CompuServe, Microsoft Forge Major Strategic Alliance
CompuServe Inc. (NASDAQ: CSRV) and Microsoft Corp. today announced a far-reaching strategic alliance that includes a comprehensive technological partnership as well as marketing, distribution and commercial opportunities . . .
Microsoft Press Release June 4, 1996
She was charming. I first met Cassandra when a very good friend and former business partner invited me to meet his new, attractive, very stylish girlfriend...
After a particularly nasty breakup with my friend, Cassandra married someone else, moved to San Francisco and became a good friend to both Anni and me. I have always been exceptionally resistant to the wiles of charming people, but she caught me off-guard. We enjoyed being around her. Her presence was often very uplifting. Yet, as we got to know her better, we caught glimpses of a darker side—an inner turmoil—sides and corners disturbingly incongruous.
When we needed an extroverted, aggressive salesperson at Neoforma, Cassandra came to mind. The thought that hiring friends was a bad idea crossed my mind many times. Concern that she clearly had troubling gaps between her inner reality and outer projection crossed my mind. But her last job had been selling architectural services to hospitals. Her experience was ideal for Neoforma.
She agreed to spend some time helping us with sales—just part-time, just for a while. And she did very well! She would get on the phone and charm away. An expert, she knew that she would be calling people about fairly mundane products. She would be speaking with salespeople like herself. People she could connect with, listen to and spice up. She knew almost nothing about our product, but could project it to be whatever the person she was speaking with wanted it to be. I was still working for Varian, so I was only be able to come into the office for a long lunch every day to monitor her progress. Oh, and what progress! She was closing orders right and left. Big manufacturers too—the type of people I knew to be stubborn and immobile.
Sometimes I’d overhear her on the phone. Her accent and vocabulary would change completely, depending on who she was speaking to. She could always find something she had in common with the person on the other end of the phone. Sometimes, I knew that the common interest was not shared at all, but it sure made people feel special. I was a bit troubled by her use of deception in the workplace, but she sounded so sincere and she made people feel good. I admired her versatility and her control. Almost overnight, she became our shining star. We’d be rolling in money when everyone paid us.
Then one day, my good friend, Cassandra’s ex-boyfriend, called me “just to say hi.” He had heard that she was working for me and wanted to ask about her. He had heard that she had broken up with her husband, which was true. When he asked for her phone number, I hesitated, remembering how obsessive she had made him and I didn’t give him the number.
He ended the call abruptly, with a warning: “You don’t know who you are really dealing with when you’re around Cassandra. Be careful.”
It started with little things. I had to speak with an unhappy customer who clearly misunderstood what he bought from Cassandra. Then it became clear that many of the supposedly closed sales were actually simple expressions of interest, often more in her than the product. And, the more work that was required to get these deals closed, the less often she appeared at work.
When Jeff and I had a discussion with Cassandra, she painted a dizzily convincing picture of her vision of herself as a member of the executive team. She persuaded us that she would bring new commitment to her role as vice president in the company. We knew that when she was good, she was very good. So we gave her the position.
At the office though, things seemed to get worse and worse. Once Cassandra was a VP, Patty wanted to be vice president of operations. Cassandra pretended to support her completely. Yet, she would belittle Patty whenever alone with me. In fact, we were really being a bit indulgent having a full-time office manager when we really needed marketing and sales people. Since several customers weren’t paying their bills, we were a bit tight on cash. So, we laid off Patty.
This was a very tough thing to do. After all, Patty had been our first employee. There was a lot of crying, on her part. Jeff and I tried to emphasize that she had outgrown us and could do better in a larger company.
I left the office that day in a dark mood. In spite of the heavy emotional drain involved in laying off or firing someone, I usually experienced a sense of relief afterward. In this case, I only felt that something wrong had happened, but couldn’t explain why.
But there was no time for introspection. We had an international conference in Austria to attend. We had sales to make. We even had scheduled a side trip to Germany at the invitation of one of the biggest manufacturers in Europe. Yes, Cassandra was high-maintenance, but we could deal with that. After all, Jeff and I were both used to being thorns in the side of management at Varian. Anyone creative and driven would do that.
