Saturday, June 29, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 13 (DRAFT)

That night over dinner I told Jenny about what had happened in the office. Her reaction surprised me.

“You should start looking for a new job.”

“What?” I asked. We were sitting across from each other at the dining room table, Jacob long since excused and playing up in his room, and the dirty plates from a hastily-devoured meal scattered about.

“You don’t have to quit tomorrow or anything,” Jenny said, pushed back from the table and swirling the last sip of milk around in her glass. She was about five months pregnant with our second child then, and we had long since switched to drinking milk out of our wine glasses. “But that place is poison. You should start looking for something new.”

It took my mind a moment to process what she was saying. I had been at the company for twelve years, hired right out of college. I had been promoted several times, most recently to Deputy Account Executive for the company’s largest client. In their way, they had been good to me, and raises had come each year and with each promotion.

“Do you really think it’s time for that?” I asked.

Jenny nodded. “I do. Look at what they did today. This isn’t the first time they’ve put the needs of the company ahead of those of their people.”

“But I don’t feel threatened at all. And with this new position it’s almost as if I’ve entered a kind of inner circle. I think this new assignment Mary’s given me is a really big deal. She’s put me in charge of redesigning the hiring process for the entire company.”

Jenny had been emptying her glass and now she hastily swallowed so she could interject. “Alan, don’t get me started on Mary Walton,” she said, her voice husky from the milk still coating her throat. “You know how I feel about her.”

I certainly did. Jenny and Mary only saw each other twice a year—at the company’s summer picnic and again at its Christmas party—but in the last couple of years the tension between them seemed almost palpable. It started immediately following Jacob’s birth when Mary had asked Jenny when she was planning on going back to work. Jenny had always been very career-focused, so it was a question she was hearing a lot in those days. But when she told Mary with her usual aplomb that we had decided to give it a go with Jenny staying at home with the baby, Mary had given Jenny such a sour look, I thought someone had slipped a cockroach into her holiday punch.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” I remember Mary saying in her uniquely condescending way.

And I remember Jenny looking back at her blankly, surprised, I know, at the idea that someone would think she would make such a decision without being sure it was the right thing to do. Jenny was sure about everything she did—that’s one of the things that made her Jenny—and she had a hard time keeping the disdain out of her voice when someone questioned her. “Of course,” she had said assuredly. “Alan and I think it’s what’s best for Jacob, and we’re comfortable enough right now that we can make ends meet without my salary.”

If anything, Mary’s look had turned even more sour upon receiving this information. Both of Mary’s kids had gone straight into daycare after they had been born—by scheduled c-section, if you were to believe the office rumors; scheduled, of course, to avoid any conflicts with client meetings—and it was a well known fact that women professionals who decided to stay home after the birth of a child were something less than human in Mary’s eyes. It happened time and again. Whoever it was, no matter how high in esteem Mary might have previously held them, once they made that one unforgivable decision, Mary started giving off this vibe that they were no longer to be spoken of in her presence. And if you ever forced Mary to mention them, she would always be sure to make a snide remark about how incompetent they had been and about how the company was much better off without them.

From that day forward, Mary started treating Jenny exactly the same way. At each Christmas party she would mostly avoid Jenny, looking contemptuously at her from across the room, and at each summer picnic, when it was harder to surround herself exclusively with co-conspirators and sycophants, any words she happened to offer would be as cold as the tubs of catered potato salad.

I looked down at Jenny’s belly, just beginning to peep out between the bottom of her top and the top of her pants. “Okay, forget Mary Walton. What about the new baby?”

Jenny instinctively put a protective hand on her stomach as she placed the wineglass back on the table. “What about her?”

“Well, don’t I need this job to support you and the two kids? We decided you should stay home with Jacob because we didn’t think it made sense for you to keep working just so we could pay for daycare. Doesn’t that same logic hold true for Crazy Horse?”

It was the joke name we were using to refer to the baby until we settled on a real name.

“I said you didn’t have to quit your job tomorrow. We do need your income, but you can start keeping your eyes open, can’t you? Apply only when it seems like a good opportunity. Let them know your current employer doesn’t know you’re looking. They’ll keep it confidential. Come on, Alan. People do this kind of thing every day.”

Jenny was right, I knew she was—both about how people found new positions and about how it was time for me to at least start looking. But something in me still rebelled against the idea. I shook my head.

“I don’t know, honey. With Susan gone things are going to get a lot busier for me. Until we hire her replacement I’m going to have to pick up her workload in addition to mine.”

Jenny looked at me skeptically. “Until who hires her replacement?”

“We,” I said, not sure what Jenny was driving at. “Until we hire her replacement.”

“We as in you and Mary?” Jenny asked. “Do you honestly think that woman is going to involve you in the process this time? You weren’t consulted at all when she hired Susan—even though you had spent three years in the position she was hiring for and would be supervising whoever she brought in to fill your shoes. What’s going to make this time any different?”

“The new project,” I said, somewhat defensively. “I’m going to revise the way the company screens and interviews applicants.”

“And Mary is going to wait until you have that finished before she begins interviewing candidates for Susan’s position?”

It was a good question. Reflecting back on my conversation with Mary, I realized I didn’t have a clear answer to it. But evidently Jenny did.

“No, wait,” Jenny laughed, waving her hands in the air. “That makes even more sense. That’s exactly what she’s going to do. Look at what she’s done. As long as you’re working on this project, she has a reason for not moving forward in hiring a replacement for Susan. And all that time you’ll be doing both your job and Susan’s job for her. Same amount of work getting done, one less set of salary and benefits to pay for. What a bitch.”

I looked at Jenny suspiciously, not wanting to accept her interpretation, but knowing that it at least fit within Mary’s pattern of behavior.

“You’re definitely going to start looking for a new job. I’ll help if I have to, but you’ve got to start thinking about getting out of there.”

I smiled at her. We had been married long enough for me to know that when she spoke with that kind of finality there wasn’t much else I could do. She certainly wasn’t going to change her mind.
“Yes, mum,” I said with mock servility. “Would you like me to do the dishes before drawing m’lady’s bath?”

“Very funny,” Jenny said with a smirk. “No, I’ll clean up here. Go spend some time with your son.”

It was Jenny’s way of letting me know she needed some “away” time. Seeing to Jacob’s needs all day had proven more demanding that either of us had thought. But she wasn’t being selfish. She knew I wanted to spend as much time as I could with Jacob. Too often, it seemed, I would be working late or stuck on the road, and days would go by before he and I had any meaningful contact.

