That Sense of Ownership
A short story by Kevin Delaney
I am at that time in my career when I really feel the need to step up to the plate and think about my future. By future, I mean the whole ball of wax including my son’s tuition to college, paying off my mortgage, and above all building the nest egg for retirement.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my role as the head-strong, carefree worker on the line. The real me is still kicking back beers at O’Malley’s Corner Tavern while laughing about the idiocy of the suits running the show. There is a still a blue collar shirt wrapped around this soul.
But, with the airplane bombings and tight economy, I’ve really been feeling a need for change. I want to be more than a spectator in the community. I feel that there is a greater potential inside me waiting release. To do anything less than to reach my potential would be to cheat the world.
Which is greedier: the desire to advance in one’s career or the impulse to stagnation?
I’m sorry, I guess I am still uncomfortable in this suit.
I’ve spent several grueling days going through this long internal conversations about the risks of the present and challenges of the future. I suspect that few readers will believe me, but my acceptance of this promotion wasn’t just personal greed. I feel that by being in a position where I can do and create more, I will be able to give more to my family and community. Reaching my potential is not just about me. It is about everything around me. My thriving is part of the community’s thriving.
Stepping up to the plate was the right decision. I am sure of it. For that matter, I think stepping up to the plate in times of trouble is a matter of character. Certainly, nothing about these last two weeks in this new position could remotely be called desirable or fun.
Plain and simple: The last two weeks have been a meat grinder. So far, there has been nothing even remotely cushy about my role in management. The last weeks can be summed up as the most difficult time in my life.
By difficult times, I mean truly difficult times. The market demanded a forty percent reduction in force. The writing was there on the wall for a long time. The factory would either have a mass lay off event or the products we provide would start coming over the sea on ships from China.
Talk of pundits aside, the economy is weak. Our leading customer needs to put smiley faces on price reduction tags. There is no way we can achieve the required pricing target with our current margins. So we either take big cuts in the employment force, or let the factory become an outsourcing statistic.
United Conglomerates Consolidated did not take over Dubolt Design and Production for its aging infrastructure. They bought it for the brand name and market position. The product itself could come from Timbuktu and the stock holders would be happy. We are competing on our ability to do more with less.
As for me. My grand promotion carries a heavy price. My first duty involves leading the team that would look through the histories of two hundred workers and put eighty of them on the unemployment line.
In many ways I am incredibly lucky and somewhat spoiled. Unlike my coworkers, I essentially have a lifetime job here at the firm. Mr. Albert Dubolt, the company founder himself, had assured me more than once that as long as he was the owner of the company, I had a job for life.
I should explain. It was about fifteen years ago. I was still a rambunctious kid. I was a hot head spending more time finding ways to get out of work than concentrating on my duties. Anyway, while looking at the production line, it dawned on me that a simple twist in the conveyor mechanism would allow us to combine two steps of the production process into one.
My non disclosure agreement prevents me from going into details of the process, but imagine being able to take an entire section out the assembly line? Rather than going in a straight line from process F to G, the conveyor twists...accomplishing tasks F and G in the same process!
It’s a little humiliating, but people took to calling the rearranged line the Delaney Corner after yours truly.
Not to brag, but my second of inspiration not only saved the firm production and maintenance costs. The rearranged line opened up a full ten square feet of space on the production floor. Totally cost savings and the value of the new space. Why, we are talking millions of dollars.
I used to stand on that little spot of factory floor opened from my innovation. I felt as if my own mind created this space. When the company computerized in the ‘90s, they located the operating system for the line in the space I had created. Don’t you see, the space I opened on the shop floor is now used to house the controls for the whole line!
The whole thing is amazing. I was part of a process where a significant idea formulated in my mind then became a reality.
After the invention of the Delaney Corner, I was no longer just a stooge putting in an eight hour shift each day. I was part of the firm and the firm was part of me. Mr. Dubolt himself had often applauded my sense of ownership.
“I admire your attitude,” he once told me, “and as long as I am the owner of this firm, you have a job for life.”
Can you believe that? The founder of the firm guaranteed me a job for life. I was as much as part of the firm as the factory floor.
