Best of the Best (a short story)

27 Dec 2018. Bob Kaplan

Philip Smith, the head of investment banking for a global bank, sat uneasily in in a conference room, waiting for the bank's head of HR, who declined to tell him the purpose of the meeting. Peter Brescia, a balding man in his late 50s arrived a few minutes late, apologizing as he entered. In suits and ties. They helped themselves to coffee at the credenza. There sat urns of fresh, piping hot coffee, regular and decaf, decanters of milk, whole and skim, and small stacks of white cups and saucers. Neither guy looked out at the high-floor view of the cityscape.

Peter offered Phil an opportunity to work with an outside consultant on his leadership. Taken seriously in the bank's senior ranks and appreciated for not taking himself too seriously, he explained, "You're not being singled out. We're making this available to a number of senior people."

"Interesting," Philip said, trying not to sound non-committal. "Can I get back to you by the end of the week?" Peter readily agreed. Philip wanted time to find out from the bank's CEO, Martin Middletown, what this was all about. Martin had recruited Philip personally three and a half years ago to head Investment Banking, "IB," and thought highly of him. Peter readily agreed.

Philip caught up with the CEO as he was packing up his briefcase. In his early 60s he was slim and fit. Philip knocked a couple of times on the open door. "Come in, Philip," he said, giving him his full attention. "What's up?"

"Pete suggested I work with this consultant on leadership. Am I in trouble?"

"You should know better than that." He had a fatherly way about him, even though he was only a few years older than Philip—who, though reassured, was embarrassed for being set straight.

He thought better of asking whether it was voluntary. Instead he put a good face on it. "I always want to be the best I can be. Sign me up."

"I know the consultant personally. He's good at this."

"Okay, thanks." They wished each other a good evening and Philip took his leave.

After meeting with the consultant, who seemed to know what he was doing and to be somebody he could work with, Philip told his wife, Camille, what was up. They were sitting in their spanking new kitchen. Atop stools at the center island, their two teenaged kids, a boy and a girl, were doing their homework. Her pleasant expression wasn't skin deep but she had her limits, which he tried to keep in mind.

"His name is Jake Waverly. Martin thinks highly of him. I'd like him to meet you and the kids. How about having him over for a meal?" Actually, he wanted to show them off—Camille had been quite the catch. The kids too, cute and smart. Not to mention their new house.

"Whoa," she said, showing him the palms of her hands. "Hold onto your horses." Frontal wasn't her typical mode but it was not infrequently needed with her headstrong husband.

"What horses? You're the one who rides." He thought he'd charmed her but maybe not. He had the dim sense he'd gotten ahead of himself. "Oh, one other thing: The way the consultant put it, we're going to work on my mental game, not just my play on the field. I thought you'd be interested, given your social work degree."

"Well, I am. Oh sure, we can have him over—why not?" He kissed her hand in thanks. He had an idea he wasn't the easiest guy in the world to live with. This was his way of letting her know he was aware of that.

Two weeks later the consultant was in town again and they had him over for dinner. It came off well. Camille outdid herself as usual. Jake was able to engage the kids in conversation, always a trick, and once they peeled off, he and Camille talked at length about the helping professions and various "treatment modalities," as she termed them.

Then, on this late spring evening with its longer light, Jake came along for the ride over to the baseball diamond, a beautifully manicured Little League field, where Philip and his thirteen-year-old son tossed the ball around. Philip had thought to bring an extra glove in case Jake wanted to join in. He did. He was in his street clothes but didn't seem to mind standing in the base path and getting sand all over his shoes and the cuffs of his pants. They were throwing pretty hard and Jake stepped aside, Philip noticed, when balls were thrown right at him, but hung in there. Over Jake's protest, Philip went out of his way to drop him off at his hotel.

Once Jake completed his study based on interviews with coworkers and their ratings on a questionnaire and he had assembled the findings, they met at a luxurious faux French chateau in upstate New York for the read-out. Built in the 1920s as a private residence, it boasted turrets, a slate roof, and leaded-pane casement windows. It had since been converted into a conference center. As they walked up from the parking area, Philip took it all in and was impressed.

They met in the so-called board room, with an oval wooden table, several chairs around it and a large flat-screen TV on the far wall. ‎Jake motioned to Philip to take the chair at the head of the table, which he did, and sat down next to him.