I went upstairs and found him in his room playing with his trains. While Jenny and I had talked he had set up an elaborate track all over his floor. The wooden pieces were normally kept in an enormous plastic tote in the corner of his room, but he had fished most of them out and had assembled them into a maze of switches, bridges and crossings. Part of it even extended under his bed, the trains coming out from under the drape of his bedspread like they were going through a tunnel. I stood in the doorway for a few moments, watching him push long trains of magnetically-connected cars around, and marveling at the exactness that my four-year-old son could sometimes display.

“Hi, buddy,” I said eventually.

“Hi, Daddy,” he replied, not taking his eyes off his work. “Do you want to play trains with me?”

“Okay,” I said, and I got down on the floor with him. “Who’s this?” I asked, pointing to a green-painted engine off on a siding with three cars behind it.

“That’s Percy,” Jacob said.

“Can I be Percy?” I asked.

“Okay. But you have to go through the trainwash first.”

“The what?”

“The trainwash,” Jacob said patiently, pointing to a wooden structure with two blue rubber rollers on either side of the track and a gray-painted wooden cylinder labeled “WATER” on the very top. “All the engines have to be clean before they leave the station.”

Of course they did. It was one of the life lessons they tried to teach the kids on the television show the train engines lived on. A smart engine keeps himself clean, boys and girls. I had watched some of the shows with Jacob, and they were always trying to impart some kind of do-gooder morality—you know, be nice to others, take care of the planet, don’t ask too many questions. It was thinly-veiled indoctrination for pre-schoolers, and its icons were reinforced with every trip down a toy aisle or through a grocery store. These train engines, each with a cheeky human face stuck on its front end, showed up on everything a child may come into contact with—from tennis shoes and underpants to juice boxes and toaster waffles. They were everywhere, and in their insidious ubiquity they tried to convince their acolytes the world was a place where every problem could be solved by just trying a little harder and working together as a team.

“Who do you have over there?” I asked, beginning to push Percy through the rollers in the trainwash.

“I’m Gordon,” Jacob said proudly. “He’s the biggest and strongest engine there is.”

“Oh yeah?” I said. “Is he fast?”

“He’s superfast!”

“Is he faster than Percy?”

“He’s faster than everyone, Daddy.”

“Should we have a race?”

Jacob looked at me excitedly. “A race?”

“Sure,” I said, confidently. “We can build a pair of tracks that the engines can race down. We’ll start them at the top and see which one goes the farthest.”

My suggestion had lit a fire in Jacob’s eyes. “Can we race Thomas, too?”

“Of course,” I said. “Bring them out. We’ll race them all.”

I spent the next twenty minutes trying to construct a race track that would serve our purposes, eventually deciding I had to roll up Jacob’s area rug and build directly on the hardwood floor so the wooden blocks and pieces would be stable enough to create the effect we wanted. At one point Jenny stuck her head in the room—evidently finished with the dishes—and asked what we were doing.

“We’re building a race track, Mommy!” Jacob said, jumping up and down with excitement. “Daddy and me are going to race my engines!”

Jenny looked skeptical. “All right. Just be sure to clean up when you’re done, okay? And put the rug back.”

“Yes, Mommy,” I said.

When we had the track built the races began. Jacob had eight engines, so I put them in qualifying heats and then I sketched a kind of NCAA bracket tournament on the inside cover of one of his coloring books. Jacob was unbelievably excited with every race, jumping for joy and cheering for his favorite engine in each pairing. I quickly learned all of their names and which ones had a special place in his heart. One, in fact, was not an engine at all, but an old-fashioned double-decker bus named Bertie. Jacob thought it was hysterical every time Bertie raced.

“Bertie can’t win!” he would laugh. “He’s not an engine!”

In the end, the championship was between Jacob’s beloved Thomas, and a sneering black engine named Diesel. Superfast Gordon had fallen in the first round.

“Are you ready, Jacob?” I said, trying to build as much drama as I could. “Are you ready for the final race in the ultimate Jacob Larson Train Engine Championship?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!”

“On the right track,” I said, cupping my hand over my mouth to imitate the sound of an announcement coming over a loudspeaker, “painted blue and red and puffing white smoke, the number one really useful engine…Thomas!”

“Yaaaaay!” Jacob shouted, jumping up and down and flapping his hands like a flightless bird. “Yaay, Thomas!”

“And on the left track,” I continued, “painted black and red and reeking of oily fumes, the engine everyone loves to hate…it’s Diesel!”

“Boooo!” cried Jacob. “Not Diesel! Thomas! Go Thomas!”

Diesel, I remembered, was the engine always causing trouble on the TV show, the one the other engines had to clean up after, or help each other out of the messes he created. But the little wooden and plastic toy that bore his likeness had legitimately earned its way into the championship race. He and Thomas both had consistently sailed down the sloping tracks I had built, and had rolled farther across the floor than anyone else. It was truly a battle of titans and I didn’t know who was going to win.

I let the two engines go and they flew down the track, leaping off the end at precisely the same time, and then rolling neck and neck across the floor. Jacob was screaming with excitement, hooting and hollering at Thomas to go, Go, GO!

“And the winner…” I crowed, feeling invincible at having concocted such a captivating activity for Jacob and watching as the two engines came to a stop, one just half a length ahead of the other, “…is Diesel!” I started making sounds like those of a roaring crowd.

“Noooo!” Jacob groaned, all the fun of the past half an hour suddenly evaporating in the heat of his burned expectations. “No, Daddy!” he complained petulantly. “Not Diesel! Thomas! Thomas is the winner!”

“No he’s not, buddy,” I said with a smile, noticing how red his face was and surprised at his angry tone. “Take a look. Diesel went farther. He’s the winner.”

“NOOOO!” Jacob shrieked, the high pitch of his voice piercing painfully into my ears, and then he frantically rushed forward in an attempt to kick the engines, as if needing to destroy the evidence of Thomas’s ignoble defeat. In his mad rush he stumbled over the rolled-up area rug and he fell into the wooden ramps, knocking them over in a clatter of falling blocks and pieces of track, and thumping his forehead hard on the exposed floor. Seeing him go down I lurched forward to try and break his fall but was only able to bring him into my lap after the damage had been done. The caterwauling cries that followed brought Jenny quickly to the door.

“What happened?!” she demanded.

I was focused on Jacob, trying to console him as best I could, but as soon as he saw Jenny he began to fight against me, squirming down halfway onto the floor again, his shirt bunching up near his red face and exposing his belly.

“Alan, what happened?!” Jenny said again, her voice loud and powerful.

“He fell!” I shouted at her, trying to make myself heard over Jacob’s cries.

“Fell?” she said. “Fell how?”

