Stephanie Hutton: The Accidental CEO

The accidental CEO sits on the roof ledge of Scorpion Tower, overlooking the city streets he slept on until three months ago. The previous winter, he entered the building with the remnants of his life in a leather bag to shelter his dog Grit from the storm.

It was Maisie’s first week as receptionist for Infinity Insurance. She was waiting to welcome the new lead risk assessor, head-hunted by an agency.

The man who approached wore a long woollen coat with a raggedy collar pulled upwards, shoes that looked they’d walked further than The Proclaimers, a panting dog by his side that could have been part wolf. This man had a presence, a solidity. Maisie exhaled her shoulders back down from somewhere near her ears.

‘I’ve been waiting for you, sir,’ she said, ‘we’ve heard such great things about you. You know, about assessing risk?’

The man nodded. ‘Aye, there’s plenty of that,’ he said. ‘No need to let things get to a certain point. Keep watchful, wait and smooth away trouble before it starts.’

‘I’m so sorry, I don’t have your name, just your job title,’ Maisie said, lifting up piles of paper strewn across the desk.

The man looked at his dog as if it might answer for him.

‘They call me wise man, on the streets at least. I left the other names behind. And this is Grit.’

‘Mr Wiseman, of course.’ Maisie’s fingers fluttered at the ends of her hair. ‘I’ll let Mr Fulsome know you have arrived. Can I get you and Grit anything?’

Wiseman placed one hand on the top of his dog’s head. His deep voice vibrated Maisie’s paperwork. ‘I had a feeling you were the kind of lady who would see just what was needed.’

Maisie flushed as she gathered coins from her purse to buy coffee and dog food. Wiseman followed her to a large conference room with windows that looked out onto more rooms.

‘Cages of glass,’ said Wiseman, as he eased himself into a leather chair at the head of the table.

Grit settled his head down onto his front paws until the door swung open. Fulsome beamed, then crossed the room in zigzag lines as if the floor were hot coals.

‘Aha! Here he is then,’ said Fulsome, placing his sweating boy-sized palm into the large, dry hands of the man he presumed was his new lead risk assessor. ‘Wiseman, I’ve got four minutes. Let’s blast some ideas before Board today. We’re the sixteenth leading insurance company in this region, as you can see on the poster here. Better Insure than Unsure. Tell me what you’ve got to get us to fifteenth, or sod it, to get us to the top ten.’

Wiseman leant back in his chair, staring at the poster. He touched his ring finger where there was no longer anything to spin. ‘You can’t predict or prevent the future, so people shut down, as if nothing bad could happen to them,’ he said, turning to face the younger man opposite him. ‘But if we all had our eyes open to the darkness slipping under the door, under our skin, then we’d be frozen in fear.’

Fulsome tap-tapped into his phone. ‘I see, so change their emotional state to enhance expenditure! They’ve got to believe it could happen to them, but not be a big girl’s blouse about it.’ His phone pinged. ‘Let’s go to the shop floor. And love the beard, by the way, very on trend that hipster look, like you just don’t give a shit!’

Gurgles escaped from Wiseman’s stomach as they walked down the neon-lit corridor. ‘Hungry. Just all the time, so hungry.’

‘Love your style,’ said Fulsome, jittery movements in his arms and legs doubling his energy consumption, ‘Yes, let’s go get ‘em – hungry for success, every day ending in ‘y’!’

From the viewing platform, both men looked down onto the basement call-centre filled with more than a hundred workers in small booths, each wearing a headset. Wiseman dropped his coat to the floor as he descended the steps, then paced up and down the aisles. The workers continued with their scripts, despite the tall man in crumpled clothing and the strange-smelling dog cocking their heads next to them: to stop would incur docked wages.

By the time Maisie arrived with coffee, croissants and dog food, Wiseman had filled a third of his notebook with left-leaning letters. Back on the viewing platform, the scripts of the call centre workers melded into one chant.

‘You are treating these people like battery hens,’ said Wiseman, sprinkling his knees with flakes of pastry as he talked and ate at the same time. ‘They say you can taste the difference with free range, that the stress hormones in the battery chickens change their very substance.’

Fulsome drank his coffee in one gulp like a shot of whisky. ‘You mean we should set them free? Walking and talking? To increase productivity?’ He scanned left to right with a furrowed brow.

‘And you have them in a suit and tie,’ said Wiseman, feeding the rest of his brunch to Grit. ‘Those ties are like ligatures – one step closer to suicide.’ He undid the top buttons of his shirt, pulled at the frayed edge of a t-shirt underneath.

‘Good catch, Wiseman, we don’t want to get sued if one of them ends it all in the staff toilets.’

Wiseman blinked three times in a row, inhaled as if to speak, then clamped his teeth together and rubbed the fur above Grit’s tail, which wagged slowly.

It was unthinkable that Infinity Insurance would allow one-hundred-and-eleven staff members to be off the phone at the same time, but it happened, while Fulsome was grinning at his notes at all the changes that would shoot his company into the stratosphere of top insurers.

