Keep your mouth shut and ears open – A tale of cliches.
They say everything comes to those who wait and I guess that is true with me. I finally got my chance. They invited me on to the board.
It took me by surprise. I never thought it would happen. I knew I was good. They knew that too. They knew they needed my expertise but they could not stomach what I stood for. I wasn’t like them. They were all part of the same club and it wasn’t a club I wanted to be part of. I don’t do golf, the Masons or Rotary. I did not play that game.
But I knew I could bring about changes from the inside. You had to have power to bring about change. I wanted that. But I had never thought it would happen. I was too much of a maverick. But now it had happened. They had finally decided that I just might be worth the risk.
Maggie advised me to take things easy, to sit on my hands, keep my mouth shut and my ears open – at least until I had established myself.
I knew I was going to find that hard. I’d heard all the tales. There’s no smoke without fire. They had a callous, uncaring side to them that I was going to find difficult to deal with.
I had grave doubts about joining that board. I very nearly turned it down. I knew that if you lie down with dogs you wake up with fleas. I didn’t want to get infected. I didn’t want their damn fleas.
Mixed in with my misapprehension was my self-doubt. When faced with it I wasn’t sure I was capable.
It was Maggie who calmed me down. She not only assured me that I could do it but that I could make a real difference to peoples’ lives. She told me that I owed it to them, the ordinary people.
When she spoke like that it fired me up. She made me feel that I could do it. I wasn’t selling out by joining that damn board.
‘Hey,’ she said, with a chuckle, ‘if it all goes wrong you can always leave, step down and walk away.’
‘But what if I make a complete fool of myself? I could lose everything?’ I argued.
‘So what?’ Maggie chuckled again. ‘If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We’d get by. It’s not the end of the world.’ She grinned at me with such a look that communicated to me that she had absolute faith in what I could do. ‘It could be even better. At least you’d know that you’d given it your best shot. You’d have no regrets on that score.’
So here I was – at my first board meeting. ‘Shut your mouth and keep your ears open’ still ringing in my head.
Well I did that for most of the time. I kept my input to a minimum and watched and listened, weighing everything up. I kept my counsel. At least, right up until they started the discussion on how to go about maximising profits. My ears opened wide. They were after pushing people harder, cutting pay, laying people off, creating a fear of redundancy, slashing pensions, reducing holiday rights, cutting costs, increasing productivity.
I clamped my teeth together and sat on my hands.
They wanted people to work longer hours and to work harder for less pay. They wanted to generate an ethos of fear. Then they started laughing – all those old grey-headed guys, talking about stripping out the dead wood. The older staff were more expensive. They could get rid of them and bring in cheap young kids.
I was feeling like I might explode. These were people like my friends Max and Geraldine they were talking about. Real people. They were to be thrown on the scrapheap without a qualm, without a thought for them or their families. They were considered old and expendable. Thirty years of loyalty counted for nothing, was not even worthy of consideration. To them people like Geraldine and Max were just names in a list, numbers in a balance sheet.
How could I keep my mouth shut? But I did. I managed it.
The profits were already high. There was really no need for anything as drastic as this. Why were they talking like this?
I sat on my hands.
The smoke was acrid in my nostrils. The lemon was acid in my mouth. My skin crawled with fleas.
It was when they laughed about the impact of their proposals on the size of their bonuses that I shut my ears, got off my hands, rose to my feet and opened my mouth.