Mr. Dubolt called my feelings a “sense of ownership.” That sense of ownership is the difference between those who excel in their lives and those who just flounder from day to day.
Perhaps I sound too much like a corporate cheerleader. I had many conversations with Mr. Dubolt on the shop floor. He was truly a great man.
I might laugh about the suits and poke fun now and then at the suits, but with my sense of ownership the company is more than the daily comedy between Dilbert and the pointy headed boss. As an owner, I could not only see the vision, I could see how I was part of the vision.
Mr. Dubolt said he wished all his employees could develop my sense of ownership. He called it the “entrepreneurial spirit” as in his much used phrase: “The goal of a good manager is to engender the entrepreneurial spirit among the workers.”
Some might think I sound like a schmuck in falling for lines of entrepreneurial spirit. I learned financial reward follows the entrepreneurial spirit. I guess I should confide in another part of my story. The week before Dubolt Design and Production merged with United Conglomerates Consolidated, Mr. Dubolt himself invited me into his office and handed me an offer with a full ten thousand options in company stock. The Dubolt Design stock was hot. It had more than tripled in the last five years.
I received an additional three thousand options when the stock price peaked after the merger with UCC.
But, here I am rambling on about myself. I have a job for life. The real story is about the difficult decisions I make that affect the less fortunate. I was the one making the decision between those who would continue their employment and those who would be escorted from the building by the smirky faced guards. It is a terrible job. It is one that no-one in their right mind would relish.
Perhaps it is that sense of ownership kicking in that led me to accept this position on the layoff committee. I’ve been on the line for 18 years. It’s a part of me. More than anything, I wanted to see this production line continue into the future. I know what makes the line tick, and have a better feel than any of the Harvard trained management team about who should be on the line to bring it into the future.
The heart rending challenge was to figure out how to build a leaner team that could take the company into the future. Laying off workers is unpleasant, but the real question is about what we are building and how we will carry on into the future.
We all must do difficult things in our lives. We develop character by directly facing the difficult decisions.
If it is character development you are looking for, I just spent two harrowing weeks developing my character in close to two hundred face to face meetings we talked about the challenges of the future to some employees and handed pink slips to others.
I felt like an executioner. One by one, workers were called before my desk to see if the folder in my hand held a green paper detailing their new assignment or a pink slip indicating they would be escorted from the building. Those that lost the lottery would be escorted by a guard to clean out their locker, then they would be escorted to the door.
Management wanted locked building doors. They wanted guards to separate out the retained employees from the laid off. Yet what Mr. Dubolt told me about the importance of that sense of ownership stuck in my heart. The RIF was forced on us by the market and was beyond anyone’s control. Dealing with people squarely and involving them in the process builds loyalty and long term ownership in the firm. This is true in good and bad times alike.
I might have a Teflon shield guaranteeing employment for life, but my empathy lies with my coworkers facing an uncertain future.
The mass lay off event was harrowing. Almost half of the computer terminals in the office were empty. Those that were manned seemed subdued and lifeless. Conversations were hushed and the steady buzz that typically defined the office floor had settled to quiet murmur.
It was a time of recovery as people adjusted to the faces that remained and to those that were no longer part of the company’s future. The factory floor, employee lunch room and lounge were a worse. The once bustling factory floor appeared a ghost town. The few remaining workers moved about with heads hung low as specters from a horror film.
The layoff process was complete, but the sense of trust and camaraderie had vanished as people rustled with uncertainty. The moment of death had passed, but we were still waiting that sense of rebirth.
An e-mail indicated that Mr. Dubolt, the founder of the firm, would come out of retirement and speak at an employee meeting in the afternoon. Mr. Dubolt was a great man and I was looking forward to seeing him in the office again, even if he was no longer employed by the firm.
For the first time I sat down at my office desk as a true manager. I picked up my pen to start drawing out thoughts when I heard the voice:
“Mr. Delaney, could you step in my office for a moment...”
The voice belonged to a Thaddeus Penn. Mr. Penn was a certified MBA, from Harvard none the less. Officially, Mr. Penn was the Vice President of Production in the North Eastern sector of United Conglomerates Consolidated Light Production Division. He reported to the Vice President of Light Production who reported to President of Production who reported directly to the CEO and company board.