I couldn’t make any sense out of her question. Not with a bellowing and writhing four-year old in my lap busily coating my shirt sleeves with tears and snot. “What do you mean, fell how? He fell! He tripped over the damn rug!”

Jenny gave me an exasperated look and then rushed forward to take Jacob away. He went gratefully into her arms and she stood there rocking with him, his growing toddler legs dangling awkwardly down as she both shushed him and tried to get a better look at his face.

“He’s bruised!” she gasped upon seeing the red splotch on his forehead. “Did he hit his head?”

I was still sitting on the floor amidst all the rubble of scattered train tracks, trying to wrap my brain around what had just happened. We had been having so much fun, my son and I, and then, it seemed, a tornado had come out of nowhere and torn the roof off our house. Was there anything I could have done to prevent it? At the time I didn’t think so, and it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I’ve come to realize that I could have pretended Thomas had won.

“Alan!” she shouted at me. “Did Jacob hit his head?”

“I don’t fucking know!” I shouted back. “I think so.”

It was the worst thing I could have said. Head injuries were serious business in Jenny’s mother book. And I had seen Jacob bang his forehead against the hardwood floor with my own eyes, but in my distracted state I had said I didn’t know, and that was tantamount to admitting I had been an inattentive father. Jenny looked at me with a kind of horror and then took our son from the room, Jacob wailing and crying the entire time.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, June 24, 2019

Customer Service Not Worth Emulating

A bit of a rant this week.

On my most recent business trip, a staff member of mine rented a car for us. She is not a "preferred" member of the rental car company she worked with, so she had to stand in line and wait to be served.

It was awful. There was only one agent working the desk and I counted nine people in front of my staff member. I timed how long the first person took at the counter. Eleven minutes. I timed the second. Twelve minutes. At that rate we were looking at an hour and a half wait.

Then a second agent appeared and began helping the next person in line. All right, I thought. Now we're down to forty-five minutes. I can handle that.

Except that after the first agent finished with the customer he had been helping when the second agent appeared, he announced he was going on his lunch break and left. There were still five people in line in front of my staff member and three more that had queued up behind her.

At that point, I pulled out my smartphone and rented a car from the same company on their mobile app. As a "preferred" member, I was able to skip the remaining line and head directly out to the lot. After a quick stop at the "preferred" desk, my staff member and I were in a car and heading to our destination, no questions asked.

Now, this is not the first time I've experienced the kabuki theater that is the rental car counter. Before becoming a "preferred" member I had stood in that interminable line myself, and am still occasionally subject to it when traveling with someone else.

One big question I have is why. Why, in this day and age, is the process of renting a car anything other than the "preferred" experience? "Preferred" or not, we all make the reservation online, we all choose our options, we all enter our drivers license and credit card information. Why is any other step necessary other than showing your license and proving you are who you say you are?

But an even bigger question I have is how these companies stay in business if this is their model of customer service. Imagine an association conference in which the registrant shows up after having registered and paid online, and then is forced to stand in line where the association takes ten minutes with each and every person ahead of them to both verify their information and to try to upsell them on a variety of products and protections they have already decided they don't need or want.

How long would that registrant stay a member of that association? How long would that association be in business?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, June 22, 2019

X Matrix by Darrell Casey

There’s a long subtitle here: “Strategy Deployment and Execution Process for Breakthrough Business Performance.” The book was given to be by the Board chair of the association I work for and, although clearly written for a manufacturing environment, there are some transferable ideas that could benefit those non-profit organizations.

X Matrix is the name of the system the author describes in what is obviously a self-published and, unfortunately, typo-riddled treatise. He calls it that because the basic framework is a matrix with a big X in the middle. It’s going to be too hard to describe, so here’s the essential picture:

See the big X in the middle?

You’re supposed to start at the bottom with your Breakthrough Objectives. In the manufacturing world, that might be something like “Reduce reject parts per million by 90% in 3 years.” In my association’s space, the Breakthrough Objectives translate most easily to the Idealized States of our Success Metrics. Let’s use the one associated with our own manufacturer members as our example. Given our analysis of the marketplace, there are 250 companies that are eligible for manufacturer memberships in our association, and who would find value in the member benefits we offer. At the end of our last fiscal year, we had 193. So, “Grow to 250 manufacturer members in 10 years” would be our Breakthrough Objective. That’s what Casey would call the “WHAT?”

Next comes the “HOW FAR?” These are the Annual Improvement Objectives. You know what your Breakthrough Objective is, but achieving that is supposed to take you three to five years (or in my case, ten). How much of that are you going to get done this year? In the manufacturing world, that might be something like “Reduce reject parts per million by 45%.” In my association’s space, the Annual Improvement Objectives translate most easily to the Goals that we set for each Success Metric. To continue our example, we’ve set as this year’s goal growing from 193 to 200 manufacturer members in the association. So we would write “Grow to 200 manufacturer members” on one of these lines and associate it with the Breakthrough Objective by putting an X in the box that aligns with both of these lines.

Next comes the “HOW?” These are the Annual Improvement Priorities. You know how far you want to get this year, but how are you going to do that? Which key processes are you going to focus your attention on so that you can actually reach your Annual Objective? In the manufacturing world, that might be things like “Improve quality of raw materials,” or “Improve machining processes,” or “Introduce quality checks earlier in manufacturing process.” In my association’s space, the Annual Improvement Priorities translate most easily to the Program Objectives that we’ve aligned with each Goal. Same logic. At the programmatic level of our association, what are we going to work on so that our Goal can be reached? To continue our example, we can write things like...

Ambassador Program: Connect targeted prospects to membership ambassadors at conferences and convert them as new members.

Member Retention: Identify members at-risk for non-renewal, organize and conduct a program of contacts encouraging engagement in association activities and programs, and highlight the benefits of maintaining membership.

Non-Renewal Conversion: Convert non-renewing members to membership within this fiscal year.

Trial Membership Program: Offer targeted prospects limited access to association market information and statistics and/or free or discounted access to selected association events, and convert them as new members.

...on these lines (all of which I abbreviated above), again connecting them to the right Annual Improvement Objective by putting Xs in the right boxes.

Next comes the “HOW MUCH AND WHEN?” These are Targets to Improve. We know what our Annual Improvement Priorities are, but how are we going to execute them and measure their success? In the manufacturing world, if the Annual Improvement Priority is to “Introduce quality checks earlier in manufacturing process,” then the Targets to Improve might be to “Hire more quality managers,” or “Review new quality logs in weekly meetings,” or “Train machine operators in basic quality assurance techniques.” In my association’s space, the Targets to Improve translate most easily to the Action Plan steps that we create for each Program Objective. They are the concrete steps that we will take to ensure that the Program Objective is achieved. To continue our example, focusing solely on our Ambassador Program, we can write things like “Identify prospects,” “Assign prospects to Board members,” and “Organize networking event at conference” on the these lines, and connect them to the “Ambassador Program” by putting Xs in the right boxes.

