Monday, April 27, 2009
A Sales Conference
By Namit Arora
On Sunday evening, Ved flies to Palm Springs, California, to represent his product at Omnicon’s annual sales conference. More than a thousand of his coworkers from scores of countries will attend the three-day event. A chirpy event coordinator greets him at the airport and drives him and six others to a sprawling resort hotel at the edge of the city. It has its own golf course, horse ranch, hot air balloon rides, an artificial lake with boating, and gigantic auditoriums.
The conference opens at 7:30 A.M. next morning with a video recording of a high-energy rock band on four large screens. The lead guitarist screams, ‘Omnicon is blazing ahead, blazing ahead with all the winning elements!’ The intent is to get the adrenalin flowing early in the morning. The band’s screechy cacophony annoys Ved, but the sight of his Japanese colleagues in dark suits clapping earnestly amuses him.
On the walls of their auditorium are multicultural posters of happy people in business attire: shaking hands, gazing at computer screens with animated smiles, or peering lovingly at Omnicon’s box-like equipment. So much joy their products bring into this world! A gleaming red Ferrari stands outside the auditorium, soon to be awarded to the Salesman of the Year.
Ved is one of over fifty thousand employees of Omnicon in 130 countries. More than half of the world’s Internet traffic passes through Omnicon’s equipment. It never ceases to astound him that his company spends more on R&D alone than what the government of India spends on all its schools and hospitals.
He is paid to think about market dynamics, competition, and product positioning for a line of products. He crafts easy-to-digest messages, and describes features and benefits for less technical audiences. In a nutshell, he helps Omnicon’s salespeople sell. In doing so, he must sell himself too: his ideas, personality, skills.
Omnicon’s CEO, Greg Dyer, opens the proceedings by pointing out the importance of ‘the passion within’ that keeps his ‘intense focus on the customer.’ He claims to wake up everyday to this thought: ‘What can I do for my customers today?’ With his body language and deep voice, he projects authority and confidence. Following a loud drum roll, he introduces a new corporate tagline for Omnicon: Your potential, our passion. It is to replace the current tagline: Business is the game, play to win. Greg’s hour-long presentation is laced with frequent references to excitement, power, speed, and killing the competition.
To usher in a new growth phase, says Greg, Omnicon needs proactive competence renewal, relentless focus on systemic process quality, end-to-end mission-critical service creation, leveraged opportunities in emerging value domains, tapping latent creativities, and last but not least, the shaping of end-user behavior in a converged world.
Greg ends with a misplaced quote by Martin Luther King Jr. and by reiterating Omnicon’s four corporate values: Customer satisfaction, Achievement, Relentless learning, Empowering people (CARE)—all neatly embossed on a genuine twelfth-century knight’s shield (bought from a private European collection) in Omnicon’s main lobby.
A few months ago, Greg sanctioned new artwork at Omnicon. What was once anti-establishment art is now the art of the establishment, defanged, made chic: a wall-sized woodcarving of Ché Guevara’s shaggy face in one conference room; a reproduction of a Diego Rivera mural in another. High-resolution posters adorn major hallways: a lone bald eagle in flight, muscular rowers in a longboat, lean white people scaling mountain peaks. Inspirational messages appear beneath: only those who see the invisible can do the impossible. True leaders don’t strive to be first but are the first to strive. Dream more than others think is practical, expect more than others think is possible.
During a break in the morning sessions, Greg stands in the hallway surrounded by other senior managers. Ved sips tea and watches them from a distance. He notices their deference to rank and power as they compete with each other to impress the boss. It is good to be the king.
Though Ved has long seen Greg as a dreary man, isn’t this precisely what one needs in a CEO—this dedication, hunger for success and growth, the cold and focused execution of a navy seal? Wall Street appears unanimous: a visionary par excellence, among the best of the new breed of entrepreneurs. Omnicon is lucky to have him at the helm. For this, Omnicon’s board of directors has granted him a private jet and millions of stock options.
The session resumes. Greg introduces the next speaker, ‘Every great company has a few individuals who boldly go where no one has gone before. These latter day gladiators don’t seek easy journeys but new adventures and the rewards of leadership. At Omnicon, we celebrate such people. I introduce the next speaker with great pride and humbleness.’
An animated young man, a project leader from the Internet Games Online Division (iGOD), walks onto the stage to give a sneak preview of the games due for release—Pocket Empire and Ballistic Adventure. ‘One thing that keeps me motivated,’ he says proudly, ‘is the opportunity to do something that nobody has done before. I want to be able to look back in ten years and say, "look what I’ve achieved!" That’s the cool thing about working for a company that gives you the chance to pursue your dreams.’ Next to Ved, an older British colleague softly intones, ‘Oh, puhleeze!’ just as the audience bursts into a hearty applause. Ved turns to him and smiles; there is hope yet.
