The Mentor

Blair Jockers

Sunday, August 23, 1992

Hurricane Andrew was headed straight for Miami, a monster storm with howling winds and walls of driving rain vividly documented in the television reports as it came ashore in The Bahamas, much bigger than any storm Jack Preston had experienced since moving down from Boston eleven years before. The view of black clouds in the distance from his office in the Cuthbert Incorporated campus in Kendall Lakes gradually disappeared as the maintenance guys rolled metal hurricane shutters down the outside of the plate glass windows. His management team had made sure the factory and office building were safeguarded: Centrifuges shut down, flood dike engaged on the receiving dock, refrigerated inventory moved to an offsite storage facility with a backup generator. The place was ready.

He reclined in a high-backed leather chair and put his feet up on the wide, mahogany desk. Nineteen ninety-two had been a tough year. In January, the family who founded the place in nineteen fifty-nine sold out to a big holding company that required drastic cost cutting to make payments on the debt used to fund the acquisition. Two layoffs had been required earlier in the year, and Jack had just been told to put together a list for a third round on September 9, two weeks away. The rumor mill said the holding company was coming for middle management this time. The guy in charge in Denver, the division that hadn’t made money in years, said he expected to be collateral damage soon, but Jack felt secure. Under his leadership, the South Florida division made money three of the last four quarters, due in no small part to the efforts of the solid management team he’d built during his tenure there.

“You in here?” Ida Johnson, Director of Human Resources, pushed open the door and switched on the light. “We’re all waiting.”

Jack had brought Ida in seven years before, the company’s first and only Black executive. Having her on board looked good when the Cuthbert family came from Sarasota for one of their tightly choreographed annual visits. And, her personal story at the interview was compelling.

“My mother was a maid, her mother was a maid, I was a maid when I was a girl,” she said, looking past Jack out the window as if searching for something not yet in view. “My husband Matthew sold insurance, his father did day labor, grandfather the same. We just wanted more for Percy, our son. He’s all grown up now, graduated top of his class at Dartmouth Engineering.”

She smiled proudly and looked at Jack, returning to the business at hand. “On the tour, I noticed most of your factory floor employees are non-white, and I suspect nobody in management is.”

“True enough,” he said. “What would you do about that?”

“I saw three open supervisor-level positions posted on the job board out in the cafeteria. I’d start there – first try to promote minority candidates from within, and if that didn’t work, recruit external candidates locally. It sends a message, you know, very important these days.”

He’d hired her on the spot, and she did a fine job, at first, bringing stability to the HR department, after a period of high staff turnover and poor morale. But in the last couple of years, she had developed a habit of making everything into a federal case, particularly since the takeover, and her strident demands for aggressive policy changes that could impact the quarterly financial results had begun to wear thin. After giving her situation some thought, Jack decided that, unfortunately, her name probably belonged on the list of his direct reports to be transitioned out on September 9, two weeks out, a list not unlike those he would soon require each of his management team members to prepare. He’d planned to tell her Monday, give her two weeks’ notice not offered to others, but decided to hold off when the hurricane arrived and threw the place into chaos. He needed a steady hand heading up HR until things returned to normal.

“Coming.” Jack pulled his feet down off the desk and followed Ida around the corner into the conference room where she took her regular seat next to his at the head of the table.

He closed the door and nodded to Bill Harcourt, Director of Operations, who provided an update on security measures put in place during the storm as Jack walked from one plate glass window to the next, drawing down the blinds that provided privacy from the staff area across the hall.

After ten minutes reviewing parking access (none), local area network connections (shut off), cafeteria operations (closed), and air-conditioning (off, except in server rooms and the chillers in the plant), Bill summed up: “Just tell your troops – Don’t come.”

“Thanks, Bill,” Jack said, taking his seat. “Before you guys leave, there’s something else I want to discuss.” Jack leaned forward, touched the side of his chin with his index finger, and displayed one of several facial expressions he’d learned at an emotional intelligence seminar a few years back: IMPORTANT/CONCERNED.

He told the team about the layoff – ten percent headcount reduction, with impacted employees to be selected based on an analysis of efficiencies created by the new computer system Cuthbert had finished installing earlier in the year.

Reactions were mixed – deep breaths and folded hands, fearful glances. Ida shook her head slightly and pursed her lips, a blank repose seemingly calculated to wait for any other shoes to drop before she reacted.

“I’m not sure I understand what the new system has to do with it,” Vic Thompson, Director of Engineering remarked.

“Good question, Vic. You need to work with the consultants to create new job descriptions that reflect business processes in alignment with how the new system is designed. Then, compare those job descriptions with the skillsets of the current staff.” STUDIOUS/ PROFESSIONAL. “And guys, you need to think holistically about our needs, right? Consider things like attitude and motivation. Are they team players? Do they fit in well? Do they have ongoing health problems that affect their productivity? This is our chance to, well, to cull the herd.”

