The Executive Suite

It’s hard to say what will get me started on a topic. It may be something I see or notice. It might be some offhand comment that I hear. Something clicks and off I go. I recently visited a customer friend of mine and went through the usual security screening before entering the building. I presented a photo ID, filled out the form on who I was seeing, passed through the Magnetic Resonance Imaging device similar to what we now go through at the airport, provided a blood sample for disease testing and had the inside of my mouth swabbed for DNA testing. I was then issued a day pass security badge and allowed to enter the building. I then took the 14 minute elevator ride to the top floor where I got off and waited. Yes, waited for someone else, with an entirely different and more special access badge to come and let me into the Executive Suite of offices to see my friend.

I guess it is time for me to address one of the last bastions of corporate elitism in business, the executive suite. Sometimes called the “ivory tower”, sometimes called “mahogany row”, the executive suit has been a source of wonder for me, for years.

The executive suite is that part of the organization’s building or campus that for whatever reason is off limits to everyone, including the mere mortals that work there. It is the part of the building where the access door is locked, and even in the age of high security magnetic badge access for entry into the building, those that are not chosen cannot enter the executive suite. I understand the concept of security for the staff and the building, but exactly who are the executives in mahogany row protecting themselves from with this incremental access denial point, inside a building which is populated by their own employees? If you are going to be allowed in the building, surely you should be cleared to access all floors and regions of that building, right?

I have mentioned many times that I am old school when it comes to business. That does not mean that I particularly ascribe to the way things were done. It just means that I am aware of the way things were. The executive suite to me is a part of the way things were. It has even entered our lexicon of corporate terms in that “getting a key to the executive washroom” is the sign of an executive’s success. I don’t know why executives would need a special bathroom, but then I don’t understand why they are locking the access to their offices from their own employees and staffs. It is also probably a vestige of the hierarchical business world that has run its course and worn out its usefulness. In the age of political correctness, egalitarianism and immediate access, having senior management working behind an extra set of locked doors seems to me to be both an anachronism and the wrong message to send to the rest of the corporate team.

I have worked in and visited several locations where the executive suite was a cherished and protected aspect of the corporate culture. You longed to feel the extra padding and more plush carpet under your feet. You got to appreciate the upgraded office art and inspirational images that adorned the walls. To be called in there was to walk on hallowed ground. After being in an executive suite, walking around on the industrial strength, geometrically patterned, low wear, indoor – outdoor carpet that the rest of the building walks on just won’t do.

Most of the time the executive area is cloistered away from the prying eyes of the uninitiated, behind a solid wooden door. Occasionally, and perhaps a little perniciously, there is sometimes a glass door as the access point to mahogany row. That way the general business population can walk by, and see how the executives live, much like the children that walk by the window of a candy store only to gaze upon that which they cannot have. I could also assume that the reason for a glass door would be so that the casual observer could per chance walk by and gaze upon an executive in the midst of his work day and marvel at his or her work ethic.

However it has been my experience that executives upon entering the pearly gates of the executive suite immediately go into their offices and close the door so that they have yet another barrier separating them from the masses. With the door closed and being fully sequestered from the herd it is hard to guess what they are doing.

The locked door to the executive suite seems to be a vestige of a bygone era. I once had the opportunity to work in an environment where the only access to the executive suite was by a very small, cramped elevator. The various stairwells were locked from the inside to keep people from gaining entry to the hallowed ground (or in this case floor).

I finally worked up the gumption to ask the residents why the limited access and the small elevator. I was told that the facility was actually built in the 1950’s, and back then there was a genuine concern that if the labor resources on the manufacturing floor became so disenchanted with the management team that they decided to charge them, they wanted the elevator to be so small as to limit the number of them that could access the executive area at one time. This is a true story.

I then noted that the 1950’s were more than half a century ago and that it might be time to change the facility’s configuration. I was looked at as though I was from another planet. I actually seem to get that look a lot. Still it was interesting to me how this segmentation of the executives from in this case the waged manufacturing staff had far outlived its usefulness (if it was really ever useful at all), but that there was no desire to change it, even fifty plus years later. In fact there seemed to be subtle and tacit resistance to any mention of changing it.

I think this is in part due to the idea that so many people passed by the outside of that special door on their way up that when they actually get to have an office on the secured side of it, they want to continue perpetuating the segregation. It seems to be that if they went through the wondering of what was going on in there and the pining to be a part of it, then everybody else will have to go through the same wondering.

I have tried to think of other organizations that have retained this same idea of general access for the standard population, but segregation of a specific group away from the rest. It took a while, but I actually came up with a couple of institutions that initially started out with this organizational configuration and have maintained it, quite successfully for literally hundreds of years.

These institutions are prisons and zoos. It seems to me that the only potential difference is that the executive suite door locks are on the inside and the prisons and zoos have the door locks on the outside. This would logically lead to the question: Did the Executive Suite get it wrong when the put the lock to the door on the inside?

The answer to that question seems to fully depend on which side of the door to the executive suit that you are currently working.

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