Notes from a company conference

Part 1: This Amazing Family

At 9:00 AM, we file into the Grand Ballroom for the kickoff of our company’s annual conference. Ten rows of chairs and tables await us, the one hundred forty employees of the Central Team at ____, a division of EF, the huge family-owned corporation that we work for. We have flown here to the Carlton Hotel | Singapore, from London, Jakarta, Moscow, and Shanghai, to listen to speeches, gives presentations to each other, and do some serious “team building.”

At my seat, someone has left a EF T-shirt, which I dutifully put on; a blue EF tote bag, a blue 50th Anniversary Edition notebook (“Celebrating Fifty Years”), a dark blue EF / 50 pen, a pad of stationary, a bottle of Carlton Hotel | Singapore water, and a bowl of blue and white Mentos. Aside from tand these concessions to human needs, the tables are empty.

The conversation dies down, and William takes the stage. He picks up the microphone. Tall, athletic, and European, our President still looks young at close to 50, though his hair looks grayer than last year. He has given fourteen years’ worth of these talks. He is “so happy” to be here with everyone, “away from our busy offices” where we can “challenge ourselves.”

First comes global EF news. None of this “news” affects us personally in any way — we are sub-division of a sub-division — but EF’s billionaire founder, Bertil Hult, is worried EF has gotten too large, and he cares about the Company Culture. We learn that the 2016 Hult Prize, an annual competition which gives $1 million in seed funding to a social enterprise, has just been awarded. This year’s challenge? “Refugees.” Without explaining who won the prize, their business model, or how it will help Refugees, William moves on to the next item: Muhammad Yunus, microfinance pioneer and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has joined the faculty Hult International Business School.

Now that the Hults’ moral legitimacy has been established beyond any doubt, William jumps to EF’s new TV ad campaign. The contrast is jarring. It’s almost as if “Refugees” and the TV ad campaign are equivalent, two of the same kind of thing. Maybe, for EF’s purposes, they are.

We learn that EF is sponsoring the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and that EF has chosen DeeDee Trotter as its official spokesperson. (DeeDee Trotter is an American athlete and Olympic gold medalist in 4 x 400 relay.) “Those of you who’ve met her know how passionate she is,” says William. He shows us a video of her running a sprint — “pretty cool!” In the excitement, we forget that this has nothing to do with us. Still, William has always admired Olympic athletes for their charisma, physical perfection, and most of all their, passion, which is to say, their selfless devotion to a winner-take-all task in a narrowly defined game with strict rules, set by a secretive, all-powerful committee of Europeans based in Lausanne, Switzerland, a short train ride from EF’s global headquarters in Luzern, Switzerland. A recorded speech by Hu Ge, the top TV star in China in 2017 and yes, an official EF spokesperson, rounds out the talk. Pretty cool.

Now, William gives his advice to the employees. He urges “every person inside this room” to “stay true to our core values.” There are eight: Quality, Passion, Entrepreneurial Spirit, Nothing Is Impossible, etc. They are written in a booklet called the Very Blue Book, which may or may not be an intentional reference to the Little Red Book, a.k.a. the Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.

But this year, William takes it one step further. He calls out: to “our team… our family… us inside this room.” Our family. The president of a corporate division, with absolute power to hire and fire us, has just called us his family. What kind of family fires its children? To really drive his point home, William shows us a video interview of EF employees in a local school. We see a teacher from the U.S., late 30s, overweight, and single, and she says it best: “It’s like having this amazing family, and I never feel alone.

It’s easy to poke fun at, but twenty minutes in, William has accomplished something important. Between the news, the warm language (“us inside this room”), and the video, he has caused us to believe, even for a moment, that we really are a family, a big family called EF that cares about Refugees, sponsors the Olympics, hires cool people like Muhammad Yunus and DeeDee Trotter, and most importantly, gives our students “a path for them to realize their dreams” — William’s words. For these twenty minutes, we’ve forgotten the unpaid overtime, the huge gaps in salary between employees, the thousand little frustrations we’ve built up against each other and the company. Or, for that matter, the fact that only rich people can afford to realize their dreams through our classes, or the fact that the profits go to a Swedish billionaire who uses the profits to buy French chateaus and private jets whose shower tanks are filled with Evian spring water. Today, we are this amazing family, and we don’t feel alone.

And then, a shocking change of tone. “We have to continue to fight bureaucracy,” says William. He points out our division’s double digit growth, and reminds us: “We don’t know how long this growth will continue.” Before we have time to react, he slips back into platitudes: “look around this room and show appreciation…”,

To the untrained ear, these admissions sound prosaic. But like official statements of the Chinese Communist Party, subtle variations in an otherwise formulaic speech often signify momentous changes in policy. William’s mention of “bureaucracy,” and his unprecedented admission that growth might not continue, are such variations. What does he mean by it? Who is being “bureaucratic”? Is re-structuring coming? Why is he suddenly worried growth won’t continue?

Unfortunately, there is no time to consider these questions, because William’s time is up, and it’s time for staff presentations. Veronika, VP of ___, takes the stage. Her awkward attempts at enthusiasm (“If you agree that they are the most amazing team, then give more applause!”) only highlight how talented of a communicator William really is.

In contrast to the president’s ideological speech, the staff presentations offer funny moments of candor. The Tech team puts on aprons and chef’s hat and acts out a skit in a restaurant, in which a diner, representing a stakeholder, orders “a steak that tastes like chicken and looks like a fish.” The cooks/developers are forced to cook it according to “spec”, taste-test it, etc. while being interfered with by their manager, played by their actual manager. A video from the Global Marketing team dubs over footage from the Godfather, but replaces the Godfather with “Don Baidu,” (after Baidu, the Chinese search engine), which we depend on for our Chinese marketing, and is more than a little mafia-like. We get a good laugh, and also learn what the teams outside our own actually do.

The types of language that the presentations use reveal, crystal-clear, the presenter’s place in the company hierarchy. William is upbeat, romantic, ideological. Family. VPs trumpet fake enthusiasm; they are forced to tout ideas which are not their own. Mid-level employees: satirical, brutally honest, funny. At the bottom are the rank-and-file, who stay silent, or grovel. A new financial analyst says, in stuttering English, “I feel like so lucky, I am looking forward to start my own life with EF,” and there’s still that poor teacher, who never feels alone. Today, we are part of this amazing family, and we know our place in it.