Following My Nose

On the elevator I decided that once outside the building I would try walking wherever the spirits or the winds directed me. It was cold but clear and sunny on the other side of Fourth Avenue, so I jaywalked across and felt the comforting warmth on my face as soon as I turned south.

“South,” my mind said to direct me, so that’s the way I walked, with people moving past me in a nonstop kaleidoscope that was consistently out of focus. It reminded me of the reason I was out there in the first place — so many fast moving objects in my world at the office these days . . . so many of them were strangers I couldn’t recognize who they were. Not the people, for those who had survived downsizing were pretty much the same ones I’d known for a while. No, the strangers were a combination of complicated-sounding names for computer technologies and those smartly dressed experts who were seen wandering in and out of offices in the Information Technology Group (ITG) division. Those were the strangers to me now. They were a big part of my reason for being out on this street, wandering along with my thoughts and questions for company.

Before I reached the corner, the smell of burning leaves and pine limbs caught my attention. “Smells from my childhood,” my mind said, as I could see me at three years old, walking with my grandfather down the rutted dirt road that sloped toward the spring where my grandmother always washed her laundry. We had a well next to our house, which gave us all the water we needed to drink and bathe, but my grandmother had always said spring water was softer and better for washing clothes. Even at that young age I remember knowing my grandmother was the smartest and most loving woman in my life, so if she said something it had to be true and it had to be good for me. Once they were washed and pinned to the clotheslines back of her house, she was content in the knowledge her family would have only the cleanest, best-smelling sheets, undergarments and socks next to their bodies. The huge black cast-iron wash pot was boiling and splashing as flames from the pine logs beneath it roared, sending sweet-smelling smoke into the air. What great times we had back then, I thought. Things were sure a lot simpler in those days. “Why do we have to make everything so complicated?” I wondered out loud. No one answered, but I didn’t care.

Being reminded of my grandfather and grandmother brought back happy thoughts, and I let them take over as long as they were willing to stay. Drawn by the smells toward the fire, I crossed the street and went through the stone archway that guarded the main road into the park. The flames were in full view off to my right, being stoked by a uniformed park maintenance man. He was so intent on his work he didn’t know for several minutes that I was standing near him. Eventually, he turned to look at me, and I looked back, startled.

It was Dan Perdido!

At first I didn’t say anything, and he just nodded. He didn’t show any emotion as his gray-blue eyes looked into mine. He also didn’t move. But it was an awkward time for me as our last meeting had branded itself in my memory.

Two years ago Dan had been one of our senior executives responsible for overall administrative support, including our ITG division. But, when what employees throughout the company called The Great Bloody Ax had fallen, it had swept him, most of the other senior executives and several hundred employees in locations throughout the firm into early retirement. With them had gone their collective wisdom from thousands of employee-years of training and practical experience. With them too had gone the dedication, discipline, and integrity ingrained by the world in which they had grown up. And lastly, gone in their wake was the simplicity that seemed to have existed during their time within our company.

Dan and I had worked on high level task teams from time to time, but not on matters requiring either of us to delve too far into the details of each other’s worlds. For my part, I recall meetings in which my direct-report managers would describe our information needs to Dan and his technical people. They would listen and go away, returning with the added features, functions and reporting capabilities they believed would satisfy our requirements. It often took a few rounds of back and forth between us and the technical folks, with them making modifications and us testing their results, before the finished product that truly filled our needs emerged.

Dan had always impressed me with his high energy, attention to detail and willingness to take the time to question and listen. He had drawn on training while earning his business degree to keep himself well informed about the internal workings of our company, and seemed to have a strong grasp on the realities of our marketplaces. Business savvy from turning around one of the plants that had been in trouble for a time, several years’ tenure on our finance committee, and his strong technical credentials had made Dan one of our most competent executives. He was compensated accordingly. But when the internal coup took place, he had been too visible and too vulnerable when those concerned primarily with cost reductions successfully moved ITG into the outsource column!

Too bad, but maybe you’re just being sentimental again, John, my mind said, so I shook off the shroud of memories and returned to the here and now.

“It’s you, isn’t it, Dan?” It was not really a question.

“It’s me, John. What brings you out here in the middle of the day?” Dan looked at me but kept stirring the flames which danced on the coals.

“Truth is, I’m lost back at the office. I came out here to see if I could find a way through this crazy world we seem to have created for ourselves.” I laughed a little and nodded to his work. “More smoke up there sometimes than you’re making with your fire.”

Stopping and leaning on his rake, Dan observed, “Have to keep the smoke to a minimum in the park on account of the environmental ordinance, but thank goodness such precautions can’t destroy the aroma, huh?”

