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Chapter 1
Haunted Hallways

I reminded myself that we were in a well-lit office, not a dark alley. No need to get aggressive yet. I relaxed my jaw and tried to keep the fear out of my voice as I replied, “If you pull my people off your project, there’s no way you’ll meet the delivery date.”

My client looked at me blandly, as if he had delivered a weather forecast. In fact, he had devastated my sales forecast. Five fewer of my consultants billing their time to this client meant there was no way I would meet quota to earn my bonus. I needed him to engage with me. I forced a response with a direct question that was also a threat. “Did Juan approve this staffing cut?”

“Why would I check with Juan?” asked the Director of Information Systems Development (ISD) for Billing Systems. He ran his finger down a page of the MCI internal directory as he spoke, “Nobody cares what he thinks.”

“He’s the Chief Information Officer!” I countered, “An executive vice president.”

“Not for long,” said my client as he dialed his desk telephone.

“Everybody knows Juan is dead except Juan.” He turned to the window and spoke into the telephone until I left. I had my response. Our team was headed out and my income was going down.

 –  –  –

While we now slowly emerge from under the rubble of the events of the last few years, let us not forget these years of aberration lest we become wholly unworthy.

When the facts come home to roost, let us try at least to make them welcome, to give due account, for the sake of freedom, to the best in men and to the worst.

— Hannah Arendt
1906-1975, at
Boston Bicentennial Forum

 –  –  –

MCI’s CIO may have been lurching unawares toward oblivion, but I was concerned with my own problem, five revenue-producing consultants suddenly without paying projects. I had a pretty good idea where to place them. I dropped by the office of the Director of ISD for Field Equipment. “I’ve got five database designers rolling off a project next Friday. Do you want them for MUXdb? I hear it’s ramping up.”

He replied without moving his eyes from the terminal screen, “MUXdb isn’t mine.”

“How can it not be yours? You’ve got the systems for purchasing and maintenance, right?”

“I did until last week. Network Engineering took them, too. So they could integrate with the development of MUXdb.” He kept typing.

“Engineering! Why the hell do you have ISD if the users are going to develop their own mainframe systems?”

“Tony, maybe you should ask why we have a CIO if no one listens to him. I heard that he wasn’t even at the budget meeting.”

“Really? Now even Juan must realize he’s a goner.”

“You’d think so, but he still tries to run the weekly update for the directors of ISD.”

“What do you mean, ‘tries to’?”

“Most people either send a minion, or, if they show up at all, just spend the whole meeting doing other paperwork.”

“How do they expect to get away with that?” I asked.

“Nobody expects Juan to be around by the time they come up for review. What does his opinion matter?” He reached for a file from the credenza behind his desk but continued talking with his back to me. “Besides, if he has no clout in the budget process, what good is he to me? My group has four job openings but no hiring authority and nothing left in my training or travel budgets. Anybody with any sense is trying to transfer to Network Engineering or Financial Ops. More people are starting to return those calls from Sprint’s recruiters, too.”

“How about you?” I asked.

He turned to me with an expression of exaggerated boredom and asked, “How about those Redskins?” I took the hint and let him change the subject to sports.

The next time I stopped by his office, there was no nameplate in the frame by the door and the office was empty except for phone, furniture, some binders, and a couple moving boxes.

Houses are haunted, according to one theory, by the ghosts of former residents who died horribly yet do not realize or still refuse to accept that their lives in that mortal abode have ended. I would not be reluctant to pass one night (or even a dozen) in a purportedly haunted house, but I feel an icy chill at the mere thought of revisiting some particularly scary days in companies infested with people clinging to titles and paychecks, employees without powers, who do not realize or persistently refuse to accept that their professional lives have ended. Especially when that employee is me.

Just like the ghosts of campfire stories, these executives observe the actions of the living and go through the motions of inhabiting their customary rooms and roles. The walking dead of the executive suite, recently powerful but now merely ethereal, become confused and frustrated as they vainly attempt to interact with and influence their still vital former colleagues. Their spectral and ineffectual communications increase the impatience of the living for the inevitable if mysteriously deferred departure of the deceased; their ghostly and insubstantial presence a discomfiting reminder of the survivors’ own tenuous tenure and inevitable, though temporarily deferred, termination.

The cruel isolation and slow-motion firing of Juan, MCI’s CIO, without regard for its effect on his psyche or on the mental health of the people around him, was not an aberrant event at MCI. It was Standard Operating Procedure, but not the usual sort of SOP detailed in neatly labeled, tabbed, and cross-indexed three-ring binders for employees to learn and evade. No, MCI was run by the kind of SOP that is unwritten yet unavoidable; employees either complied or died. Not exactly died. Just one person perishes in this story but plenty of people have the life sucked out of them by their jobs.

I was still young and inexperienced with the ways of big public companies when I worked at MCI in the 1980s, but I had encountered enough callous corporate behavior to develop a few calluses on my enthusiasm for capitalism. Even so, I was shocked by the frequency of cutting comments about Juan. I felt embarrassed for the man, though we had never met or even been in the same room. The people who theoretically required the CIO’s support to keep their jobs and budgets felt comfortable openly ridiculing and undermining his authority. Juan was a ghost for months. The persistent void at the top led many projects astray at great expense or let them hang in limbo long enough to become irrelevant. No wonder users in Engineering were writing their own programs.

I had just been promoted to a position that required me to sell complex projects to senior executives, but ISD was leaderless and therefore powerless to purchase. Projects and budget were plentiful in Engineering but the one executive I knew in that department would soon hate me for exposing him in an expensive lie. My chances for closing sales were scant and shrinking.

I was put in charge of the MCI account because I was young and aggressive, just like MCI. My rational and results-oriented methods yielded early success but soon caused a disaster, just like MCI. Being smart, conscientious, and energetic were not enough. Struggling at MCI would force me to learn much more than computer systems and business procedures. I needed new, unfamiliar skills. If someone had listed them for the brash consultant I was on my first day at MCI, I would have pitied their naiveté. I had to learn the hard way, through discord, disappointment, and, ultimately, disaster.

The most powerful lesson followed my most painful insight: If I wanted to have a better career, I needed to become a better person.

  *  *  *

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