Peaks, Valleys, and Troughs
The landlord was kicking us out. Our lease had expired and our small startup company needed to hit the road soon. He was nice enough to let us keep the 200-square-meter office space for a couple more weeks but we had to vacate whichever things we still had in the adjacent warehouse. Inspired by how lean our operations were, he probably thought he could apply the same principles and expand their home improvement business, raking in more profit selling sanitary wares than simply renting out his warehouses.
We, on the other hand, were in the middle of moving to a new and bigger space. We were able to transfer most things except for a few wooden pallets in the warehouse. After repeatedly measuring every corner of the office space, we all agreed (okay, maybe not all) that the ideal location for the pallets were.. right below our desks!
It was a great feeling — a feeling of collective success. Never mind the uncomfortable way the casters of the office chairs get stuck into the spaces between the wooden pallets, it was entertaining and we felt elevated — figuratively and literally. Just be careful not to drop any small item like pens or coins or you will have to wait until the actual move to retrieve them.
When the CEO finally came into the room, you can tell the shock and dismay (okay, mostly dismay) from his face as he tried to play along as much as he can. He probably did a quick calculation in his head and realized there was little we could do to reverse this genius of a decision. For a couple of days, everyone worked in complete frustration as the chairs sat steadily and any attempt to tiptoe around the pallets will surely reverberate through everyone’s desks.
Still, it was fun. It was our small startup where everyone got their ideas heard — even, or should I say most especially, the dumb ones.
The very first Christmas dinner party we had started at around 10 o’clock in the evening as opposed to the original schedule which was three hours earlier. A client came in late with inventory and everyone had to drop whatever it was they were doing and help getting the items into the warehouse. Everyone was so tired by the time the party started that no one minded the already-cold roasted pig paired with sauce that tasted like dishwashing liquid. The CEO, who embodied frugality, brought hand-me-down items as prizes for the last-minute games to put some perspective into this momentous occasion. The grand prize was a used cabin-sized luggage.
The Christmas party we had the following year was a little better. We started on time and, as tradition would have it by now, we made a stage out of wooden pallets where performances can be held. This was certainly a bigger office — three or four times the size of the previous one — but there was a slight problem. The A/C units were not coming until a couple of weeks later so we had to bring industrial fans from the warehouse up to the second floor of the office where the party was being held.
It was as humid as a summer afternoon stroll in Manila yet if I try to recall both events in my head, both Christmas parties were festive. Some came out a little sweaty while some probably came home with diarrhea but everyone clearly had good times.
It has been a weird month all along and we knew something was off. One afternoon, the CEO, myself, along with another colleague found ourselves locked in a room. I could feel the tension building up so I was glad when someone finally started to talk. “I am leaving,” the CEO said — at least those were the words I heard with extreme clarity. The startup was struggling to make money and there were 3 possible outcomes for anyone deciding to stay. One, it will operate as it currently is, with a slim chance of surviving since it hasn’t been profitable in any way. Two, trim down clients and retain ones that seem to have a bright future. Three, close up shop.
I find myself jittery moving here and there as I was waiting for the perfect moment to say a couple of words. I am as introverted as one gets so the idea was something I struggled greatly with. It’s been six months since the CEO left and we’re all listening to, correction: persevering, through this town hall. The new guy, a General Manager we hired, looked old yet inexperienced in these type of gatherings. Maybe he was an introvert, I tell myself.
Every month he presented the same mind-numbing slides, never started on time, and never could end on time because of the firehose of questions coming from everyone. He struggled to answer them and usually used the head of Human Resources as his human shield when Q&A comes.
This time around, I couldn’t take it anymore. It was getting pretty bad and a totally unrelated quote from Michael Jordan only made it worse — I had to step in. When the cue to end the Q&A was given, I ran in front to where the TV was. I had no idea what to say but I knew I had to say something. I asked everyone to stay.
What I did first was to ask those who worked in the office — mostly millennials, well-dressed — to stand up from the cushy leather sofas and stand on the side. Everyone looked at me as if I’ve lost my mind. Next, I asked those who worked in the warehouse — blue-collar, sweaty guys (now dry from the air conditioning) — to sit on the sofa and get comfortable. They hesitated for a bit before I dragged them all by the arm.
I told them how every nice thing we bought for the office — including the PlayStation paired with a 65-inch TV — was for everyone. Not just the people working in the office itself but every single person working in our small organization. Since those in operations work mostly in the warehouse and follow a strict schedule for breaks and lunches, they usually don’t have time to enjoy these small perks.
