Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My Early Retirement Story Part 3: How It Happened

Lord Jesus! The Pierced and Crucified One! When I first came to you through the campus ministry of the Basilian Fathers in Windsor, I chose to do so by taking the road of glory. Silly and laughable was I! But my vanity and narcissism convinced me that I was a wise man just because I had some understanding of Philosophy. This time, after a humbling conversion experience that lasted more than a decade, You mercifully granted me the grace to understand and accept that the only way that a lowly mortal like me could behold Your face of glory is the way of the cross. Embracing the cross is indeed foolishness to the world, but I will gladly make myself a fool for “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:25)….

The Christmas of 2008 was still two weeks away but already patchy accumulation of snow on the ground was visible here and there. Everyone in the office was working away sort of half-heartedly, waiting for the company to close early for the annual Christmas lunch. With a coffee in hand, I walked casually into our CEO’s office and closed the door behind me, doing my very best to act nonchalant and downplay the significance and gravity of a conversation that I was about to initiate.

As contemporary business wisdom goes, no employee is indispensible. Although I was the Chief Financial Officer of the company and was one of the last three remaining, longest serving employees, I wasn’t so naïve as to think that my imminent departure would have any earthshaking impact. Still I knew it would cause more than just a few ripples. To make it sound as natural as possible, I started the conversation by commenting on the Finance Committee meeting held a few days ago, which was a rather rocky one both for Jeff, our CEO, and for me. In fact, the meetings had been less than congenial for several months, ever since the company’s plan to move to a new building got underway. The site renovations; dealing with architects, contractors, project management consultants, clients, landlord and bankers; budget planning and monitoring, etc. – everything was adding to the stress that the on-going operations already had on staff, management, and the Board. The relationship between the Treasurer and me had been particularly strained.

The Treasurer of the company was an aggressive and egocentric lady with a fiery temper, whose only interest since joining the Board as a volunteer was to draw attention to her consulting experience and professional qualifications, and to promote her personal business interests. To say that it wasn’t easy to work with her is perhaps too much of an understatement, but I somehow had managed to do so for more than three years. One day, she and I were having a telephone discussion when she suddenly began to swear, using all kinds of profane language. It was the second time she had done this to me. The first time it happened, it was milder but I was taken aback nonetheless. This time I was ready.

Having worked for almost 30 years, 25 of which in Toronto, it’s not like I had not heard other people swear at work before, but the experience with this lady was very different. As the listener on the receiving end, I felt that her profanity was more than a mindless outburst of anger. It was a deliberate attempt to insult. I decided that I had to draw the line. I told her to stop, reminding her that there was no place for profane language in a discussion that was purely business. What followed was a prolonged silence with theatrical intensity. What was racing through her head on the other end of the phone line I could only guess: Shock? Humiliation? Fury? A burning desire to inflict vengeance? I had no idea. The next thing I heard: She suddenly changed her tone to speak with a great deal of solemnity, in a voice that sounded like she had just dropped to the floor and got back up: “I think it’s time for this conversation to end. Goodbye!” The phone went dead; so did my career. OK, it wasn’t exactly the end, but it was at least the beginning of the end. From then on, the Finance Committee meetings became even more difficult because I was clearly targeted.

I told Jeff I was concerned that the endless accusations at the recent Finance Committee meetings; its members’ unreasonable requests, particularly those of the Treasurer; and its poisoning atmosphere of distrust could adversely affect my health. A life-time government bureaucrat and ever a pragmatic diplomat who sensed political expediency faster than a hound dog sensed blood, Jeff picked up the clue quickly.

“Is there anything we can do to end this impasse?” he asked.

“I certainly hope so. What do you think?” I passed him back the ball.

Not wanting to pass up on this great opportunity that found its way to his door, Jeff wasted no time to state the obvious, “Would you consider working out amicably with us a severance package that is mutually acceptable and beneficial?”

Before lunch time came around, Jeff and I had agreed on the general terms although the fine details remained to be ironed out by the lawyers after the New Year, subject to Board approval of course.

At lunch time, Jeff and I and the other members of the management team sat in the dinning room of an uptown restaurant together with all company staff, chatting away and enjoying good foods in a jovial party atmosphere as though everything was just business as usual. When it was over, the waitress came with the bill and asked for the company person in charge. Everyone looked at me, the CFO with the company credit card. I was happy to oblige but for the first time in 23 years I signed a company bill and felt at the same time that I had no business signing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeff was thinking the same thing. Racing through the back of my head was a sudden realization that unofficially I no longer belonged! I wouldn’t say I was sad, but the feeling was a little weird – something that took me a while to get used to….

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