Stories & Reflections
Peter Sherney, 47, manager of a branch of [name of Bank omitted] in Holland Park, London
I only took on Athena because her family was one of our most important customers; after all, the world revolves around mutual interests. She seemed a very restless person, and so I gave her a dull clerical post, hoping that she would soon resign. That way, I could tell her father that I’d done my best to help her, but without success.
My experience as a manager had taught me to recognise people’s states of mind, even if they said nothing. On a management course I attended, we learned that if you wanted to get rid of someone, you should do everything you can to provoke them into rudeness, so that you would then have a perfectly good reason to dismiss them.
I did everything I could to achieve my objective with Athena. She didn’t depend on her salary to live and would soon learn how pointless it was: having to get up early, drop her son off at her mother’s house, slave away all day at a repetitive job, pick her son up again, go to the supermarket, spend time with her son before putting him to bed, and then, the next day, spend another three hours on public transport, and all for no reason, when there were so many other more interesting ways of filling her days. She grew increasingly irritable, and I felt proud of my strategy. I would get what I wanted. She started complaining about the apartment where she lived, saying that her landlord kept her awake all night, playing really loud music.
Then, suddenly, something changed. At first, it was only Athena, but soon it was the whole branch.
How did I notice this change? Well, a group of workers is like a kind of orchestra; a good manager is the conductor, and he knows who is out of tune, who is playing with real commitment, and who is simply following the crowd. Athena seemed to be playing her instrument without the least enthusiasm; she seemed distant, never sharing the joys and sadnesses of her personal life with her colleagues, letting it be known that, when she left work, her free time was entirely taken up with looking after her son. Then, suddenly, she became more relaxed, more communicative, telling anyone who would listen that she had discovered the secret of rejuvenation.
‘Rejuvenation’, of course, is a magic word. Coming from someone who was barely twenty-one, it sounded pretty ridiculous, and yet other members of staff believed her and started to ask her for the secret formula.
Her efficiency increased, even though her workload remained unchanged. Her colleagues, who, up until then, had never exchanged more than a ‘Good morning’ or a ‘Goodnight’ with her, started asking her out to lunch. When they came back, they seemed very pleased, and the department’s productivity made a giant leap.
I know that people who are in love do have an effect on the environment in which they live, and so I immediately assumed that Athena must have met someone very important in her life.
I asked, and she agreed, adding that she’d never before gone out with a customer, but that, in this case, she’d been unable to refuse. Normally, this would have been grounds for immediate dismissal – the bank’s rules are clear: personal contact with customers is forbidden. But, by then, I was aware that her behaviour had infected almost everyone else. Some of her colleagues started getting together with her after work, and a few of them had, I believe, been to her house.
I had a very dangerous situation on my hands. The young trainee with no previous work experience, who up until then had seemed to veer between shyness and aggression, had become a kind of natural leader amongst my workers. If I fired her, they would think it was out of jealousy, and I’d lose their respect. If I kept her on, I ran the risk, within a matter of months, of losing control of the group.
I decided to wait a little, but meanwhile, there was a definite increase in the ‘energy’ at the bank (I hate that word ‘energy’, because it doesn’t really mean anything, unless you’re talking about electricity). Anyway, our customers seemed much happier and were starting to recommend other people to come to us. The employees seemed happy too, and even though their workload had doubled, I didn’t need to take on any more staff because they were all coping fine.
One day, I received a letter from my superiors. They wanted me to go to Barcelona for a group meeting, so that I could explain my management techniques to them. According to them, I had increased profit without increasing expenditure, and that, of course, is the only thing that interests executives everywhere.
But what techniques?
At least I knew where it had all started, and so I summoned Athena to my office. I complimented her on her excellent productivity levels, and she thanked me with a smile.
I proceeded cautiously, not wishing to be misinterpreted.
‘And how’s your boyfriend? I’ve always found that anyone who is loved has more love to give. What does he do?’
‘He works for Scotland Yard.’ (Editor’s note: Police investigation department linked to London’s Metropolitan Police.)
I preferred not to ask any further questions, but I needed to keep the conversation going and I didn’t have much time.
‘I’ve noticed a great change in you and-‘
‘Have you noticed a change in the bank too?’
How to respond to a question like that? On the one hand, I would be giving her more power than was advisable, and on the other, if I wasn’t straight with her, I would never get the answers I needed.
‘Yes, I’ve noticed a big change, and I’m thinking of promoting you.’
‘I need to travel. I’d like to get out of London and discover new horizons.’
