Scott Allen finally achieved his lifelong dream. The company he founded was about to go public. After a long career full of struggle and failure, success came in the form of a little finger protector for people who use touch screens.
A typical review from online retail sites looked like this:
Five stars: “The skin on my index finger was almost completely worn through from using touch screens all day until I found this handy thing! What a life saver!”
The company was called Tap Pro, Inc (TP for short) and in thirteen years they went from a one man operation with a single finger protector model to a multinational organization with a dozen products for every person in every imaginable scenario.
Scott invented the product by cutting the finger off one of his gloves. As Scott hired more engineers, the product became more practical. The newer models resembled a contact lens that stuck on the fingertip. They were sleek. They were sexy. All the cool kids had one.
It was 12:00am the day before IPO. After a long evening of celebrating with his colleagues, Scott returned to his office. His plan was simply to collect his briefcase and head home, but he was so intoxicated with his success (and also with alcohol), that he decided to flop into his chair and scroll through the product reviews one more time.
He pulled out his phone and drank in the words of his admiring public. To think he’d come from nothing, and was now a millionaire. It was everything he’d ever wanted. He sighed. He was a month short of sixty. His father died at… he tried to think… seventy-three?
He endured a lifetime of failure for what? So he could enjoy thirteen years of success?
“Oh how I wish I could endure as long as this great company of mine!” He bemoaned.
“Who are you talking to?” Came a voice.
Scott startled. He hadn’t realized he was speaking aloud. He looked wildly around the room before spotting her. She was standing directly in front of him.
She was wearing a suit with a knee length pencil skirt and heels so high they might as well have been stilts. She’d a short power cut and modern glasses with thick blue frames. Her gaze was fixed on her phone.
Her appearance was flawless. There wasn’t a crease on her blazer, or a stray hair on her head. It was almost like she’d dry cleaned her clothes onto herself.
“Who are you?” He asked, bewildered.
“I am Eda the business fairy,” she replied, without looking up from her phone. “Didn’t you just make a wish?”
Scott squinted at her. “If you are a fairy, then why don’t you have any wings?”
“Fairies don’t actually have wings, Mr. Allen. Humans just draw us that way because…” She looked up, thinking for a moment. “I honestly have no idea why.”
Scott scrutinized her a moment more. “Okay,” he said. “If you are who you say you are, prove it! Do some magic.”
“How about I answer all your password security questions?” She suggested.
“Alright. Go on! Go on!”
“Your mother’s maiden name is Smith, you went to Mackerel Valley High School, and your first pet’s name was Fluffy1234. (Well, the numbers aren’t actually part of the name. You just added them to make the answer harder to guess.)”
Scott’s bloodshot eyes widened. He was amazed.
“So you really are a fairy!” He exclaimed.
Technology was not Scott’s strong suit and he could never find the time to take the quarterly cyber security training. So while Eda was a real fairy, she wasn’t answering Scott’s password questions by magic. She was looking at his Wikipedia page. (She’d guessed about the numbers at the end of Fluffy’s name.)
Scott was too excited to notice. “So this must be some kind of a fairytale, or, or maybe a fable!” He was ecstatic but collected himself enough to explain: “A fable is a short story with a mor–”
“Thank you, Mr. Allen,” she answered. “I am a fairy. I know what a fable is.”
“If this is a fairytale, then I must be the hero!”
“Hmmm…” thought Eda with a little shrug. “Protagonist, sure.”
“And I can wish for anything?”
“Well, anything business related,” she replied. “I’ll have to refer you to another fairy for other requests. And you said something about wanting to endure like your company or whatever, so do you want it or not?”
“More than anything!” Scott answered.
“Cool, I’ve got a meeting in five so let me just…” she tapped her phone a couple of times and flipped it around revealing some text and a signature line. “Check the box that says you’ve read and agreed to all the terms and conditions, then sign with your finger.”
