Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business: A Tale of Triumph Over Yes-Men, Cynics, Hedgers, and Other Corporate Killjoys

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Part Alice in Wonderland and part business fable, this creatively illustrated work about the adventures of a new hire's introduction to the fantastical company of Zenobia (and its elusive Room 133A) helps business leaders and entrepreneurs find energy in risk, opportunity in the unknown, and possibility in the people all around them-to believe in something that is not yet there.

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1. MAKE OF THE UNKNOWN AN ADVENTURE

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There was, to begin, no apparent way up. The doors of the elevators had been sealed long ago. The stairs zinged this way and that, crossed over and through, circled back and endlessly in. Some enterprising soul had thrown a ladder up, but it was perched at a delirious angle. Someone had tried to launch a lavender kite, but its tail sagged sadly around the balustrade. There were precarious rope bridges tethered across the atrium. There were tunnels threaded east and also north. There were doors that were locked, there were rooms with no lights, there were windows blackened over, sealed shut. Hardly ever did the old phones ring. At Zenobia there was trouble.

“Excuse me,” Moira said, for she was new to this place and she had only just now made her way from her car, across the moat, to the guard at the turnstile. “How do I find room 133A?” She was wearing red shoes and a neat woolen dress. She was thinking about something her sister once said: No one has ever seen a black hole straight on. The evidence has forever been entirely indirect. Moira always remembered her sister’s best instructions at opportune times, for her sister was an astronomer who knew darkness as well as light.

 

2. TAKE CARE, LEST YOUR SUCCESS LEAD TO RUIN

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How long had it been like this—always threatening to rain? How long had Zenobia been the color of smog and mud? Long ago, Zenobians had taken to dressing for the gloomiest of weather, and the fashion had prevailed. They had taken to their jobs as if taking to chores—reacting and surrendering and sighing to themselves, keeping their eyes in a miserable squint. The place had lost its sense of humor. It had no zeal, no passion.

Here’s what would happen to any idea that got suggested: it would be ignored, snuffed out, or flattened. Here’s what Zenobians thought about risk: not here, not now, not ever. Here’s how Zenobians would go about their days: with blinders on and chins tucked in, with one eye on the clock. Revenues, of course, were flat. Profits were perpetually falling. Not an ounce of polish was on any surface. Innovation was the purest abstraction.

From where he sat, in his room above it all, Gallagher appraised and contemplated. He had the thick, white hair of a seasoned man but the physical grace of a former athlete—a gymnast, perhaps, or a tennis player. He’d been with Zenobia through its heady days of ascent and also during the miracle of its heyday. He’d thought, at one point, that he’d make it into one of the clubs, but to him the doors were never opened. He’d been good old Gallagher, reliable old Gallagher, when-you-need-something-fixed-go-to-Gallagher Gallagher. He’d been passed over time and again but always gently. We need you where you are, old boy. You shift, and we all crumble. He’d put off his wife, who wanted him to come home, who pointed out, almost every night, that his colleagues were off on perpetual vacations and that other wives, married to other husbands, were having a whole lot more fun in their lives.

 

3. CONCEIVE A PLAN; PURSUE IT

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The first man Moira encountered inside was very tall and very thin; his eyes were shards of black beneath thick eyebrows, and in one hand he grasped a bundle of file folders. His lips were moving but emitting no words. He wouldn’t have even noticed Moira had she not stopped him with a question.

“Excuse me,” she said, “but could you tell me how to get to room 133A?”

“Room 133A,” said the man. “I’ve heard of that.” He shifted his folders from the one hand to the other, rubbed his chin, reversed the folders, then straightened himself around his long spine, as if preparing to go. Was he actually, Moira wondered, going to walk away? No, Moira thought, he absolutely couldn’t, and so she decided to detain him. She stepped a little closer and peered into his eyes.

“Moira,” she introduced herself.

“Hedger,” he mumbled.

“Should I go this way?” Moira asked, pointing east, toward the tunnels. “Or up and around, over those stairs, toward the bridge?” Not wanting to appear demanding, she added pleasantly, “If you would be so kind as to tell me.”

 

4. CELEBRATE DIFFERENCES, OR WATCH THEM BREED DISTRUST

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It hadn’t always been this way. For a time, Zenobia had stood among the mighty—productive, efficient, effective—an exemplar. Its widgets were unlike any other widgets. Its people boasted sterling résumés. T-shirts and baseball caps and office mugs and coolers were all emblazoned with the single word Zenobia, a word synonymous with prestige and power.

But power had become a drug. Rather than continuing to lead the market forward, Zenobia had come to believe that it was, itself, the market. Rather than asking the question, Is our business self-sustaining? Zenobians had begun to obsess over their personal legacies. Artificial rituals for inclusion in the top management echelon had become the norm—there was the Ivy League Club, the All-Male Golfing Squad, the Twenty-Years-of-Service Elite. The smug and the myopic had replaced the pioneer. Distrust shadowed every conversation, delusions were endemic, and not only weren’t the right risks taken, the right risks weren’t ever identified.

