Under Fire by the VP of X
There I was, sitting in this plush conference room, deep in the bowels of a large corporate bureaucracy. I was surrounded by the client. That's a kind of mass noun, "the client": I mean I was surrounded at the table by people from the client company, including a woman who was my usual contact-person there. Among the attendees were several members of her department, including her boss, a senior vice president whom I'd met a few times. (Since he headed the department that had hired me, I'll call him "my" VP.) Also present, seated at the opposite end of the table, was another vice president, from an entirely different department of the company, and a couple of his assistants. I'd never had any dealings with them before. We'll call them "Department X."
Prepare For Battle
Although I'd never met the Department X people before -- in fact, never even heard of them until the previous day -- I knew they were The Enemy. I knew this because my client had subtly clued me in to this alarming fact on the phone the day before, when she'd "invited" me to the meeting. An intelligent and cautious woman, she spoke in circumlocutions and didn't say anything I could specifically pin down... but she got the message across somehow. Her boss ("my" VP) hated the VP of Department X. The bastards from Department X requested this meeting with the consultant (me), pretending to be helpful, but really hoping to either take over the project or kill it. Actually it had nothing to do with the project; it was part of a struggle for corporate power. Whether they took over the project or killed it would make no difference to me: either way, I'd be out. I wasn't "their" consultant.
Sitting in the room with this nest of... sweethearts... watching them glaring (but subtly!) at each other, I tried to guess who was more uncomfortable: me or my client team. Objectively, I thought, it should have been me: after all, I stood to lose an important project and a fair bit of money, while surely my client team would not get fired even if Department X prevailed.
Commence The Battle: You Attack, I'll Smile Stupidly
And so the VP of X interrogated me. I had expected him to do a better job. I've seen my share of tough courtroom movies, of 1930s Cagney films, not to mention more current (but much less interesting) real-life political sagas. I've even seen a few live, real-life judicial skirmishes. In short, I had a standard of comparison, and I thought the VP of X fell short. His attempts at Grand Inquisitor seemed limp and disconnected, as though he were trying to copy the style of toughness without having mastered the substance of it. In fairness, he was not a lawyer (or much of anything, as far as I could tell), and there was no particular reason that his desire to damage should have been matched by any skill at it. I was able to fend off with ease his insinuations about the logical holes in, and general worthlessness of, the project I'd been contracted to do. Actually, I didn't fend them off, in the sense of debating; I simply ignored them. I answered as though I was so dopey that I didn't understand that I (or, really, my client department) was under attack. I felt like an actor in an improvisational play as I pretended not to notice the nasty insinuations in the X VP's questions. I ignored his pompous manner and his complete misunderstanding of the project. I acted as though his remarks made perfect sense, and I answered in a bland, inoffensive, generic way, essentially saying nothing (but saying it nicely). As I uttered my vacuous generalities, the people in "my" department rhythmically nodded their heads as though I were speaking sagely.
Me, Zenlike? Maybe I Just Forgot To Get Upset
Oh, by the way, did I mention that I was calm? Calmness is not, perhaps, one of my most notable attributes, but nonetheless I remained unruffled during this little charade. Surprisingly, I was very calm. Remember that, if you will: it goes to the heart of this little story.
It probably wasn't the VP of X's ineptness at playing the heavy that kept me tranquil. After all, being attacked by a bozo may not be very threatening, but it can still be annoying enough to provoke some emotion... like a mosquito who keeps trying to fly up one of your nostrils on a summer evening and won't desist.
One might surmise that my calm had a purely political/practical explanation: my realization that, ultimately, the meeting made no difference. It was just some pro-forma thing that my VP had to go along with so the X VP couldn't claim he was being stonewalled. Somehow I knew that it didn't matter what I said, and didn't matter what the X people thought, so long as I didn't say anything that they could use as ammunition later.
I sensed that Department X had no real power to kill the project, that my VP was more powerful than the X VP whom he hated. In fact, I realized that if my VP had ever had any thought of killing the project, he would never kill it now because that would be giving in to the hated X. I was actually more secure than ever! All I had to do was not make any blunders, not lose my cool or rise to any of the bait that was proffered. Nobody on my side had explained to me in advance the necessity of acting this way, but somehow I just knew.
Afterwards, when the meeting was over, my VP said nothing to me, but he nodded oh-so-slightly and smiled oh-so-slightly and I knew there was no problem.
Yes, the political/practical reality of the situation seems like the explanation for my calmness under fire. However, I don't believe that captures the essence of the situation. I can't prove this, but I think I would have remained pretty calm even if there was a fair chance of losing the project.
Hovering Above the Garbage
This whole story is about petty crap, of course, perhaps not even worthy of being recounted. However, when you rise to a certain level as an independent consultant, you are sooner or later (probably sooner) going to be subjected to something like this. Does it sound really bad? It wasn't so bad. I kept the project, my client liked me better than ever, and I walked away from that meeting laughing inside about the fools from Department X. I knew I'd never have to interact with that X VP again.
I can put on an act for an hour at a client meeting, but I can't do it for months or years at a regular job. At a regular job, if I think something is crap, or that somebody doesn't know what he's talking about, then everybody knows that's what I think. If I'm having a struggle with someone, it's obvious to all and sundry. Maybe that's why I was tranquil in that interrogation room: I knew that I had the luxury of going back to my home office afterwards, while my clients were stuck in the same building with Department X. I knew their fight went on long before and long after my involvement. I may be a wage slave today, but I've been an IP before and someday I'll be one again, and friends, I tell you this: however bad corporate political crap might seem sometimes when you're consulting for them, to the wage slaves on the inside it's a hundred times worse.
I'll tell you why I stayed calm. In my heart, I was the most powerful person in that interrogation room. Because of my skills, my contacts, my confidence, I knew I could always work, always find a project. The VP of X was impotent against me.
Afterwards I commiserated with my client (I mean my direct contact, not her VP boss) about having to put up with so much crap. She apologized for my having to go through that (not specifying what "that" meant), and thanked me for having helped out. But I'll tell you a little secret, something I never told any of them: I enjoyed being in that interrogation room. Not because of the joy of combat -- I'm no lawyer at heart -- but for a deeper reason. It was a reminder that I, as an IP, couldn't really be touched by any of them. In that room, under the feeble fire of the VP of X, I tasted my freedom... and it tasted good.
San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.
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