What is The Downside of Up about?
This is the story of a guy who looks like he’s got it made pretty well. He may not be in the “1%” but he’s right up there. He’s worked hard and he’s made good money. He’s got a fun, creative job that takes him around the world doing fun, creative things. He’s elbow-to-elbow with the rich and famous, with titans of industry and corporate leaders, but he’s not really one of them. And, when the book opens, the gap between the money he makes and the money his clients make has reached cosmic proportions. It doesn’t help that, since the Great Recession began, his phone is ringing less and less. And it doesn’t help that his wife has decided to leave him for someone she thinks will be more interesting. And so, as the book opens, our hero, Paul Lavallier, is trying to keep his chin up.
He’s in Hong Kong for a global sales meeting of tractor dealers and he has a new CEO client with a problem. The problem is, the board has refused to fund the sweeping turnaround initiatives he’s planning to roll out at the conference. Everything Paul’s written in the speech is, therefore, a lie. And the guy is sounding completely inauthentic. Paul’s a good enough speech coach to see the problem and digs deep enough to guess what the situation is. He gives the client a way to reframe the conversation about what the company and the dealers have to do in the year ahead, and saves the day. In gratitude, the CEO sends Paul an invitation to an after party in his suite overlooking Hong Kong harbor.
And that’s where he makes a joke about wanting to be a failed CEO. It’s almost like a stand-up comedy riff that he’s trotted out before, about how they pay these guys so many hundreds of millions to fail and how he could do it so much more cheaply. How much money he could save corporations by lowering the market value of failure. The joke has the desired effect: for the first time at the party, he doesn’t feel out of place. He moves down to the end of the table after dinner to shoot the breeze with the CEO and a distinguished Englishman who’s apparently involved with some private equity firm which has a stake in the tractor company.
From there, things start to move fast. The private equity guy runs into him the next morning and gives him a lift to the airport in a Rolls Royce. And a couple of weeks later, the gentleman calls and asks if Paul would help him look at some companies they want to invest in. They think there are some management issues and wonder—after what Paul did with the CEO in Hong Kong—if Paul might be able to help them identify where the leadership problems might light. The guy offers Paul a generous chunk of change for a day or two on the road and he offers it just as everything in Paul’s life seems to be breaking down, from his cash flow to his car.
The next thing he knows, he’s on the jet of the fourth richest man in Dallas and touring companies in Kansas City and Albuquerque. After a wine dinner with the Dallas billionaire’s friends in his mountaintop hideaway, Paul returns to Dallas to find that his wife has been back in the house, has stolen his car and the remains of his wine collection and left him a nasty note. With no car to drive, he is what they call in Texas “snake bit.”
And then they put him on the plane again and ask him to be CEO of the company in Albuquerque. They give him a big office and a big salary; a zero-interest loan for a quarter of a million to get his affairs in order; a snooty executive assistant and a violent, pissed-off work force; a company car and a company jet with a full-time crew ready to fly him anywhere he needs to go. And one more thing: a contract that pays him $25,000,000 when they fire him. Which they promise to do in a year. All he has to do is enjoy the ride and not fix anything. At least, not in a way that raises the stock price up. The problem is, the private money assumes that Paul is just an amiable nitwit, so they never really make it clear to him that he’s supposed to just walk around the company’s three plants and smile at people, or go sit in his office and read Buzzfeed. It never occurs to them that Paul will naturally roll his sleeves up and start solving problems.
What kind of book is this? Is it a novel or a business book?
It’s definitely a novel, specifically a comic novel in the tradition of everything from Voltaire to Mark Twain to Christopher Buckley: a naïf in a difficult situation who wins both in spite of himself and because he has good, everyman instincts. So it’s a fun read on a serious set of topics. That’s what comic novels do. They make us laugh at dumb things we do in a culture. And boy, do we have a lot to laugh about.