Philip was nattily turned out—worsted gray slacks, a blue dress shirt and a blazer with a neatly folded white handkerchief tucked in its breast pocket. An expensive-looking watch sat prominently on his left wrist. He could have passed as lord of the manor. The fine figure he cut was only marred by a bulging waistline. They both went over to the table with refreshments and poured themselves coffee.

Jake opened enthusiastically with, "The good news is very good indeed!" That headline brought a broad smile to Philip's face. He was warmed too by how genuinely pleased for him Jake was. "People sing your praises like it's the Hallelujah Chorus: Gloria in excelsis deo!"

That comment was lost Philip. "C'mon!"

"Sorry, went overboard." Whatever points Jake had lost he soon regained. "One thing's for sure: you've worked wonders with Investment Banking. That's no exaggeration, right?" When Philip took over, only fixed income was performing well. Equities, institutional bonds, M&A, the trading operation were only so-so.

The smile returned to Philip's face, despite a sudden shaft of sunlight coming through the window. "Right, it's not." He raised a hand to shield his eyes and Jake went over to the east-facing window and lowered the blinds. "I'm amazed by how well you can get an organization to perform." The thrill of high achievement rippled through his body.

Jake went over to the east-facing window, lowered the blinds, and went on, "It's no mean feat to turn around any organization and yours is several different businesses rolled into one. I gather it starts with high aspirations. One of your peers told me, 'He wants to make this the top firm of its kind anywhere.'"

"It's true!" Philip said emphatically. Now it was his turn to get carried away. "I've literally been on a crusade to make this organization world class."

Jake nodded. "There's a chorus of voices saying that. You want to make this one of the premier IB organizations anywhere with the best people and the best products and services. You want people to say it has no peer in the industry."

"Others see it too—neat! It's true, I want to build something very special."

"I see. So tell me, how did you go about it?" It sounded like Jake really wanted to know and that fueled Philip's excitement.

"You put it together right—that's key—and you get it rolling and then on vital issues you move heaven and earth to make things happen."

"Yes, your never-say-die approach came across clearly. As one person put it colorfully, you put on your helmet and football pads and charge, and unless you're told you're out of line you keep banging—I'm paraphrasing."

"That's me," he said proudly. "You keep it up and I'm amazed at how well you can get the thing to work. It justifies all the hard work and it just exceeds your wildest expectations." He had gotten dry. He stopped to pour himself a glass of water, the ice cubes clinking into his glass; he had gotten dry. His excitement filled his entire mind.

"And you've done it so many times, it isn't an accident," Jake said, pleased to see Philip so positive. He believed it was just as important for the validation as the criticism to get through and have an impact. "Another big thing: you get a lot of credit for the quality of the players you put on the field. To me that's literally half of a leader's job, and you excel at it. Listen to what the CEO said, and he's not alone: "Philip has almost an uncanny ability to find the highest-performing people in a discipline."

"It means a lot that he sees that. God, we have one of the best staffs in the world. I aggressively go out and hire the best. If you've gone to one of the top schools, that puts the thumbprint on you."

"People call you a 'talent junkie.'"

"I take that as a compliment." Inside he swelled with good feeling about himself.

"Well, some people are too insecure to staff with the best and the brightest. Credit to you for not having that problem."

Jake sent him off for a walk to "bask in the glory," as he put it. The grounds were expansive and nicely landscaped. Philip enjoyed the walk but couldn't help comparing the park unfavorably to the landscape architecture at Blenheim Palace. On his return, he led off. "I drank in all the positives but it's like a thirst, a terrible thirst, that can never be quenched." Jake raised his eyebrows at this display of self-recognition. Noticing that, Philip said, "I'm not a complete stranger to myself." Then he reached into his briefcase and placed a magazine on the table. It was that week's issue of the industry rag, The Banker, with a full-page cover photo of a dapper, smirking Philip.

"I'm impressed," Jake said. That was the reaction that Philip craved, precisely the word of all words he most wanted to hear—though he hadn't spelled it out in his mind.

"I was thrilled when it came out. Lots of congratulations. I gulped all that down but it wasn't long before I was parched again. I think it's the superhuman image of myself. I can't possibly live up to it."

"Do you care to tell me how that came to be?"

