The sound of the alarm shattered the slightly bizarre dream I was having.
There is something disagreeable about being locked down from attending client sites, yet still having to wake up each day with the alarm. There might not be much of a commute, but squeezing homeschooling around a brutal schedule of conference calls requires an early start.
I stumbled off to wake up the kids. Tiptoeing across the minefield of bedroom floors. Swearing profusely each time I trod on Lego. I’m pretty certain the pieces were set as a trap for just this moment.
Curtains thrown open.
Slumbering feet tickled.
Threats to change the wifi password.
At the last, there are signs of life. Acknowledgement, if not acquiescence, that it was time to rise.
More grumbling. Theirs.
There is something inequitable about kids having to wake up early for school, when there is no school to attend. They should be able to sleep-in. Except their time-poor father is pulling double duty as management consultant to multinationals and primary school teacher. The second job harder by far.
Stretched too thin.
Doing neither job well.
I limped into the bathroom and baulked at the bleary-eyed pandemic caveman staring back at me from the mirror.
Digging out the trimmer, I attempted to restore some order to my Unabomber chic beard.
Down one sideburn.
Over one cheek.
Along one side of my jaw.
The trimmer emitted a mournful beep as it lost the will to live. Battery charge light glowing mockingly, a parody of the angry red eye of Sauron. The trimmer takes a few hours of recharging before it becomes usable once more.
Glancing in the mirror, the caveman couldn’t help but laugh at the immediate prospect of presenting at that morning’s video conference Executive Committee meeting while sporting a beard that was half Santa Claus on one side, and half neatly trimmed George Clooney on the other. Bastard!
Sigh. It was going to be a long day.
Downstairs I discovered the lazy cat had decorated the kitchen floor in pavement art. Amongst the half-chewed up cat biscuits and fur, lay the slightly wet body of a huge dragonfly.
I will never understand cats. Ambition defying the practical realities of what they can realistically take on.
If they really must eat giant insects, they could at least chew them up before swallowing!
The kids appeared at the breakfast table. Each entranced by different television shows on their respective iPads. The elder watching some subtitled Japanese Anime show. The younger enthralled by a 1980s robot cartoon he had recently discovered on Netflix. Both shovelling in Cheerios on autopilot. I sat between them in companionable silence as we contentedly ignored each other.
My phone buzzed on the table. A 06:00 text message is never good news. This one informed me that my contract had been terminated effective immediately. Something about the client’s local billing entity entering administration.
Had I just been fired? I thought not, but the effect was the same.
I’ll be honest. My first reaction was not shock. Dismay. Disbelief. Nor fear of outstanding invoices going unpaid.
It was relief.
A huge weight lifting from my shoulders.
I couldn’t help but smile. Nay, it was more of grin.
Then the phone buzzed again.
Another text message, this one stating that a replacement contract with one of the client’s offshore entities would be issued shortly. Continue working as normal.
As quickly as they had arrived, my hopes of freedom were dashed. I experienced an inkling of what it must feel like to learn that you had won the lottery, only to subsequently lose the winning ticket.
A few hours later I had succeeded in explaining fractions to a second grader using chocolate biscuits.
Self-interest had quickly stimulated his grasp of numbers, after I turned whole biscuits into half biscuits and quarter biscuits by eating the remainder. The prize for him getting the sums correct was getting to eat what was left.
In hindsight, this was a parenting fail. The boy spent the rest of the morning raucously ricocheting around on the trampoline. Working off a sugar high, rather than completing his comprehension.
Next, I had failed to sell a business case to the client’s Executive Committee. Keeping things simple, I had pitched like I would explain things to a second-grader: invest a little now, earn a great deal more later.
In hindsight, aiming at the second grade may have been setting the bar a little too high. Perhaps I would have had better luck illustrating with chocolate biscuits there as well!
All things considered, I have had better days.
It was with some trepidation that I dialled into the monthly departmental leadership team meeting.
Since lockdown began this meeting had degenerated from the standard office politics version of Game of Thrones into a game of Russian Roulette. Every month somebody either shoots themselves or gets publicly assassinated by one of their colleagues.
A hiring freeze meant the leadership team was getting ever smaller. The odds of survival lengthening.
Yet the project portfolio remained unchanging.
Hubris and ego meant halting or cancelling any of the initiatives was politically unthinkable.
Instead, the C-suite lived in a fantasy land of denial, beating the clichéd “do more with less” drum.
Deadlines were set in stone. Even as successive rounds of belt-tightening redundancies were executed to reduce costs. Thinning out the ranks of the same workforce needed to deliver those projects.
These meetings remind me of the nightclubs we used to sneak into back in my high school days. A triumph of style over substance. Everything overpriced, yet underwhelming. Lots of shock and awe. Seeking to dazzle and overwhelm with false praise, loud noise, or shiny distraction. The dancers offering alluring glimpses and tempting hints that suggest future delights, while planting the seeds of inevitable disappointment.
Most of all, if you couldn’t spot the easy mark, you were the easy mark. Soon to be exploited. Fleeced. Intimidated. Mugged. Ridiculed. Ripped off. Or taken advantage of. Just another night at the club.
Today I didn’t know who the mark was going in. This should have been a warning sign. Klaxons sounding. Red lights flashing. My inner saboteur frantically pushing my lizard brain’s “fight or flight” button.
The herd had already been thinned out considerably. The lazy, the meek, the nice, the slow, and the stupid had already been culled or cannibalised. Those remaining were survivors. Internal political animals, and outside professionals trapped by contract, penalty clause, or service level agreement.
Half an hour later most of the attendees emerged from the call relatively intact.
Some a little worse for wear, slinking away to lick their wounds and plot revenge.
An affable American had been disgraced and demoted. Two of his projects were added to my collection of precariously spinning plates.
I didn’t want them.
I couldn’t manage them, overcommitted as I was at both work and home.
The client lacked the resources to deliver them.
The C-suite lacked the will to make the investments required for them to succeed.
This morning’s text message suggested that even if they wanted to, they lacked the necessary cashflow.
Key dependencies required by both new projects remained unmet and unmeetable. The cause of my colleague’s downfall.
I had a very frank and honest discussion with the client engagement manager. At the current resourcing levels, many of the projects would be unlikely to succeed.
They put it more strongly. At the current resourcing levels, all the projects in the portfolio were doomed to fail.
We agreed to part company.
Expressions of gratitude and mutual admiration. The sort of nice things people only say when the other party is leaving.
Vague promises of working together again, once trading conditions improve and expectations were better aligned with investment appetite.
After the conversation, and for the second time that day, I wasn’t sure whether I had just been fired.
Perhaps I had quit?
Either way, my winter working hibernation was coming to an end.
When I returned to the bathroom to finish trimming my beard, the pandemic caveman in the mirror was grinning once more. He may not know what the future holds in store, but he understood that putting an end to a source of stress and unhappiness could only be a step in the right direction.
I’m inclined to agree with him. Better days ahead.