October 11, 2015

Up in the Air

I saw the movie Up in the Air recently, and, aside from experiencing it as a first-rate piece of entertainment, I found it to be subtle and brilliant in addressing issues I confront in my life.

In it, George Clooney plays an executive named Ryan Bingham, who works for a company that enters into contracts with large employers that have neither the will nor the skill to handle mass terminations themselves, so they outsource them to Bingham’s firm. The subject matter is painful because the devastation of losing a job has hit so many households. I had this type of experience back in1978 when my law firm told me I would not be offered a partnership.

However, the more interesting aspect of the movie is the way Bingham leads his life. He travels over 320 days of travel a year, and has built a life in which he gets treated exceptionally well by airlines, hotels, and other service firms, and he has temporary relationships on the road that require no deep emotional commitments. He has successfully avoided having to deal with the messiness of a family life or maintaining a substantial home base. In fact, his one-bedroom apartment in Omaha, Nebraska, appears unoccupied, because it is so sparsely furnished.

Not surprisingly, one subtext of the movie is how messy reality intrudes itself into his antiseptic, perfect life. The first intrusion comes from a young female manager who attempts to dismantle the whole process of having executives travel to terminate employees, by substituting termination conversations by video teleconference. Although she first appears to be a person who needs no emotional support, she ends up requiring significant support from Bingham as her relationship with her boyfriend sours. The second intrusion comes from Bingham’s two sisters, one who is getting married and the other who is separating from her husband. The third intrusion comes from what initially looks like a casual relationship with a woman named Alex, for whom Bingham develops a deeper emotional attraction, but whom he discovers is uninterested in a deeper relationship.

My life bears no resemblance to what Bingham is experiencing. However, I ponder why Bingham would find the life he leads attractive, and I can understand it at some level:

  • We all want others to function in a way that makes our life as easy as possible. Because of the growth of corporate loyalty and rewards programs over the last 30 decades, we get predictably exceptional care from people in organizations to which we have given a lot of business. People treat us with great care because it is in their financial interest to do so, and because, within their sphere of activity, they have been well trained to do so. In the home or community environment, as well as the workplace, higher loyalty is not predictably rewarded. Some of the people who have to treat others with great deference in service occupations get burned out, and manifest their burnout by lashing out at family and friends outside of work. One of the ironies of Up in the Air is that Bingham expects loyalty because of a long history of rewarding corporations with his business, but he destroys the predictable link between loyalty and reward in the corporations for which we works for the employees he terminates.
  • Aside from wanting to be rewarded for our loyalty and patronage, we want a manageable and predictable level of demands from those around us. Stress comes to our life from highly demanding or unpredictable environments, especially when our capacity to meet those demands does not match what is demanded. Bingham creates stress in the lives of those he terminates, and then gets stressed by being forced to intervene with his sister’s fiancé just before their wedding ceremony. He is thrown into a situation in which he is expected to act almost as a marriage counselor.

If I were to describe my past year relative to these points, I would make the following observations:

  • Like Bingham, I like the idea of having a specific level of loyalty being rewarded with a predictable level of service. Unlike the Bingham character, I actually get uncomfortable with too much luxury service. Exclusivity and isolation make me extremely uncomfortable.
  • While I was fully prepared to accept much higher demands on my time and resources than Bingham, I, too, discovered my limits.

I found that leaving the Chairman and CEO positions reduced some demands on me, but spawned many others, and that I was unevenly equipped to deal with them. I expected that some people would approach me to serve on boards, to make charitable contributions, to invest in their businesses, or to give them career advice. To a degree, these demands were manageable.

However, I learned that my post Pitney Bowes life was not one in which I could substantially control the demands made on me:

  • Demands for political support and contributions were far more complicated to manage when I left Pitney Bowes. At the Company, I evaluated every request for support by the degree to which it furthered the Company’s goals. As a private citizen, I have to make choices among good, but obviously imperfect candidates, without the simpler criteria I could apply as a CEO. Deciding among friends and multiple candidates I respect is not fun or easy.
  • With respect to charitable contribution requests or investments, I lack the very capable community investments and corporate development teams that did a great job evaluating charitable or investment proposals. Moreover, there are many more desperate people today with more fragile organizations, so every contribution or investment decision is higher risk than it would have been two years ago.
  • Similarly, many more good, desperate, unemployed friends come to me for advice and help. My ability to help, and their willingness to take my advice, is harder to assess in this more complex and challenging employment environment. For example, the whole world of posting recommendations on Linked.in for someone is totally foreign to my experience.
  • Political advocacy is more complicated, because, for whatever reasons, the task of seeing my work bear fruit, particularly on

health care issues, is far more complicated. I thought it was because I lacked a power base in terms of money, size of organization that I led, or political connections, especially when I watched CEOs, union leaders, lobbyists, and trade association presidents get face time with government officials. However, many of these high-powered people have expressed extreme disappointment that their efforts were wasted, unless they intended to make sure nothing happened.

  • Finally, like many people who have been in positions of significant responsibility in a large business, I am distressed by the indiscriminate anger and resentment directed at successful business people. There are certainly many legitimate targets of public anger in the business world, but our elected officials have fostered an environment of indiscriminate anger directed at even very decent CEOs or other people who have been successful. That’s wrong!

I am very energized by the many exciting things on which I am working, including my evolving effort to become a broad and deep expert in health, particularly the social determinants of health, and my efforts to break into the entertainment industry.

Nevertheless, there are times when the Ryan Bingham world seems very attractive because of its simplicity, its clear linkages between behaviors and rewards, and its lack of pressure. I would never want that world, but I can understand better the psyche of those who seek it out.