Philip sighed. He wasn't sure how personal he wanted to get. "I'll tell you," he said finally. "I was the firstborn on both sides of the family, and the oldest child in my immediate family. You get the message 'my hopes are resting on you.' To put it mildly." He could see that Jake understood and now he wondered whether to reveal the long-ago experience that still troubled him. What the hell, he said to himself. "So I always did my best. I excelled at school. I excelled in sports, but my father never said a word. In high school I was a star pitcher. My senior year I actually got scouted by the major leagues." He shook his head. "But my father never came to a game, never had an encouraging word." He swallowed hard as pain shot through him. He reached for the glass of water and took a sip and then another one while he tried to pull himself together. He hoped Jake wouldn't say anything.

"Painful, huh?"

"No kidding." He was actually glad Jake acknowledged it. "My mother would tell me, 'Your father is very proud of you.' But that didn't count. I never felt appreciated. Now you know."

"Thanks, it helps you put it on the table."

"So I've always wanted to be included in that group of people who have high value." He stopped there.

"Objectively, your stellar performance in that big job and the cover story amount to that."

"Right, you'd think that. Let's go on. I've waited all morning for the other shoe to drop."

At Jake's suggestion they sat down to lunch. It was served in the same room, a tablecloth laid on the other end of the long table. Freshly made chicken salad on a bed of greens. Rolls that didn't look homemade. Chocolate chip cookies that did. They talked sports, current events.

After making trips to the men's room, they returned to their original seats. Jake helped himself to a cup of coffee. It was a fresh pot and he needed the shot of caffeine; the meal had dulled his senses. "This is a good moment for you to make some notes in your journal," he said to Philip. "What have you learned? What are your feelings about it?" Philip picked up the pen the conference center had provided and Jake said, "While you do that, I'll meditate, over there." He pointed to a spare chair against the wall.

He closed his eyes. In the poorly lit recesses of his mind, like a vulture lurking at dusk on a distant branch, something hadn't felt right. All of a sudden it swooped into view. There was something about Philip's gusto over his achievements, his flurry of superlatives—it was too much. He felt a little disloyal in thinking that thought. After all, Philip had every right to exult. And yet he had laid it on thick. Oh, he'd overrated himself on several attributes, Jake recalled. That fits.

Then it came to mind what Martin said when he had asked him, did you level with him? We tried, was the answer

Just then Philip said he was finished, and Jake was startled back to eyes-open reality. "I was lost in thought." He wasn't at all sure whether he'd bring that up.

"Can we please get on with it?" Suddenly, Philip had tensed up, as if he was about to get a root canal without Novocain. Knowing what was to come and how resistant Philip could be, Jake had come up with a modified plan. He would unspool the negatives in headline form one at a time, rather than plow through all the material.

"Sure, of course. But if you don't mind, let's bridge into it. Is there anything missing from the set of good things about you?"

"You go first." Clearly he was in no mood for games.

"Okay," Jake said. He saw no point in making an issue of who went first. "So, recapping, kudos for turning around IB and for recruiting great people to do that. What's missing is how you work with people."

"Is that all you have to go on—what isn't there?" He almost sneered. Jake had, of course, heard Philip could be difficult but this was his first taste of it. Jake had lulled himself into the unthinking belief that he would be an exception. Foolish! he told himself. Why should you be spared? His stomach hurt but he managed a weak smile and responded to the words and not to the tone.

"No, of course not." He was not about to be defensive. "Going on the interviews and ratings, that's the major finding. Working with people isn't a strength." Jake faulted himself. Why didn't you say it's a weakness? You finked out.

"Which people? Just come out with it, will you please?"

"Sure." He was not about to fight fire with fire. Knowing how critical of him Philip's people were, Jake had come up with a modified plan for covering the negatives. He would speak to the major points before reading through the report together. Even this had to be put aside. "Mainly your people."

"Ingrates. Where would they be without me?" Jake now understood why management hadn't been straight with Philip. Who needs it?

"They are grateful for the opportunity, Philip. Of course they are. That came through loud and clear."

"That's good! At least they have their heads straight on that." He eased up a little.

"Right. But I'd be less than honest if I didn't say they're frustrated," Jake said and recoiled inside: "less than honest." He never used that phrase.

"What do you mean frustrated!? Be specific." Philip hammered away.

Jake sidestepped it, played it straight. "To paraphrase: You don't involve us in decision-making nearly enough—you think you do but you don't. You're more interested in telling people what you know than hearing what they have to say. You need to learn the art of listening and accepting other people's points of view. That's just a sampling. I spared you the harshest comments."

"Bull crap!" Philip said, raising his voice. Jake lifted his eyebrows and, like a conductor, made a pianissimo gesture. Lowering his voice, Philip said, "My staff has lots of influence. Their expectations are too high."

