I looked up from my bloated computer screen and saw Swanson standing at the entrance to my cube.
“Good morning,” he sniffed.
It shocked me to see him up close. Up until that point, he could have simply been an apparition that floated within Inside Sales. His office door was always closed and I had never seen him arrive or leave. Other than that one time when I glanced through his office window when I was looking for the printer, I’d never really seen him.
“Good morning,” I replied. He seemed agitated that I had responded. His eyes narrowed, and he sniffed again. Swanson was rail thin, especially thin for a man his age. He stood a head shorter than me, but his own head seemed too big for his body. He still had all of his hair, but it was gray and greasy-looking. He had dark eyes that were set back in his tired, wrinkled face. The most prominent thing about him was his turkey neck. It flung loose from his chin like he was storing stuff for the winter. When he turned his head, his neck shook like a sail flailing in the wind. I couldn’t help but stare at it because it bunched up above his neck tie and, quite frankly, it looked obscene.
“I got a request from Norton in the CEO’s office to add you to the Path Forward project.”
“The Path what?”
“Path Forward. It’s the project the CEO started to determine what Standard will do for the next 100 years.” He seemed aggravated that he had to explain it to me. I knew it was Julie’s project, but she hadn’t mentioned its name to me.
“Oh, okay. What do I need to do?”
“There’s a meeting on the tenth floor today at 1 PM. You need to be there. I let Richard know you are on the project and that you’ll be going to meetings.”
“Don’t forget that Inside Sales is your primary job. You still have to meet our productivity metrics here. Whether you stay on the project or not depends on your performance here. Is that clear?” He raised his bushy eyebrows at me revealing the barely-visible whites of his eyes. He looked like a turkey just before Thanksgiving.
He stared at me for a moment, his eyes returned to narrow slits, and then, he turned and walked away with his turkey neck in his wake.
I looked at the next entry in my customer list and started to pick up the phone for a sales call, when I sensed someone else blocking the entrance to my cube. I turned to see George with a big, goofy smile on his face. Before I could point to my lunch bag, he said, “I heard you got assigned to that big Corporate project.”
“What? How could you have heard that when I just found out myself?”
“News travels fast on the Inside.” George had a silly habit of referring to Inside Sales as “The Inside” like it was some secretive agency or something. The more I got to know him, the more I realized he needed a life outside of “The Inside”.
“I guess so.”
“Do you know what you’re doing on the project?”
“No, my first meeting is today after lunch.” I saw his eyes wander to the lunch bag on my desk. He looked mildly deflated.
“Let me know what you find out.”
“Why do you care?”
“This project is a big deal. Ever since the new CEO joined the company, he’s talked about the future of the company. That only means one thing.” He stopped talking like I knew what that one thing was. I waited a few moments for him to fill in the blank.
“Layoffs.” His smile disappeared and a look of displeasure washed over his face. He folded his arms across his chest and rested them on his belly as he looked at me. His mustache hovered above his frown.
Even my inexperienced eyes could see that Standard was a bloated company with a lot of lifers just floating toward a pensioned retirement. Every day I stepped into the lobby felt like I was stepping back in time. I imagined that this was what it was like when my grandfather worked his Corporate job.
“I’m sure it’s not that bad.” It was all I could think to say.
“Do me a favor. Keep me informed about what’s going on. You’re the only person from the Inside that’s on this project.”
He stared at me waiting for a response. “Sure,” I said. He nodded and left my cube as if we had reached some detente after a long disagreement. I watched him amble down the corridor more determined than I had ever seen him.
I emailed Julie while I ate my lunch at my desk, but she didn’t reply before I had to leave for the meeting. I had hoped that she’d give me some insight into what the meeting was about. Instead, I was left wondering as I took the elevator down to the tenth floor.
The receptionist on the tenth floor sucked the air out of the waiting area. Large and loud with a permanent stern look etched on her pale, stone face, she stared at me like I had invaded her floor when I arrived at her desk.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she asked, glancing at my name badge dangling from the lanyard around my neck. She gave me a sour, sardonic look.
“I’m here for the Path Forward project meeting.” I gave her my best smile.
She screwed her face like she had swallowed something that tasted terrible as she flipped through a notebook in front of her. “Go through the door and it’s the conference room on the right,” she said nodding to the door behind her.
“Thank you.” She didn’t respond, and I didn’t pay her any attention as I walked past her and badged into the door.
Walking through that door felt like entering a new dimension. The tenth floor did not resemble a single floor that I had been on within Standard Tower. It had a modern, sleek look like I had seen in online articles about cutting-edge tech companies. Glass adorned the conference rooms and offices along the walls and the cubes weren’t cubes at all. They were desks splayed out in semi-circular patterns with glistening, white tops. Flat-screen panels hovered above the desks like giraffes fawning above minimalist keyboards. Even the people working on this floor were different. They wore jeans and un-tucked shirts and had well-groomed beards slung beneath hip glasses. For a moment I thought I had gone to the wrong place, but I didn’t want to leave.
“You made it,” Julie said behind me. I turned to see her smiling face at the door of one of the glass conference rooms I had skated past as I swooned over the fancy office.