I nodded.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I’m all for cutting out those gases from the cars and furnaces and such. Been proven it’s not good for anybody to breathe all that stuff. It’s just that sometimes people take their good intentions so far they destroy some of the best there is. Sometimes we don’t understand what’s happened till it’s too late and there’s no turning back. Know what I mean?”

“Sure I do, Dan. Fact is, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between what was and what is. I smelled your pine smoke from down the street and it led me here, and all the time I was remembering being back in the country at my grandparents’ farm. Guess I came here to reconnect to my past,” I observed and then fell silent, waiting for Dan to speak, but he too paused and in that instant I thought about my true dilemma but didn’t express it.

Instead I felt the silence needed to be filled. “I decided to take a stroll and think about some things.”

Dan still said nothing. At this point, I felt there was nothing to lose, so I threw caution to the same winds that carried his smoke into the sky. “Actually, back at the office things have gotten pretty confusing and I’m hard-pressed to know what to do to regain some order. I was hoping it would help to get away from the daily routines and look for some new perspectives.”

Motioning me to follow, Dan moved away from the fire and sat down on the ground. I found a big thick root then sat and leaned back. The old oak tree propping me up was part of a small stand of hardwoods ringing the clearing where the last of the limbs burned. Though my perch wasn’t particularly comfortable, the radiating heat felt good and helped me relax as Dan began to speak: “So, tell me: what’s causing all this confusion in your world, John?”

“That’s my first problem,” I said. “The situation is just too complex; it’s cutting across too many variables and so I can’t seem to get my arms around it — you know, like we used to. The more things we try, the more complicated it gets, and then there’s the constant pressures from customers, competitors, suppliers and most recently, from our stockholders. Add in changes in computers, operating systems and other technologies . . . it’s really a mess . . . not simple like it used to be in the late ‘60s for you guys in I/T.” The pained expression on Dan’s face told me I had hit a nerve, but I wasn’t sure which one or why, so I tried to talk on through it.

“I mean when you were first bringing in those old punched card machines you always talked about, surely things must have been easier than they are today. I remember you saying you designed some forms, arranged some wires in the machines and punched information into those IBM cards. Then you got the bills out on time, right?”

Dan smiled, chuckled some, then almost burst into full laughter. The solemness that had prevailed between us was gone now and his eyes were friendly and understanding as he said, “That’s not exactly all there was to it, John, but yes, the way the business ran in those times seemed much simpler than today. The pace of things was considerably slower. Stockholders weren’t clamoring for ever-greater earnings every ninety days! There were fewer domestic competitors nipping at us every day, almost none from abroad, and customers were probably less demanding as a result. But I still believe the fundamentals of the way a company can and should deal with both customers and employees and still find themselves profitable are the same now as they have always been.

He continued, “Look at it this way: it’s not where you light the fire but what you plan to burn and how you tend it that makes the difference between a pleasing aroma and a disgusting smell.”

Again Dan fell silent, but this all sounded good: I wanted him to go on. I gave him an inquiring look, hoping he would just continue on his own. Nothing.

Still not wanting to break the mood and without thinking, I suggested, “Look, Dan, it’s lunchtime, what you say we go over to the Oak Room. . . my treat?”

“Got maybe a better idea, John.” Pointing across the park, Dan said, “Let’s get us a bag of White Castles, sit next to the pond, and see if we can learn anything from the ducks. Maybe they can teach us something about this world we agree is just too screwed up these days! ‘Sides, in case you haven’t noticed, these overalls aren’t exactly the dress of the day at the Plaza.”

Of course! How stupid of me not to think before opening my mouth. I really am out of it, I thought to myself. Like the man said: simple is good and fundamentals don’t change, so we crossed the street together, headed for the White Castle.

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3 Responses to “Following My Nose

  • 1
    Larry Huver
    May 1st, 2007 11:02


  • 2
    Dr. Paul Koch
    May 2nd, 2007 07:47

    John is on to something here. It is time we take a collective look at the union of values, technology and leadership. They can be mutually exclusive or mutually cooperative. We must make the choice now and prepare youth to decide for themselves. I bought Lee Iacocca’s book yesterday, “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?” It is time to critically look at issues John (and Lee) raise. I, for one, am looking to do something about it.

  • 3
    May 3rd, 2007 21:54

    Mr. Robinson,

    My thoughts exactly. These are issues concerning future relationships in business and in creating positive productivity. In turn effects relationships outside of business. “Not knowing your past mistakes will only reoccur your mistakes.” Values indeed! Only then principles apply. IT is the way. A faster way to implement information to a global society.

    Looks great sir!

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