Scott checked the box. He hadn’t read all the terms and conditions of course, but since no one ever does, he didn’t worry. He signed.
The fairy took her phone back and raised an eyebrow. His signature was illegible even when he used a ballpoint pen. A touch screen made it horrifying.
She shrugged and pocketed her phone. “We’re all set, Mr. Allen. Your health is now directly intertwined with that of TP, inc. When TP is doing well, so will you. If TP is doing poorly, you will also.”
“Wait,” Scott said. “…intertwined with TP? That’s not what I wished for!”
“It states very clearly in the terms and–”
“Right, right, of course!” He interjected. “Yes, clearly.”
He wasn’t worried. After all, TP was thriving. What could possibly go wrong?
Eda gave him a firm handshake. “Get some sleep, Mr. Allen,” she said. “You’ve got a bell to ring tomorrow.”
Scott pulled his car keys out of his pocket as Eda turned to leave.
“You’re not driving are you?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he insisted. “Have you seen my phone?”
“You’re holding it, Mr. Allen,” she answered, pulling out her own.
“Would you look at that!” He observed with a laugh and a shake of his head.
Eda tapped on her phone a couple of times. “Go down to the lobby, Mr. Allen. In a few moments, a magical driverless car will arrive to take you home.”
Once again, Scott was amazed.
For the next year, Scott felt better than ever before. He woke without aches and pains,
ran without losing his breath, and even resumed playing sports when he had the time.
His friends and family noticed he looked better but couldn’t determine what was different.
Stocks were rising, reviews were gushing, business was booming, and the company grew. Every employee from the vice president of accounting to the cubical cleaner’s intern was going above and beyond because they felt like they were part of something great.
Then one day, as Scott sat in a conference watching one of his executives present. He sneezed.
The sensation shocked him. You might think it strange that a sneeze would shock anyone, but Scott had gone a full year without sneezing once.
“…So as you can see,” the exec droned, pointing to a line chart. “This black line is going up and this redline is going down. This means my organization is doing useful things. Can we have more money?”
Scott was still staring into his hand. He sniffled. “Um… sorry, can you say that last part again?”
Unfortunately, things only got worse for Scott. Over the next few weeks he was plagued by sniffles and sneezes of all kinds. He found himself carrying dozens of tissue packets with him everywhere and entering panics when he ran out. A colleague suggested it was spring allergies. But Scott didn’t believe this because he’d never had allergies and it wasn’t spring.
He remembered his contract with Eda, but felt certain that couldn’t be causing the problems. After all, if TP was doing well, he should be also.
Then his personal assistant politely suggested that perhaps he was under stress and should take a vacation. Scott was delighted with this diagnosis and in short order found himself lying on a beach in Belize. He was reading a book he’d purchased at the airport newsstand. It was titled: Tried and True: Old School Tactics for Driving Your Modern Business.
With his ball cap, Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals over white socks, he was an abomination in the eyes of fashion. The salt air and warm sand didn’t make him feel any less sneezy, but at least he getting some R&R.
“Enjoying yourself, Mr. Allen?” Came a familiar voice.
Scott sat bolt upright. Strolling across the sand was Eda.
Scott would have been alarmed by her sudden appearance had he not been so distracted by her feet. She was wearing the very same pair of heels as the day they met, but they did not sink into the sand as she crossed the beach.
“You shouldn’t walk on sand in shoes like that,” Scott observed. “Heels are the leading cause of foot injuries in women.”
She smiled sweetly. “Thank you, Mr. Allen. I really don’t know how I’ve survived all these thousands of years without you around to tell me these things.”
Scott returned her smile, glad she appreciated his advice.
“But I didn’t come here to talk about my shoes,” she continued. “I came to check in on you. Heard you weren’t feeling so well.”
“I’m fine,” Scott sneezed.
“Of course,” he replied. “TP’s never been better and neither have I. Besides given our success, if something were wrong with me, you’d be in violation of your contract.”