Still with me? Because we’re almost done. The last step is “WHO?” as in Resource Deployment. You’re supposed to fill in people’s names on the lines below the Targets to Improve and connect them to the Annual Improvement Objectives with more Xs in the right boxes. In my association example, I can assign each Objective to Alan, Bethany, Charles, and Dana.

And that’s it. That’s the system. A whole strategic and operational plan in one glance. It works great in my oversimplified example, where we’re dealing with only one Breakthrough Objective and only one Annual Improvement Objective. Start multiplying those items (as you do in any real organization) and the chart begins to grow more and more complex, until its utility has been replaced with the significant effort it takes to maintain and follow it.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, June 17, 2019

Two Kinds of Association Executives

There are two kinds of association executives. Those that come from the industry their association represents, and those that come from the field of association management.

I am the latter.

In my experience, executives that come from the industry their association represents generally know what to do, but have to learn how to do it. And executives that come from the field of association management, generally know how to do things, but have to learn what to do.

That's one way of looking at things. Here's another.

There are two kinds of association executives. Those that are Executive Directors, and those that are CEOs.

I have been both.

In my experience, one of the core jobs of the Executive Director is to frame a discussion so that the Board can decide the association's strategy, and then execute that strategy. And one of the core jobs of the CEO is to frame a discussion so that the Board can help the CEO decide the association's strategy, and then execute that strategy.

Two different kinds of two kinds of association executives. What kind are you?

What kind do you want to be?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, June 15, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 12 (DRAFT)

Looking back on those meetings with Amy and Caroline, I sometimes still ask myself why I was even there. Personnel matters like that were almost always handled by Don and Mary exclusively, who held the power to hire and fire in that company very close to their vests. They had fired people before, even people who reported directly to me, and I had never been asked to sit in on a termination meeting. In some cases, I hadn’t even been informed beforehand. In the course of the meetings that day, I was not asked to say anything, I was not asked to do anything, I was not even acknowledged as being present.

I felt a little like the subject of some kind of psychological experiment—you know, like the kind you hear about, where the researchers trick a bunch of self-absorbed college kids into thinking they’re helping with some vital research project, but in fact it’s the students and their reactions that are the focus of the study.

I read about one once where the college kids were instructed to administer electrical shocks to a supposed test taker hooked up to electrodes in another room—one shock of increasing intensity for every question they got wrong. It was all fake. No one was really getting shocked in the other room, but they wanted to see how far tomorrow’s leaders would go before speaking up and bucking the authority embodied in the researchers that had recruited them. You might’ve heard about this one, too. As long as there was some asshole with a lab coat and a clipboard standing over them, the cream of the next intellectual generation just kept doing what they were told and shocking the idiot test taker in the other room, even after the co-conspirator pretending to be shocked started crying and begging them to stop.

There were times when working at that company felt like you were participating in one of those dishonest research studies, and this was clearly one of those times. It bothered me, and I needed some time to think about it. So I decided to stay in my office as much as I could for the rest of the day, even eating my lunch at my desk. But people kept finding me—supervisors and junior staffers, some of whom were my direct reports but many of whom weren’t. They all came slinking in quietly, as if not wanting to disturb me, but wanting to know what had happened, and more insistently, what was going to happen next.

I didn’t have any concrete answers for them, and since then I’ve learned that when people are let go, that’s what everyone who stays behind needs. They need to be reassured that the bleeding has stopped and that no more cuts are going to be made. Those staffers came to me because I had been in the meetings, and because I was far more approachable than either Mary or Don would have been, and they all had the same look on their faces and the same tone in their voices.

Ha, ha, they would seem to giggle nervously, tough luck for poor Amy Crawford getting tossed out on her ass, eh, but—but I’m okay, right?

I didn’t know what to tell them. I didn’t think there was going to be any more fallout from the situation with Wes, but I felt turned around and wasn’t completely sure, and worse yet, I was uncertain how much of what had happened I should share with them. There are always legal implications in these situations—things you’re allowed to say and things you’d better keep to yourself. And neither Mary nor Don had given me any indication of where those lines were to be drawn. So I shrugged my shoulders a lot, and responded with a bunch of empty platitudes, and at the end of a frustrating and wholly unproductive day, I decided to go and see Mary.

I remember approaching Ruthie cautiously, not sure how she was going to react to my request.

“Hey, Alan,” she said with what seemed like genuine concern in her voice. “How are you holding up?”

“Okay,” I said stupidly. “Is Mary around?”

“She’s in a meeting with Don, but should be back soon. Do you need to talk with her?”

“Yeah,” I said, looking around as if expecting to see a waiting room chair to sit in.

“Why don’t you go on in?” Ruthie offered. “I’ll walk down and let her know you’re here.”

“What? Really?”

Ruthie stood up. “Sure,” she said. “You could probably use a few minutes of reflection time. Nobody’s going to bother you in there.”

Ruthie was right, as Ruthie usually was. I was surprised that there was no bluster in her voice, no calculation or intrigue, but I took her at her word. Whatever she thought about how Susan and I had approached her that morning, she wasn’t holding any grudge, and she was offering me a small measure of comfort after a dark and trying day.

Upon walking into Mary’s office I was again struck by how large it was, but also by how neat and immaculate she kept it. Right inside her door was a kind of exhibit case—a glass-enclosed bookshelf on which dozens of plaques and awards were displayed. Mary was especially proud of these honors, but only a handful were ones she had earned herself. Most were accolades given to the non-profit organizations we managed, and which Mary had simply accepted on their behalf. That always felt a bit like cheating to me—displaying awards recognizing the work of others—but Mary seemed to revel in their acquisition. I saw the one the Communications Department had won for the redesign of one of our newsletters, and it reminded me how Mary, in congratulating the team on a job well done, had commented that she already had a space picked out for it in her display case, and about how much she was looking forward to showing to Eleanor the next time she visited our offices.

I knew the after-hours cleaning people had explicit instructions to keep Mary’s trinkets dust-free and sparkling, and as I stood there looking at them in all their dazzling brilliance, I suddenly realized what Mary’s office was for, and why it was so different from the rest of our space.

