Glengarry Glen Ross and the CBC

April 8, 2009

Few movies are more frightening than Glengarry Glen Ross, and few characters more haunting than the burnt-out salesman Shelley Levene, played by Jack Lemmon. Everyone who sells for a living can resonate with the former sales great who is now perennially down on his luck. Tired, frightened, yet defiantly proud, he fights his unimpressed peers and superiors for the respect he believes his total career has earned. But in truth, whatever the fuel was that once propelled him to great heights is long gone and the shell that remains can only lament the caliber of sales leads that stands between him and his former glory. It is terrifying glimpse into a helpless future none of us want.

I thought of Shelley Levene this weekend when I spoke with an employee of the CBC about their funding challenges. As he described the breadth of the broadcaster’s planned layoffs, he noted that they would include the sales organization. It surprised me that a firm in need of revenues would downsize its revenue generating function, but I reflexively reasoned that the move was perhaps an opportunity to prune the non-performers, much in the same manner that Canaccord Capital announced this week that it would cut 20% of their ‘underperforming’ brokers. But then I was told that in fact the sales organization at CBC is unionized and the decision of who to cut nationally is made on the basis of seniority and seniority alone.

If you ask Alec Baldwin, the foul-mouthed ‘motivator’ sent from head office to speak with the underperforming sales organization in Glengarry Glen Ross life is uncomplicated. There are winners and losers and to the winners go all the spoils. As he tells the sales team, if you produce big you win a Cadillac; if you only meet your targets you ‘win’ a cheap set of steak knives and get to keep your job for another month. The bronze medal in these workplace Olympics simply reads ‘you’re fired’.

Glengarry Glen Ross raises moral and ethical questions about our obsession with results and its casualties. It also asks questions of who owes what to whom including the obligations of companies to its employees and of employees to continually learn, grow, develop and stay current while working for their employers.

Last weekend I thought of Shelley Levene and how he much better his life would be if he worked at the CBC. At the same time however I had to wonder whether CBC’s troubles are in part the result of having a company filled with Shelley Levenes.