This book comes entirely from the joy of telling a great story. The initial joke about failed CEO’s making all the money—the inciting incident of the book—was a riff I would do when I was having drinks with friends. Then it seemed like it would make a funny premise for a story, so I decided to dive in. The intention of there being something people could learn from this book never entered my mind until I was doing the final edits. I think that’s important because there’s a lot of bad writing out there that comes from people starting out with an issue they feel passionate about and then deciding to become a writer so they can change the story. It never works that way. You don’t write a novel because you think you have something important to say. You write a novel because you have to. It’s completely nuts. The time I spent on this, I could have restored a vintage Porsche or built a 3,000 square foot addition with gold-plated plumbing.
But as I was in the final edits, I looked at the book and thought, “You know what this is? This is a Harvard case study with comic relief.” Here’s a company with classic problems that all seem unsustainable: their whole employee situation is unsustainable; the price pressure from big box retailers who sell their products is unsustainable; the things Wall Street is demanding them to deliver is unsustainable; and the previous CEO has spent ten years “maximizing profits” and delivering all the financial benefits to shareholders (i.e.: himself) without investing in the future of the company. We never meet the guy: when we learn about the company he’s already in the Aegean Sea on his 200 foot yacht, entertaining friends. By the way, he leaves behind a very irritated personal assistant, who had many reasons to believe she would be assisting him on his yacht, if you know what I mean.
So here comes this young, green CEO who’s watched a lot of leaders command their companies and who has written about it but who has never had to make the tough calls himself. What does he do? How does he solve the problems? How does he get the company back on a positive course? How does he get the people engaged? How does he manage the board and investors and analysts? How does he manage WalMart? Those are things I write about all day for clients and for business books. So I guess it’s no surprise they come out in a novel.
Of course, he’s not supposed to be doing any of these things, right? He’s supposed to fail.
Right, which is where the comic relief comes from, as well as the heart of the story. You can’t have a hero who’s just a jerk and a loser. Someone who would sit there and watch as other people were hurt in the collapse is not someone you want to read about. Besides which, there’s no plot there. He has to be someone worthy of your attention for three hundred and fifty pages. You want the guy to win and you want him to win by doing the right thing, if he can. You also want him to do it in a way that still gets him the $25 million, but that’s mostly adult wish fulfillment. I should also mention that his knowledge of fine wine plays a big part in his success here.
And then there’s Paul’s personal story. What does he really want when he wakes up in the morning? Does he want his wife back? What happens when he meets someone new? His life is falling apart and he’s in a jet by himself. Is the money worth it?
How much of this is autobiographical?
Are you kidding? This is a guy who has the chops to turn a failing company around. I’m not that smart or, at least, that’s not in my skillset. At the same time, I always knew the protagonist was going to be a corporate speech writer because I needed him to have access to the executive suite and to the ideas that work there. You have to believe that he could be someone who could do this. If he was Wally from IT, it might be a little more of a stretch. Although, now that I think of it, that could be funny.
The opening scenes, where we see him intuit why the CEO of the tractor company is freaking out practicing his speech is important because it shows us that a) Paul is a guy with deep understanding of the situation and how to solve it and b) he’s a guy who cares. That scenario, in the Hong Kong Convention Center, is based on two actual situations in other locations where I had a leader on the stage who was tanking and I had to figure out what the problem was. Ooops, we have you talking about investing in growth but just yesterday the board told you couldn’t use the funds you were going to invest. In one case, it was a CEO talking about the problems they had to fix, but it was the third year he’d talked about the same problems and he knew it was BS because he knew he couldn’t fix them. You can understand how inauthentic it would have felt for him to say those words on stage. In that case, he was gone a month after the meeting. Another was a division president whose board was secretly planning to sell the business unit and had cut all investment in the business. He was supposed to maximize operating profits and cash flow but he couldn’t tell any of his people why he had to say no to everything they asked for.
Also, getting stuck in a coach seat and having your knees crushed: that comes from real life. So does getting into a conversation and forgetting about your knees. And every bottle of wine they open … well, I believe research is important so these are all wines which I have shared.