“What is this place?” I said turning away from her and sweeping the office with a glance.
“This is the new Standard.”
“I like it.” I must have sounded like a kid who received an amazing gift at Christmas because she almost giggled at my response. “When does the rest of the company get this makeover?”
“I don’t know. This is a prototype that was developed for the project team. Everyone here works on the project, and all of our meetings are here. We wanted a space that spoke to the future of the company.”
“Wow. Do you have an office here?”
“I do, but my main one is on the 26th floor.” The 26th floor was the top floor of Standard Tower where the CEO had his office. I imagined Mr. Rich up there in his wood-paneled office smoking a cigar, but I couldn’t imagine Julie there. She seemed otherworldly and above the fray among the master-of-the-universe types.
“We’re meeting in here,” she said as she stepped into the glass bowl of a conference room. I followed her to the other side of the long table and took a seat next to her. A group of four men in crisp suits sat at the end of the table conferring quietly. The one in the middle looked up at me as I sat down.
“Chad, this is Travis Potter. He’s new at Standard, but he’s joining the project team,” Julie introduced me to the man in the middle. All of the men stood up in unison like they were part of a synchronized dance team. The older man advanced toward me and shook my hand.
“I’m Chad Connor. I’m Executive VP of Strategic Analysis at Moore Harme. These are my associates Bob, Brad, and Benji.” He swept his hand back toward that end of the table, and the three men stood and greeted me with a hand shake. All three of them looked about my age. They smiled faintly and nodded as they greeted me. Each of them handed me a business card. Chad handed me his business card last. It felt supple and gilded like he had found the most expensive paper on the planet to imprint with his name and title.
Julie explained. “Moore Harme is our consultant on this project. Their specialty is helping mature companies reinvent themselves.” Chad nodded and smiled as if a student of his had regurgitated everything she’d learned in his class. As she talked the conference room started to fill up, and Chad and his team returned to the end of the conference table. A timid looking man slipped into the conference room and gently shut the glass door before he slid into a seat at the front of the room next to an easel with a blank flip chart pad on it.
Julie spoke to the room and all of the other conversations stopped. She introduced me, and had the people in the room introduce themselves so that I knew who they were. I nodded to the consultants like we were old friends when they did their introductions. The team was a true cross section of the company. Some people came from areas that I didn’t even know existed at Standard. She said Cody would take notes and pointed toward the mousy man sitting next to the easel. Cody looked at his feet and fidgeted the marker in his hand as all eyes turned to him.
Julie handed the meeting over to Chad, and he began to talk about what they did in the last meeting. When I was in college, I hated it when professors forced us to do presentations, not because I was afraid to speak in public, but because I dreaded listening to my classmates’ presentations. That was how I felt a few sentences into Chad’s summary. I looked at his associates. Each of them preoccupied themselves with whatever they had in front of them. I had already confused the three Bs, so I couldn’t remember which one was Bob, Brad, or Benji.
“So now, we need to decide what strategic direction we think makes the most sense for Standard,” Chad said as he finished his spiel. Since I had tuned him out, I didn’t know what our choices were. Julie swept her eyes around the table and landed on me. I froze in an instant hoping that she wouldn’t call on me in my first meeting.
“What are your thoughts, Travis? Since you’re new to the group, it’d be good to hear your impressions,” she asked. She spoke more to the group than me directly. I froze in my seat, and for a moment, I thought my heart had stopped and my lungs had halted. I gulped as my mind ran circles in the blank space reserved for Chad’s little summary. I could feel the heat of all eyes trained on me. I shifted in my seat and cleared my throat to buy time. I kneaded my hands in front of me on the table. Oddly, I thought about the game pack I had bought on Xbox Live two days ago. I really wished I was in my apartment playing that game rather than sitting in that conference room.
“I think we need to move our business entirely online,” I said, blurting out the first thing that coalesced in my panicking brain. The silence reverberated along the glass wall rippling among the attendees. I looked to Chad, whose cheesy grin had dripped from his face like melting wax, and then, I looked at Julie. Her eyes sparkled as she read the room.
“I think that is a really good idea,” she said. “This is what we need. We need a totally fresh perspective. That’s why I asked Travis to join this team. We need to think beyond the way that Standard does business today if we’re going to keep this company alive for the next century.”
Heads bobbed along the table in agreement. Blank stares segued into thoughtful expressions, and a chatter rose in the room as the attendees began to assess my idea. I felt some sense of relief, but I also felt smaller because I had not put much thought into my idea and now it ignited the group like I had poured gasoline on a tiny flame. I tried to follow the chatter, but there were too many conversations going on at once.
Julie hushed the room. “I know you all have your own thoughts about this idea, but I’d like to push this to an exploratory sub-committee,” she said. Then, she looked at me. “Travis, if you could take the lead on this and work with Benji and Sabrina to flesh out this idea before our next meeting, I’d appreciate it.” She nodded at me and scanned the room as if she were looking for reassurances. Her focused returned to me. “Okay?”
“Okay.” I replied. There was nothing else I could think to say. She moved onto the next topic of the meeting, and Chad once again started droning about some other aspect of the project, and all I could think about was the fact that I didn’t know which of the Bs was Benji.