For a moment Jake wasn't sure where to go next. Then he had an idea. "You're right, expectations are often the culprit. Do you know what the Buddhists say?"

"No, tell me." For the moment he was mollified or distracted.

"Expectations are the root of all suffering."

"Theirs. Maybe mine too." He had calmed down. Jake's stomach stopped hurting.

"Let's take a look at the numbers, shall we?" Jake turned to the pages on ratings. Philip didn't object. "See, you were rated down on listening and on being open to push-back."

"I reject the data base," Philip said.

Jake almost fell out of his chair. "Hey, you're an analytical guy. How is it you have no use for this data set?"

"This is soft stuff. I'm a hard-numbers guy."

Jake began to despair. I'm running out of options. Then he thought of a move he could make. "Do you find that hard numbers aren't always as hard as rock?" Philip listened. "Neither are so-called soft numbers always as squishy as marshmallows. I happen to know this ratings tool is psychometrically sound. Let's take a peek at the personality profile, which only you filled out."

"Okay. But spare me the detail."

"Okay, does the tool fit the pattern or not? Sir, will you grace the viewing audience with your answer?"

"Fits." Notable that he cooperated.

"Right, give the man a prize." An attempt to be playful. But he had no illusions that he'd changed Philip's mind and he hadn't.

"Fine but I'm still not buying it. Things have settled down since that survey was administered. We'll have to redo it."

"Any time you want," Jake said, without for a minute believing that the findings would be different—the study had just been conducted. He tried a different tack. "In the meantime, can we agree to disagree?" He knew that to press his case was only to fight a losing battle.

But Philip was still at war. "I have a problem with this conversation. It's way out of context. The CEO is unbelievably autocratic; this picture of me pales by comparison." In fighting the criticism, he indirectly admitted to it.

Taking a different tack Jake asked: "Are you a fan of constructive tension? Intellectually speaking."

"Yeah, nothing like a good debate."

"Then can we agree to disagree about your team's criticism?"

Philip looked at him. Then, sounding reasonable, he said, "That's not unreasonable."

Jake decided to give empathy a try. "A bitter pill for anyone. I wish it were otherwise."

"Thanks for that. It's not your fault."

They ended early and to Jake's relief parted amicably.

The beating he took had worn him down like the shoes worn only on rough ground. He changed clothes, took a run, showered, and had room service deliver something to eat. He felt like himself again. He sat down on an upholstered chair, put his feet up on the hassock and had this thought: it's not Philip's fault either, the way he reacted today. He could thank his parents and grandparents for that. So much depends on performing at a high level that he cannot not tolerate or withstand indications to the contrary. Not to make excuses for him.

Then Drama of the Gifted Child came to mind. The child is not abused, not neglected, but overburdened by the adult's overwrought need for him or her to excel and succeed.

Philip had given him a hard time but that wouldn't deter him. Whether he could make a dent—who knows? Sometimes the most promising cases fizzle out and the least likely prospects reform, reminding you how little you know about human nature.

Then Jake's mind jumped to something he had been told in strict confidence by the head of trading, Philip's direct report, Sheila Armistead, when he interviewed her.

He'd already known that Philip had worked his way up in trading, had been a stellar performer in his day. What Jake learned from Sheila was Philip dropped by the trading floor practically every day and chatted people up, glancing at their blinking screens refreshing constantly. She'd only been on board for nine months and felt strongly that his visits undermined her, given that she was new, an underling, and a woman.

It took weeks for her to work up the nerve to raise it with Philip. She went by his office and, seeing his door open, knocked. He motioned her in. She began to speak but stopped when she saw he was still looking at the computer screen and doing emails. When he turned her way, she felt her face flush. "Philip, I'm trying to establish myself and your presence on the floor doesn't help. It gives people the impression you don't trust me."

"No, I don't think so." He was dismissive. "I'm just showing interest. Wouldn't they think it strange, given my background, if I didn't walk the floor? I think they like my little visits."

"Sure, up to a point," she allowed, but persisted with manager-speak for overdoing things. "But don't you see you're over-indexing?"

"Frankly, I don't."

"But you have them looking to you, not me."

"Hey, you're doing great," he said, deflecting.

It was obvious she was getting nowhere. She thanked him perfunctorily and got up and left. She was as dissatisfied with the conversation, she told Jake, as with the situation itself. She stressed again he keep it to himself. Absolutely, he told her.

