The boardroom

To pay the bills, Jack worked as a middle manager at Sherwitt & Sons, a shipping company. He didn’t like his job; he didn’t dislike it. That was all beside the point. He worked to get a paycheck, nothing more, and he did his best to keep his likes and dislikes for his evenings and weekends.

Jack did, however, dislike the Sherwitt & Sons boardroom. Located at the top of the company’s seven-story office building, it occupied a third of the entire floor. It had the old-fashioned showiness of a long-established and formerly family-run, medium-sized company. For the full length of the room stretched large plate-glass windows, maximizing the view. On the wall opposite hung portraits of Sherwitt family members staring down sternly, impatiently, as beside these were portraits of the few recent CEOs arriving after the family had sold a large share of the company to external investors. The board table itself was made of rare Indonesian teak, and the chairs were large and comfortable. The carpet was plush and soft, but not unprofessional. At the far end of the room ran a perpendicular side table of the same rare Indonesian teak for a cadre of secretaries to sit and ensure that minutes were taken in full, coffee was kept hot and pastries fresh, and each meeting ran smoothly.

Though charming at first glance, the boardroom seemed a hostile place to Jack, and this was what he disliked. The board table ended in sharp edges and jutting corners, warding off anyone who casually approached it. The view was expansive, but bleak: a few other mid-sized office buildings before a vast, blackened industrial area stretching out beyond. The portrait faces, which would be otherwise handsome or even winsome, seemed ugly and cruel, their crooked smiles and narrowed eyes hinting at all the inner workings of a history of miserly transport barons. Even the carpet seemed to drag at the chair wheels, stymying their movement as if trying to fix each person permanently in place.

Today, Jack was on his way to this very boardroom for the company’s quarterly review meeting. The quarterly review was the time for the executives, as well as a few of their chosen direct reports (of which Jack was one), to hear the preaching of Milton Sherwitt, the company CEO, and to supply him their pound of flesh if, as happened often these days, the company hadn’t hit its targets.

Jack rode the elevator up to the seventh floor alone. He made a point to arrive early for these meetings, not to impress anyone, and certainly not to enjoy the boardroom’s ambiance, but to simply relax and fix himself into a casual state of mind for what would follow.

On his way out of the elevator he saw Walter Burns, the Chief Operating Officer. Their sons played little league together. “Here early for a good seat, Wally?” Jack quipped.

Walter looked up, having been thinking of something else. “Och,” he muttered at Jack, “you know they assign seats at these things. Came up early to get away from it all.” Pausing to look at Jack, he asked, “Hey, your boy… it’s Derek, isn’t it? – he doing alright at school?” Jack nodded and was about to answer when the elevator chimed behind him and out walked Sylvia Dobri, head of marketing.

“Sylvia? You come early to these meetings, too?” Jack asked, leaving Walter to his thoughts.

“Just want to escape to the rooftop for a cigarette,” she sighed. She looked exhausted. “You know, this job is starting to wear on me,” she spontaneously confided. Though her exhaustion made what she said self-evident, saying it aloud had embarrassed her, and she quickly drew herself up and walked on past Jack to the rooftop exit.

Jack went in ahead of Walter and Sylvia, sat in his chair and rolled it a couple times against the soft carpet. He organized his papers and chose a chocolate pastry from the tray. Soon, as the meeting time approached, people began to file in amidst muffled talk and nervous chatter, the talk of people approaching something dreadful but inescapable. Each person ceremoniously stopped by the coffee urn, ornately decorated like a Russian samovar, and poured themselves a cup. Then, assiduously avoiding the pastries, they each sat themselves at their named locations around the board table. To Jack this behaviour struck him as what lemmings would do, or army recruits falling in with some rehearsed regulation.

Last to enter was Milton Sherwitt, striding right to the head of the table, briskly calling the meeting to order. He motioned to a secretary and behind him the wall projector lit up at the same time the room lighting dimmed down. For a few seconds eyes squinted and pupils dilated to make out the CEO’s silhouette in front of the bright backdrop. Then he began the meeting in the same way he always began: welcoming the group, introducing any new faces, picking out one or two top-performers over the past quarter, reminding the room that this was an important presentation, and finally asking all present to join him in getting right down to business.