Those who stayed spent excessive time defending their own turfs. Level Sevens would dismiss the work of Level Sixes, only to present that work as their own, a few days later, to panels of Level Eights. Level Nines had perfected the art of the curtailed conversation—of declaring themselves late for another appointment whenever a decision had to be made or an apology rendered or a simple question answered. Level Fours made certain that Level Threes didn’t get copied on memos that might have given them some insight. Level Twos circumvented Level Threes in open bids for big promotions. Level Fives refused to team with Level Fives for fear of being shown up, pressed, or challenged. Level Sixes hid behind the work of vendors.

 

5. PREPARE FOR RIDICULE

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She’d scuffed her shoes a bit on the coarse, uneven risers. The big rope swing hadn’t wanted to budge. Freeing it had taken all she had. The slatted wood bridge chattered, but everything in the end had held, and she had not looked down, which had helped. Moira touched her bangs with the tips of her fingers. She straightened her dress, dusted dust from her shoes. Here we are, she said to herself. Here I am, and that is progress.

At the entrance to the west wing, Moira paused and took a deep breath before walking on ahead. She was glad for her flat shoes, enormously so, for here in the west wing the floor was all angles and ramps, inclines and mostly declines—everything jimmied up and wedged together, made-to-fit but hardly. Amidst the bifurcated ramps were countless drab-green cubicles, like so many brussels sprouts attached to a stalk. An ambient hum filled the room, emanating from the banked bulbs above, and any window light that might have existed had been pirated by the perimeter officers that lay, sluglike, behind closed doors.

 

6. KNOW THE WORLD WILL CHANGE, DESPITE OR BECAUSE OF YOU

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One day as Gallagher watered the jasmine on his office windowsill (his wife having foisted the plant upon him), he caught sight of something irresistible in the streets below. Autumn had recently yielded to winter, and it was nearly dusk. Along the main boulevard, a crowd had gathered—old people and young ones, people wearing red and people wearing white, people who wore their hair cropped close and those who boasted the most extravagant braids. Some among them were very short and some very tall. Some were very quiet and some couldn’t stop talking. Some were dressed as if for a formal affair, while others had holes in their jeans and thinned-out patches on their sleeves. But the interesting thing was how homogenous they seemed, how vested with cohesion and intent upon some dream.

Gallagher had opened his window to get a better look. He had leaned in the direction of the crowd. It was hard to make out just what was being undertaken at first, but slowly Gallagher had come to understand. Lanterns of light were being lifted into trees—hung among the boughs of pines and spruces. The heights of people, their fashions, their clothes seemed to dictate where they stood and what kind of lanterns they hung.

 

7. LOOK FOR WHAT COULD BE, NOT JUST WHAT IS

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It was something, Moira thought as she made her way down the ramp and away from the noise of the break room, to encounter a succession of people so seemingly devoted to maintaining the status quo. She sniffled a little and dabbed at her eye. Surely the guard knew more than he was letting on. Surely Hedger didn’t really believe in standing still. Surely Bolt had generated a communiqué, at one time or another, from or to or relating to the elusive room 133A. Surely Vert wouldn’t take her red shoes. Could he be as mean as that? Was stealing at Zenobia somehow legal?

What had become clear to Moira was that she and her quest lay outside the norm—neither were recognized entities in a world lavishly devoted to entrenched conventions. Zenobia wasn’t just twists and turns and levels and lists. It was also a sound—the sound of static and gossip and envy, the sound of anything but progress.

Still, the place had a history. It couldn’t have always been like this. Someone had to have built the ladders and hung the rope swing. Someone had to have thought to lace a kite into the balustrade. There must have been others who had yearned to get somewhere, who had traced out a new path from here to there. What this place seemed to be lacking most of all was connections—not just between parts but between people. She noted activity across the atrium. Carefully, very carefully, she made her way. She was breathless and also untidy. The watch on her wrist read 8:35.

 

8. STEP BEYOND YOUR WALLS TO FIND YOUR WAY

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9. LISTEN WELL

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It took Moira less time to find her way out of the tunnel than it had taken to find her way in, and when she arrived back at the central core she discovered that the building had grown far more densely populated. Zenobians were making their way to wherever they went, to do the work they were accustomed to doing. They either ignored her or gave her odd stares as she passed. Some pointed their fingers quite rudely.

Moira watched as the employees navigated the stairs, unlocked a few doors, and began filling some rooms with dim light. Despite the mess of things, the men and women proceeded in matter-of-fact fashion— favoring that one big swing, that one wooden bridge, that one set of stairs and primary corridor, that single set of branching hallways. Wherever the carpet had already been worn down to threads, wherever the handrails had changed color from the touch of so many palms, wherever there were countless scuff marks and scars, wherever the ropes were frayed— that’s where Zenobians were headed.

 

10. YIELD NOTHING TO THOSE WHO CAN’T SEE PAST THEMSELVES

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The first job applicant to arrive at the Zenobia gates was a rather wiry man with a gleaming pate. He had the pointiest elbows Gallagher had ever seen and a style Gallagher read at once as bluster. The man had timed his arrival for 8:59 a.m., as if banking on a simple expedition. That isn’t verve, Gallagher had thought to himself when he saw the man; that’s more like arrogance.