The contract is perfect and the magic is working perfectly.” Eda replied. “If you weren’t feeling well, it would only be because something is wrong with your company.”
“Like what?” Scott asked. “I mean, hypothetically, if something were wrong with me?”
“This is a fairytale, Mr. Allen,” Eda replied. “And I am a fairy. If you’ve read any fairytales, you should know I can’t give you a straight answer about anything.”
“Why not?” Scott pressed.
She answered him directly: “Because then you wouldn’t learn anything. Also the story’d be to short.”
Scott was growing impatient. “So if something were wrong with me, what would you do?”
“I would—I will give you something that will help you learn the answer for yourself. Go back to work, Mr. Allen and you’ll understand.”
She tossed him a packet of tissues and was gone before Scott could reply. She seemed to disappear into thin air.
Perhaps she had. She was a fairy after all, but more likely, she ran away really quickly while he blinked. I suppose we’ll never know for sure.
No one recognized Scott when he returned to work. It could have been that he’d traded in his usual grey suit for a plaid button up and jeans, but most likely it was the false mustache.
He had a brilliant plan. He figured the best way to learn what was really amiss at TP, was to lose his CEO status. He felt certain his employees were more likely to be honest with Gary from facilities than with Scott the CEO. Besides being from facilities meant he could wander all around the campus and no one would suspect anything. If anyone asked, he was doing a mandatory lightbulb inspection.
Scott was up on a ladder examining his first bulb, when he discovered Eda’s gift. He was on a floor with open cubes. There were thirty or so conversations taking place across the room, and Scott found that regardless of where the conversations took place, he could focus in and hear any of them.
He heard two salesmen standing by the printer, lamenting the outcome of last night’s game. He heard a woman from marketing on the opposite side of the room asking a peer if a particular shade of violet was in compliance with brand standard. He heard two IT support agents coming out of the elevator joking about how TP actually stood for toilet paper.
He scowled. It took just over a million dollars and a small army of branding experts to come up with the initialism TP. Had they no respect?
It occurred to Scott that listening to conversations this way might not be legal. He’d ask Eda to un-enchant him next time he saw her, but in the meantime, he’d just have to deal with it.
Scott moved on to inspect his next lightbulb and passed a closed office door. He heard voices from the other side and listened carefully. Sure enough, his ability to focus worked even through doors. He shook his head at the idea that Eda would give him such an unethical gift, then listened to the conversation taking place.
“I can’t do this if I have to go through Jason,” a woman’s voice said. “The man’s an idiot. If he had to approve everything I did, I’d get nothing done!”
“I know,” came a sympathetic reply. “Let me talk to him, maybe I’ll buy him a drink.”
“Great idea,” answered the first voice. “Give him enough alcohol and he’ll approve anything!”
Both voices laughed.
Scott moved on. While inspecting his next light bulb he heard a man and woman speaking by the coffee pot.
“Did you see the research department?” The woman asked.
“No,” the man smiled.
“They have their cubes all decorated! It’s amazing! Little bells made out of cups! Paper chains, everything!”
The man laughed. “Wow, they really went all out, didn’t they?”
“They sure did!” The woman replied. “Must be nice to have so much free time!”
The man responded with a smirk and an eye roll. “Come on, Maggie, you know research doesn’t actually do anything at this company.”
So it continued. In every hallway, in every lunchroom, everywhere all over the company Scott heard people speak similarly. Each team thought they were the hardest working, the smartest, and the only ones who actually cared about success. The entire campus was infected with toxic murmurs.
A light bulb went on over Scott’s head (actually it was more of a fluorescent tube), and just at the same moment, he had an idea.
About a week later, all TP employees gathered for a company wide meeting. Scott ensured there would be a massive turnout by providing free donuts. He watched as they filed into the largest conference room in the building in search of the pastries disguised as breakfast food.