Travel? Just when everything was going so well in my branch, she wanted to leave? Although, when I thought about it, wasn’t that precisely the way out I needed and wanted?
‘I can help the bank if you give me more responsibility,’ she went on.
Yes, she was giving me an excellent opportunity. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? ‘Travel’ meant getting rid of her and resuming my leadership of the group without having to deal with the fall-out from a dismissal or a rebellion. But I needed to ponder the matter, because rather than her helping the bank, I needed her to help me. Now that my superiors had noticed an increase in productivity, I knew that I would have to keep it up or risk losing prestige and end up worse off than before. Sometimes I understand why most of my colleagues don’t do very much in order to improve: if they don’t succeed, they’re called incompetent. If they do succeed, they have to keep improving all the time, a situation guaranteed to bring on an early heart attack.
I took the next step very cautiously: it’s not a good idea to frighten the person in possession of a secret before she’s revealed that secret to you; it’s best to pretend to grant her request.
‘I’ll bring your request to the attention of my superiors. In fact, I’m having a meeting with them in Barcelona, which is why I called you in. Would it be true to say that our performance has improved since, shall we say, the other employees began getting on better with you?’
‘Or shall we say, began getting on better with themselves?’
‘Yes, but encouraged by you – or am I wrong?’
‘You know perfectly well that you’re not.’
‘Have you been reading some book on management I don’t know about?’
‘I don’t read that kind of book, but I would like a promise from you that you really will consider my request.’
I thought of her boyfriend at Scotland Yard. If I made a promise and failed to keep it, would I be the object of some reprisal? Could he have taught her some cutting-edge technology that enables one to achieve impossible results?
‘I’ll tell you everything, even if you don’t keep your promise, but I can’t guarantee that you’ll get the same results if you don’t practise what I teach.’
‘You mean the “rejuvenation technique”?’
‘Wouldn’t it be enough just to know the theory?’
‘Possibly. The person who taught me learned about it from a few sheets of paper.’
I was glad she wasn’t forcing me to make decisions that went beyond my capabilities or my principles. But I must confess that I had a personal interest in that whole story, because I, too, dreamed of finding some way of ‘recycling’ my potential. I promised that I’d do what I could, and Athena began to describe the long, esoteric dance she performed in search of the so-called Vertex (or was it Axis, I can’t quite remember now). As we talked, I tried to set down her mad thoughts in objective terms. An hour proved not to be enough, and so I asked her to come back the following day, and together we would prepare the report to be presented to the bank’s board of directors. At one point in our conversation, she said with a smile:
‘Don’t worry about describing the technique in the same terms we’ve been using here. I reckon even a bank’s board of directors are people like us, made of flesh and blood, and interested in unconventional methods.’
Athena was completely wrong. In England, tradition always speaks louder than innovation. But why not take a risk, as long as it didn’t endanger my job? The whole thing seemed absurd to me, but I had to summarise it and put it in a way that everyone could understand. That was all.
Before I presented my ‘paper’ in Barcelona, I spent the whole morning repeating to myself: ‘My’ process is producing results, and that’s all that matters. I read a few books on the subject and learned that in order to present a new idea with the maximum impact, you should structure your talk in an equally provocative way, and so the first thing I said to the executives gathered in that luxury hotel were these words of St Paul: ‘God hid the most important things from the wise because they cannot understand what is simple.’ (Editor’s note: It is impossible to know here whether he is referring to a verse from Matthew 11: 25: ‘I thank thee, O Father, thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes’, or from St Paul (1 Corinthians 1: 27): ‘But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.’)
When I said this, the whole audience, who had spent the last two days analysing graphs and statistics, fell silent. It occurred to me that I had almost certainly lost my job, but I carried on. Firstly, because I had researched the subject and was sure of what I was saying and deserved credit for this. Secondly, because although, at certain points, I was obliged to omit any mention of Athena’s enormous influence on the whole process, I was, nevertheless, not lying.
‘I have learned that, in order to motivate employees nowadays, you need more than just the training provided by our own excellent training centres. Each of us contains something within us which is unknown, but which, when it surfaces, is capable of producing miracles.
‘We all work for some reason: to feed our children, to earn money to support ourselves, to justify our life, to get a little bit of power. However, there are always tedious stages in that process, and the secret lies in transforming those stages into an encounter with ourselves or with something higher.