To put it more succinctly, Thaddeus Penn was essentially God to our factory. He was the new Mr. Dubolt. Here I was, just a kid from the hood working head to head with MBA from the top MBA producing school of the nation.
“Please, sit down,” Mr. Penn directed as he closed the door behind me. “It’s been quite a week hasn’t it?”
“It’s a week I’m glad is behind me.”
“This has been my fourth mass layoff since joining Consolidated. I tell you, they are not getting any easier.”
Oddly, I had never really thought much about my boss’s past. This was not his first mass layoff? Perking up in my good corporate citizen voice I begin sloganeering: “No-one said business would be easy, but the real challenges lie ahead. The market’s still weak and margins still tight.”
“I’m glad you brought that up.” Thaddeus spoke as he sat down. “That’s what I need to talk to you about.”
My throat tightened as Thaddeus reached for an envelope with my name on it.
“As you know we are not out of the woods yet, and we need a management team skilled in computerized production.”
“There’s no easy way around this, but Consolidated needs to cut out the dead wood.”
“But Mr. Dubolt said...”
“You may not have noticed, but Mr. Dubolt is no longer an employee of this firm.”
“My modifications to the assembly line saved millions...”
“Yes, the modifications to the line were paid for in full when Consolidated bought Dubolt.”
I stared in horror at the pink reflection that emerged as Penn opened the folder. “I am part of this firm, I’ve given eighteen years, I have a sense of ownership.”
“Your sense of ownership is admirable, but my concern is not those who feel like they own the firm but for those who really do own on the firm.”
“But, I do own the firm...my employee options. I have thirteen thousand...”
“It’s a shame about those options. Too bad you didn’t exercise them in 2000 when they were worth something. The company certainly dished out a lot of those options when it was clear the stock was overvalued.”
“I just helped you layoff my life long friends...I was working to rebuild...”
“You’re familiar with Jack, I assume.” Thaddeus pressed the buzzer ushering in the smirky faced guard. “I see no need to go through the talk. You already should know the drill by heart. The standard severance package was $4,000. For your hard work these last weeks, we increased it to $5,000.00. Again, I feel bad about the options, but you know how it goes. Jack, will you show this man the door.”
The guard pulled me up from the chair and followed me through the ritualized cleaning out of my desk and the humiliating walk to the parking lot.
How many of the eyes staring at me knew that this would be my fate? How many were secretly hoping that the traitor would be among the executed?
I stood facing O’Malley’s Corner Tavern. Bill Blakely stumbled through the door. It was only six thirty. The day shift had only left off an hour earlier. It was too early for Bill to be drunk...had he been drinking solidly for these last three days since he was...
I watched in dismay as the doors to the tavern shut. For over eighteen years I had been a die hard patron of the unofficial company pub. In all those years, I can’t remember once seeing the tavern doors shut.
The doors had always opened for me.
Now they were shut.
There was no way I could enter that building. I could already feel the cold shoulders and hostile glances of the life long friends I had sold.
The crumpled pink slip soaked in the sweat from my palm. There was not even a single piece of my soul prepared to tell me what to do after my life time employment at Dubolt’s ended and the friendship with my working buddies was gone.
Things at home were not that well either. Kathy had started spending as if my $43,000 in stock options were real. My little pay increase with this foreman job resulted in a new dance with the credit cards. Finances were tight. Our 1999 housing upgrade maxed out my mortgage potential.
I thought of my son Sean. Just yesterday, Sean had a skiff with the Henderson boys whose father blamed me for taking his job. Sean wouldn’t come out of his room last and Kathy was angry.
There would be no sympathy at home only a nervous spouse and an angry teenage stare telling me that I got my just desserts.
My precious sense of ownership growled in my stomach. Was the sense of ownership for my mortgage house and family as shallow as the sense of ownership in my work?
I am a builder in a world ruled by destroyers. I straightened out the pink slip of paper. Folded it carefully. Put it in my pocket and began the walk home.