The topic of the meeting was company culture. In his presentation, Scott talked about how other companies were promoting a healthy workplace environment. How research proved that such efforts were good for business. He showed stock photos of happy business professionals having picnics and playing golf. He firmly declared that gossip was not part of the company culture.
His employees watched with eyes as glazed as the donuts they were steadily consuming.
He concluded by announcing that he was going to hire a vice president of employee relations to enforce a positive and productive workplace environment.
When the presentation was over, he returned to his office feeling pleased with himself. He was so confident that his allergies would cease, that he took all his tissue boxes to the roof and threw them off—an action he was bound to regret.
Scott was angry. It had been several months since the company meeting. TP’s profits continued to grow, they’d launched a new product successfully, and yet he was continually feeling weak and nauseous.
He hoped that Eda would turn up and set things right. But when weeks passed and she did not, he decided to make an appointment with his doctor.
Doctor Randy Webb was an enthusiastic man who’s caffeine addiction was evidenced by his wide eyes, jittering hands, and seldom ceasing chatter. He listened to Scott describe his symptoms, then said with a bright smile: “Sounds like pregnancy! But that can’t be since you’re a man! It’s probably just cancer.”
He waited for Scott to laugh.
Scott did not laugh.
“So… anyway,” Dr. Webb continued. “We’ll run some tests. If you don’t hear from me, everything’s fine.”
“And if I hear from you?” Scott asked.
Webb’s expression became dark. “Pray.”
The phone rang in Scott’s office early the next morning.
“Hello Scott, how are you doing today?” Came Dr. Webb’s chipper voice.
Scott wasn’t sure, so he lied in the customary fashion: “Fine.”
“Ah good,” Webb continued. “So, the test results came back and well… your cells are multiplying in all kinds of ways that they shouldn’t…”
“What are you saying?” Scott demanded.
“Remember how yesterday I made that joke about you having cancer? Well you actually do!” The doctor laughed. “Now isn’t that something?”
Scott hung up the phone. Before he’d a chance to reflect on his woeful situation, the door to his office opened.
In walked Eda, her gaze glued to her phone. Somehow she navigated into the room and gracefully around all the ill-placed furniture without taking her eyes off the screen.
“You!” Scott cried, leaping from his chair with such force it went spinning across the room.
“Hello, Mr. Allen,” she returned.
“Where have you been?” He snapped. “Did you know this would happen?”
“Know what would happen?” She replied.
“That I’d get cancer!”
“Cancer,” she mumbled. “Makes sense it would manifest itself that way, given the duplication of cells and all.”
“You did this to me, didn’t you?”
“I did nothing,” Eda replied. “You always knew this was a possibility, Scott. It stated very clearly in the terms and–”
“How can I have cancer when the company is doing so well?” He demanded.
She held up a finger. “One moment…” She tapped at her smartphone.
“What are you doing?” He snapped.
“Selling some stock,” she answered.
“If that’s TP stock I’ll have you arrested for insider trading,” he grumbled.
“It’s only insider trading if I possess material non-public information.”
“Ah! But you do!” Scott replied “You see, material means that a reasonable investor would care about it—”
“Thank you, Mr. Allen, I know what material means.” Eda explained. “And you expect any reasonable investor to believe that you entered into a magical contract with a business fairy?”
Scott frowned. “I suppose not… but I have cancer! Very bad, probably going to die! There, now you know something a reasonable investor would care about! Ha!”
“Maybe… There could be any number of outcomes,” Eda thought. “I probably should consult with law fairy first.*”
She pocketed her phone.
Scott laughed triumphantly.
“But I did not come here for legal advice, Scott.” She took a seat. “Let’s see if we can find a way to change your outcome.”
Scott fetched his chair and slumped down in it.
“Remember the vice president of employee relations you hired? Debra?”
“Of course, she’s the very reason I shouldn’t be in this situation,” he grumbled.