*   *   *   *

Philip was able to get home in plenty of time for dinner. On the drive back he managed to turn the mental heat down to simmer. He put himself on notice: there is no way in the world you're going to walk in there and unload on them or even leak emotion. He invoked one of his favorite sayings: Fake it 'til you make it. 

Camille had prepared one of his favorite meals, slow-cooked brisket, potatoes and carrots, along with a green salad. Everyone took their usual spots at the kitchen table. He asked the kids about their day but studiously avoided saying anything about his.

Afterwards he dutifully washed the dishes. He always did. He knew it wasn't much but, in his mind, something was better than nothing. He didn't want a repeat of the time when Camille lost all patience with him: "You don't lift a finger around here." It wasn't only that: he wanted to be good.

He thought he'd done a decent acting job but when he spotted Camille standing in the doorway waiting quietly for him to finish up, he could tell otherwise. She took his hand and without a word led him from the kitchen to the sunroom. It had glass walls on three sides—a "wing of light," the architect called it. It gave out onto the lush, closely cropped lawn with woods behind it. He called it the conservatory. She closed the door behind her. Gently she said, "So, Philip, how did it go?"

He surprised himself by coming right out with it. "Terrible. Those ingrates, after all I've done for them, they slammed me." Instinctively, he stopped there. He had no desire to get specific with her. That would be like walking around the house with no shirt on, putting on display an unfit, unsightly midriff. The antithesis of how he wanted to present himself to her.

She asked him to elaborate.

"Let's save that for another time," he said, a little annoyed but doing his best to sit on it. But he relented. "Okay: they think I'm hardheaded. They're dissatisfied, frustrated."

It was her turn to resist. "You're not the only one who's upset about this. I know you're not perfect but I expected better than this—from those people you hand-picked. Cripes!"

Her loyalty loosened him up and he reversed roles. "Might there be a kernel of truth to it?"

Calming down, she smiled. "Might be."

"I have to admit there was good stuff too," he conceded. "Very good stuff, actually." He hit the high points and some of the gratified feeling paid him a return visit. That put a pleased look on her face.

"Just as I expected. And very well deserved." She was on his side and that meant a lot to him.

"But all that is spoiled by the shit they piled on me."

"Philip, after all you've done for your people, it must hurt. It must hurt a lot."

His face fell and he choked up. She got to her feet and went over to him. Reluctant at first, he accepted her hug, and then buried his face in the crook of her neck. ‎

As they sat down again, now next to each other on the settee, she asked, "So what did they say?"

"Basically, hardheaded." A little laugh escaped him.

"Well, that's no big surprise," she said, laughing along with him.

At that moment, one of their kids called for her and, with a squeeze on his arm, off she went. It was always hard to get time to themselves while their two kids were awake. But that was okay. In just a few minutes she had done him a world of good.

He changed into casual clothes and took a walk around the grounds. He followed a path through the woods down to a pond. Nature was important to him and even on this night she didn't let him down.

His wife was the single person in his life best able to influence him. That is, if she put her foot down. Even if, as little as she liked conflict, it took a shouting match.

The previous spring, he'd gotten it into his head to buy a 48-foot sailboat with berths for the whole family—a Hinckley, naturally. He salivated over that boat like it was a sirloin hamburger or a Haagen-Dazs ice cream cone.

Excited, he'd showed her striking photos of the boat. He could tell right away from the expression on her face that she didn't share his enthusiasm. He didn't press his case. He wanted the boat but he also wanted to stay in her good graces. And it was a lot of money and how much would they use it anyway?

Over coffee with her the next morning, he'd been gracious in defeat, admitting: "Not every idea is a good idea." Actually, that was her line. That was her role. He came up with big ideas and it fell to her to discourage the impractical and the exorbitant ones.

A year ago, there had been a classic case. They were building a new house that would boast a fieldstone fireplace in the great room. At his suggestion they chose a stone mason whose work, a retaining wall, had appeared in Architectural Digest. The contractor had pinned a copy of the photo to his bulletin board. Philip returned from a trip to Asia to visit the bank's outposts there—Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo—to find the fireplace almost finished. First blush he was pleased—a fieldstone fireplace, how about that. But then he realized it wasn't what was spec'd. This one exposed the cement. The one he'd commissioned was ashlar masonry where the stones are cut and arrayed so that the upper ones appear to be supported by the lower ones and what little concrete used is hidden.