During this last quarter, as was the case these days, business was bad. Very bad, in fact, according to Sherwitt. The CEO led the group through quarterly earnings results, showed how the company had fared against its targets, how it had fallen behind, how labour costs were rising near out-of-control, and how, unless action was soon taken, the future of this illustrious company, Sherwitt & Sons, may well be in jeopardy. To Jack’s memory, this was no departure from the speech given last quarter which had ended with an announcement that a collective bargaining agreement had been reached to roll-back salaries for staff at the company’s major sea-ports, an endeavour which had been enacted over the last three months with remarkable employee goodwill given the company’s poor history of labour relations.

Sherwitt then began to dive deeper into the overall business metrics, inscrutable to everyone by the CEO himself, and into their ramifications for the company. Jack began to tune out what Milton Sherwitt was saying; he had heard it all before, after all. But while his ears stoppered up his eyes began to sharpen. He watched the CEO gesture with his long arms and long hands as he progressed through the slides. He saw him turn first to one side of the table and then, in a careful balancing act, swing around to face the opposite side. He saw the pauses, the tilts of head, the subtle whole-body swaying he employed when ending a point with a canned company phrase which produced an effect like waves rolling into shore and was meant to be calming. In never calmed Jack, though. Instead it seemed to him a hypnotist trick of rhythmically moving a watch in front of man’s eyes, lulling him into deeper sleep.

Then something caught Jack’s eye. Something minute, a gesture Milton Sherwitt had done that Jack had only glimpsed. It was something very small, like an extra blink or a touch of a handcuff with the opposite hand, something that Jack wouldn’t have seen if his ears hadn’t been stoppered up and his eyes hadn’t been sharpened. Jack couldn’t even describe it to himself, couldn’t even remember the movement exactly, but he knew that there surely was a movement. Seeing it made him come to and sit up sharply, his elbow swinging out and near knocking over his coffee. He shot quick glances at his two neighbours, but neither had noticed his near mishap. Instead, like the rest of the room, they were either transfixed or lulled near asleep by Milton Sherwitt’s performance.

Jack, from his low-status position at the far end of the boardroom table, could see almost everyone. His sharpened eyes now turned away from the CEO to begin inspecting the rest of the group. There was the in-house legal counsel, two men in exceedingly immaculate attire. Across from them sat Walter, the COO, a big balding man, wide in the chest and uncomfortable in his too small suit jacket. There were fashionably dressed accountants (one young man wore bright red suspenders) and Sylvia along with her fashionably disheveled marketing assistants. The short and spectacled men from finance were there, as well as the CEO’s personal assistants (there were two). These people, in addition to many others (there were maybe twenty in total), all wore one of those two same expressions their faces: entrancement or sleepy boredom. To Jack, not one seemed alert to the CEO.  Rather they all seemed simply in attendance, as people might go to a B-rated movie simply to eat popcorn and stare forward, their brains not thinking because they either could not or would not engage them.

Then Jack caught sight of another unnatural movement from Milton Sherwitt. This movement was more obvious. Sherwitt’s thin, fake smile that perpetually scanned across those in the boardroom had rested one moment too long on a single person. Jack had followed the CEO’s eyes: in his sights was Mark Jettsberg, director of logistics. Jettsberg looked straight back at the CEO wearing the same entranced look as many of the others. He was utterly still, save for his hands which were in motion gripping his pen, twisting and untwisting the cap.

Jack’s attention snapped back to the CEO. “Which brings us to the most important part of this presentation,” Milton Sherwitt was saying in summary, “the most important part in any company meeting – deciding what to do next. Where are we to go from here if we are to restore Sherwitt & Sons’ profitability?” He asked all of this rhetorically, but Jack, having just witnessed some unspoken exchange between Sherwitt and Jettsberg was now quickly yet surreptitiously flipping through his printed copy of the CEO’s presentation, searching for mentions of Jettsberg’s division. He found bullet points sprinkled across numerous different slides:

Sherwitt & Sons key logistical challenges/ A new logistics paradigm in transport/ Logistics labour force constraints/ Transporting our company into the future: a renewed logistics direction

Again Jack looked over at Jettsberg. The pen cap was being twisted and untwisted more furiously than ever, but now Jettsberg’s body was also swaying along with the CEO’s in that same hypnotic rhythm like waves rolling inevitably into shore.

