Useless Dad didn't waste time. "Do you have a suit?" he asked as soon as I opened the door.
"Er... Yes." I'd only just got the kids off to school and I was looking forward to settling down with a cup of coffee to check my email before getting on with chores. Having Steve turn up in a panic certainly hadn't been part of my plan for the morning.
"A smart suit?"
"It's not full of holes, if that's what you mean, and it's so old it's probably back in fashion."
"That will have to do," he said with a touch of desperation. "Do you want a job for the day? I can't find anyone else. You're not still tied up fixing computers at that private school are you?"
"No. The headmaster got a management consultancy firm like yours in over the summer to cut costs. They told him I'd got enough machines working already and I wasn't needed any more."
Steve nodded in quiet appreciation. "Sound business practice, of course." Then he remembered to be sympathetic. "But... er, unfortunate for you, I imagine."
"Not really. I could do with the break. Besides, with no regular maintenance and constant abuse by hundreds of teenage boys, their whole network will be coughing up diodes by February. They'll have to hire me back, on twice as many hours." I shrugged. "I suspect I won't be available unless they up my pay."
"Ah, I see..."
I doubted he did but I decided not to press the matter. "So what's this job then?"
"My colleague, Geoff, was called away to an unscheduled meeting with an important client and an early tee time. Unfortunately, we're due to be visiting a different client in half an hour. They're expecting two of us. I need someone to stand in."
"You want me to be a management consultant?"
I raised an eyebrow. "And the only qualification I need is a smart suit?"
"I'll do the smiling and talking. You take notes and look serious."
"I guess I can do that," I muttered, rubbing my forehead. I had a nasty feeling I was about to agree to something I was going to regret. "I presume you're going to pay me."
Steve blinked, as if this was a possibility he hadn't considered. "Well, I suppose we could..."
I sighed. "I'll go get changed."
* * *
The biggest part of the job seemed to be carrying things. I had a laptop, a briefcase, an armful of glossy brochures, a clipboard and, against my better judgement, Steve's overcoat. I struggled out of the lift on the top floor of the office building and stumbled after Steve as he strode off to shake hands with anyone he could find who looked important.
We were working for RSFI, a relatively small financial institution, in the centre of town. They're not that large but they've been around forever and their offices are an old-fashioned mess of wood-panelled corridors and thick carpet. The whole place was claustrophobic and overly warm. I felt uncomfortable in any number of different ways.
We were shown into a plush conference room complete with chandeliers and a polished mahogany table laid out with tea, coffee and posh chocolate biscuits. There were even doilies and silver teaspoons.
Steve had got ahead of me as I lumbered along trying not to drop anything and he was already chatting away to three middle-aged men in extremely smart suits. They looked very important indeed. Before I could put the stuff down, he signalled me over without pausing in his introductory spiel.
"...and then we'll take a look at the numbers and break it down into bottom-line savings. I'll be giving you an overview of some possibilities for increased productivity and suggesting areas for further investigation."
The men murmured in approval and then one of them said, "Everything's set up for the training and analysis session downstairs."
"Good," said Steve, nodding and smiling, despite clearly being confused by this remark. "Very good."
"It's due to start at ten," said the man, turning to me. "With the speed the lift has been going recently, I imagine you'll want to head down there straight away. Wouldn't want to be late. Time is money, after all." The man chortled as if this statement was somehow amusing and the two other men chortled along with him. He held out his hand. I tried my best to shake it but ended up giving him a brochure instead.
While I joined in the polite laughter, Steve pulled his appointment book from his jacket pocket and hurriedly scanned it. He jabbed a finger at a scribbled entry and his toadying grin became momentarily less fulsome. He went slightly grey. "Ah..." he murmured.
"Ah?" I queried.
"I... Er... Why didn't you mention that RSFI had booked some training this morning, Ed?"
There were so many truthful (yet inappropriate) answers to that question that I found myself momentarily at a loss for words. "Well..." I began.
"Let me take some of that stuff," said Steve hurriedly, grabbing his coat and the rest of the brochures, "so you can get down there and really BUILD A TEAM, then get them to BRAIN-STORM about improving EFFICIENCY." Just in case I hadn't quite picked up on the words he'd said twice as loud as the others, he beamed at me theatrically and attempted a wink.
I paused to consider my options and actually saw the sweat break out on his brow.
"How about I stay here and discuss organisation and preparedness with senior management over coffee while you lead the workshop?" I handed him the laptop.
It was Steve's turn to pause but then he chuckled and slapped me on the back. "Good one," he said. "You almost had me there." He chuckled some more and returned his attention to the three men, motioning at me in mock exasperation. They joined in the chuckling.
While I was still processing all the creepy merriment, Steve gave me back the laptop. "You'll be needing this. It's got the presentation on, after all." He took the briefcase, opened it and pulled out a document folder. "Don't forget the workshop notes."
