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STORY FOURTEEN Headless Chickens World Bank, late 1990s 215 Ben had got used to it. Every time Charles Taber forgot to do something he said he would, didn’t respond to a query or a memo, lost a report in one of the piles around his desk, or in any of his myriad ways screwed up, he’d slap his palm on his forehead and say, “Oh, what a flake I am!” Ben couldn’t get mad, even when he saw how much his disarming style was intended to disarm. Nor could others who worked for Charles. That was the surprising part. Ben was not building a career at the World Bank but simply doing some long-term consulting work that interested him. Charles’s own fulltime staff, a growing number of professionals as he moved up in the hierarchy , people with careers to build and a lot on the line—such as Raoul from Peru, who had just got his daughter into one of Washington’s most prestigious private schools, whose wife was just learning how to shop, who clung with every breath to the status of being part of “the Bank,” a rocketship ride from where he had started ten years before—just took his scrambled management in stride. It took Ben a while to figure it out. It was not that these people were any thicker skinned than others, that his failings didn’t mess them up, or that they had learned to work around his shortcomings as a manager. The answer was that they knew these managerial flaws didn’t matter. The Bank, at least in the 1990s, was an institution always in “transition .” This fact came to Ben viscerally, when in the first year of his routine monthly visits to the Bank he would find that a third of the people he’d been working with the month before had moved to other departments and that the department to which he was assigned had changed its name, location, and office arrangement. When this kept happening in the second and third year of his consulting contract, he began to see that it was chronic. One day, while lost trying to find someone who had moved, he wandered into a gigantic space on the ninth floor of the M building, the Bank’s newest building, just completed and significantly over budget. The space was vast and open, yet it appeared oddly cluttered. Everywhere were aluminum flip chart stands and movable partitions, placed seemingly at random. And huge posters were taped on every available surface. On a large table sat a cardboard box with three half-eaten muffins and a chocolate-covered doughnut. They looked about a day old. Ben took the chocolate doughnut and walked around the labyrinth of flip charts. There were magic marker red and green arrows and black circles and yellow squares and blue triangles; organigrams and matrices; lists of “attributes” and “desired qualities.” Ben took in the various headings, trying to find a logic, a place to begin: “where we are—where we want to be,” “a changing world,” “our market,” “client responsiveness ,” “cross-disciplinary learning,” “teaming and clustering,” “consultative and participatory processes,” and on and on. After twenty minutes Ben was confused. But he did see that here was one of the epicenters of the Bank’s effort to “transit” to a new kind of institution. It seemed a sincere effort, not just because of the earnest way in which each poster and chart was worded—or because senior staff nodded gravely when they spoke publicly about the Bank’s new, more-sensitiveto -the-poor culture—but also because a huge amount of money was being spent on it. Ben had become used to missing some of his regular colleagues (the few who didn’t end up being transferred to other departments ) when he was in Washington because they were “on mission,” but now he began to see a new pattern. Their secretaries—sorry, the new 216 Story Fourteen term is “team assistants”—were more often saying that Charles or Ishiko or Piet or Istvan was “on a retreat” or “in training.” By 1997 quite a few people at the Bank were coming into the office only sporadically. Besides their regular mission travel, they were now doing lots of two-week-long retreats and participating in the “VIP,” touted as one of the most expensive parts of the transition to the “new Bank.” Of course, Ben wondered how a...


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