Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Power of ONE Person

I wrote "Corporate Clown" in the mid 1990s, and refreshed it in the early 200s to submit to a writing contest. Although it didn't win, the judges wrote such endearing comments about the character of Chad, I decided to share it with my readers. I was thinking a lot about Chad today, maybe because I was squeegeeing the glass in my shower (See entry Dec. 20, 20017), but mostly because of Thanksgiving and the surge of requests I'm receiving for donations to alleviate food instability. He still inspires me.

                                      CORPORATE CLOWN

            My youngest staff member, a clerk-messenger, is currently touring the southwestern United States in his Volkswagen bus. Normally, he’d be reporting to me each morning at our downtown subsidiary of a large corporation. I’ve given him a five-week leave of absence, but today I’m wishing Chad were here.

            I need him to get the food-bank barrel filled. The barrel appeared a week ago as part of a semi-annual challenge from our parent company, accompanied by an urgent plea for local food bank help. It’s still empty, except for my donation of a can of tuna and box of dried milk, nothing yet from our other forty-five employees.

            When I approved Chad’s request for his unpaid leave, he hesitated at my office door. “Uhm . . .” (he often starts an important discussion with this mantra-like syllable) “Thank you. But maybe ‘thank you’ isn’t enough. I want you to know that this trip, uhm, this trip is going to make me a better person and change my life.” He blazed his smile and left my doorway to return to his tasks.

            Because he is gentle, twenty-years old, and looks like a Deadhead, some of his more senior coworkers believe that he is indifferent to sensible values. He has conformed to the company appearance code by tying back his mid-shoulder-length hair into a ponytail and complies with the dress code by purchasing the requisite neckties and dress pants from thrift stores, combining colors and patterns reminiscent of a retirement home’s golf tournament. I’m certain he’s the only person in our building who sports a pair of polyester-plaid pants pegged with safety pins down the inside seams.

            I’m sure there are more than a few men in our building who—on seeing Chad in his getup—wonder if they, too, don’t look just as foolish, given the conventions of male dress. There’s a thin line between ironed and un-ironed in terms of looking snappy. And Chad’s bright red Doc Martin shoes evoke a look of righteous disdain from people in highly polished Italian loafers. But I digress—back to the barrel.

Chad does a fantastic job as clerk. He is always thinking and masters his work-related responsibilities by asking why it’s done that way—then listens to the answer. But he keeps asking questions, even when performing routine duties, about deeper things that make his coworkers tick.

“Why would anyone not want to donate to the food bank?” he asks me, his brow scrunched up like an inside-out sock.

            “Oh, I doubt if people really choose not to,” I answer. “It’s probably because they are busy or forgetful, or they wait for the last minute and accidentally wait one day too long.” I realize I sound defensive.

            “Uhm . . . but don’t people know that others will follow by example?  It would only take a few more cans in the barrel to inspire others. Then it would snowball.” Already I am making a note to myself to bring a few more cans of soup tomorrow.

“Maybe they gave at home,” I quipped one time, and he smiled in genuine appreciation of a middle-aged supervisor with a mind still agile enough to make a joke. But the bottom line is that Chad does his full citizen-share, and he’s amazingly effective at getting others to do the same. For instance, he’ll haul in a big bag of groceries—practical, good food, such as pinto beans and peanut butter—and after depositing them into the barrel, manage to talk up the food bank and the good it does while making his desk-to-desk delivery rounds. Almost single-handedly, Chad has gotten the barrel filled in the past. I’ve heard him offer to help our officers transport their donations (“If you can bring it in tomorrow, I’ll come down to the garage and haul it from the car for you”) so subtlety they scarcely know they’re engaged in a Socratic dialogue with the lowest man on the totem pole.

            “Uhm, maybe you can answer this,” he says to a manager while removing outbound mail from her desktop. The manager looks up, disarmed by Chad’s need for her advice. “Do you know why people who are financially comfortable are reluctant to donate a jar or two of peanut butter to the food bank?” In the process of answering that question, the manager starts making a mental note to bring food tomorrow.

At his next stop—the financial officer’s private office—he asks, “How can people who get paychecks be certain they won’t someday need to get food themselves from a food bank?” When the officer begins to pontificate about the power of savings or financial planning, Chad listens intently and then responds, “But isn’t it possible that fortune could turn the tables on the luckiest of people, so they become the unluckiest?” Then he pushes the mail cart to its next stop.

            Because Chad’s job takes him from desk to desk, he reaches everyone—from the CEO to his fellow messengers—and has frequent opportunities to listen intently to the opinions of others. Last year during an office campaign to give to the annual community-fund drive, he told me, “I’m only one paycheck away from being a taker, but as long as I have a paycheck, I can be a giver. I am thrilled to be a giver.” And he was the first one to turn in his pledge card.

            In various fund raisers through the year, from raffles benefiting social services’ providers to the far-reaching consolidated drive, the big guys—senior management—are always rumored to give less than others. Friends who work in human resources at other companies tell me that this is a well-known pattern, and we’re not talking a smaller percentage, either—it’s frequently a smaller dollar gift that come from the most affluent. But when there’s recognition to be had for that same giving (such as a donor’s plaque or a luncheon to honor benefactors), those big guys line right up for their thanks.

            In Chad’s opinion, if there were a checklist on the barrel with each person’s name on it, everyone would bring something in—even if just a can of beans or soup. Individuals would want to check off their own names, hoping others would think they’d brought the ham, even if they brought the Jello. Chad says this without belligerence, blame or recrimination. He almost always smiles while he talks. It’s hard not to agree with him, and likewise, difficult not to feel betrayed by what looks like stinginess on the part of the well-paid employees.

            I’ve decided that Chad is our company’s own corporate jester, disguised as a young kid full of questions with a manner that threatens no one and questions that sound naïve enough to chip away at our corporate hypocrisy. Every company needs such a clown. He invites us to look at ourselves collectively and change. What’s so endearing about Chad is his genuine need to know—his constant puzzling over life’s mysteries—which makes us professional types eager to show him the “right way.” (Oh, Chad, please do as we say, not as we do.)

            So, while we genuinely believe we’re teaching him how to be part of corporate America (and we probably are, in all the worst ways), Chad is effecting our change, too. Helping us to be a little better at the human game without ranting, protesting, or civil disobedience, he’s there as our little-guy conscience. I will welcome him back from his trip, and no doubt I'll share my disappointment about our near-empty barrel for food collection. But I hope his trip isn’t life changing. We need him just the way he is.


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