The Angelic Asshole of Armonk has arrived. Like a corporate lemming, I’m standing by my rental Ford at the only helipad close to Sterling Forest. I cover my ears and squint my eyes like the classic monkeys of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, as IBM’s blue and white Bell Jet Ranger II helicopter explodes a dust cloud from the tarmac.
I understand why local towns hate these machines. They may be good for rescue operations and fighting wars, but they’re loud and obnoxious, the perfect way for beady-eyed executives to flaunt corporate power. This is one-upmanship gone out of control. Any company can have corporate limousines and airplanes — but you have to be really big to have helicopters.
The co-pilot, part of IBM’s “air force,” opens the right-side door and reaches a hand to guide Frank Cary, IBM’s CEO, down the steps. Frank ducks his head as if trying to keep the whirring rotors from scalping his cue ball head. Like most IBM executives, he’s over six feet tall, although his cherubic face, disproportionately small teeth, and close-set eyes belie the tall frame. You’d expect someone being whipped by helicopter rotors to come dressed in a flight suit; but no — Frank wears the standard IBM blue suit, white button-down shirt, red and blue striped tie, and brogue shoes.
He hits the ground walking — the typical fast, deliberate stride designed to tell everyone, “Look at me. I’m a busy executive, I have no time to stroll.”
I stare through the blowing grit to read Cary’s demeanor. Intense, man. Intense. No smile, no pleasantry. Just business. That’s OK. I don’t trust his smile anyway. Doesn’t seem sincere when he reveals the undersized teeth. His fangs are deceptively hidden in a face more suitable for a grocery clerk than a corporate executive.
Now I wonder how to treat this dude. Like some general in the army? Military protocol would make this encounter easy. Just approach your superior, salute, take his bag and escort him to the waiting car. Here, the rules aren’t written, but your career depends on doing the right thing. Suppressing my instinct to salute, I mirror Frank’s fast pace to meet him halfway.8:00 Thursday morning finds me in the big Ford Hertz car headed for Ringwood’s helipad. What should I say to IBM’s CEO? Most guys on the way up would welcome an opportunity for private time with the top dog. Yet, I don’t know what to do. I’d met Cary several times, and they were all unpleasant.
But today, I’m bound to meet Frank halfway. Sticking out my hand, I say, “Welcome, Frank. I’m Grant Tate.” IBM executives starting with Tom Watson, the founder, wanted employees to call them by their first names.
“Good morning,” sacrifices Cary with a slight smile.
On our way to Sterling Forest, the conversation is stiff and cold. Frank seems as if he’d rather be somewhere else. Why the hell did he come if he is so disinterested? I plow ahead anyway, explaining our agenda for the day, giving him statistics about the site, telling him I’ve interviewed every manager at Sterling Forest. But, I’m too wrapped up in my own problems to consider that the CEO might be worried about bigger problems, such as consumer prices advancing 11 percent in 1974 — or what was going to happen
Arriving at Sterling, we walk to the conference room where Tony and eight of Sterling Forest’s top managers are waiting. I introduce them all, feeling thankful at being able to remember their names, motion Frank to a chair at the head of the table, and step to the easel to begin the agenda for the day. My stomach is doing the rumba, but my first words sound confident.
“We’re honored that you could be with us today, Frank,” I lie. “We’re looking forward to the day.” I turn to the easel chart to describe the agenda. I’m halfway through the chart when Frank says, “I don’t want to hear about your organizational and personnel problems. I want to see your projects. This is a waste of my time.”
“But the success of our programs depends entirely on our ability to turn around the organization,” I protest.
“Charlie made it clear that I wanted to see your projects and the numbers, didn’t he?” he says, tight-lipped.
“That’s not what I understood,” I shoot back, struggling hard to control my anger. Why hadn’t this come out on the ride from the helicopter? I had told him what I wanted to accomplish today and thought that it was clear. Why didn’t he say something then? He probably hadn’t listened to a word I’d said. I’m embarrassed this conversation is happening in front of people who reported to me. They watch me with questioning eyes. Tom Hays, the guy on my staff who can’t stand me or my style, wears a slight smirk.
“We can revise the agenda, but it will take a few minutes,” I concede. “Let’s break for coffee.” Luckily, we have a table of coffee and cookies.
While several people scramble to get Frank coffee, I confer with my project leaders outside. Sid can explain the logistics program, Harry the ordering program, Frank the testing program, and others can explain theirs. While they race to their offices to pick up charts and additional information. Cary sits alone at the table, watching us run around like maniacs. Is this some sort of management lesson?
Fifteen minutes later, we stumble through unrehearsed presentations while Frank picks apart every number and every point. He is clearly gunning for us, and I’m not sure why. What the hell is he trying to do? We struggle to defend our programs, but while not feeling defeated, we don’t win many points either. We are just being hassled. Frank thinks we’re a bunch of screw-ups, and he’s out to prove the point.
Finally, the morning is over, and we walk to the executive dining room for lunch…
For more stories, see my recently published book, “Hand on the Shoulder: Finding freedom in the confluence of love and career.” It’s available at most major booksellers and at www.handontheshoulder.com