Jack was telling them to construct job descriptions that required skills not possessed by people they wanted to get rid of. Ida knew that, of course, maybe one or two others.

“I thought we were going to retrain,” Vic glanced at Ida, who was looking through the window at the metal panels where the view used to be. “We have some promising interns. They don’t know the new system yet, but…”

“Now Vic, we have a business to run here. We need to step up, make tough choices.”

“We’re doing them a favor, guys,” Bill said, always eager to show he was on board with whatever Jack wanted. “It’s a wake-up call for underperformers, right Boss? An opportunity for employees to improve, make a fresh start.”

“Sure…at another company.”

Ida raised her hand. “Jack, the policy we put in place last year is effective as-is, and is in alignment with Federal EEOC rules, too. Are we re-litigating that after all my team’s work?”

Jack ignored her question and stood up. He knew she’d go along. He might not inspire, exactly, but he still had his finger on the money button.

“I need a list from each of you by the end of the week, storm, or no storm. Now go home to your families,” he said. GRACIOUS. “That’s all.”

Jack inched past Dadeland Mall in the Benz, as gusts of wind sent palm fronds soaring in all directions above. When Jack and his ex-wife Katy moved down, they got the retail habit, and the mall became their home away from home. The money they sprayed all over South Florida and beyond over the years was money they hadn’t socked away, so he’d be working as long as Cuthbert let him. Katy was gone now, went back to Boston four years earlier, tired of the humidity, she said, and him. “Living with you is exhausting, Jack. You know a lot about a little.”

A breathless reporter on the radio announced that Andrew had shifted southwest, and a mandatory evacuation was declared south of Kendall Boulevard, which included him.

He arrived home to a message on the answering machine in the front hall from his daughter Colleen. “It’s headed your way, Daddy. Come on up, while you still can. The twins would love having Grandpa here in Lauderdale for a couple of days.”

Thirty seconds after the message ended, the power went out. Jack had planned to stay put, ride out the storm, but stay put now meant no AC in August, a melted freezer, no cable TV. He packed an overnight bag, cranked the hurricane shades shut over the plate glass window in the den, and jumped back in the Benz.

After waiting in line for forty-five minutes in front of what might have been the last open gas station in South Miami, he filled up the tank and pulled back into traffic, one of over a million people evacuating north. According to the radio announcer, traffic on I-95 was now backed up all the way from Jupiter Inlet, and the turnpike was even worse.

He’d done his best with Ida, Jack thought, inching up the turnpike on-ramp. He had certainly offered her plenty of advice over the years. When she first arrived, he suggested she prioritize relationship building with her peers by going out to lunch with the other directors, rather than eating in the cafeteria with the employees. To project a professional image to the staff, he suggested she wear skirts and silk blouses, not the manly pantsuits she seemed to prefer. She’d been a Vice-President at an insurance company in Jacksonville before coming to Cuthbert, so she should have already known this kind of stuff but, as her mentor, Jack found it necessary to reinforce good habits.

“All things to keep in mind,” she’d replied, tactfully.

One hour and fifteen minutes later, Jack passed the Bird Road turnpike toll plaza, heavy rain pounding steadily on the roof, and settled in for the ride.

Sales were down in nineteen eighty-six and nineteen eighty-seven, and the company went into retrenchment mode. At one of their monthly offsite lunches, Jack told Ida her proposed flexible scheduling and employee tuition reimbursement programs were on-hold. She wasn’t pleased.

“We no longer overtly discriminate in hiring and promotion, the kind of things we can get sued over, but that’s all we’ve managed to get done here in the three years since I came on-board.”

Jack didn’t like having to baby his team members. He expected them to take charge, make things happen.

“There’s something we might do that could actually save money, though,” she added. “Turnover is still high, and a comprehensive training program could groom internal talent, give folks a reason to stay. Promoting from within is almost always cheaper than hiring from the outside.”

“Something to think about,” Jack said. CURIOUS. “Leave a proposal on my desk and I’ll take a look.”

In nineteen eighty-eight, one of the Cuthbert children decided he wanted to play at being a CEO and reorganized the place. When Jack lost some obscure political battle and was demoted from Division Head to a no-name special project lead, he felt like his career had permanently crested ten years too soon.

His temporary replacement was a kid straight out of school who told Ida to look for evidence of Jack’s mismanagement that could be used against him out of context – operational hiccups, failure to hit numbers, failure to deliver reports nobody read anyway.

She refused, went all the way to Cuthbert Junior and threatened to quit. Eventually, Junior got bored and returned to his island in the Bahamas, and when Jack got his job back, he and Ida went to a bar at the Biltmore hotel in Coral Gables to celebrate.

