, he had been with us just six months. The boss hired him because memberships were not coming in at an acceptable rate, and he needed a closer. Art came highly recommended.

The boss, Harry (not his real name), was in his mid-30s and a rising star in the insular CofC business. He was a brash, aggressive, take-charge person — some would say an obnoxious jerk. Like Jackie Gleason, he was quite graceful for a portly man.

From the beginning, Harry and Art disliked each other intensely. No one told us that. We simply observed it to be the case.

Art considered Harry to be a opportunistic blowhard and would not treat him with the proper deference. Harry knew what Art thought of him, and his resentment was palpable.

But with Art on the job, membership sales were booming. Harry could only bite his tongue and fume.

But back to the staff meeting.

Our little group filed into the conference room, minus one clerk who remained at the front desk to answer the phones and greet tourists. We settled in for the usual blah blah blah.

Bob, the General Manager, Harry’s toady, began with the financial report. He announced that for the first time in many weeks, income from membership sales was down.

Harry promptly zeroed in on Art. “You weren’t on vacation last week, were you?” he inquired cheerily.

“Nobody can set records every week,” Art replied.

Leaning back casually in his chair, Harry continued to jab and probe. Art remained calm, but you could sense the anger rising.

“What I need is to have two sales people out there,” said Harry finally, “But I can’t afford it. Not enough income from membership sales.”

Art looked up at Harry for the first time. “You would be amazed at the stories I hear out there,” he said. “The smaller businesses, they consider this place a waste of money. They compare the costs to the benefits, and they aren’t impressed.”

Harry was furious. His eyes were aflame. His jaws were clenched. I thought he was going to have a stoke.

“A lot of people don’t like what they see,” Art continued. “That makes it a very hard sell.”

So began a drama worthy of a David Mamet play.

As the rest of us looked on, the back-and-forth between Harry and Art rapidly escalated, ending inevitably in — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Harry accused Art of making lame excuses.

Art accused Harry of poor leadership.

Harry accused Art of malingering.

Art accused Harry of incompetence.

Harry spat the first profanity.

Art replied in kind.

Soon, both were on their feet, facing each other across the conference table.

“ — the most worthless [expletive] [expletive] who ever came through the [expletive] door –”

“– more [expletive] talent in my [expletive] little finger than –”

Eventually, harsh words no longer sufficed. Harry slammed the conference table with his fist.

“I want you out of here NOW, you sorry [expletive]!!” he bellowed.

Art angrily slammed his briefcase shut. “You think you can fire me, fat man?” he spat. “Too late! I’ve already quit!”

He turned to Bob. “When you open the doors in the morning, I want my [expletive] check waiting,” he said menacingly. “And believe me, I know what you owe me to the exact [expletive] penny!”

“No problem,” said Bob.

Without a further word to anyone, Art turned and stormed out of the conference room.

I thought Harry might calm down at that point, but he didn’t. He pointed a quivering finger at Bob.

“Get on the phone, right now!” he shouted. His face was beet red, his collar wet with  sweat. “I want the [expletive] locks changed TODAY! ALL OF THEM!”

Bob calmly stood up and left the room.

“That no-good [expletive] [expletive] [expletive],” Harry said to no one in particular. “A guy like that will come back at night to see what he can steal!” He paced back and forth, wringing his hands, breathing heavily.

The clerk and I looked at each other. We weren’t sure whether it was safe to leave.

“Bob, wait!“ Harry suddenly shouted. “Don’t call A&H about the locks! Give the business to that new place, uh… [expletive] –you know the one!”

Bob shouted something inaudible. “What?“ Harry yelled back on his way out the door. The clerk and I were not far behind.

The next morning, Art arrived early as promised, long before Harry showed up for work. Art collected his paycheck from Bob and said his goodbyes to me and the two clerks.

“I really admire you for what you did,” I told him. “I couldn’t have done it.”

“Well, I lost control, and now I’m out of a job,” he said. “The little bastard won.”

“No, you won,” said one of the clerks.

“You should be proud,” I said. “You went out in a blaze of glory. You‘ll be a legend around here for years to come.”

And he was.

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