Sherwitt was reaching his crescendo, noticeable to only half the room; the other half were fully disengaged from anything he was saying. His long arms and hands began to quiet down, his whole body stiffened and he drew himself up taller and more aloof.

“Which is why as CEO, as it has been with all the illustrious CEOs of Sherwitt & Sons,” he gestured admiringly at the portraits staring down on the room, “it is clear that this company must make a hard, but necessary, business decision.” Jack winced. Half of the group seemed to come to. A ripple of nervousness ran round the room upon hearing the words “business decision”, words everyone knew to mean an unethical decision but dressed up with a neat little ethical checklist. Jack knew that “business decision” was a useful phrase for any captain to manage just before dumping someone overboard and that it was a portent of what would come next. Jettsberg body was still swaying, but now his face contorted into a weak smile as he continued to stare straight on into the CEO’s hooded eyes.

“Though we have been a transport company from our earliest days,” Milton Sherwitt continued, indifferent to the nervousness, “and always will be a transport company, we will soon no longer be a logistics company. Our logistics division will be carved off from the company to be managed by a separate firm on contract to Sherwitt & Sons.” Milton Sherwitt and Mark Jettsberg were now swaying at the same frequency, two boats lashed together, bobbing up and down as the waves rolled in. “This reorganization will achieve the labour cost reduction our shareholders have demanded and assist us in regaining our previous profitability.” Other than the swaying, Jettsberg still hadn’t changed his body language, except for blushing brightly owing to the fact that all eyes in the room were now turned to him.

“Naturally,” Sherwitt concluded, “Mark Jettsberg and his division will execute their handover to the contracted logistics firm. We will be sorry to see them go. We will be sorry to see you go, Mark.” With a motion of his head he gave the floor over to Jettsberg.

“I-I, I’ve been very proud to be a m-member of Sherwitt & Sons these past ten years.” Jettsberg was speaking each word with intense effort, clearly wanting to get them all out. “It’s been a pleasure. I know I’ve contributed to the success of this company.” He paused slightly. “The move to contracted logistics management is a necessary change and I’ll do my best to make the transition as smooth as possible.” Jettsberg rushed through this last sentence and then quickly leaned back and away from the board table. With an inward motion of his long arm, Milton Sherwitt silently took back the floor and rapidly brought the quarterly review to a close, not wanting to lose the rudely poetic finality of his unexpected announcement.

As the members slowly packed up and filed out, Jack lingered. He hovered by the coffee urn, delaying his departure by slowly pouring himself a coffee and picking at a pastry while absorbing all that had just taken place. It struck Jack that perhaps he didn’t dislike the boardroom after all, and that it wasn’t hostile because in a way it was foolish, childish even. The people of the company came here not to be real men and women but instead to play at life, putting on CEO hats, and secretary hats, and director of logistics hats, acting out dramas entirely unworthy of grown human beings, but utterly expected and condoned in the amoral conditions of the boardroom. The boardroom was not hostile, it was fatuous and pretend, like a child’s dollhouse.

As Jack made his way back to the elevator he found Sylvia coming back through the rooftop exit. She looked even more frazzled than before. “Are you alright?” Jack asked.

A person can keep everything together so long as another doesn’t ask them if everything is “alright”, and now tears rushed up into Sylvia’s eyes as she fought them back with furious blinking. “It’s just—it’s just,” she stumbled, “it’s my mother. She’s in the hospital. She’s not doing well.”

“Let’s get out of here, then,” Jack said. “Come on, let’s go for lunch. Let me take you to lunch.” Sylvia, still fighting back tears, agreed with a nod of her body.

“I’ll get Walter, too,” Jack said. “Something’s on his mind, I can tell. He’d like to get out, I’m sure.” Sylvia looked at him and smiled weakly. Then she pushed the elevator button and Jack watched the doors close, the boardroom and all its artificiality disappearing from sight.

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About Graham Lettner

My wife and I recently moved from Zambia back home to Alberta. I'm lucky to have been asked to be a guest blogger for the Localize Project. I love writing stories, and when the subject is food -- something that connects us to the planet and to each other -- the stories are endless.
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