Apr/May 2013 Humor/Satire

Behind the 8 Ball with the Chairman

by Steven D. Stark

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

All senior managers who come over, even for a week or two, have to have one dinner with the Chairman and CEO. That's just the way the Company works.

I was dreading it.

"Do your homework," said one woman with whom I used to share an office. But she never did say what the homework might be.

"He can be a strange one," said another in sales, who was actually a bit strange herself.

Deciding what to wear was probably the least of my problems, but maybe that's why I obsessed about it the most. I finally settled on a blue blazer with khaki pants, button-down, blue-striped shirt, and no tie. It was hard to tell if I'd made the right choice. The Chairman had gone native in a gray uniform, much like the kind custodians wear.

He was also wearing a small cap. Then again, it was cold outside.

"Pleased to meet you," I said. "Should we just try the hotel restaurant?"

"If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself," he answered.

I took that as a yes. Once seated, he eyed me suspiciously and said nothing. This was a conversation I might have to carry. I'd been warned about that.

"So," I began. "I'm honored to be here and working for you—helping to bring one of the world's largest greeting card companies to China."

"If we have a correct theory but merely prate about it, pigeonhole it, and do not put it into practice, then that theory, however good, is of no significance," he responded.

It was more than I'd expected him to say all night. Sure, it was a truism. But most truisms are true.

That's why he's the Chairman.

A waitress arrived. The Chairman ordered one from Column A and one from Column B. Playing it safe, I did the same.

A minute passed, then two. "Troops and horses have arrived, but food and fodder are not ready, and that is no good," he said. "Don't call a meeting in a hurry if the preparations are not completed."

Sometimes meetings have to be called in a hurry, I thought, not that I was going to be the one to tell him.

I also began to wonder if I should start speaking in proverbs, too. Maybe that's what the Chinese do, going all the way back to Confucius.

It certainly seemed to be the style of the Chairman, speaking to his new member of senior management at one of the world's leading dispensers of clichéd adages.

I decided to play along the best I could. Maybe I could even impress him.

I invoked my best source.

"It is decidedly so," I told him.

The egg rolls arrived. The Chairman began thoughtfully munching on his.

"Strategically, we take the eating of a meal lightly—we know we can finish it," he said. "But actually we eat it mouthful by mouthful. It is impossible to swallow an entire banquet in one gulp. This is known as a piecemeal solution. In military parlance, it is called wiping out the enemy forces one by one."

He smiled. He had bad teeth. Maybe we were hitting it off, though sharing a meal with a man who was comparing our get-together to an annihilistic battle wasn't my idea of a good time.

"Signs point to yes," I responded.

"One must personally ask questions, take notes," he announced.

I knew all about this. Now he was playing the pushy CEO. No problem: I pulled out a pen, and he nodded.

I also knew what to say.

"Without a doubt."

"If we doubt these principles, we achieve nothing," he said.

The meal arrived. Beijing duck for the Chairman, General Gao's chicken for me.

He pointed at my plate with a chopstick.

"In a suitable temperature an egg changes into a chicken," he said. "But no temperature can change a stone into a chicken, because each has a different basis."

It sounded even less profound sitting in a hotel restaurant in Beijing than it does on paper. But my job on this night wasn't to be critical.

"You may rely on it," I said.

"On the one hand, never be wasteful or extravagant. On the other, actively expand production."

Finally, a breakthrough. This might be our Company's blueprint for the future, and the Chairman was letting me in on it. He couldn't do this with everybody. I could see my future in lights.

"Yes," I said.

"There is a Chinese saying," he went on. "Either the East Wind prevails over the West Wind, or the West Wind prevails over the East Wind."

I could imagine a situation where neither prevailed and one even more likely where I couldn't give a damn which did.

Instead I said, "Yes definitely."

It was time for dessert. They brought over the fortune cookies. He opened his.

"The world is progressing, the future is bright, and no one can change this general trend of history," he announced.

"It is certain," I answered.

"The proletariat seeks to transform the world according to its own world outlook," he continued, "and so does the bourgeoisie."

He nodded again in my direction and placed the fortune on the table. It was blank. He had made it all up on the spot.

A test. I was to do the same.

"Concentrate and ask again," I said to buy time.

He wasn't buying.

"Outlook not so good," I offered.

That didn't work, either. Though for some reason, it gave me an idea, and at this point I was ready to try anything.

Even humor. Despite the Chairman's legendary reputation for having no sense of one.

"So a robber walks into a Chinese restaurant and pulls out a gun," I began. "'Give me all your money,' he says to the owner." I paused. "'To take out?' the owner answers."

The Chairman actually laughed. Out loud. "You have many good qualities and have rendered great service, but you must always remember not to become conceited," he said.

"Better not tell you now," I said, and he laughed again.

We got up and headed to the lobby. He put on his cap.

"Our point of departure is to serve the people whole-heartedly and never for a moment divorce ourselves from the masses," he said, shaking my hand.

"Outlook good?" I asked him.

"Good?" he replied. "A good comrade is one who is more eager to go where the difficulties are greater."

When I arrived home a week later, I found he'd sent me his new self-published redbook of business principles for the greeting card industry, along with a warm personal inscription. Last I heard, it had two stars on Amazon.

Just between you and me, that's generous.


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