The speech that Wiseman went on to make from the viewing platform would increase company profits by 263% in the following quarter. It contained sentences such as ‘speak to your callers as if they were that one kid at school who showed kindness to you’. Jaws slackened at Wiseman’s plea to ‘ditch that script for the first ten minutes. Find out about the person’s loves and life, their hardships, their dreams. Above all, connect and show compassion.’ He ended the speech, his voice cracking, ‘Help people to feel safe. That’s all any of us want.’

Later, mid-afternoon in the boardroom, rain slashed against triple-glazed windows as twelve senior managers and the chief executive stared at Wiseman.

Mr Archibald Hardy, CEO, cleared his throat before each sentence and had the shakiness of a body that had worked long past retirement age. ‘And where exactly did you build your portfolio of work Mr Wiseman?’

Wiseman looked at each staff member in turn. ‘I must tell you all, I’ve learned more on the streets than in any so-called job.’ He leant forwards on the table and half the board members moved ever so slightly forward too. ‘You are living off people’s fear, but they are used to living with it – it hounds their dreams and leaves them shaking and drinking and clutching their stomachs every day. They need to feel that they have belongings, jobs, lives worth protecting.’

Fulsome picked at the edges of his cardboard coffee cup. ‘We’ve got to big them up to catch them.’

A small blonde woman stretched up to the whiteboard at the end of the room and wrote Big Them Up and Word on the Street.

The ancient CEO joined his palms together as if in prayer. ‘This man has obviously been putting the hours in, getting down in the nitty gritty, dressing as they do to think as they do. Excellent. We can’t make money from depressives, quite right.’ Despite his enthusiasm, no colour showed in his cheeks as his weakened heart struggled to pump blood around his system – sixty-six days after this meeting it would stop completely.

‘What are your suggestions for efficiency?’ asked a middle-aged man, still leaning back in his chair with his hands behind his head. ‘I don’t see long chats to customers and staff mingling around talking about their tattoos and large televisions as a way to cut costs.’

Wiseman poured a glass of water and drank.

The questioner’s arms eventually dropped down into his lap as he waited for a response.

‘Only have people here who choose to be here. If they want to walk out of the door, with no reason and no warning, then let them go. There should always be the choice to escape,’ said Wiseman.

Everyone turned to Mr Hardy who now had his eyes closed in concentration. ‘Yes. A new clause for the contracts. Call it the Freedom Clause.’ He opened his eyes and grinned. ‘We won’t have to pay any redundancies, no long term sick leave, no parental leave. My goodness man, you’re spot on! Let’s give them their freedom.’

The tension broke as everyone chuckled and repeated what had been said. The lady with the marker pen wrote Freedom on the board, tried to draw a dove, then quickly rubbed it out with her finger.

‘Speaking of which, it’s three o’clock,’ said Wiseman. Time for Grit’s walk.’
He left the room, quickly followed by Fulsome. ‘I’ve got the keys for your office – twelfth floor! You’ve made it big: ensuite, great view.’

‘The kind of office you could live in,’ said Wiseman.

‘I just knew you’d be a workaholic. Yeah, you can crash out there and work all night. Exec board tonight, seven o’clock.’

That evening, Wiseman was taken up to the top floor of the building for an Executive Board meeting on the request of the ailing CEO. There had been frantic emailing, texting and micro-meetings in the previous three hours about the genius ideas of this new staff member who went to De Niro levels of method acting to understand the market.

The penthouse suite was decorated like a Victorian parlour. Old men shouted into one another’s ears while smoking cigars under deactivated alarms.

Fulsome moved his bird weight between each leg. ‘I’ll have to leave you here, I’m not allowed to stay. Great job today. Inspiring stuff. I’m off to blog about it.’

Wiseman caught his arm. ‘There are no women here. No people of colour. The higher we come, the lower we go.’

‘I hear you,’ said Fulsome, winking. ‘No problem. Girls, bit of ethnic, and getting high. I’ll sort you out for tonight. Legend.’

Now Grit sits behind his owner, wary of the sixteen storey drop below, yet still wagging his tail. Today, Wiseman was named CEO of Infinity Insurance. In his office lie neat rows of items he has accrued in the last three months and has no further use for. He has written a note to Maisie and one for Fulsome. Profits continue to rise, the workforce ticks more smiley faces on their feedback forms, and twenty-two percent have walked out of the door to do something they had always wanted to do.

Wiseman holds his leather bag filled with stacks of fifty-pound notes. Nobody was surprised when he said he did not have a bank account, that he would be paid in cash.

‘You have to know when to say enough is enough,’ he says to Grit.

Wiseman looks directly down at the city below. Then he shakes his bag over the edge of the building and watches the notes float down onto streets that will soon be home again. They blow this way and that in the breeze, with an equal chance of landing anywhere.

Stephanie Hutton tweets at @tiredpsych