I turned around and let my eyes sweep over the whole of the room. The window walls and the city beyond provided an upscale architectural backdrop for the scattered groupings of modern furniture. I looked at the original artwork hanging on the walls, knowing they weren’t anything Mary had had a hand in. Trust me. I’ve been to Mary’s house, where Thomas Kinkade is clearly revered as the pinnacle of artistic achievement. The artwork in her office was daring, as far as corporate art went, but it wasn’t Mary’s style at all. Nothing in the office really was. She looked out of place in her office, just like she looked out of place in her rented her business suits, because nothing in the office was for her. It wasn’t a place where she was expected to get any work done and it wasn’t a place where she could feel at home.

Funny thing about Mary’s office. When Mary was around people tended to avoid it as much as they could, but when Mary was on the road you’d find them inventing excuses to walk by and try to get a peek inside. At these times Ruthie usually kept jealous guard over the space, keeping its lights dimmed and preventing anyone from intruding, treating it like that room in your grandparents’ house that was used only rarely for entertaining guests from outside the family. And that’s what Mary’s office was. The out-of-town guests were the VIPs from the client organizations, who would come by several times a year for closed door meetings with Mary to talk strategy and plot intrigue. The apartment in the sky with its original artwork and its shining treasures was meant to impress them—not us, and not even her. By comparison, Mary and all of us who worked for her were just the unruly children who could not be trusted to keep our feet off the furniture.

With these thoughts in my head I walked over and stood in the very corner of Mary’s two window walls, planting my fists on my hips and reveling in the fantasy that I was king of all I surveyed. Although I had never really been afforded such an opportunity before, I found the sights of the city from Mary’s office achingly familiar. The park across the way where street musicians performed and business people sat at picnic tables to eat their lunches and play hooky. The ancient cathedral with its imposing clock tower and patina-ridden cross, dozens of pigeons nesting in its crevices and nodding their heads like penitent sinners as they walked the length of the roofline. The cluster of blocky bank buildings that seemed to creep closer each year, offering an increasingly voyeuristic view of the small and silent figures that moved about within. And the shimmering water on the lake and the slowly moving sailboats that went in and out of the harbor as if time itself had ceased. I had seen all of these things before, but from Mary’s office they seemed to take on a different meaning. Gazing out on all that activity I saw for just a moment or two that there actually was more to life than what was waiting for me in my windowless cell.

“Hello, Alan.”

It was Mary. She had entered the office and by the time I turned around she was already halfway to her desk and moving quickly.

“Ruthie said you wanted to see me. You’ll have to make it quick. I don’t have much time.”

I pulled myself away from the window and came over to stand behind one of her visitor chairs. Without looking at me, Mary dropped her leather-bound organizer on her desk and sat down in her chair. She pulled open one of the desk drawers and took out a small stack of business cards. Combining them with a few stray ones tucked into the front pocket of her planner, she began counting them out onto the desk, dealing them down one by one like she meant to play a game of Solitaire. I kept silent, letting her finish, knowing that she would not want to be interrupted while counting. When she was done, she looked up at me impatiently.

I thought I was ready. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened today.”

“Lots of things happened today,” Mary said quickly. “Which ones are you referring to?”

“Amy getting fired,” I said bluntly. “And Susan resigning.”

“Uh huh,” Mary said, her eyes falling back down to her planner, while her hands stuffed the little pile of counted cards into the front pocket and placed the remainder back into the drawer. “What about them?”

“Well,” I said evasively, realizing that I wasn’t ready for this at all. “How do you feel about them no longer being here.”

It was a dumb question, and Mary didn’t need more than a second to compose her response. “I feel fine,” she said, swinging around in her chair to face the monitor on her desk’s side return and reaching for her mouse. “Amy’s days have been numbered for a while and, all things considered, it’s probably better for everyone that Susan decided to leave.”

I watched her as she starting clicking away with her mouse, her eyes quickly passing over a day’s worth of collected email, deleting roughly every third one with a practiced eye.

“Why?” she said somewhat absently. “How do you feel about it?”

I held my breath. “I feel bad. Especially about Susan. I think she could have made some significant contributions around here.”

Mary deliberately set her mouse aside and turned to face me. “Alan, sit down.”

I did as instructed, sinking into the uncomfortable chair Mary had provided for all visitors.

“What’s this all about?” she asked.

I decided to go for broke. “I don’t know, Mary. It just feels wrong. I thought Susan was the kind of person we wanted to have in this organization. And it feels like she was pushed out.”

Mary shook her head. “I wouldn’t say that we pushed Susan out, but she clearly didn’t mesh with our culture.”

“Then how’d she get hired in the first place?”


The question just sort of popped out of my mouth, but Mary’s reaction told me I was on to something, that I might have just stumbled onto the thing that could make some headway. “Then how’d she get hired?” I rambled on. “I mean, don’t take it the wrong way, but don’t we screen candidates for cultural fit before bringing them into the organization?”

It was too much. I could tell by the fire in Mary’s eyes. The only thing that saved me was that I had used we instead of you. If I’d had the audacity to say Don’t you screen candidates? Mary would have almost certainly seen it as a criticism, as an attack, as a threat to her authority.

“I mean,” I said, desperately trying to keep myself in the frying pan, “if we don’t have something like it already, maybe we need some kind of process to help identify individuals with the traits that will best translate into success in our environment. Something that could identify people with the wrong traits and ferret them out of our hiring process.”

It was glib. Almost too glib. I was just thinking on my feet, really just stringing together a bunch of buzzwords into something that sounded halfway rational, but Mary seemed to consider it for a moment.

“Good idea,” she said finally. “You’re in charge. Pull the department heads together and come up with a draft for my review.”

Mary turned back to her computer and resumed the destruction of her email. I didn’t get up to leave right away, at once relieved that I had lived to fight another day, but apprehensive of this new and unknown challenge that had just been put in my path. My eyes wandered to the credenza behind Mary’s desk, and to the framed photo of her and her family that sat there for all us visitors to see. One would think that of all the prizes to be found in her office, this simple portrait would be the one item that was uniquely Mary, that was closest to her true but unfathomable heart. It was a tight shot of four blonde-haired people, all of them with the same pained smiles on their pinched faces, looking for all the world like a group of magnets held artificially together and ready to fly apart as soon as the camera flashed and their natural law of repulsion could again take hold. Even it looked staged to me, almost like one of those paper photos that come with the tasteful frames you buy in the executive section of the office supply store.

“Was there something else?” Mary asked, her finger still clicking away on her mouse.

“No,” I said, rising to my feet and almost rushing from the room.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, June 10, 2019

Is Your Content Generalizable?

