"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Corporate Tea Room

The Senior Vice President of Cintex International, Betsy Lerner, had something important to say to her staff; and like most SVPs chose the Tea Room, the pride and joy of the CEO who created ‘an environment which both reflects the international mission of the company and the priceless traditions of the world’. Accordingly, he had collected objets d’art, furniture, lamps and carpets from the best auction houses, feeling that displaying the good taste of Cintex and demonstrating a respect for the artisans of those countries in which it did business would be corporate profits well spent. He had no taste of his own, but relied on the judgment of an art historian whose eclectic preferences were similar to Bernard Berenson who helped Mrs. Gardner collect tastefully and fill her Boston home with everything from ivory to woodwork.

There were silk tapestries from Kazakhstan on the walls, Empire furniture from the workshop of a well-known New Orleans artisan workshop, ceremonial masks from Dahomey and the Niger Delta, musical instruments from the Agra gharana, primitive Haitian paintings, and Korean calligraphy.

Empire table

The table – a burnished oak piece that had been made for the De Longworth family, and for over a hundred years had been at the center of formal dinners at Illyricum, their 2000 acre plantation at St. Francisville on the banks of the Mississippi River – had been chosen out of recognition of the mixed-race, diverse culture of New Orleans at the turn of the 19th century.  Fortunately Grant’s army, after its historic victory at Vicksburg, turned east instead of south, and the historic mansions of Louisiana were spared. Leonard Dreyfus had located the table, listed on Sotheby’s, but never found, in a old shed outside of Eupora, Mississippi, where Miss Eugenia Bowen, a canny but now partially demented antique dealer, had forgotten it.

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The Tea Room was so called because of the three tea services which were Dreyfus’ prized possessions and displayed prominently as alternating centerpieces on the boardroom, aka New Orleans, table. The first was late 18th Century English bone china, used by members of the Duke of Marlborough family through the generations. The second was an Edo period classic service, simple glazed earthenware designed by a court artist for formal tea ceremonies at the Emperor’s ryokan in Kyoto.  The third, chosen for its evocation of traditional rural Bangladeshi life, was simple pottery fired in a kiln in Khulna not far from where Cintex ran a nutrition rehabilitation center.

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Betsy Lerner wanted to inaugurate the company’s new ‘Knowledge Management Initiative’, a program designed to improve the flow and utilization of information within the corporate offices, between the home office and its field stations, and among the various government ministries and civic organizations with which the company worked. There were logjams at every juncture along information pipelines, small local agencies couldn’t make head nor tails of the information sent to them from Washington, and there was only a diffident attempt at generating useful data in the field. Not content with simply streamlining the process, Dreyfus had something grander in mind.  “We want to change the knowledge culture”, said the CEO, “from one of utility to one of meaning.”

This of course had made no sense to anyone in the company when Dreyfus flew his trial balloons. Cintex was a bottom-line company whose only interest was in winning and managing projects in strict accordance with the stipulation of the funding agency.  It had no interest whatsoever in furthering the ‘state-of-the-art’, promoting innovation, and least of all generating and transferring ‘higher order’ knowledge.  Its detractors called Cintex a body shop run like a slave ship to turn out predictably ordinary but ‘responsive’ proposals.

The conceit of CEO Dreyfus, not to mention his chutzpah, was his sanctimony. He actually seemed to believe all the nonsense about knowledge management. Although most senior managers knew that he was pulling ideas out of a crock of shit, and was peddling a lame attempt to give cachet to a thoroughly pedestrian business, they kept mum, followed orders, and did their best to give an enthusiastic response.  This was why Betsy Lerner, an eager mid-career professional who had spent years honing her image as a caring manager in the cutthroat non-profit world of International Development, took on the task.  She, like Dreyfus espoused the same vanity – if you presented an idea well within a context of compassion and urgency, you could sell it.  Inaugurating the program in the Tea Room, she thought, was an inspiration of genius. Because of the similarity of their modest roots, they understood each other perfectly.

