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  • John Chambers, PhD

Worn out Views

“Through its panes, moreover, we dimly catch the sweep of the dark, clustering foliage outside, fluttering with a constant irregularity of movement, and letting in a peep of starlight, now here, now there.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House Of The Seven Gables

Only a peep of starlight here or there is not the imagery we wish for our offices. Maybe on Halloween night we relish creeky doors, dusty windows, and the clatter of unsecured shutters against cedar shingles. For a moment, an eerie, literary, romantic ambiance is intriguing, in the darkness. But that’s for one spooky night. In our offices, our company venues, whether startups in a converted hangar or a Fortune 500 tower of glass, the environment should exude success and respect. The startup can’t afford multi-leveled, windowed views to the horizon, but the startup’s “house” should still tell a tale of professionalism and operating excellence. In a consulting effort to engage a global powerhouse, I was beckoned to visit one of the largest news firms in the country. I was excited, but the visit felt more trick than treat.

While the cult of celebrity status irks me most times, there was something quite invigorating about Midtown Manhattan for a skyscraper meeting in the entertainment sector. I was thinking how fun it would be, to walk the skyscraper's hallways by national news anchors, or see the famous football play-callers of Sunday games headed to prep for the weekend. Or maybe there would be a couple of regulars from morning talk shows or sitcoms. They filmed some that in this building, I thought! There was anticipation and exhilaration.

As the sales team's subject matter expert, I was asked to advise other executives on best practices for leveraging business management software platforms; the potential buyers were senior leaders in the Information Technology and Operations branch. After badging in, and waiting in the premier, state of the art, entertainment venue, surrounded by giant photos of broadcast successes, the assistant greeted me and fellow sales professionals. Regretfully a couple of senior executives in Information Technology were absent, having to suddenly disappear toward unknown "critical issues." But two senior managers were present in their stead. That was fine; the managers I had met prior, via phone, were sharp, well-spoken and knew what they were doing. They may not have had the same questions the absentee execs would have, but their own perspectives would be valuable to us.

When I stepped into the elevator, I wondered whether our room would have an inward view or would it be facing the New York City skyline. The manager pressed “B”. So much for that. Under the street level was where we found Information Technology. There would be no windows, but so what? I was there to help engage in a business discussion not take a harbor tour. I silently chuckled at my own silliness; mahogany desks couldn't be expected any more than a view of Ellis Island. Nevertheless, there was an expectation of professionalism and respect; after all, this was one of the most well-known, corporate entities in the world.

As the elevator doors opened, I saw a metaphor to the shoemakers’ children; the department most impactful to the distribution of the company’s information prowess was a disheveled, hodgepodge of desks, PCs, cabinets and sub-8-foot ceilings. This was ironic, since the major TV networks are the foremost experts in selling brands, touting imagery and delivering content. We swiveled around corners and narrow hallways, like a walkabout in a decaying old mansion. Then facing the scratched, conference room door, we carefully entered. It was the size of my cousin’s “man cave,” but this was more like a bat cave. No, I don’t refer to the comic book character with high tech gizmos and a flared chassis vehicle, but an actual cave that may as well have had bats. The senior managers led us into the room a few minutes early so we could set up.

In the middle of the space, above the conference room table, there was an acoustic ceiling tile, like those you see in a semi-finished basement. One of the tile corners was broken, as if it was bitten by a dog. And hanging through that broken corner tile, from ceiling to table, was a black cable dangling just above the portable projector.

“You can just hook up to that cable,” said one of the managers.

With my back to a blank wall dotted with unused picture hooks, I withdrew my laptop from the case.

So there were no news anchors in their suits, only me and my colleagues in our suits, hot and uncomfortable. Instead of the open-air image of a Morning News show, replete with Big Apple passersby in the background, we were in a 74-degree, constricted office space in the bowels of some hundred year old building, sitting in vinyl chairs that made unpleasant sounds when one lifted off of the cushion.

Now before the startup tech-folks sneer indignantly, it’s not about investment. It’s about respect and visible evidence that operating excellence should be ground floor to penthouse. Or basement to penthouse. In fact, many startups are champions in this space. I’ve seen many small companies with in-house ping-pong tables and open-air collaboration corners that were sterling in their immaculateness. The game areas blended with the offices neatly, the lighting was ample, and the computing spaces refined! Startups can rejoice that they can brand their environment sometimes better than the giants.

As sales people offer their corporate services to other firms, the construct is one of "seller as subordinate." And it not ought be. Sales folks will tolerate much because they, like all of us, need to make a buck; we want our companies to grow, we need to put food on the table whether we are individual contributors or leaders of thousand-person divisions. But respect should be afforded to even those who are sellers. Do we treat our vendors to atmospheric precision and light? Or is the ambiance like forgotten drawers in an attic bureau? Our environment speaks to our operation. Of course, companies don’t have a specific need for every single salesperson with a value proposition; that’s not the point. But if we open our doors to visitors, no matter if they are potential suppliers or potential buyers, the environment we illustrate tells us who we are. And never mind sellers for a moment. What about the professionals who use the conference room daily, with its swinging cord waving back and forth in the center?

Not long ago, I was privileged to support a firm whose operational spaces, IT offices, and R&D labs were as immaculate and refined as the showcase entryway of the building. When the company expanded its facility, every corner was evidence of upscale neatness and respect. And before we consider that large-scale firms have the luxury of enormous capital, I’ve also seen the same environmental pristineness at a startup that shared parking lot space next to an auto body shop. Capital is not a prerequisite to a professional building or house. Care is.

When my colleagues and I finally plugged into the wire that swung from the news company’s ceiling tile, it was painful to recognize the regrettable dysfunction that wafted in a company that sat on enormous wealth. The I.T. department could have been a showroom.; no, not the look and feel of the imposing hallways where news executives rubbed elbows with conglomerate media tycoons. But there could have been a visible sense that the entire corporation operated with ubiquitous professionalism and décor.

Broken hinges, peeling paint and old, forgotten rooms conjure images of mid-Autumn, haunted mansions, places and spaces we want to avoid. That world renowned firm in New York may not have had ghosts in the rafters, but it seemed to forget that respect belongs in every room of the house. Not just to us wary visitors, but to every person who resides inside.

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