The monkeys of strategy

The same new CEO (see The new CEO) who stepped in to save what seemed to be a faltering software house I worked for in the early 2000s, also did something else worth remembering besides the briefcase-of-shit speech he made. Shortly after this speech, he called a senior staff meeting to talk about strategy. Despite my favourable view of him after the speech, I went to this meeting with some trepidation. In my experience, meetings about strategy were about as useful as campfire stories about snakes—everyone had one, and everyone thought that theirs was better. Real strategy had never been a group thing, any more than composing or poetry or insights of genius had ever been. Real strategies were decided by a single person and communicated in no uncertain terms to others. The new CEO seemed to be a very single person. And so, despite my misgivings, I hoped for the best.

At the meeting was an older woman we did not know. She sat at the far end of the long mahogany boardroom table and stared at a red platform shoe that sat on it in front of her. As we got settled in, I peeked under the table. It was indeed her shoe, not just a spare one she’d brought along as some sort of prop. The new CEO arrived but he didn’t introduce the woman and instead sat at the opposite end of the table and got down to business.

“So?” he said and beamed at us.

We turned to one another. Hadn’t he called the meeting?

“Talk to me,” he clarified.

The woman looked up from her shoe and ballooned her cheeks. There was a moment of awkward silence around the long table. She arched her eyebrows and then pouted like a sulking child and returned to staring at her shoe.

“Alison,” the new CEO pointed at the director of development. “Speak.”

Alison glanced at the woman. “Er—” she began, “—I think—”

The woman grabbed her red platform and knocked its heel sharply against the table, startling a few people. Alison stared at her and then glanced at the new CEO, but it was as though he hadn’t heard.

“—I think we should sell development as a time and materials service. Thus far, we’ve tied our contracts to deliverables.”

The woman cupped her ear and tapped the shoe against the table a few more times, less loudly now, apparently testing some acoustic quality it was rumoured to possess. She mimed a look of exaggerated disappointment and shook her head—it didn’t.

Selling time is just another way to say for prostitution,” the new CEO remarked.

At the word prostitution, the woman dropped her jaw and covered her eyes.

“Mario,” the new CEO said.

Mario was an anal guy who led QA and maintenance. “There’s room to cut costs,” he began eagerly.

The woman furrowed her brow and shook her head the way toddlers do when asked to consider broccoli. She took her hands from her eyes and inspected them, puzzled, as though they had somehow malfunctioned.

“We could—” Mario forged ahead.

She pulled a sour face and covered her ears.

“Wealth isn’t saved,” the new CEO said and folded his hands together. “Malcolm.”

Malcolm, the director in charge of our main contract work, was not going to be caught as the others had been. He paused and looked at the woman. She opened one hand, then the other, and then she held up a finger while she reached beneath the table and produced her other shoe. Then she motioned for him to continue. It was clear by then that we were not there to discuss strategy, even slightly.

“There’s no room for strategy—” Malcolm said and paused again. He looked at the woman. She inserted her hands into the shoes and nodded for him to continue. “—in how we deal with contracts that were signed as part of our founding,” he said.

At this, the woman mimed a little dance with the two shoes.

“There’s room at the bottom and there’s room at the top,” the new CEO said. “Jeff.”

He nodded at the marketing manager, an acclaimed asshole who sat next to the woman. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked as though the new CEO had already taken a dislike to Jeff.

“And you?” he asked.

Jeff cleared his throat and stroked his tie. The woman cocked her head until it was almost level with the table and leaned in to stare at him.

“Er—” he began.

She walked two fingers like little legs up the sleeve of his jacket.

“We could open new markets,” Jeff said while he leaned increasingly away from the woman, “if we—”

The woman sat up and covered her mouth like the last of the three wise monkeys.

“Thanks, Jeff,” the new CEO cut him short. “People,” he said, “we’re at four thousand meters. You know what that means. If my sister can distract you from strategy—”

The woman mimed a little bow.

“—then we’ll never have a strategy as long as Jeff over there has a hole in his arse.”

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