Presentations continue all afternoon. An industry guru offers an “independent” take on Omnicon’s market. He unveils his big idea: The true killer application is killing time. He explains that the leisure that technology creates, and other remaining “idle time” in the life of the techno-savvy consumer, needs to be filled with new technology—this is the race and this is our ultimate challenge! Using homey anecdotes to foster intimacy and trust, he paints an upbeat picture of the potential ahead and endorses Greg’s daring strategy of growth via strategic acquisitions—twelve in the last year alone.
New hardware, software, multimedia gadgets, and gaming consoles are launched. The air reverberates with jargon: synergy, paradigm, leverage, proactive, deployment, value-proposition, mission-critical, solution ecosystem.
In the evening, a bus conveys everyone on his hotel floor to a noisy Brazilian Churrascaria. Cocktails start flowing, alongside self-congratulatory speeches from senior salesmen (‘what a great, hard-working bunch we are’). Only seven of the eighty employees in the dining hall are women. None are seated near Ved.
He finds himself seated across a sales director from the US western region, a “Top 5%” salesman last year. Conversation soon reveals that the salesman is fond of Harleys and once traversed the entire US west coast on one. Each year he also hunts elk and moose in the Great Northwest on a friend’s ranch. Last year, he and his two friends nearly broke their backs dragging the corpse of an adult moose back to their cabin, a task normally done by Mexican farmhands with pickup trucks. Thankfully, the perfect roast that night made up for it. His words are laced with common expletives (‘that fuckin' moose’, ‘friggin' awesome roast’).
Next to Ved is the marketing director for Asia-Pacific, a young Singaporean educated in a US business school. They often collaborate on regional marketing programs. The director is an ideal corporate employee: clever, hardworking, analytical, and devoid of distracting interest in anything beyond his profession. How do clever people let themselves be content with such tunnel-vision: knowing more and more about less and less? Is that being clever or obtuse?
Shortly, a dozen servers go around the hall with massive slabs of rare meat on skewers. They stop on request and use a china dish to gather the red-brown fluid that drips as they carve the flesh. Fortunately for Ved, there is also a salad bar.
‘How far are you on the Asian Telecom testimonial you promised me?’ Ved asks the marketing director from Singapore.
‘I’m working on it,’ he responds. ‘It’s real close.’
‘You are not getting the Shanghai Bank case study until you get me the testimonial.’ There is a friendly threat in Ved’s tone.
‘No worries, I have everything worked out.’ He leans towards Ved, lowers his voice and says, ‘Keep this to yourself. We’re sending the customer and his wife to Hawaii. For this favor, he has agreed to let us write our own testimonial in his name. In fact, I’ve already drafted it. I’ll show it to you tomorrow.’
‘Bravo. Is this the secret of your rapid climb on the Asia-Pacific management ladder?’
‘I always get the job done,’ he says with a straight face. ‘That is the secret.’
Two drinks later, the moose-hunting sales director’s eyes have turned bloodshot. His expletives have multiplied, as have his lustful stares at a young waitress. Chomping on rare cuts, his chin is slick with grease. His plate is heaped with bones and streaked with red. Ved, suddenly nauseated, excuses himself, rushes to the men’s room and throws up. Bits of rice, beans, salsa and chips he ate for lunch come gushing out.
After the meal, the sales director inquires about post-dinner entertainment: how about a gentlemen’s club? ‘I doubt there is one,’ someone opines. ‘Palm Springs is a retirement community, people come here to die.’
‘I bet there still are lots of horny bastards like me.’ There are subdued chuckles. The sales director accosts a waiter who, minutes later, reappears with several names scribbled on a piece of paper. For this he receives a $10 tip. Word spreads and before too long a small contingent is settled on their post-dinner entertainment.
‘Are you going to join us Ved?’ The sales director pronounces his name wade. He is used to it by now, this clobbering of his name in America.
‘No thanks, I am tired. I didn’t get enough sleep last night.’ Not his idea of fun, to wade through strip joints with tipsy salesmen away from their wives. This form of entertainment, he feels certain, is behind him. It is not even of anthropological interest. On the bus ride back to the hotel, Ved is seated next to Fardad, a field engineer from Los Angeles, who inquires where Ved is from before revealing his own place of origin: Persia.
