Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Luxury spots vs. real value

Yesterday I was reading the Bee as I nearly always do. Suddenly I was reading about a place I knew, one where I had stayed. This was no small "below the fold" two-inch article. It was a page and a half review of a resort and its on site restaurant approximately eighty miles from Sacramento; and as I read memories came flooding back.

The Bee writer waxed rapturous over this upscale spot where a meal for two typically runs $400 to $600, and that does not include wine. Given that the restaurant is located in the heart of Napa Valley, one of the most famous wine growing areas in the world, a meal without wine seemed unlikely. The reviewer said that the cost of a bottle of one of the better wines could run up to $6,000. While recalling the weekend I spent at this luxury spot a few years ago, attending a corporate "strategic retreat" I again identified the disconnect I frequently felt during those years. I think of it as the "country Christian in corporate America" experience. There were about a dozen of us there for one particular dinner, so the group dinner must have cost between $6,000 and $12,000. The entire weekend cost considerably more. All this during a time when the company was engaged in layoffs and another round of cost-cutting.

I could not help but compare this culinary extravagance with the simplicity of the meals where I grew up in the Midwest. My aunts and cousins often served up heaping platters of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and cole slaw, accompanied by homemade biscuits, all washed down with gallons of sweet tea.

The Bee reviewer described menu items such as: foie gras in black bread, poached sous vide glazed with violet mustard (did he say violet mustard - now that is just weird) and for dessert, almond fudge with olive, brioche and tomato. You just cannot make this stuff up.

To give you a more personal idea of my background regarding meals of preference, my mother once invited my great-grandmother to stay for dinner after they had spent the afternoon visiting. Great-grandma, without preamble simply asked, "What are you having?" To which, my Mom said, "Nothing special. Just beans and potatoes and the usual fixings."

Great-grandma promptly said "No thank you. I can have beans and potatoes at home. I was hoping for pork chops and a Pepsi." Ah ha! Her idea of fine dining. So to say that I was a bit out of my element at this resort/spa/restaurant is to state the obvious.

Nevertheless, there I was, meeting with the other top executives in a publicly traded corporation, being paid handsomely to trot around the grounds of this exclusive location in order to participate in the corporate ritual known as the "annual strategic planning retreat." And while I was decidedly out of my depth in the culinary department, I do hold a masters degree in my area of expertise, and know my way around an agenda and a well-executed planning session. This was where the event went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Such a corporate event generally consists of several "break out" sessions, wherein those with common responsibilities or mutual objectives meet to further their mutual understanding of same, with the hope of better achieving the next fiscal year's goals. Improved shareholder value, better market share, etc. I always attended these things with the intention of learning what I could and contributing where it might be helpful.

But this year, the contrast between the sumptuous surroundings and the downright silly fare served up by the speaker at the seminar was just mind boggling. She arrived late. (You may recall that I previously shared that my dad always said, "If you are five minutes early, you are on time. If you arrive just on time, you are late." And he thought if you arrived late, well, that was just a disgrace.) So I was put off from the start, but tried to keep an open mind. It was difficult, as she - we will call her Ms. Onit - scrambled around for the first five minutes trying to get her laptop synced up with the PowerPoint projection equipment. Then there was another five minute delay, while she searched her briefcase for her accompanying notes. Finally, she suggested there should be handouts, but had neglected to bring any, and thus a hastily dispatched gopher was sent to copy her proposed handouts. )

Ms. Onit then proceeded to lecture on material that was so elementary that even the newer members of the "director level" group in this session were so bored their eyes began to glaze over after about 15 minutes of this nonsense. Meanwhile, I was by now thoroughly annoyed thinking, "They can spend thousands of dollars to haul us over to this Babylon Bodega and then produce nothing better than this pap and drivel for intellectual stimulation?" I'm just going to admit it - I was ticked.

Although my background was not in business, in midlife I was required by life circumstances to switch gears. After over twelve years as a full-time at-home parent, I went back to work and back to school, almost simultaneously, and over the next fifteen years obtained two college degrees and several promotions in the companies where I worked. It was not luck, fate or kismet. I believed in hard work and every day I showed up ready, willing and able to do the job to the best of my abilities.

Thus, Ms. Onit, showing up ill-prepared and full of hot air did not win my sympathies. She knew just enough to toss around catch-phrases like, "optimizing the group potential" - "targeting core competencies" - and my personal unfavorite, "managing to a clear vision". Why, yes, Charlie Brown, of course there is a Great Pumpkin.

I do believe in clear vision, but I don't think Ms. Onit could have recognized one if it jumped up and bit her. How different from the rural places where I had labored in much less elaborate surroundings, but where two things counted for a great deal more than "violet mustard" and cliched dictums. Those two things were character and competence. You could not buy the first, nor fake the second. These were people who knew that character meant doing what you said you would do, even when it proved uncomfortable and unpopular; and that competence meant actually knowing how to do what you claimed you could do. Character and competence gave value to your contribution. Common sense said "Plan your work and work your plan." Period.

So as I folded the newspaper and put it in the recycling bin, I thought about how grateful I am for those years wherein I got to experience "how the other half lives", so to speak. But you know what I discovered? I liked the values of my earlier co-laborers much better, even if not a single one of them had ever tasted violet mustard.

Before I close this post, let me just say that there are business principles and teachings for which I have a great deal of respect and from which I have learned much over the years. Some examples would be Execution: The Art of Getting Things Done by Bossidy and Charan; Good to Great by Jim Collins; and Leadership Is An Art by Max DePree. All well worth the time to read, if you like business done right.

But luxury and value really are two different animals. And between the two I would rather eat crumbs among those with character and competence, than to consume creme brulee in the midst of conspicuous opulence that is absent any real value. Have you had a similar disconnect at a corporate or professional event? I'd would love to hear from you. Have a good day.


  1. Marsha... I am a glass of sweet tea and fried chicken kinda girl too.. and not for some 1200 dollars..
    I could not work for people like that,, those who OVER think things just to make it sound and cost expensive are not the kind of people i would perfer to associate myself with, if i have a choice..
    so No worrys.. you can come and visit me for a FREE glass of sweet tea any time you like,,
    but you bring the chicken or a pot of beans..
    And we will both enjoy it.
    Have a blessed weekend my friend..

  2. Hi, Karen

    Nice to hear from you again. Yes, those were some pretty challenging years, surrounded by people who did not know the value of a good cold glass of sweet tea! :) Hope you have a great weekend. We are just home from camping - dirty, tired, and happy. ....Marsha Y.