I don’t often talk about the day I was fired, ordered to clean out my desk with a security guard in attendance, and escorted off the premises like I was some kind of criminal. A shocked colleague pressed $20.00 into my palm in case I needed cab fare, mouthing the word, “Why?”
When I do talk about that day, it’s to my corporate clients when they’ve hit a log jam, when nothing else will persuade them that finding—and using—their own voice is everything.
I’d been working four months in the corporate head offices of what is known as the second most regulated industry after nuclear. The security investigation prior to hiring is fierce. Their internal, tongue-in-cheek tagline is, “People watching people watching people.”
But that’s not the fun part of this story.
Where it really began was the year before, on a Saturday night at 2:00 a.m. when I was so exasperated with my cash team, I wanted to throttle every last one of them. The honeymoon period of our gorgeous new bookstore was over. Cashiers leaned against walls, chatting. Crap piled up on the cash desks. No one wanted to work the upstairs cash, where they’d miss the best gossip.
I’d finished counting and locking up the cash and was about to leave the store when an impulse hit me. I sat at the computer, and my last lucid thought before entering a fugue state was, “You wanna act like 3-year-olds? Fine, I’ll treat you like 3-year-olds!”
The two-page document, written in 14-point Comic Sans MS, took me twenty red-hot minutes to write. I slapped a copy into the staffroom communication binder where all ninety employees, forty of them my team, would have to read and initial it before beginning their shift. Sunday was my day off. I didn’t give any of them a second thought.
Monday morning, I returned to work, mildly curious as to the effect of my vent. Most likely, the GM, with whom I got along well, would have read, chuckled, and removed it.
The smiling faces started to gather as soon as I entered the store. Floor staff who’d never wanted to work cash, thinking it was intellectually beneath them, asked if they could be cross-trained. Members of my cash team came up and hugged me, some with tears in their eyes, for reminding them of how much they loved their jobs.
Over the next few days, my management colleagues thanked me for making Manager on Duty the new dream job. Our GM, thrilled with the soaring morale, sent a copy of my doc to Head Office, calling it genius. Of our ninety employees, eighty-five made a point of coming up and telling me how much they appreciated what I’d written.
That was only the beginning.
Over the next six weeks, our store sales climbed higher and higher. Customers were so happy with our service that I designed a campaign for employees to record the testimonials. We called them Indigo Moments, and the results were so measurably positive that Head Office invited me to to launch the program, nation-wide.
We were in the midst of working out the logistics when I was recruited by a training director who no longer worked at Head Office. She was now at that other place, the super-regulated one. She had created a position for me at twice the salary because of my demonstrated skills in motivation, innovation, and creativity.
They were the same skills that would push me out the door four months later, especially that last one. “You seem to think that every problem has a creative solution,” said the director who’d once sung my praises. “Well, it doesn’t. And it’s obvious you have no understanding of corporate restraint.”
On that last point, I had to agree. Corporate restraint, which consisted, as far as I could tell, of staying at one’s computer with shoulders hunched and no clue of what anyone else did made no sense at all.
Within six months of my being let go, the first of a series of corporate scandals hit the “people watching people watching people” industry. Senior executives were charged with fraud. Theft and corruption were revealed at the lower ranks. Over the next eight years, CEOs were brought in and let go, board members and entire executive teams replaced.
Their reputation and morale must have hit a new low when in 2010, I received a phone call from the HR director inviting me to design a set of workshops for their senior executives. “We want you to teach us how to tell stories, how to be creative.”
I had only one moment of panic re-entering those halls, when the executive assistant to the woman who fired me stepped out of an elevator. But no one recognized or remembered me. And no one, presumably, had checked their files.
As it turned out, they never ran the workshops. They’ve had two more CEOs since.
Now we come finally to the four most powerful words never used in business. Only I did use them on a Saturday night at 2 a.m., and they changed everything.
The four words are, Once upon a time…
The rest of the sentence read, there were three little cash desks.
And here is the whole story, exactly as it appeared, except for the Comic Sans MS font.
THE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE CASH DESKS
Once upon a time, there was a store called Indigo Yorkdale, and in this store lived three little cash desks. Their names were Lower Cash, Upper Cash and Front cash.
Lower Cash was the oldest of the three. He was also the largest. He had six registers, a look-up and lots of nooks and crannies to put things in. Some people believed that’s all there was to Lower Cash, but they were mistaken. Lower Cash also had a mall entrance where customers could be greeted, an extensive magazine section that always needed straightening and which felt very sad when people didn’t take the time to find out what was in it. Lower Cash had octagons with new releases, a What’s New What’s Hot section, a place for biographies and, because of the computer and telephone, had access to every other part of Indigo Yorkdale.
Upper Cash was the lonely middle child whom people overlooked because he was off in a corner, quiet, unassuming. They sometimes resisted going to Upper Cash because they thought he was boring, even though, in his way, he was a terribly important cash desk. This was where the mysterious Indigo Circles were processed, where many carts of books were stickered and where customers could also be greeted through the upper mall entrance. But Upper Cash was more than all of these. Upper Cash was also the gateway to Indigo Kids where stories and parties and magic happened every day. And it was the portal to Indigo Music where Mozart could be found, and Motown and Bocelli and CDs of just about anyone you could imagine. Upper Cash had so much to offer, and he wondered why cashiers didn’t see him that way. He hoped that one day they would.
And finally, there was the youngest of the three little cash desks. Like most babies of the family, Front Cash quickly became a favourite. He was full of light, laughter and could always be found in the middle of everything. Front Cash was surrounded by Presents, a stone’s throw from Travel and was a popular spot for Home lovers and Business people alike. Front Cash said hello to everyone because it came easily to him, and most everyone said hello back. Front Cash didn’t know that his older brothers were misunderstood, that their talents were ignored, or that arguments sometimes broke out because of them. If he had known, Front Cash would have taken that silly person by the hand and shown him or her what delightful cash desks they were. And he would have told them that anyone would be lucky to have Upper Cash or Lower Cash as a friend.
Because that’s what all the cash desks really want to be. They want to be everybody’s friend. So next time you’re asked to go to Upper Cash or to Lower, or you’re lucky enough to be chosen for Front Cash, give the desk a tiny little pat. Let him know that you’re happy to be there and looking forward to sharing experiences. If you do this, you can be certain that when all the lights are dimmed, and all the customers and cashiers and managers and floor people have gone home for the night, the three little cash desks will be dancing in the aisles, hardly able to wait for a new day to begin at Indigo Yorkdale.
© Elaine Stirling, 2014
Elaine Stirling is the author of The Corporate Storyteller: A Writing Manual & Style Guide for the Brave New Business Leader. She is a corporate communication consultant, novelist, short story writer, and poet.