The Prologue to E Pluribus Kinko’s

I’m very grateful for this recent review at LeaderLab.com. The reviewer is 100% correct that there is nothing new about leadership or management in my book, but I’m happy he realized that’s not the point of the story. The point is that execution is the difference between a successful company and a pleasing pipe dream. When I knew it, Kinko’s was a company of action.

Just over a decade ago, I left my youth in a large beige building in Ventura, California. Here is the prologue to E Pluribus Kinko’s: A Story of Business, Democracy, and Freaky Smart People. Enjoy.

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On a bright, warm Saturday morning in September 1999, I slowly walked down a quiet hallway of the Kinko’s headquarters building in Ventura, California. Heading for the exit, I thought it was a pity the automatic lights didn’t dim behind me as I carried my box of junk down the hall, the way they automatically lit the path ahead as I entered. Those automatic lights always smacked of the supernatural when I visited the building late at night or on the weekend to finish an ad, or pick up a book, or hang the pirate flag in my office. I’d stroll forward and the lights would flicker to life one-by-one, much as the sidewalk squares lit up for Michael Jackson in the Billie Jean video. The lights stayed on for quite a while once they had been triggered, so I questioned the “energy-saving” technology.

I first noticed the paradox of the “energy-saving” automatic lights the night my brother died in June of 1992. After my sister called with the news, my first impulse was to get to the office. I was supposed to moderate a customer focus group in Seattle the next day, so I had to cancel my travel plans, reorganize the week’s work, and contact the Puget Sound Regional Manager to run the focus group for me. It only took a few minutes, but I stayed at my desk for half an hour or so, thinking about my brother, who died two months shy of his 42nd birthday, and my new daughter, who was less than a month old.

I stayed still for so long that the lights in the building went out again. I sat in the darkness of my office for a while, because there were few places I felt so comfortable. But I knew my parents would need me, so I got up and walked out, triggering the lights again. A few minutes later, as I drove out of the vast empty parking lot, I felt guilty looking at the brightly lit building, wondering how much energy had been wasted because I stayed too long.

Seven years later, as I carried my belongings down the hall, I was 41 years old, my career was over, and most of my friends and longtime coworkers had already left the company, literally or figuratively. My collection of dirty coffee mugs clinked in the banker’s box as I hauled it toward the stairwell—until I stopped suddenly.

I froze midway down the hall, flanked by fuzzy beige cubicle walls. No phones ringing or keyboards tapping. No animated conversations or friendly laughter. No colorful clothes or accents. No scent of microwave popcorn mingling with perfume and aftershave. I rocked on the soft, silent carpet pads under my feet. I knew it was a bright, warm day outside, but the temperature inside the building was so carefully regulated that I felt neither warm nor cold. I smiled. The absence of sights, smells, sounds, and feelings confirmed what I had always preached: without the people, Kinko’s was nothing.

Outside, I loaded my books, coffee mugs, and pirate flag into the car. I looked back at the building, the flagpoles, and the fountain. I looked at the trees we planted in memory of deceased coworkers. I looked at the baseball diamond, running track, daycare center, and lemon orchard. Feeling the knot in my throat as I drove past the security gate for the last time, I wondered again how much energy had been wasted because I stayed too long.

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One Response to The Prologue to E Pluribus Kinko’s

  1. Brian says:

    Dean, once again it’s like you’re speaking directly to my heart. I tell each of my web design customers the exact thing you open with here – we don’t need to come up with new ideas, because the Internet is full of them. I much prefer taking someone else’s genius idea and executing on it flawlessly. Sometimes I can even get better results!

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