‘For example, the search for beauty isn’t always associated with anything practical and yet we still search for it as if it were the most important thing in the world. Birds learn to sing, but not because it will help them find food, avoid predators or drive away parasites. Birds sing, according to Darwin, because that is the only way they have of attracting a partner and perpetuating the species.’
I was interrupted by an executive from Geneva, who called for a more objective presentation. However, to my delight, the Director-General asked me to go on.
‘Again according to Darwin, who wrote a book that changed the course of all humanity (Editor’s note: The Origin of Species, 1859, in which he first posited that human beings evolved from a type of ape), those who manage to arouse passions are repeating something that has been going on since the days we lived in caves, where rituals for courting a partner were fundamental for the survival and evolution of the human species. Now, what difference is there between the evolution of the human race and that of the branch of a bank? None. Both obey the same laws – only the fittest survive and evolve.’
At this point, I was obliged to admit that I’d developed this idea thanks to the spontaneous collaboration of one of my employees, Sherine Khalil.
‘Sherine, who likes to be known as Athena, brought into the workplace a new kind of emotion – passion. Yes, passion, something we never normally consider when discussing loans or spreadsheets. My employees started using music as a stimulus for dealing more efficiently with their clients.’
Another executive interrupted, saying that this was an old idea: supermarkets did the same thing, using piped music to encourage their customers to buy more.
‘I’m not saying that we used music in the workplace. People simply started living differently because Sherine, or Athena if you prefer, taught them to dance before facing their daily tasks. I don’t know precisely what mechanism this awakens in people; as a manager, I’m only responsible for the results, not for the process. I myself didn’t participate in the dancing, but I understand that, through dance, they all felt more connected with what they were doing.
‘We were born and brought up with the maxim: Time is money. We know exactly what money is, but what does the word “time” mean? The day is made up of twenty-four hours and an infinite number of moments. We need to be aware of each of those moments and to make the most of them regardless of whether we’re busy doing something or merely contemplating life. If we slow down, everything lasts much longer. Of course, that means that washing the dishes might last longer, as might totting up the debits and credits on a balance sheet or checking promissory notes, but why not use that time to think about pleasant things and to feel glad simply to be alive?’
The Director-General was looking at me in surprise. I was sure he wanted me to explain in detail what I’d learned, but some of those present were beginning to grow restless.
‘I understand exactly what you mean,’ he said. ‘I understand, too, that your employees worked with more enthusiasm because they were able to enjoy one moment in the day when they came into full contact with themselves. And I’d like to compliment you on being flexible enough to allow such unorthodox practices, which are, it must be said, producing excellent results. However, speaking of time, this is a conference, and you have only five minutes to conclude your presentation. Could you possibly try to list the main points which would allow us to apply these principles in other branches?’
He was right. This was fine for the employees, but it could prove fatal to my career, and so I decided to summarise the points Sherine and I had written together.
‘Basing ourselves on personal observations, Sherine Khalil and I developed certain points which I would be delighted to discuss with anyone who’s interested. Here are the main ones:
‘(a) We all have an unknown ability, which will probably remain unknown forever. And yet that ability can become our ally. Since it’s impossible to measure that ability or give it an economic value, it’s never taken seriously, but I’m speaking here to other human beings and I’m sure you understand what I mean, at least in theory.
‘(b) At my branch, employees have learned how to tap into that ability through a dance based on a rhythm which comes, I believe, from the desert regions of Asia. However, its place of origin is irrelevant, as long as people can express through their bodies what their souls are trying to say. I realise that the word “soul” might be misunderstood, so I suggest we use the word “intuition” instead. And if that word is equally hard to swallow, then let’s use the term “primary emotions”, which sounds more scientific, although, in fact, it has rather less meaning than the other two words.
‘(c) Before going to work, instead of encouraging my employees to do keep-fit or aerobics, I get them to dance for at least an hour. This stimulates the body and the mind; they start the day demanding a certain degree of creativity from themselves and channel that accumulated energy into their work at the bank.
‘(d) Customers and employees live in the same world: reality is nothing but a series of electrical stimuli to the brain. What we think we “see” is a pulse of energy to a completely dark part of the brain. However, if we get on the same wavelength with other people, we can try to change that reality. In some way which I don’t understand, joy is infectious, as is enthusiasm and love. Or indeed sadness, depression or hatred – things which can be picked up “intuitively” by customers and other employees. In order to improve performance, we have to create mechanisms that keep these positive stimuli alive.’
‘How very esoteric,’ commented a woman who managed investment funds at a branch in Canada.