‘Why not say Iran?’
‘Yes,’ Fardad pauses, then resumes in a softer voice. ‘I think you’ll understand. I say Persia because Iran has such bad PR in America: Axis of Evil, fatwa-rattling mullahs, and so on. Persia sounds neutral, even exotic, with its cats, rugs, and ancient culture. As it turns out,’ he smiles, ‘most Americans don’t know that Persia is also Iran! They think it’s another country.’
A team-building event is scheduled for the second evening in Palm Springs. Omnicon’s Human Resources team has worked for weeks to make it happen. Participation is mandatory. They say that such events help break down barriers, foster trust, communication, and teamwork, hone leadership skills, and identify strengths and weaknesses. The end result is improved employee motivation and productivity.
But such events remind Ved of his place in the corporate machine: a puny gear that needs to be lubed and conditioned periodically. He knows that in this system, their collective output and efficiency matters above all else, but who needs juvenile games to rub this in? He dreads the small talk, the pretense of interest.
He considers calling in sick (diarrhea? vomiting? diarrhea plus vomiting?). But the evening is pleasant and the option of room service is not too appealing. Besides, cocktails and dinner would be served right after the event in the nicest part of the resort, the velvety green garden by the man-made lake he saw in the morning. How striking its contrast with the barren desert behind! He will surely meet a few like-minded Europeans who find this American team-building stuff ridiculous too, not to mention the human comedy of such events. So he goes.
Omnicon’s contingent is soon divided into tribes of American Indians: Hopi, Navajo, Sioux, etc. Each is to compete in quintessential “Indian activities,” such as making a campfire, a treasure hunt, pitching a nylon tent, and climbing rope ladders. His tribe is Navajo, and he is part of a group that is to build a campfire. Meanwhile alcohol starts flowing from four portable kiosks. It is late evening shortly before sunset. The desert air is starting to cool.
The project gets a boost when his Navajos stumble upon prime firewood neatly piled for them to discover and use. Many Navajos, among them Mexicans, Chinese, and Japanese, display childlike enthusiasm in transferring the logs to a brick-lined pit. Good thing there aren’t any real Navajos watching this, he thinks. Without sharing their elation, he does his bit for the cause by tending a fire that burns evenly. His Navajos finish ahead of other tribes, congregate with beers and margaritas, and start bantering. He fails to see what team-building purpose was served.
But the dancing flames warm him up. Staring into them he wonders: if he were marooned on a deserted tropical island, what three things would he need the most? Potable water would surely be first. The next, he reckons, ought to be the art of making fire. What a difference fire must have made to early humans! Isn’t it is way up there with stone tools, agriculture, and writing? Did humans get civilized before or after learning to use fire, if civilization is defined as humans learning to see in others their own human essence?
People mingle, the din of conversation rises, dinner is served, announcements made, and awards given. For post-dinner entertainment, an ex-Olympian archer in a cowboy outfit displays his skill by shooting apples off his wife’s head. Is there anything people won’t do for a living? By now his colleagues have grown loud with alcohol and lustily applaud the performance. The evening ends with a resplendent fireworks display befitting Omnicon’s size and financial muscle. The twenty-minute show lights up the night sky.
And indeed what a vast enterprise Omnicon is! Even core government portfolios in most countries—the health ministry of Greece, for instance—lack the budget of an executive vice president at Omnicon. Money is power, and with it, corporations are changing the world in their image. In a way, he too is on this leading edge of change.
But what kind of change, he wonders? On one hand, he is part of a system that creates new vocations, convenience, and leisure through advances in technology, a quest as old as humankind. On the other, he now also belongs to a global culture of competitive self-interest that sanctifies yielding to desire without consulting the soul’s scruples. Rights are now chic, not obligations. The citizen has been replaced by the customer, who apparently knows best. Instant gratification is king, not personal responsibility. This is called progress. Yet if there is a sustained linear relationship between material and moral progress, he fails to see it. What good is the former without the latter?
Some argue that technology has given far more power to man than he can handle with grace. But were men graceful with power in any age? Except that the stakes are so much higher today. And one thing is clear to him: Technology skews power relationships, and unbalanced power corrupts the soul. By working for Omnicon, is he not helping the US and its cronies expand their power and dominance over other countries? Is he not helping the culture of narrow self-interest to swell out of bounds? Oh, how he longs to know: is the net impact of his daily labors good or bad for the world? Is he, or is he not, acting like a little Eichmann?
More writing by Namit Arora?
Posted by Namit Arora at 01:45 AM | Permalink