Stepping outside so the carpenters wouldn't hear, he called the contractor, who explained that the mason he wanted wasn't available. Why didn't you tell me? Philip asked him. No good answer. Philip wasn't that pissed off with the contractor because it didn't matter what the reason was. The outcome wasn't in doubt.

Then he called Camille. "That fireplace: it's got to come down," he said. He explained why.

"Do you have to?" she asked. "I went over yesterday. It's not what we wanted but to me it's good enough."

"Good enough isn't good enough. I'd hate it every time I saw it. We're building our dream house, and this would be a living nightmare for me." He cared more about how things looked than she did. They'd established that.  

Practically everyone who came across the fireplace for the first time said, "work of art." Every time that set off a little burst of pleasure in

The Saturday following Philip's meeting with the consultant, he and Camille went out for a walk. It had rained for days and they took advantage of a break in the weather. The sky was still gray. Holding hands, they chatted about this and that. After a while she stopped and turned to him. "So, Philip, can we talk about the input you got this week—can you stand to?" She looked into his eyes, appealing to him. He wanted to be responsive to her and yet he had no stomach for that subject.

"This is so pleasant. Can't we keep it that way?"

"Believe me, I'd just as soon do that too."

They walked on in silence, still holding hands. A large part of him wanted to shut down any further conversation on that sore subject but he knew she meant well. If there was one person whose loyalty he could count on, it was her.

As they rounded the big loop and started back, he forced these words out of his mouth: "Okay, we can talk about it." She squeezed his hand.

"Is it on your mind?" He nodded. How could it not be? he said to himself with a mix of agony and self-pity.

"How could it not be," she said. It was his turn to squeeze her hand. "Painful subject, I know." He nodded again. It was unlike him to have no words, but gestures were all he could produce. It started to drizzle but soon stopped. "You've been a huge success." She stopped and looked at him. He met her gaze. "But this could be a chance to be better." He started walking again without saying anything and without reaching for her hand.

"Here's a thought. Can I offer it?" He half-grimaced and half-smiled, which could be read as consent. "Yes?" He nodded. "Talk with Elena. Have the consultant there too. You trust her, right?" Elena, his whiz kid CFO who more than held her own with her older colleagues, was the one person on his staff he was truly at ease with. A lot of that was her. She was warm, friendly, and genuine. Unattached at the time, she was close to their family, came over for dinner from time to time, and once even took care of the kids while Philip and Camille went away for the weekend.

He agreed. He noticed Camille didn't ask whether he trusted the consultant. More to the point, do I trust him? he asked himself. Well, I was a royal pain in the ass, and he put up with it, so I guess the answer is yes.

*    *    *    *

Jake was surprised when Philip's assistant called to arrange a meeting to include Elena for the coming week. Jake was already scheduled to follow up with Philip the week after that. "Can I talk with him for a minute?" Jake asked. She transferred the call and Philip picked up and explained why he wanted to involve Elena. It made sense to Jake, who had entertained the idea of a meeting with the whole team but had thought better of it.

With Philip's okay, Jake talked to Elena to prepare for the meeting. "What's this about?" she wanted to know. "It's very awkward for me. I can't speak for everyone." Jake told her she didn't need to. Without saying a thing about the findings or how the meeting with Philip had gone, he explained she was simply to be a sounding board for Jake as he made sense of the findings. She was still nervous about it but satisfied.

The three of them met in the same small conference room where the HR head had first spoken to Philip about this work. Jake went over to the window and looked out at the cityscape. "Fabulous view," he said.

Philip kicked off the meeting. He thanked them both for being there and turned to Jake for any opening comment.

"I'd just say, credit to you, Philip, for taking this step—"

"Yeah, it was Camille's idea," Philip threw in.

"How about that." Jake was now all the more persuaded this was a good move. "And I want to thank you, Elena, for taking part." She said graciously that she was glad to help if she could. "Back to you, Philip."

"Elena, people on the team say I'm hard to influence. What do you think? Is it true?‎" He looked expectantly at her. ‎

"It is true, Philip," she said, gently.

He leaned back. "They're not piling on?"

"I haven't seen their comments, of course, but, no, I don't think so."

Philip was silent, glum.

Jake came in. "You've brought in great people, right? By definition, they have a lot to offer. That's the whole idea, right?"

"Right, that's the idea," he responded, brightening a little.

"What do you think those people want?"‎ 

"Let Elena say."

Leaning forward, she was passionate. "They're dying to contribute‎—to do a good job in their area, naturally."