* * *
The meeting room was unpleasant. Although there were windows, they were below street level, looking out onto three feet of patio and then a stone wall. Grey light and traffic noise filtered down from above, mixed with the steady patter of rain. Tables and chairs were scattered about in something approximating rows that faced a wall with a long stretch of whiteboard. I found a switch and sent ceiling panels flickering loudly into life, harshly illuminating the stark decor and threadbare carpet tiles.
About twenty people were sitting waiting for me. Over half were lounging around looking bored in a slightly unkempt fashion while joking with each other and idly attempting to get reception on their iPhones. The rest were desperately catching up on paperwork. The two groups were neatly (and somewhat pointedly) divided on opposite sides of the room. The first consisted entirely of men, the other was mostly women.
I introduced myself and then made a show of hooking up the laptop to the projector as I tried to work out what on Earth I was going to do for the rest of the morning. Needless to say, I wasn't hugely thrilled with the situation Steve had landed me in. Truth be told, however, I was more annoyed with myself than with him. I should have seen it coming.
Taking a deep breath, I attempted to calm my nerves. I didn't have a great deal to lose. I was never going to see these people again and it wasn't as if I could get sacked. Worst case scenario, I had a couple of hours of embarrassment ahead of me.
I booted up PowerPoint.
How bad could it be?
* * *
The slides were unintelligible. A few were written in words I didn't understand, the rest were incomplete notes. I skimmed through them as best I could, trying to sound confident as I spouted gobbledigook. It didn't work. The eyes of my audience rapidly glazed over. A few surreptitiously returned to their forms and iPhones.
At last something came up which looked familiar. The letters:
were written down the side of a page. Relief welled up inside me. I knew this! It was an acronym to help recall the essential criteria for setting objectives. All objectives should be... er... Something, Momething, Achievable and, er... Oh, drat...
I decided to throw it open to the floor. "Does anyone know the most important attributes of successful objectives?"
"They should be achievable," said a bald guy with a bushy beard, looking up from his phone.
"And they shouldn't change the moment you've achieved them," chipped in one of his colleagues, who was much younger and wearing a hideous green tie with a purple shirt.
The first guy snorted. "That counts as not being achievable."
"No, it doesn't."
"If you can't tick it off as an achieved objective even if you've achieved it, then surely it's unachievable by definition."
Green-tie-man became rather animated. "The objective has still been achieved even if the list of objectives has changed. You're confusing your local and global objectives."
"Well," said beardy bloke, rolling his eyes, "if you hadn't defined them with the same name..."
"I didn't do any such thing. I..."
I coughed loudly until they stopped arguing. "I take it you guys work in IT?"
They and their friends nodded. The younger one looked a bit sheepish.
"Great," I said. "How about you Google 'SMART objectives' on your phones?"
There was much shaking of beards. "Can't get a signal."
"OK. Objectives..." I was forced to improvise. "They shouldn't be STUPID. Moving on..."
* * *
The presentation was supposed to take an hour but I ran out of things to say in ten minutes. I attempted to buy some time to look over the workshop material by suggesting everyone go and get themselves a coffee.
"If you're paying for it," said green-tie-man, clearly emboldened by his previous contribution.
He clarified. "We have to pay for it and it's awful."
"That's scandalous. I..." My voice trailed off as I realised that there was nothing in the workshop folder but a used envelope. I flipped it over in panic. On the back were scrawled three questions:
- What works?
- What doesn't work?
- How could things be done better?
It was empty. I had three questions to last me until lunch-time and there was no coffee.
"Right," I said, doing my best to look professional and cheery. "You'll need to split up into small groups. Time for a discussion."
* * *
"This is getting a little heated. Perhaps it's time to step back a minute and..."
No one listened to me. Green-tie-man was toe-to-toe with one of the women from the other group (who I'd learnt were all involved with administration and human resources). "I put in my expenses claim six weeks ago," he snarled as his comrades whistled and jeered in support. "I still don't have the money!"
The admin lady was older, taller, better dressed and more fragrant. She looked over her glasses at him. "It's not my fault that unusual items have to be signed off by two heads of department."
"A light bulb is not an unusual item."
"It is when you buy it yourself," snapped the woman, cheered on by her colleagues. "Instead of requesting one from maintenance."
"My office doesn't have windows - I need a daylight bulb. I had one before."
She threw her arms up in the air. "I know that but I don't have authority to authorise repeat procurements." They were almost shouting at each other.
"You should have chased it up."
"It's not my job to badger your boss." She started pointing her finger around for emphasis.
He retaliated with another accusing digit. "It is your job to get expenses paid promptly."
The confrontation was heading towards a scuffle even before one of the other admin staff piped up with, "If your team ever got round to installing the new accounts software, it would do the chasing up automatically."
Beardy bloke leapt to his feet. "So that's what this is about!"
Suddenly it was a free-for-all. Everyone was pointing and shouting.
"We've installed it twice already."
"You didn't get it right."
"We did exactly what you said you wanted."
"ENOUGH!" I glared at them in a manner that comes naturally after spending several months working in a school full of teenage boys who don't respect electronic equipment. "Sit down and be quiet."