“I heard it was a mutiny.” He held up his drink and winked, and they clicked glasses. “The other managers backed you up. That shows you have their respect.” MY PROTÉGÉ KICKS IT!

“Maybe. I work at it, you know. But it gets strange sometimes too Jack, like at that fund-raiser for at-risk kids here at the hotel last year. I was walking from table to table in the ballroom chatting people up while they ate their desserts and one of the managers from accounting asked me to refill his ice-tea.”

“That’s a small thing, Ida.”

“But I’ve been around for four years now, in a highly visible role. I even helped him get a hiring requisition mess-up straightened out, so he had to know I’m not a waitress.”

Jack had confidential lunches with the secretaries of his direct reports, just to stay in touch. Ida’s secretary Amy, the daughter of one of Katy’s friends at the country club, had told him: Ms. Johnson is going through a divorce. She can be pushy, so I can kind of understand, you know; not that I mind, Mr. Preston. I like my boss to demand the best from me…

“Now, don’t be too sensitive. You can’t let your home life impact your work life.”

Ida sat up in her chair, nostrils flaring. “It’s not about me, Jack. It’s about how the employees see me. They have no idea how many of my proposals end up stuck on… on somebody’s desk.”

“Don’t feel bad, Ida. I know you’re doing your best.”

Ida looked at her watch.

The whole mess with Junior taught Jack something. The family’s younger generation wasn’t interested in running the business, and three years later, had sold out to the holding company that was now making Jack’s life hell. His priority had to be his own survival, hitting the quarterly numbers without making waves, and Ida’s big ideas would take a back seat to more pressing challenges.

Traffic came to a dead stop just past the NW41st St exit. The rain had stopped, and the wind calmed down a little.

At one of Jack’s lunches with Amy, a month before Andrew came to town, she mentioned Ida was furious about Jack’s rejection of the proposed new-and-improved flexible scheduling plan she developed with Bill. She’s super upset. She talks on the phone a lot with the door closed, too. Some people say she’s looking for another job. Not me, of course, I never listen in on private conversations.

At her seventh annual performance review a few days later, Jack asked Ida how she thought things were going.

“Well, these days, I just try to keep the few programs I put in early on from being scrapped.”

Everybody wants to be the boss, Jack thought. Executive positions aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. You never get everything you want.

“I know what you mean,” he nodded, not in agreement, exactly, but to be polite. “The new owners…” LONGSUFFERING

She glanced at him and took a deep breath, then they discussed her proposal to enclose the outdoor seating area by the cafeteria with a white picket fence.

The traffic finally broke at NW 106th St. and Jack exited soon after on Okeechobee Rd. He made his way through the driving rain and arrived at the happy chaos of Colleen’s place a few minutes later: kids and dogs jumping around, candles flickering everywhere; heaps of pork chops, chicken breasts and veal cutlets from the empty freezer crammed onto a gas grill on the covered patio out back.

The storm was finally over.

On September 7, two days before the layoff announcement, Jack met with Ida to discuss her future. At first, he made small talk. Bill was retiring and Jack asked her about the search for his replacement.

“Last we talked; I asked you to contact placement offices at MBA programs up north. How is that going?”

“I decided to go another direction. I found a great internal candidate. He’s experienced, has the respect of the folks in the plant.”

She had done this without his knowledge, defied his express directive.

“Who is it?”

“Patrick Hastings. He’s been running Packaging for four years now. You know him?”

“Yeah, he’s the guy who works out, right? Wears a tank top to show off?”

“We said jeans and tanks are okay in the summer months, Jack, as you might remember.”

“You think we need a guy like that in management, mincing around, setting an example for the other employees?” Jack was having trouble hiding his true feelings, lately. DISTASTE. “Does he even have a degree?”

Ida ignored Jack’s subtle reference to Patrick’s sexual orientation. “He subbed for Bill when he had his heart attack last year. There is no one more qualified for this position, Jack. We made him an offer…”

“Not without my approval?” PULLING RANK

“…which he accepted. Patrick is the new plant manager.”

“Absolutely not…”

“Jack,” Ida interrupted him, possibly for the first time. “It’s not up to you anyway, not anymore. I thought that’s what you wanted to talk to me about.”

Jack had been at this game long enough to know that some change had occurred involving his role at the company – another special project; a transfer to Denver to clean up the mess there; or maybe, Jack swallowed hard, maybe his own name was on a list prepared by someone at the holding company.

“I’m sorry, Jack. I thought you knew.”

Until he got the real story, Jack decided the most important thing was to retain his dignity. STUDIED NONCHALANCE.

“Since you seem to know everything,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Who’s taking my place?”

Jack had long accustomed himself to Ida’s inscrutable half-smile – not a pleased agreement, or even a questioning smirk; more a knowing grin that suggested she didn’t quite know how to respond…or didn’t wish to.

“Why I am, Jack. I’m the new division head.”