"Don't I let them do that? Don't I let you do that?" He was getting heated.

Elena squirmed a little. "Certainly, in my case and I don't think I'm alone."

"So why isn't that enough?"

Jake wanted to lower the temperature without being direct about it. "Can I refresh your drink or get one for you?" Elena handed him her half-empty glass. Philip got up and helped himself to more coffee.

Jake continued. "Let's step back for a moment and pose a general question: what do all talented, motivated people want?"

"To have challenging jobs, to get recognized for doing good work, to be amply rewarded financially," Philip said. "Am I missing anything?"

"Elena?" Jake said.

"Just one thing: to feel they're part of your team and they have a hand in big decisions affecting this fine organization. Not every decision, of course."‎

"Okay, I see, Philip said, soberly.

Jake was pleased with how the meeting went. Elena's corroboration made a big difference, he felt. Philip had calmly taken in his team's objection. The following week he and Philip had their planning meeting in the same conference room. "That Elena is something, isn't she?" Philip said, his eyes bright.

"Yes, she was a big help."

Silence. Jake waited to see what Philip would say next. He was full of suspense. "Remind me," Philip said. "What's the purpose of the meeting?"

"To get down to brass tacks." Philip gave him a blank look. "You know, change management: how concretely to go about making improvements." The light in Philip's eyes dimmed. Noticing that, Jake called the question: "Are you up for this?"

"Not really."

"Hmm. Does that mean you've decided not to change?"

‎"I suppose that's what it amounts to. For now, anyway."

Jake wasn't surprised but he couldn't help being disappointed. "Okay, would you mind writing that down?" It's one thing to say something like that. He wanted to see if Philip would commit to it in writing. Despite his intransigence, Philip had brought his Moleskin journal with him.

Too clever by half, he wrote, "I haven't decided not to change but I am sure I've given you that impression."

Jake smiled, genuinely amused. But also feeling duty-bound, he persisted. "Those were your people speaking. They know you heard from them. To do nothing is to thumb your nose at them."

"I hadn't thought of that." Jake was inclined to believe him. The whole thing was something he'd just as soon banish from his mind.

"For your sake, your self-preservation, I'd like you to take that into account."

"I take your point. It's appreciated."

Seeing he was engaged now, Jake decided to come at it from a different angle. "Did I scare you just a bit?" Philip had leaned back in shock as if he were afraid of fright. "Here's why I ask. Hearing that people have a problem with you seems to threaten you—it would anyone."

"I suppose there is a bit of fear."

"Where might that fear be?" Jake thought to ask. He came up with it on the spot.

"Behind me."

"Okay, how about taking a look?" Face your fears, Jake thought.

"Can't." There you have it, Jake thought. That's what's holding him up.

"I have a hunch. About what the fear is about. Do you want to hear?"

"Some other time." His voice was small and real as rain.

"That's just fine. You sidled up to it, that's good for now." Jake was not about to push through Philip's defenses. They were there for a reason.

*    *    *    *

But a month after this good if partial work on Philip's part and the pure, light-giving conversation with Elena, it was as if neither meeting had taken place. ‎All it took was Philip's way of handling the CEO's latest corporate initiative. In the CEO's first year, he had spearheaded Corporate Social Responsibility: CSR, they called it. Now it was Diversity and Inclusion. Responsible for rolling it out in IB, Philip had put together an elaborate plan, designed, it appeared, to impress his boss. He called a team meeting to unveil it.

Jake wasn't there. He heard about it from Peter, the chief HR officer who did attend and who called Jake afterward to say, whatever you're doing with Philip isn't working. Elena also called, disappointed and concerned. From their two reports, Jake pieced together this picture of what happened.

When Philip broke the news to his staff, there was stunned silence. Nobody objected to hiring minorities, talented ones, and making them welcome. The problem was the, some would say, absurd lengths to which Philip proposed to take it. Frankly, Jake was surprised that Philip, after being validated for his accomplishments and making the cover of The Banker, would still strain this much for his boss' approval.

First of all, the hiring targets were more than stretch goals, they were for practical purposes out of reach. Then two days of diversity-and-inclusiveness training for all IB managers when one day was plenty, as "sensitivity" training of this type usually goes. On top of that, survey-based feedback for all managers on their diversity-and-inclusiveness style—coupled with a half-day meeting with a consultant. The annual 360 exercise included diversity and inclusiveness anyway. To top it off, Phil proposed an evaluation of the senior team's "inclusive leadership" followed by data-driven team building.