And, wow, could she work a show!! After the first day, as I walked the floor with her, she would pass people right and left that she knew by name. Many received hugs and expressions of familiarity exceeding what one would expect based on a one-day friendship. Whenever possible, she would slip into one of her many foreign languages to further that special bond she had created, and separate me from the conversation—evidence, I thought, of how much we needed her.
She would set me up to meet people in their booths. But I would get there and they would have no idea why they were talking to me, and I would have no idea why I was talking to them. We would dance around our mutual confusion, each unwilling to embrace our frustration at being seduced so easily into this meeting without a subject. I’d eventually be able to rebound and get the conversation under control, but I got quite tired of the embarrassment of not being prepared.
We also made a quick visit to Zurich, where we met with a friend I had become close to on previous visits for Varian. He was an architect, passionate about design and theory. He had the equivalent of my job in Europe. We shared a common passion for detail and the knowledge that we were far from the world of art and design we had dreamed we would be in by our late thirties. He had agreed to represent Neoforma in Europe and I wanted him to meet our team and discuss the possibilities.
As it happened, he had just separated from his girlfriend and was a bit down. Cassandra perked him right back up. They were instant soulmates, speaking alternately in French, German and Russian. Seldom English. He barely acknowledged me during the visit. Our new friendship and business partnership evaporated in his pursuit of her.
At the next trade show a month later, I noticed that nearly every meeting Cassandra set up for me was awkward, struggling to be more than it was. Some suppliers began to feel duped, but were not quite sure why.
When we hired two more smart, strong and creative persons to join our team, things really became surreal. Although we’d tried to confront Cassandra, she would expertly acknowledge certain things, deny others, and dilute the remainder.
As the deals Cassandra worked on became grander and the sparks around her grew brighter, the strain began to wear on her. She would be animated one hour, resigned the next.
What had seemed like a clever tactic—her ability to switch roles to suit the person she was talking to—began to seem like a problem. We slowly began to realize that, inside her world, she wasn’t just putting on a show, she was really changing. At one angle she would be one person, at another she would be someone else entirely. Her expressions, accent, mannerisms, everything changed. And, I began to notice that one personality seemed to have no memory of comments made by another.
I cared about Cassandra very much. But, when I saw that look of a trapped animal when she was caught across the wrong border, part of my heart froze. I knew what I would have to do. I knew what it was going to cost me, my family and Neoforma. But her friendship with our family would have to end. I would no longer hear from my friend in Zurich and some of our most significant customers were now socially close to her. I knew that she had pushed Patty from the nest and manufactured walls between our other employees. She had to go.
When confronted with someone as intelligent and skilled at self-preservation, at deception, I couldn’t help but question my own judgment right up to the end. I interviewed each employee in confidence: Did she really say this? Did she really do that? Some employees really seemed to think that I would be angry if they told me negative things about Cassandra. She had convinced them that my friendship with her was paramount. But in the end, they confirmed the tales that had led to my decision. I wasn’t angry, only very sad.
After many unsuccessful confrontations and warnings, Jeff and I fired her. She went through so many extreme emotions and personalities during her severance that we couldn’t keep up. Panic . . . denial . . . anger . . . pleading . . . righteousness. No charm though. The glue that had cemented her charisma was dissolved in a torrent of tears.
I never saw her again. Anni tried to contact her, but Cassandra did not want to talk about it. The customers seemed to get over her, though some still asked about her years later.
I felt relief, exhaustion, inadequacy, and helplessness. Why couldn’t I tame such talent? Nurture such spirit? Make her feel good enough about herself to let down the charades? I knew she felt bad about the damage she had done. That’s why she became so desperate to sever all ties in the end.
To this day, I don’t know if she became less expert in response to my awareness of her fragments or if I simply chose to ignore them from the beginning. I don’t know if her many compartments were truly isolated or if she consciously used a new personality each time the current one was threatened. A little of each, I assume.