At the gate, the man was announcing himself with a haughty, hasty flourish. “I’m what you’ve been waiting for,” Artless declared to the guard, without the slightest hint of irony.

“Fascinating,” mumbled the guard, barely lifting his eyes from the morning’s Sudoku puzzle.

“The ad says ‘wanted, ’” Artless persisted, brandishing a folded copy of a newspaper. “I’m to report to room 133A.”

“Maybe so,” said the guard, for it made no difference to him. “But I didn’t place the ad, so it’s not my problem.”

“I’m just asking for directions,” Artless pressed.

“Never been there,” the guard said. “Never had cause to go.” The guard was no more going to assist the stranger in his quest than he was going to engage in an out-and-out confrontation. Zenobia was Zenobia. He was there to safeguard it, not explain it. He kept the strangers out, he let the old crowd in, he opened the door just this wide when someone obviously very new had a pass or proven purpose. Besides, this morning’s Sudoku puzzle was much too special, and Artless’s presumption was unworthy. “Have a good one,” said the guard, as he buzzed Artless in. He looked up briefly, then returned all thoughts to his puzzle.

 

11. SEEK THE UNLIKELY ALLIANCE

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Standing where she was, on the final rung of the ladder, above the heads of a spiraling crowd, Moira felt a little swoosh move through her and then regained her balance. Slowly she turned toward the tightrope. “Oh, dear,” she sighed quietly. “What was I thinking?”

For yes, she’d gotten far, and yes, a crowd was watching, and yes, she’d have a thing or two to say to the told-you-soers down below, to Vert, wherever he’d gone off to. But once again she’d have to propel herself to the next part of the journey. She’d have to leap from the ladder to the rope, and she was high, high, high in the air, and for all the progress she’d made in her battle against the dark, for all the pluck she had carried forward in her life, for all the faith she was placing in this journey, she had to admit that she had never really mastered the art of walking a straight line, and walking a straight line was what was now required most. Moira felt her throat constricting and her mouth going terribly dry.

“Didn’t I warn you?” cried out Stomper, so anxious by now for Moira to fail, for if she didn’t, Stomper would be wrong.

 

12. EMBRACE THE ARRIVAL OF THE NEW

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Another week went by before any other applicants appeared at the gates of Zenobia. In the meantime, the guard had made ready. He’d done some asking around, he’d called up old electronic files, he placed a “Where is room 133A?” speech on tap, should such a thing prove necessary. So today, when a bespectacled young woman appeared wearing bright red shoes and a quizzical expression, Gallagher looked down and saw the guard smile. Gallagher smiled himself. Change, he thought, is incremental.

“Excuse me,” Gallagher heard this young lady say. She was polite, Gallagher noted, but refreshingly firm. “How do I find room 133A?”

“Room 133A?” repeated the guard with what might only be called officious delight—the delight of having an answer, of being ready. “Room 133A follows 132B and precedes 135C. And just for the record, there’s no 134 nor, to my knowledge, a 135A or B. But that last part is just between you and me,” he told this fourth applicant, lowering his voice. “Tell no one that I told you.”

 

13. INVENT YOUR OWN FUTURE

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The monstrous challenge of the Zenobia tightrope was that it curlicued. It went all around like a big corkscrew before it looped out and up. Moira felt like she was walking a succession of bicycle wheels, but she never looked down and she kept her arms out straight, and over the heads of a murmuring crowd she kept on going. Oh, how she longed for a glass of water. Oh, how she ached. Oh, how much scarier any of this was than finding her way through the dark. There was, she began to see, a door up ahead—an end, perhaps, in sight. She had no idea what time it was. She no longer thought it mattered. She no longer thought herself new to this place. She felt as if she’d been a Zenobian for years.

Later she would say that she was changed forever by the air she found up there, by the way everything about her sparkled. What had been dust now appeared to be light—countless scintillas of amber, ocher, and rose, an aurora borealis of sorts. It was like standing inside her sister’s most farseeing telescope. It was like telling someone she loved a dream. She wanted to move forward and more forward, reel effortlessly through light. She wanted to live this and imbibe it, always to remember and never forget.

 

14. HONOR THE IMAGINATION

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I thought,” Moira said after a moment, for she was breathless, and the skin of her hands was split in places, and her feet had long since lost their shoes, “that I would never get here.”

“But you did,” Gallagher said, “and with aplomb.” He was standing tall and his hair was lustrous. She was rubbing some dust from her knees, some smudges from her elbows, something from between the lashes of one eyelid.

“I did it with them,” Moira said, gesturing to the threshold of room 133A and indicating the Zenobians beyond, many of whom were now following in her footsteps, bridging one another from ladder rung to ladder rung in every conceivable, most glorious fashion. “ Or at least,” she corrected herself, “with some of them.” Moira dabbed her eyes a little as she spoke. She was overcome, and that was natural enough. Leaders are but human, after all. “I’m Moira,” she said after a moment.

“Gallagher,” Gallagher said, extending his hand. “And this, of course, is room 133A.”

“Lovely,” she said. “If a little out of the way.”

 

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