I attend a fair number of education programs and, as a result, listen to a fair number of speakers and presentations. Sometimes, the most rewarding kind of speaker is someone from outside my industry, speaking on how they address and solve challenges in their industry. I can often find nuggets of wisdom or new ways of approaching my own challenges by listening to these kind of speakers. Innovation frequently comes, after all, straight out of these attempts at cross-fertilization.

To make this kind of thing work, however, it is important for both the speaker and the participant to understand which parts of the presentation are generalizable and which are not.

Let's say you're listening to a presentation from a speaker outside your industry. She's talking about a common problem -- something facing organizations of all types in all industries -- and she's presenting a case study of her own business. When faced with X, my company does Y.

You recognize X as the common problem that it is, but you also realize that Y won't work in your organization or perhaps in your industry. It relies on a resource or a tactic that you don't have access to. Let's call that resource or tactic Z. So you ask the presenter a question. Let's assume you don't have access to Z, and therefore can't use Y as a solution to X. What do you do then?

You're essentially looking for the speaker the generalize her strategy. To step up and out of the specifics of her own situation, and help you tackle the challenge you actually face from a fresh perspective.

In my experience, some speakers can do this and some can't. Some will accept the challenge you've given them and start brainstorming with you. Don't have Z? Hmmm. Then you can't do Y. In that situation, I would probably do A, or maybe B. In this situation, A and B are the nuggets of gold you're looking for, potentially new ways of tackling difficult problems in your industry.

But some will retrench on Y. They can't generalize. They are so myopically focused on their own situation and the solutions they've created that they'll simply reject, perhaps unconsciously, the premise of your question. They'll start talking about Y again. Even though you've told them Y is impractical in your space, it's so practical in theirs that they won't be able to abandon it.

Whenever this happens, I usually find myself asking if the speaker in question really understands her own content, or the audience she is speaking to. Her purpose in speaking, after all, is not to just relay information, but to teach me something new.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, June 8, 2019

Exception to the Rule by Peter Rea, James K. Stoller, and Alan Kolp

This one was sort of assigned reading. The association I work for is working to define the culture of its Board of Directors, and the Board chair recommended that everyone read this book. I think he both likes its conclusions and wanted to invite one of its authors to come speak to us.

To be honest, I had a difficult time with it.

Its thesis, if I understand it right, is that the best culture is one based on virtue, and specifically, the seven classical virtues first described 2,500 years ago by Plato: Trust, Compassion, Courage, Justice, Wisdom, Temperance, and Hope. Regardless of the competitive circumstances, the team that unfailingly acts in a virtuous manner will beat any other team that is sown with uncertainties and suspicions about the intentions of its own people.

And I can go along with that. The problems come when we start unpacking each one of the seven virtues, describing what it is and what it means to practice it as a part of an organization’s culture. That’s where the attractive simplicity of the book’s thesis begins to lose its coherence.

Trust gets linked to concepts like engagement and empowerment. Compassion gets linked to concepts like safety and accountability. Courage gets linked to growth. Justice to selflessness. Wisdom to leveraging strengths and managing weaknesses. Pretty soon it doesn’t feel like we’re talking about the seven classical virtues any more. It feels like we’re talking about the things that dozens of other management books talk about. In other words, it’s not really about the seven virtues; it’s about fifteen or so best practices, which we have loosely organized under the seven virtues. After all, you can position anything as wisdom by simply saying “Wise leaders want a highly engaged workforce.”

At one point, the authors even wander into the philosophical minefield of brain science.

We can learn to be better teammates by gaining insights into how our brain works under pressure, when our interpersonal skills and teamwork are tested. The architecture of our brain is built on emotions. We feel first and think second, making it unrealistic to control our emotions under all circumstances. Executive functions, which include working memory, self-regulation, and flexibility, are the neurological building blocks that underpin resilience and perseverance. It is very difficult to achieve resilience, curiosity, and tenacity without first developing a neurological foundation of executive functions and the capacity for self-awareness forged by practicing virtue.

Did you catch the uncited linkage to virtue at the end? Practicing virtue may or may not leverage neuroscience, but what follows is a few paragraphs of seemingly practical advice about how to take advantage of the fact that our brains often feel before they think. In wrapping the section up, the authors say:

In the end, we can only control one brain -- our own.

Now, perhaps it’s best not to ask philosophical questions when reading a book about management -- but that sentence literally stopped me in my tracks. Shouldn’t it be, “In the end, our brain can only control one person -- us”? And what does such an inversion -- that we are controlled by our brains, not the other way around -- mean for management science in general?

I, for one, would love to read a book about that.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, June 3, 2019

Contacts of Quality, Not Just Quantity

I lead a trade association. That means that our members are technically companies, not people; but, of course, the companies in question are made up of people, and we work hard to maintain good contacts and communications with those people.

A common objective for trade associations is to grow the number of contacts that they have at each of their member companies. Frequently, even though the decision to join or renew membership in the association rests with one individual, it is seen as advantageous to have a number of other "champions" within the company who find value in the association's programs and services. In making her decision, the boss may very well ask around her organization. "Is anyone getting any benefit from this expensive dues payment we make every year?" If the answer is yes, the boss is much more likely to keep writing those checks.

In this spirit we recently did an inventory of the contacts in our member database. We typically classify our contacts based on the role that they play in their company -- for example, are they an Executive? a Marketing Professional? an Engineer? a Human Resource Professional? And in our first pass we focused almost exclusively on quantities. How many contacts do we have? How many in each category? How many per company? How many in each category per company?

It was a good first dive into the subject, but the quantitative focus immediately revealed some weaknesses. For many companies, we have almost an overabundance of contacts in our database. Names and emails no one in my staff organization is familiar with. Some of them dating back years and years.

My initial reaction was that we need to inventory the quality of our contacts as well as the quantity. For how many companies, for example, can we say we have a solid Executive, Marketing, Engineering, and Human Resource contact? Solid as in someone on staff can put a face with a name and that they participate in some activity of our association?

Whatever that number is, working to increase that -- rather than just the raw number of contacts per company in the database -- seems much more likely to pay dividends when it comes to our member retention and engagement objectives.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, June 1, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 11 (DRAFT)

It was quite a day, even for a company as dysfunctional as that one. Amy Crawford got fired. Caroline Abernathy got both a tongue lashing and a write up. And Susan Sanford resigned in protest. With the benefit of hindsight, I would say it was clearly the beginning of the end.

I was in all three meetings, although my final encounter with Susan could be better termed a brush-off than a meeting. By the time I caught up with her she was already in her office, taking some books of her shelf and putting them in an old copy paper box.

“Susan, wait a minute,” I said. “What are you doing?”