“On the contrary, Mr. Allen,” Eda replied. “I’m afraid Debra is the reason, well, one of many.”
“Get to the point,” Scott demanded. “And no more of this cryptic fairy non-sense, I want a straight answer.”
“Well, I suppose since were already twelve pages in, I’ll humor you.” Eda sighed. “You see, Debra started at TP under the assumption that your employee relations problems were due to the destructive policies put in place by Alley’s department.”
Alley’s department was HR.
“What destructive policies?” Scott asked.
“There are none,” Eda answered. “But there were at many of Debra’s past organizations. Thus her assumption.”
“Why did she assume? Why not just talk to Alley?”
“Well she discussed it, with Jerry.” Eda explained.
“But Jerry’s in finance.” Scott sputtered.
“Yes, but you see, Jerry and Debra are already acquainted. They used to meet up every year at Phoney Con before they came to work for TP. So naturally Debra mentioned her concerns to Jerry, while they were having lunch on Tuesday.
Now, Jerry cautioned Debra not to speak to Alley–”
“Wait, why not?”
“Because,” Eda explained. “How did Jerry put it… ‘Alley is a witch.’ Jerry then proceeded to tell Debra all about his horrible experiences working with Alley.”
“But, gossip is not part of our company culture!” Scott interjected.
“Now, now, Mr. Allen,” Eda replied raising a finger. “They are executives. They know that. Jerry wasn’t gossiping, he was just venting. After all it isn’t good to keep your frustrations bottled up.”
Scott made no reply as he tried to work out what Eda was saying. She did not wait for him to comprehend, just pressed on.
“Debra decided to handle TP’s gossip problem by creating the Employee Conflict Resolution Team to pinpoint where tension existed between departments and work to resolve it.”
“I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” Scott observed.
“Nothing at all,” Eda continued. “Except, had Debra talked to Alley, she’d have found that Alley already has a team doing just that—The Cross Departmental Collaboration Team.
Now the Cross Departmental Collaboration Team heard about the Employee Conflict Resolution Team and were distressed. Instead of trying to unify their efforts, the teams began to compete for resources. So the Employee Conflict Resolution Team refused to work with the Cross Departmental Collaboration Team. In the end, TP had two separate teams doing exactly the same work.
“So we just need to merge both teams or get rid of one of them,” Scott reasoned.
“I wish it was that simple,” Eda replied. “But you’ll find similar conflict blossoming all over the company. For example, you probably noticed the tension between John from research and Jamie from sales.”
Scott hadn’t, but he was beginning to think there was a lot he didn’t notice.
“John refuses to work with Jamie because Alley told him about a time when Jamie purposefully deprioritized her employee survey because she’d delivered bad news about his approval ratings as a vice president. And it gets worse, Sam from–”
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Scott demanded. “I get the picture! No one is talking to anyone else, teams are duplicating, trust is crumbling…” He sat for a moment, finger on his chin, thinking.
“What if we restructure the entire organization?” Scott suggested. “We’ll start by making Debra head of HR.”
“Wait a moment,” Eda said. “Debra’s been nothing but toxic since you brought her in, why would you give her the entire HR department?”
“Because the only other option is to leave Alley in charge of HR and have Debra report to her. Then again,” he thought. “I could move Alley out of HR altogether and have her run something else.”
“Or you could fire Debra,” Eda suggested.
“Fire Debra!” Scott exclaimed. “Just like that?”
“Well, no, not ‘just like that’, give her a warning first and time to improve, then fire her if she doesn’t.”
“I can’t fire Debra!” Scott insisted.
“Why not? You’ve fired employees for similar destructive behavior, haven’t you?”
“Maybe,” Scott replied. “But not at the executive level. You can’t fire an executive for gossiping!”
“Why–” Eda began, but Scott cut her off talking almost as much to himself as to her.
“If you fire an executive for something that trivial, investors will start thinking you are in some kind of trouble!”