I waited until they were all seated again and then spoke firmly but quietly. "We clearly have a real problem here and something has to be done." I paused to let this sink in, giving them all a chance to reflect on their behaviour. A few averted their gaze in shame as I looked them in the eye.
Then I pulled a face and wretched, pointing to the cup in my hand. "I went to the vending machine. This coffee is atrocious. Seriously, people, we have to do something about this. I want solutions and I want them now. OK... Go..."
* * *
As a team building exercise, launching a daring raid on the executive canteen turned out be pretty effective. The admin staff used the system to distract, obfuscate and requisition. The techies hacked into the security cameras and did most of the actual creeping around. Within half an hour, we had some cafetieres, a couple of teapots, a supply of Earl Grey, assorted china crockery and a selection of chocolate biscuits. Thanks to wild over-enthusiasm, we also had a catering-sized box of condiment sachets, a laser printer, two armchairs, a roast chicken and three potted shrubs. More than that, sensing free food, a dozen extra people from Customer Relations had shown up to join us.
Everyone was mingling nicely.
"Are you sure we're going to get away with this?" asked green-tie-man with his mouth full. "What happens if management finds out?"
"It's OK," I said. "I'll let them know about it when I report back and I'll tell them I made you do it as part of the course. It's my problem, not yours."
The admin lady he'd been fighting with earlier sipped her tea and smiled. "Do you do this all the time?"
"Er..." I decided to come clean. "I'm just filling in for today."
"Oh..." The jovial mood in the room evaporated. Everyone looked worried. They'd all assumed my confidence came from getting away with similar things before and they hadn't yet grasped the bullet-proof nature of my position.
"Look at this as an opportunity," I reassured them. "If you have something you want the executives to hear, I don't mind saying it to them. Doesn't bother me if they don't like it. I'm gone by this afternoon anyway."
This calmed them all a little but then green-tie-man blew it. "What do you normally do?" he asked.
"I'm actually a housedad."
Admin lady's brow furrowed. "So you don't know anything about cooperation and productivity?"
"I wouldn't say that. What are the problems you have to deal with most often?"
"My manager doesn't listen. He ignores me and then does the opposite of what I say."
I nodded. "Does he talk gibberish and think he knows everything?"
"Funnily enough," I said, offering her another biscuit, "I might just have a few tips to help you get by..."
* * *
"How did it go?" asked Steve when I returned to the conference room. His startled look gave the impression he'd forgotten about me. He'd been deep in conversation with the same three men from earlier.
"Excellent would you like a cup of coffee and a..." He turned in his seat and reached for the plate of biscuits but it wasn't there. "Oh. That's strange."
"I'm fine. Here's my report." I slid my clipboard across the table to the man in the smartest suit.
The man chuckled. "Have you found us plenty of cost-cutting measures."
"I certainly have. I can save you thousands of pounds a year."
"Yes, all you need to do is replace the vending machines with better quality ones, make them free and hire two more people to work in Human Resources."
Steve choked on his drink. He flapped a bit in agitation but he was too busy dealing with the hot coffee coming out his nose to interrupt me.
"In return for the refreshments, the IT staff have agreed to spend less time dejectedly surfing the internet and more time making everyone else's lives easier. With extra people, admin staff will have the chance to find the most cost-effective solutions to problems. They'll also get to queries faster, reducing lost productivity throughout the company resulting from follow-up queries and general grumpiness. In addition, both teams are going to try harder to explain what they mean to each other, in an effort to minimise effort wasted due to misunderstandings."
The three men looked at each. They weren't chuckling anymore.
"Oh, and I need you to sign off on this." I slid another sheet of paper over. "It's a retrospective request form for a chicken..."
* * *
"You're speaking to me again then?" I said before covering the mouth-piece to shout upstairs. "Hey, children! I'm on the phone. Less thumping!" The thundering of rampaging elephants coming from Fraser's bedroom lessened to a minor degree.
Steve cut to the chase. "How's your golf?"
"Couldn't hit the broadside of a barn I was standing in. Why?"
"After consulting the workforce, the board at RSFI have decided to go with your recommendations," he said, pleased but baffled. "The Head of Personnel was wondering about talking through implementation with you over eighteen holes."
I contemplated this and wandered back into the kitchen to stir the kids' pasta. "Are you going to pay me?"
"To play golf?"
"To politely state the obvious while losing badly in the cold."
There was the distinct sound of reluctant swallowing at the other end of the line. "I suppose we could..."
"Great," I said. "Count me in." Then I covered the mouth-piece again and yelled, "Tea-time!"
Steve just managed to arrange the details and hang up before I was surrounded by my lovely herd of rampaging elephants. I served them their tea and listened to them all talk at once. Then Fraser switched on the telly and they ate their food quietly while watching Newsround. Our kitchen seemed even warmer and cosier than ever, and I gave each of them a hug.
They all complained but I didn't care.
Yours in a woman's world,