We instituted a change which gave those in operations priority over others when it comes to using the game console and I think it paid off greatly — I couldn’t beat them in a game of NBA 2K16. I gave this speech about the mission and the purpose of the organization and how every single thing every person does should be aligned to it which ultimately turned into an essay.
In the end, I got applauded for saying what I said. I realized people just wanted to hear the truth, plain and simple. The latter being more important. People care little about highfalutin details and fictitious hockey stick graphs. I felt bad for the General Manager but he was already on his way out so I guess it all evened out. Think Michael Jordan against Utah in Game 6 of the ’98 NBA Finals but instead he missed the final shot. Au revoir!
All I’m asking for is your loyalty to me..
The words still reek in my head like aftertaste of a badly brewed coffee. No one should be asked for his loyalty towards a single person — more so a higher-up — in any organization. The loyalty should always be in relation to the organization’s mission and that alone.
It was a long conversation. It was overly stimulating especially for an introvert like me. I found myself staring at this person’s face and wondering why he was so upset his face was turning red and his eyes were about to tear up. I get fidgety sitting — like I always do being interrogated or not. I switch my eyes to another person in the room. He was looking somewhere else, nodding and agreeing to everything the other person was saying like a good and loyal soldier should.
I was being accused of undermining someone — talking smack about them to their immediate superior. In this case, the Group CEO. My loyalty now being questioned after working my ass off trying to help build this company and getting it off the ground. My loyalty being questioned because of something they subjectively felt I did — something which they clearly had no proof of. After a couple of hours not being able to pin anything on me, they opened the door and let me go back to what I was doing.
It was about a year since the first CEO left and things have become rather autocratic. The new guy at the helm was a huge dude — an imposing figure who made people feel uncomfortable with distasteful jokes which often bordered on harassment. He brought a lot of new people with him, mostly acquaintances, and ostracized everyone else.
However, the lack of technological savviness of this new group of people was somewhat comical. Baffling at the same time as we were in the business of introducing new technology to typically traditional clients on the retail side of things.
I remember a time when I asked to see the pipeline of clients coming in so I could better prepare and organize. After all, it was my team’s job to onboard them onto our platform. It took several tries before I actually had a Google Doc shared with me only to find most details trimmed. I guess they were clueless about Google Doc’s version history which showed me the changes made and information they didn’t want me to see.
I eventually felt everyone turning on me as if I was the bad guy. The quote from The Dark Knight rang true as ever, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” All of a sudden, I was being given the cold shoulder — the silent treatment. I started not getting invited into meetings and projects were being slowly being transitioned away from me. I was asked to surrender my company phone when I requested to change reporting lines.
There was one occasion when someone from their circle decided to resign. Things have gotten so political that she decided staying wasn’t worth it. Without prodding, she shared with me that the new guy still talks about me, depicting me in a bad light and using me as an example of who not to emulate if they valued their jobs. In short, loyalty to him was key. And by now it was easy to understand why everyone was steering clear of me and talking smack about me in what they thought were private Slack channels.
It was as ironic as it could get. A year ago, I was fighting for inclusion so that everyone in our small startup would feel they belong. That they can call this workplace their second home. And now everything seem to have fallen down the drain. It was backfiring. Opportunity discrimination and autocracy ran rampant in this new regime everyone all of a sudden found themselves in.
In that year, I learned how an authoritarian way of managing kills assertiveness and how smart people choose to avoid taking initiatives for fear of judgement and locking horns with whoever’s in top. A glaring example was when I was watching a colleague for 2 hours checking his Facebook — scrolling up and down, refreshing the page every now and then. During a brief pause, I asked him what he was still doing in the office. He replied by saying he needed to stay 9 hours in the office otherwise he gets deductions in his pay.
I stayed for a while but decided to part ways with the company I helped build for a little over four years — the longest I’ve spent with any employer. Looking back, we should’ve spent more time building the culture for it not to be easily swayed by someone else. We should’ve reiterated the importance of staying true to the mission and purpose. Lastly, we should’ve worked on these fundamental blocks and empowered everyone to use their best judgement in every decision.
The new guy was eventually sacked months after I left. He was found guilty of conflicting interests within the company and its clients.
Originally published at http://writtenbymike.com on December 21, 2018.