I slightly lost confidence. I had failed to convince anyone. Nevertheless, I pretended to ignore her remark and, using all my creativity, sought to give my paper a practical conclusion:
‘The bank should earmark a fund to do research into how this infectious state of mind works, and thus noticeably increase our profits.’
This seemed a reasonably satisfactory ending, and so I preferred not to use the two minutes remaining to me. When I finished the seminar, at the end of an exhausting day, the Director-General asked me to have supper with him, and he did so is front of all our other colleagues, as if he were trying to show that he supported everything I’d said. I had never before had an opportunity to dine with the Director-General, and so I tried to make the most of it. I started talking about performance, about spreadsheets, difficulties on the stock exchange and possible new markets. He interrupted me; he was more interested in knowing more of what I’d learned from Athena.
In the end, to my surprise, he turned the conversation to more personal matters.
‘I understood what you meant when, during your paper, you talked about time. At New Year, when I was still enjoying the holiday season, I decided to go and sit in the garden for a while. I picked up the newspaper from the mailbox, but it contained nothing of any importance, only the things that journalists had decided we should know, feel involved in and have an opinion about.
‘I thought of phoning someone at work, but that would be ridiculous, since they would all be with their families. I had lunch with my wife, children and grandchildren, took a nap, and when I woke up, I made a few notes, then realised that it was still only two o’clock in the afternoon. I had another three days of not working, and, however much I love being with my family, I started to feel useless.
‘The following day, taking advantage of this free time, I went to have my stomach checked out, and, fortunately, the tests revealed nothing seriously wrong. I went to the dentist, who said there was nothing wrong with my teeth either. I again had lunch with my wife, children and grandchildren, took another nap, again woke up at two in the afternoon, and realised that I had absolutely nothing on which to focus my attention.
‘I felt uneasy: shouldn’t I be doing something? Well, if I wanted to invent work, that wouldn’t take much effort. We all have projects to develop, light bulbs to change, leaves to sweep, books to put away, computer files to organise, etc. But how about just facing up to the void? It was then that I remembered something that seemed to me of great importance: I needed to walk to the letterbox – which is less than a mile from my house in the country – and post one of the Christmas cards lying forgotten on my desk.
‘And I was surprised: why did I need to send that card today. Was it really so hard just to stay where I was, doing nothing?
‘A series of thoughts crossed my mind: friends who worry about things that haven’t yet happened; acquaintances who manage to fill every minute of their lives with tasks that seem to me absurd; senseless conversations; long telephone calls in which nothing of any importance is ever said. I’ve seen my directors inventing work in order to justify their jobs; employees who feel afraid because they’ve been given nothing important to do that day, which might mean that they’re no longer useful. My wife who torments herself because our son has got divorced, my son who torments himself because our grandson, his son, got bad marks at school, our grandson who is terrified because he’s making his parents sad – even though we all know that marks aren’t that important.
‘I had a long, hard struggle with myself not to get up from my chair. Gradually, though, the anxiety gave way to contemplation, and I started listening to my soul – or intuition or primary emotions, or whatever you choose to believe in. Whatever you call it, that part of me had been longing to speak to me, but I had always been too busy.
‘In that case, it wasn’t a dance, but the complete absence of noise and movement, the silence, that brought me into contact with myself. And, believe it or not, I learned a great deal about the problems bothering me, even though all those problems had dissolved completely while I was sitting there. I didn’t see God, but I had a clearer understanding of what decisions to take.’
Before paying the bill, he suggested that I send the employee in question to Dubai, where the bank was opening a new branch, and where the risks were considerable. As a good manager, he knew that I had learned all I needed to learn, and now it was merely a question of providing continuity. My employee could make a useful contribution somewhere else. He didn’t know this, but he was helping me to keep the promise I’d made.
When I returned to London, I immediately told Athena about this invitation, and she accepted at once. She told me that she spoke fluent Arabic (I knew this already because of her father), although, since we would mainly be doing deals with foreigners, not Arabs, this would not be essential. I thanked her for her help, but she showed no curiosity about my talk at the conference, and merely asked when she should pack her bags.
I still don’t know whether the story of the boyfriend in Scotland Yard was a fantasy or not. If it were true, I think Athena’s murderer would already have been arrested, because I don’t believe anything the newspapers wrote about the crime. I can understand financial engineering, I can even allow myself the luxury of saying that dancing helps my employees to work better, but I will never comprehend how it is that the best police force in the world catches some murderers, but not others. Not that it makes much difference now.
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