“I quit, Alan,” she said plainly, her tone incredulous, probably at the idea that I may not be smart enough to have figured that out. “I’ve never left a job so quickly before, but I’ve had it. This place and I do not share the same values. The sooner I’m gone the better.” She stooped to pull her purse out of her bottom desk drawer and she dropped it into the box next to her books.

“Susan, please,” I said. “I’ll talk to Mary. We’ll address the situation with Wes.”

Susan gave me a skeptical look, and then moved around me to remove her coat from the hanger on the back of her door.

“You may talk to her, Alan,” she said as she shrugged into her coat, “but she’s not going to listen. She’s made her decision. She’d rather defend the abuser than protect the abused—and I won’t be a part of that.”

She walked past me again and retrieved her box from her desk. I felt a little like a turnstile at the entrance to the subway, constantly spinning in place while the people who mattered buzzed by and on to better things. With her box tucked under one arm and her coat already buttoned, she turned smartly back towards me and extended a hand. Not knowing what else to do, I shook it.

“Good luck, Alan,” she said. “I should be mad at you for the way you set me up in there, but I think you might’ve actually done me a favor. If you do decide to go up against her, watch your back. Mary strikes me as the kind who poisons her prey before eating it.”

And with that she was past me again, leaving her office behind and striding victoriously down towards the elevator. Moving out to her doorway, I watched with the rest of the office as she calmly waited for the car to arrive, then entered and vanished with the pneumatic hiss of the closing doors. In our last image of her, she was holding her head high, gazing out over the heads of those of us who remained.

The meetings with Amy and Caroline quickly followed. Susan’s dramatic exit had caught everyone’s fascination, but as soon as she was gone, Don popped out of his office and began weaving his way between the pods, telling everyone to get back to work.

When he got to the pod where Amy, Caroline, and the rest of the Education staff sat, he told Amy to report to his office and Caroline to stay at her workstation until she was called. I watched as Amy seemed to quietly collect herself, absently arrange a few files in her workspace, and then rise and begin making her way towards Don’s office. Once she was moving, Don’s eyes came up and found me standing in Susan’s office door. His face was expressionless, and he pointed at me and then hooked his finger down towards his office.

A minute later we were all gathered around Don’s conference table, Amy sitting where Susan had most recently sat, the rest of us in our same positions. Amy looked nervous but a little resigned to her fate. She was a young woman with long, flowing hair—the kind you might see in a shampoo commercial—but she had been with the company for a while and surely knew what was coming next.

An odd quiet settled over the room as we all waited for Don to begin, but Don’s eyes were downcast, his fingers busy fiddling with his class ring, and stopping every once and awhile to crack one of his thick knuckles. Mary sat looking directly at me, her stare at once dispassionate and unsettling, and I found myself wondering what she was thinking. Influenced by the rumors usually spread about her, I considered the possibility that she might not be thinking at all—at least not at that precise moment. Like Don seemed to be, I thought perhaps she was just passing the time until the meeting could officially begin and they could move forward with the task they had set before themselves. Until then, there was simply nothing to think or do. There was only waiting. Waiting for the moment when they would terminate one of their employees; waiting exactly like they would in line at a busy restaurant to use the restroom. In such circumstances, at such moments of empty time and inactivity, Don’s habit was evidently to crack his knuckles and play with his class ring—and it made some sense to me that Mary’s habit would be to study the people around her for weaknesses.

In a few moments Peggy Wilcox appeared on the other side of Don’s door. She was the Director of Human Resources, but in that small company that meant little more than being Don’s executive assistant. Don didn’t formally have one—no such position existed on the company’s perplexing organizational chart. Like his humble office, Don liked to pretend he was a man of the people who eschewed the trappings of power, but everyone knew Peggy was at his beck and call and handled all of his formal correspondence. She was a kind-hearted person, but had kept her position in the company through a combination of quiet competence and abiding loyalty that both Don and Mary appreciated. She stepped into the room without knocking, handed Don a slim file, and took up a position beside his closed door. She stood at attention, her chin quivering slightly before her clenched teeth forced it to be still.

The meeting did not last long. Once Don began speaking it was over in less than two minutes. It was a testament to the company’s brutal efficiency that such an action could be so well coordinated in such a short period of time—every legal requirement fulfilled and a practiced script used to keep any tinge of human emotion from soiling the cold proceedings.

Don told Amy they were letting her go—that was the phrase he used, letting her go, as if charitably releasing her from some terrible burden. He opened Peggy’s file and slid a piece of paper across the table at Amy. It floated over the veneer surface like an air hockey puck and fell practically in her lap. It was a release form, Don said, freeing the company from any liability. If she signed it, they would treat her departure like a resignation. They wouldn’t contest her unemployment insurance and would give her the standard reference should anyone call during her quest for a new position.

Amy held the document up and I watched her eyes dance across it for a few seconds. When they flashed back up there was a shine of defiance in them. “What if I don’t sign it?” she asked.

“Then you’ll be terminated for cause,” Don said simply, as if he really didn’t care what Amy decided to do. “No unemployment insurance and no good reference.”

“For what cause?” Amy persisted. “Susan just walked out of here with a box under her arm. And I’m guessing she didn’t take the time to write anything in my file before she left.”

I looked at Mary, surprised that Amy was playing this as coolly as she was. Although no one had mentioned it explicitly, it was obvious that she knew her conduct with Wes at the recent client meeting was the reason she was being let go. But Mary didn’t seem surprised. She didn’t even turn away to meet my stare, her cold and calculating gaze focused squarely on Amy. Weaknesses, I thought again. She’s looking for weaknesses.

“There’s already enough information in your file to warrant your dismissal,” Don said easily. “You have a well-documented history of inappropriate conduct. You were issued a written warning just two months ago for a similar incident.”

Amy looked down at the document again. She seemed to consider her options for a moment or two, and then set the release form back down.

“Does Wes know you’re doing this?”

To me, it was as if Amy had turned over a box of scorpions on the table. I couldn’t believe she would be so brazen. It seemed little more than a flat-out confession that there was something inappropriate going on between her and Wes Howard. Mary might have taken it that way, too, but she seemed to view it more as an opportunity than as a threat. Rather than recoil from its implications, she leaned forward, apparently willing to let the scorpions sting her.

But it was Don who spoke next, and Don was all business. “You don’t have to sign it now,” he said, ignoring Amy’s comment and bringing our attention back to the release form. “In fact, I would prefer that you didn’t. The offer it contains is good for the next seven days. You can sign and return it any time before then and we’ll honor our end of the deal. I would encourage you to take a few of those days to consider your situation, and even speak with your own legal counsel if you prefer. We’re striving for an amicable separation, and believe our offer will best help facilitate that. But ultimately, it will be your decision that determines what happens next.”