“But you are–”
Scott cut Eda off again. “Not to mention the fact that Jerry would resent me if I fired her. The whole staff would! As bosses go, I am pretty well liked and this would ruin my image.”
“You talk like you’ve never fired anyone,” Eda observed.
“Of course not!” Scott replied. “I’ve never made a bad hire!”
Eda responded with stunned silence. Then finally said: “Don’t you have thirty years experience?”
“Almost forty,” Scott proudly stated.
“How did you get to be CEO?”
Scott responded by falling into his elevator pitch: “It began when I cut the finger off one of my gloves! Little did I know that this invention would revolutionize the smartphone accessories industry!”
“Right, you invented the product,” Eda said. She thought a moment. “Have you ever considered taking a more product focused role?”
“Change my role?” Scott was alarmed. “You mean, step down from being CEO?”
Eda nodded. “Sure, then you could actually create something. You like inventing things, and you must be good at it because consumers love your products.”
Scott was turning scarlet. The only thing he heard was: “Step down, Scott”, “You’re to old, Scott.”, and “You’re incompetent, Scott.”
Eda hadn’t said any of these things but that didn’t stop them from festering in Scott’s mind.
“I created this company!” Scott cried. “I caused its growth! It went public because of me! And you want me to step down?”
Eda was confused. “I don’t want anything,” she explained. “What happens to TP doesn’t affect me in the slightest. I am just making a suggestion.”
“I’ve worked my whole life for this! And I am not going to surrender this company to anyone! Unlike you, I can’t just make things happen with a snap of my fingers! I created this company and there’s no one in the world more qualified to run it.”
He looked as if he was going to jump across his desk and strangle her. Eda watched his outburst with a slightly bored expression then glanced down at her phone for the time.
When he finished she said simply: “What you do is entirely up to you.”
Then she disappeared.
Scott decided to restructure the entire company. After this took place, he got a call from Dr. Webb recommending they try a controversial new treatment.
“In layman’s terms,” Dr. Webb explained. “We are going to remove the tumors and then implant them elsewhere in your body.”
“That’s insanity!” Scott exclaimed. “Has that ever worked before?”
“No,” Dr. Webb replied. “But we are absolutely confident it will work for you!”
The doctor did sound confident, and Scott was desperate, so he submitted to the treatment. Unfortunately, Scott’s health only deteriorated further. In fact, as TP’s employees shared their theories about what was behind the restructure, the cancer spread at an alarming rate.
Despite his failing health, Scott continued coming to work. His colleagues kept suggesting he go on leave, but the more they pressed him the more he insisted on staying. “I’ll quit when I’m dead!” He would say. TP was his and he’d surrender it to no one.
The gossip at TP soon turned to resentment and backstabbing. In fact, TP’s employees were so busy trying to take each other down, that they failed to notice a competitor was stealing away their business.
Scott was declared dead the very moment TP declared bankruptcy. For weeks afterward, employees, consumers, and investors wondered if this was a coincidence or if the combined forces of Scott’s failing health and failing business had driven him to end his life early. Some even went so far as to say Scott was murdered by competitors.
Scott’s autopsy showed that he was actually killed by a vicious autoimmune disease. This left Dr. Webb scratching his head and rambling to his peers: “It’s marvelous! Amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it! Here the man is already dying of cancer but in the end, it’s his own body that kills him! I’ve never seen a disease like this! It’s my new favorite! Can I name it?”
Although Scott’s body was in horrible condition, the hospital decided donating his organs was an excellent idea. In the very moment they were being harvested, TP’s former employees were out looking for work with other organizations.
And while all this was unfolding, Eda was on the deck of her new yacht, sipping margaritas and grumbling about how humans never really learn anything.
Maybe Scott didn’t learn his lesson, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from this fable.
The moral of the story is always read the terms and conditions.
Actually that’s not the moral. You’re smart, you figure it out.