His most senior person was the first to speak: "You've got to be kidding, Philip." "Where is the time for all of this supposed to come from?" objected another person. Then, in a not-too-friendly way, someone else chimed in, "You've got to scale this back, Philip, you've got to." It was unusual for his team to take this kind of tone with him. A kind of emotional contagion had set in.

"Now, wait a minute," he insisted, "this is important."

"No one questions that," said his most senior guy. "But you've gone overboard," and warming to his metaphor—"and sunk to the ocean floor." That elicited chuckles.

Philip looked at Elena for support. At first, she just shrugged her shoulders but a moment later she spoke up: "Okay," she said to her peers, "if this is too ambitious, can we get specific on how to scale it back?"

But Philip didn't give Elena's worthy attempt a chance. He had already had it. "I'm getting nowhere," he said, collecting his materials, and left.

What his team couldn't know is he came by his stance towards higher-ups honestly. "Growing up, I couldn't understand how others didn't do what their parents or other authorities wanted," Philip had told Jake. "My kids are the same way, thankfully. My oldest told me recently, 'I want to please you and Mom, your opinion means so much to me.'"

A few days later, consulting no one, Philip emailed a revision to his staff. He had scaled back the hiring targets, which was reasonable, but, seemingly in a fit of a pique, had gutted the rest of his grand plan—swung in the opposite direction.

Six months later, he was fired. The CEO was reluctant to part with Philip. He still held a high opinion of him. IB's production and the array of talent he had assembled was what he saw firsthand. The rest of it was hearsay. But the mounting noise in the system forced his hand. To the whole bank the CEO had made much of collaboration and team play and could no longer abide the contradiction.

He was considerate in his handling of Philip's exit. There was no way Philip would not be ushered unceremoniously, ignominiously, out the door, a not-uncommon if brutal practice in corporations. He was treated with the respect the CEO felt was due him. He was given ten weeks to find another job and allowed to keep his office, but in the end, that did him no favors.

Elena called Jake right after Philip was let go. She wanted him to know in case he hadn't heard—which he hadn't. His first thought was, Oh, the disgrace, Philip's worst fear.

She was upset. She had seen it coming but she was still very upset—for Philip, for the family and, frankly, for herself. Unlike her colleagues, she had seen another side to Philip, open to influence and even childlike in seeking her counsel.

Jake wrote Philip, saying how sorry he was and suggesting he get in touch when he was ready. In the meantime, Elena kept him posted. Philip continued to come into the office and to take his lunch in the executive dining room. You could cut the tension with a knife, she said, but he seemed impervious. He was determined to hold his head high, he told her.

The people on his staff hardly acknowledged him, like he had turned into a leper. No one but Elena sat with him at lunch and not every day. She knew it was not a good idea to associate herself too closely with him.

Late in the fourth week he received a job offer, a good one, and he accepted. No surprise, he remained highly marketable. That Friday, his last day in the office, they had lunch. The whole time it had been "ghastly," she said. She didn't know how he could stand it. "Philip, it's like somebody died."

Twisting his mouth oddly, he said, "Murdered, more like."

She couldn't help it: "suicide" leapt to mind, which made her feel very disloyal.

"I take that back," he said. "Truth is, it was self-inflicted."

The following week Philip called Jake. He was chipper. "I landed a plum job at a big London-based bank. It means a move, but Camille and I are satisfied that it comes at a good time in our kids' lives."

"Congratulations. I have to say, though, I'm sorry it came to this. You and your family were so well situated here. I wish I could have done more."

"You did what you could. You put the ugly truth in front of me. I couldn't handle it."

"I give you a lot of credit for coming to see it that way."

"Late in the game. Oh, well."

"Do you wonder if I spilled the beans?" It would only be natural for someone who gets assessed and right after that gets fired to think that. The understanding with the CEO and HR head was that the findings and the proceedings were strictly confidential.

"For a moment that possibility went through my mind. But, no, they knew all along. That's why they brought in someone like you."

"That's a relief. Another thing: in your new job you'll have a clean slate." Jake couldn't stop wanting him to change.

"Yeah, we'll see if I've learned anything." All at once objective, self-deprecating, endearing, and just a tad optimistic, as well as a seeming sign that Philip had actually made progress. For Jake, that sentence was possibly the most satisfying thing ever to come out of Philip's mouth.