There were many ways to qualify the results of her enterprise, and the old saws - “You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”; “A sucker is not born every minute”; and “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” -  were particularly appropriate for the faux ingenuousness and sincerity of the program. Everyone but Dreyfus and his SVP shills knew that ‘Knowledge Management’ was window dressing for his sweat shop and his personal feel-good indulgence.  The minions on the 8th floor were still rowing the oars of the trireme because the job market was particularly bad for young recent graduates.  Middle management had been in the trenches in the world’s shitholes for decades and knew that no matter how many ribbons and bows cutely tied to the package, the box held nothing.

Trireme

“I want to tell you how happy I am to see you all here around the table”, Betsy began, “to celebrate our new initiative to help our clients.  Knowledge is the most precious commodity we can give them”, she went on, “and it is our sacred duty to do so.

“Knowledge belongs to no one”, she said, “but to everyone.  We are merely its stewards, holding it only long enough to groom it, shape it, and transfer it to others.  It is about this sacred grooming that I want to talk to you today.”

There is no need to report any more of what Betsy Lerner said, only that she went on for half an hour speaking in high-minded metaphors and giving the poor Biblical importance. No matter what she said or how artfully she clad her nostrums, few people were fooled.  Nothing would change.  The minions would head below and pick up their oars. Middle  managers would massage their spread sheets, senior management would pare budgets, parse government documents for clues about coming contracts, and keep order in the ranks.

Leonard Dreyfus insisted on pouring tea. The translucent cups were set beside each place, the teapot heated and the rich Assamese longleaf steeped for exactly three minutes.  He poured like a dandy, reminiscent of the trussed and stockinged stewards of the Second Duke of Marlborough’s day, pouring exactly three-quarters of a cup for each attendee.  A porcelain creamer and sugar bowl were passed on an antique silver tray, held by one of Dreyfus’ presidential staff. “Enjoy”, he said, interrupting the charade with restaurant-speak.

Image result for image 18th century bone china english tea service

Dreyfus was the grandson of Jewish immigrants who had settled on the Lower East Side and made their way in the rag trade.  His father owned a large company in the Garment District, was a wealthy and important man in the trade, but had no pull with Yale or Harvard, so Leonard went to Brandeis where he did modestly well. His accomplishments and recognition are less important than the persistent traces of his lower-class beginnings.  No matter how many Edo prints, Korean calligraphy, or Tajik carpets he collected, he still strewed them about with bourgeois sensibilities; and like many nouveaux arrivants before him, he simply couldn’t resist going over the top.

All of which would have been fine and good if he had not had the idea of turning the boardroom of his sweat shop into a Victorian salon and the outrageously pretentious notion of creating Shakespeare out of quarterly reports.

The company continued to turn a profit and do handsomely for the stockholders, represented by the Board of Directors who convened in the Tea Room once a year, were served tea and given a tour of the appointments.

It takes no sophistication, culture, or savvy to run an International Development firm. The client – the US Government – is even lower-brow, so the proposals and responses are equally stolid and predictable.  Bureaucrats on the lower floors of the Ronald Reagan Building pull the oars of their slave ships as hard and as long as their colleagues at Cintex; but get few rewards for their service.  There are no perks for a Washington government bureaucrat, and certainly no Executive Tea Rooms.

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So, despite the snarky jokes about Dreyfus’ Tea Room and the lockstep partisanship and support of Dreyfus’ staff for his cockamamie ideas, he stayed in place prospering and ignorant of anything other than what went on within his executive chambers or brought to him by his minions. He was a dope, but a dope with money.

In one way, I always wished there were more Leonard Dreyfuses in what was a decidedly drab and greyish industry. Years ago Charity International, a private voluntary agency which relied on five- and ten-dollar remittances from ‘the little old lady in Dubuque’, deliberately designed its headquarters to resemble a sailors’ home.  Dim lighting, linoleum floors, battleship grey walls, and nothing other than a water cooler and coffee-maker as appointments. The agency wanted to be sure that if the lady from Iowa or any other of the thousands of small donors showed up at the corporate offices, they would see that not a dime went to comfort let alone luxury.  The starving children of Africa got every cent.  Of course this was not true, but as Leonard Dreyfus knew, image is everything.

This help-the-poor mentality has never left industry ranks, and Cintex stands out for his relative opulence and grandeur, if only faux.  Most critics would love both Cintex and its CEO if it weren’t for his dogged pretentiousness.  Why did he have to go spoil a perfectly good Victorian salon with ‘knowledge management’?

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