I watched as Amy looked at Don coldly, her mascaraed eyelashes blinking slowly. Don had stuck to his script, had refused to take Amy’s bait and, as a result, had extinguished the fire in her eyes. In that moment Amy looked slow-witted, like a kind of cold-blooded lizard just coming back to action after a long desert night.

Don let the silence build in the room for three seconds and then called an end to the meeting. He announced it like it had been within his ability to do so at any moment. He said that Peggy would walk Amy back to her workstation, let her collect her things, and escort her from the building.

And that’s exactly what happened next. At first, I didn’t think it would. I didn’t think that Amy would get up and leave without saying another word, but the defiance that had flashed in her eyes was no longer there. There was nothing she could do at that moment that was going to change the situation, and she probably realized that whatever cards she still held were probably better played at another place and time. Peggy’s presence undoubtedly helped. As soon as Don finished talking, Peggy attentively positioned herself at Amy’s side. She scooped the release form off the table, helped Amy push her chair away, and then guided her out of the office with an expert hand.

Things did not go quite so cleanly with Caroline. Peggy returned a few minutes later with Caroline in tow, and even before she sat down the tears were flowing. I remember thinking, no, NO, Caroline. Don’t cry. She’ll destroy you if you cry.

Don and Mary and I had passed the few uncomfortable minutes between Amy’s departure and Caroline’s arrival in almost complete silence—Don again playing with his class ring, Mary studying me with her clinical detachment, and me trying to figure out some way to ask about what had just happened with Amy. I wanted to know what they thought about Amy’s reference to Wes, if they thought it revealed what I thought it did, but I had a difficult time finding the right words to break the odd silence they both seemed so intent on keeping. As my mind searched for the solution, my eyes strayed between Don and Mary and fuzzily focused on Don’s solitary bookshelf. As typical for Don’s office, it was crammed with all manner of materials—his books maltreated with broken spines and tattered covers, and even his precious policy binders bulging with their contents, less than half of the documents actually secured in the rings.

“What do you think she meant by bringing up, Wes?” I finally managed to croak.

Don and Mary exchanged glances, a little surprised, I think, that I had spoken up at all. Don seemed to defer to Mary with an obsequious nod of his head, and Mary turned to me, her eyes bright and penetrating.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said abruptly. “I called Wes while you were off following Susan. He’s not going to cause any trouble.”

I wanted to ask more questions, but Mary’s terse tone chased them out of my mind, and in a moment the tear-streaked face of Caroline Abernathy appeared on the other side of Don’s door. Peggy escorted her inside and directed her to sit in the chair Amy had just vacated. Caroline was only a year or two out of college and usually looked like she was still pulling all-nighters at the student union. She had a couple of balled-up Kleenexes tucked in the cuff of her wrinkled cardigan, and now she pulled one out and used it to dab at the tears as they fell out of her eyes.

Don showed her no mercy, berating her savagely as she wilted and withered under the strain. The most sympathetic thing he said to her were the first four words out of his mouth—What were you thinking? He sounded initially like an angry father who had caught his teenage daughter trying to sneak into the house a few minutes before dawn after being gone all night, but he transitioned quickly into the strident taskmaster he was, simply outraged by the negligence of others.

“You obviously weren’t thinking, were you? I don’t see how you could have been, at least not thinking about your responsibilities to this organization. Travelling to client meetings is a privilege, Miss Abernathy, not a perk, and company policy clearly states that you are to conduct yourself professionally from the moment you leave the office to the moment you return. You are a representative of this company for that entire time, and your conduct must reflect the high ethical standards upon which our business model is based. By acting the way you have, you have jeopardized the reputation of this organization and may have damaged the relationship we enjoy with one of our longest-standing clients. Those are actionable offenses, and we have terminated employees in situations far less severe than this.”

It’s hard for me to recall those words and not now think about how full of corporate gobbledygook they are. In many ways, I believe, they are actually nonsense words, like something out of a Dr. Seuss story. But I watched them destroy Caroline, shriveling her up in her chair like a dying flower, and I listened as Don shouted them at her in full knowledge of the power they had—a power not unlike the one that good Doctor Seuss has warned generations of children about. The best kind of Sneetches, after all, are the ones with stars on their bellies, and Sneetches like Amy Crawford and Caroline Abernathy—well, they didn’t have any stars on thars.

It was a difficult scene to witness, and in my discomfort I averted my eyes, first seeing Mary’s vindictive sneer, and then Peggy’s look of anguished commiseration. If Don was the father punishing his daughter for some violation of the family’s moral code, then Peggy was the mother who knew the penalty was necessary but hated to see it delivered, and Mary was the sister who had jealously ratted out the daughter in the first place.

Don went on for a good ten minutes, basically repeating the same two minutes worth of material in ever louder and more incredulous performances. By the time he was finished he had half risen out of his chair, his large knobby fingers splayed wide on the table for balance and the veins in his temples pulsing with a life all their own. Spent, he collapsed heavily in his chair, tipping it momentarily back onto its rear legs and straining its loose bolts to their limits. He looked at Caroline in silence, his head shaking in disappointed frustration and his eyes staring vacantly into the space between them, as Caroline blubbered and sobbed, her face practically hidden in her hands. Eventually, he stood up, retrieved a box of tissues from on top of his bookshelf and slid them across the table to Caroline.

“Come on, now,” Don said with some small tinge of discomfort in his voice. “Get a hold of yourself.”

Caroline looked up, a pair of red and puffy eyes rising out of her hands. The tissues she had brought with her had long since disintegrated, and she pulled three fresh ones out of the box in quick succession. While wiping her eyes, her cheeks, her nose—her voice came forth, hitching with her spastic breath, hopeless and submissive. “Are you going to fire me?”

It was Mary who answered—Mary, who had not said a single word during the entire meeting with Amy, and had so far not spoken during this one.

“That depends on you, Caroline,” she said regally, not a drop of human compassion in her voice. “I am not making the decision to fire you today, but this incident will be written up and placed in your personnel file. You will receive a copy of this document later today, and it will serve as your official warning against this sort of behavior. If you demonstrate any kind of unprofessional conduct in the future, either here in the office or while travelling on business, you will be terminated immediately. Is that understood?”

Caroline did not speak, but she nodded her head.

“I’m giving you one more chance,” Mary said, sounding like the decision served Mary’s interests much more than Caroline’s “Do not disappoint me.”

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source