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The General

I've been working with a firm that specializes in a particularly sensitive area of homeland security. It is an interesting project, multi-faceted, highly political and is driving me mad. The CEO is a former highly placed member of a certain country's intelligence infrastructure and he is tough as nails. When I first got to know him, it was intimidating as hell. I call him "The General." If I had a phone conference scheduled, the night before my right leg would shake uncontrollably in bed because of the anxiety. It drove Christine nuts. One evening early in the project we were on the phone and as usual he was yelling at me. I couldn't get a word in edgewise. I finally gave up trying. Two seconds later he stops, "Steve - are you there? Someone didn't kill you did they?" I replied, "No, but I'm about ready to kill myself." He laughed and that seemed to break the ice in our relationship. After that I learned the way to communicate with The General was to talk over his words and dish out as much as I took in.

We've had meetings with government ministers and directors of intelligence agencies, met politicians and ambassadors. High level discussions but no forward movement. As one official told me, "In Japan, water and safety are free." Finally, suddenly, a request for a proposal came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA, the State Department). The project was a perfect fit to the capabilities of The General's firm. Furthermore, in talking with senior embassy officials of this company's origin, they also felt it was an ideal opportunity, strategic to the interests of their government, and offered to work their diplomatic channels in support.

All this is background to the main story. We had 10 days to gather material, write, re-write and translate before submission. You'd think that would be the hard part. But, the hard part ended up being one sheet of paper. Although the government had asked us to provide a proposal, this same government required that we have on file a form authorizing us to bid for that project. We did not have this form on hand and it would have taken a month or more to secure it. So we scrambled around, negotiated with the department asking for the proposal and tried until the very morning of the deadline to get a resolution to the issue. In the end we had to take a chance.

Submission Deadline: 5:00 PM

3:40PM: Ri - my colleague - and I arrive at MOFA to submit the documents. Ri, the political operative skilled in working the halls of the Japanese Ministries, had just returned the day before from abroad. She has crammed a week's work into one day, adjusting the documents to bring them into conformance to obtuse government requirements for project submission (multiple categories, multiple copies, sealed envelopes for pricing, bags of cash, fairy dust, whatever).

3:45PM: The bureaucrat, Noh (probably the same guy who takes in bids for office supplies and janitorial services) carefully goes through the mountain of paperwork and checks off each item. The last item - the bid authorization form - stops him cold. Ri explains, negotiates and pleads but he won't budge. No form, no submission.

4:10PM: We are defeated. Foiled by Noh. I am unaccustomed to this feeling of hopelessness; yet a voice in me says, "we aren't done yet." In the lobby, we consider our options. I know of one company that had this form in its possession. But, due to complicated legal and personal reasons it had been determined we couldn't approach them. However, with 45 Minutes to go, I plead with Ri to reconsider. She relents and is able to reach Hiro, our contact, on his cell phone. Bad News: He had quit the company awhile back. Good News: Coincidentally, he was the one who had processed this form for the company some years back and knew what we were referring to. Unbelievable News: At that moment he was standing next to the president of the company, the only person that could make this decision. He agreed to talk to the president and call back.

4:20PM: Nevertheless, we still have no time to make the 5:00PM deadline. To get this form would mean a re-write of several forms and the president's official seal. We race back to Noh and ask if we can submit later, past the deadline. NO. ("If I make an exception for you, I'll have to make an exception for everyone.") But, perhaps because he can't handle seeing a grown man cry, he finally agrees to accept a fax of the form if it comes before 5pm AND if he receives the original, along with signatures and stamps "before I leave the office tonight."

4:35PM: We call Hiro. He had been able to convince the president to release the form, "because of Steve" (bad blood between Ri and the president).

4:50PM: Hiro arranges for the fax to our MOFA friend. It slips in under the wire with 5 minutes to spare.

5:00PM: Both Hiro and myself race across town from our respective locations in Tokyo to the company's headquarters. It's 100 degrees, high humidity and I'm in my suit running through the corridors of power, the streets of Tokyo, up and down stairs to the subway.

5:30PM: At the company, we edit, copy, paste, stamp and seal.

6:15PM: I call Noh and tell him we are headed over there. "Ok but hurry up!" he replies.

6:45PM: We race back to MOFA. The gates close at 6:00PM so we beg our way past the security gate and then explain the situation to the guard manning the empty reception area.

6:50PM: We deliver the documents. Noh sniffs and says "But next time, I can't make an exception - it wouldn't be fair."

9:00PM: The embassy calls to check on the status. They have begun to monitor the process. I ask them to tread lightly since we are over the first hurdle; but if something unfortunate happens to Noh, well, things happen. "We shall stir the pot without spoiling the broth," is the reply.

9:30PM: The General wants to know status. I assure him all remains well. Just another day at the office.