When the CEO Sees Red

My daughter once won the annual children’s Halloween window-painting contest sponsored by Main Street merchants in our town of Ridgefield, CT. What made hers such a stellar achievement was that the shopkeepers prohibited the kids from using black paint lest their windows crack from the sunlight absorbed by black.

Think about it. Halloween – a candy-crammed orgy of orange and black -- without the black.

About the same time my daughter was trying to figure out how to paint without black, I was trying to figure out how to do my job at IBM – “Big Blue” as the company is often called because of its distinctive blue logo -- without using the color red.

Our CEO hated the color. His standing order: “No red!” He had banished one of the primary colors.

At that time, IBM had many divisions, operating units and subsidiary corporations, and most conducted annual recognition events for top performers. The aim was to motivate the sales force while giving executives the chance to size up high-potential performers in a one-on-one environment away from the office.

I was responsible for creating our unit’s event – a mix of morning business meetings, afternoon recreational activities and evening social functions.

The staff worked for most of the year leading up to the event to create sophisticated business theater -- identifying and directing outside speakers, producing sophisticated multi-image video programs and pyrotechnics, and writing theme, continuity and speech material.

Except -- no red. No red type. No red on slides or graphics or sets. Not even the gels used on the stage lights could be any shade of red.

Red is unique in that it can attract or repel, elevate or enrage.

In many of the world’s cultures, red has positive connotations – good luck in China and India, beauty in Russia.

To the Hindu, red symbolizes joy, life, energy, creativity.

But red has its share of negatives: “seeing red” … “red flag” … “not worth a red cent” … “red tape.”

In financial reporting, red represents minus.

In the Catholic Church, it signifies martyrs.

And, of course, there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s infamous herald of disgrace, the scarlet letter.

In her novel, Pretty Face, Mary Hogan couldn’t have treated the color better: “Red is the color of life. It's blood, passion, rage. It's menstrual flow and after birth. Beginnings and violent end. Red is the color of love. Beating hearts and hungry lips. Roses, Valentines, cherries. Red is the color of shame. Crimson cheeks and spilled blood. Broken hearts, opened veins. A burning desire to return to white.” 

Who knows what it was about red that set off our CEO?

We didn’t push back at him too much, even though he inserted himself into our field of expertise. After all, he was the one on stage, the host of the party. It was his brand.

And he knew it. That’s why he periodically reminded those of us responsible for producing the lavish events of that big-budget era: “If you know so much, why aren’t you working in Hollywood and making six figures?” 

My next blog … Lady and the Tramp


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  • published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 08:36:00 -0400