Sex, Lies, and... Clusterpuck?


The boys sit down with Jennifer Rock and Michael Voss two high-ranking corporate comms leaders as we talk all things Clusterpuck. Operation Clusterpuck is a book bourne out of real life corporate bullshit that is dark, real, and fucking funny.​

Enjoy what one Amazon reviewer said, "Reading this book is like getting a master's degree in corporate communications, without all the expense and pain of getting a master's degreed."

LISTEN and enjoy thanks to our friends at Nexxt and Text2Hire - why aren't you reaching out to candidates via text?

PODCAST TRANSCRIPTION sponsored by:

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James Ellis: Hey, this is James Ellis from the Talent Cast podcast and you're listening to the Chad and Cheese podcast. So perhaps treat this message like an intervention. Why are you doing this to yourself? You have so much to live for. Why would you waste your time here of all places?

Announcer: Hide your kids, lock the doors you're listening to HR's is most dangerous podcast Chad Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts. Complete with breaking news slash opinion and loads of snark. Buckle up boys and girls, it's time for the Chad and Cheese podcast.

Joel: Let's get ready to podcast. What's up Chad?

Chad: Man, it's another day in paradise, how about up North?

Joel: Beautiful day here in Indianapolis, Indiana as usual. God's country.

Chad: Dude. So I'm totally stoked. I have this book in front of me. It's called Operation Clusterpuck a puck with the a P not a not cluster fuck. That's a military term. That's a military term that we use all the time. But Operation Clusterpuck.

Joel: No one outside of the military ever says cluster fuck.

Chad: We have a, we came up with that shit. So today on the Chad and Cheese podcast, we have Jennifer Rock and Michael Voss. Co-authors of this amazing, very dark corporate comedy book called Operation Clusterpuck. I told Jennifer and Mike, I was like, dude, I'm not gonna read the back of your book like most of the other lame podcasters.

Ed: Yo, that John is so lame.

Chad: I want to hear it. Thanks for that. I want to hear from you guys. Who are you and what was the inspiration behind this series of books?

Joel: And for those of us like me who haven't read the book, give us a synopsis.

Michael: Sure. Happy to. So Jennifer and I are corporate communications professionals, so we have about 40 years of combined experience in all sorts of communications disciplines, from marketing communications to public relations, internal communications, et cetera. We crossed paths at Best Buy headquarters, which is here in suburban Minneapolis where we led the internal communications team. And unbeknownst to one another, we had been keeping copious notes of all the absurd and crazy and just sort of-

Jennifer: Soul crushing-

Michael: ... soul crushing experiences that we've had.

Chad: Are these like the Comey notes?

Michael: They are, they're just a little darker and a little funnier then and the Comey notes. We were in a soul crushing half day meeting. You know, anybody who works in corporate America knows how those go. And we, we frankly made an excuse to sneak out, said we had a crisis that we had to attend to. We went to a bar patio, started having drinks and swapping stories and shared with one another that we'd always had the dream of writing a book and decided that we would pinky swear that after we sobered up, we would actually give it a shot. And six years later, our first book came out, BS Incorporated. And about 18 months after that we wrote Operation Clusterpuck.

Joel: Is six years longer than you thought it would take to write this book?

Jennifer: Oh God, yes. Yeah. It's, you know, we, we like to joke and it's not so much of a joke that working corporate communications and you know, writing speeches for executives has a fair amount of fiction in it. But actually writing a fiction book, actually writing a novel took us a little time to figure out, so yeah, six years, we had no idea it was going to take that long.

Chad: So was it mainly the mechanics of how the hell do we do this? Do we whiteboard, do we do like one of those serial killer string boards? I mean, was it just figuring out the mechanics or was it because you were so damn busy on your day job that it was really hard to actually pull together as well?

Jennifer: Yeah, it was a little bit of both. Absolutely the mechanics of writing a novel and making it sound like one person wrote it, that took some time to figure out. And also we had really big jobs. I mean 24/7 jobs, crisis communications and you know, handling scandals at the corporate level. We're like ducking in the back seats of the, you know, the corporate jet and jotting down notes. I mean, we had no shortage of ideas and characters and things to put into these books about this big Midwestern company that's spiraling out of control and these middle managers who, who rise up to try to save the company from itself.

Joel: You know, you lost a lot of sympathy when you say private jet, right?

Chad: Oh yeah. That sounds so hard.

Joel: Life is so hard in the back of the private jet- [crosstalk 00:04:41].

Chad: Drinking champagne and caviar.

Jennifer: It was awesome. We got, you know, we got behind closed doors in some conversations and some experiences in corporate America that people rarely get to see. So we had a lot of insider stories that we wanted to share. And that's what really fueled the book.

Joel: So how much book is fiction and how much is based in reality?

Michael: That is a, the best question and the most common question we get. The book is fictionalized versions of real events. Essentially. Now there are some pieces that we lift a scene that we actually lived a meeting, a conversation, that type of thing. But really it's largely fiction, but it's written in such a way and it's drawn, you know, we like to joke, it's ripped from the headlines, but it's-

Joel: The names have been changed.

Michael: Right but we hear from our readers all the time, they say, it seems like you snuck into my company observed my daily life and then wrote a book about it. So it's really accessible for people. They will really see themselves and their companies and these books.

Chad: So was this, I mean inspiration wise, was this, hey, there's possible fortune and fame or this'll help us kick off into a new career or you know what, this is just going to help my stress level. It will be incredibly cathartic to be able to get to some, some of this out of my head.

Jennifer: Yeah. It really started out as a cathartic exercise and the first book, BS Incorporated, the manuscript was like 160,000 words and most of it was just word for word, these horrible boring meetings we were sitting in. I mean, they are horrible meetings to sit in, in real life. Nobody wants to read that shit. I mean, are you kidding me? Like it was so awful, but it was really cathartic just to put it on paper and then we pared it down and do something that we really, our goal was to just be entertaining. You know, we all, I think in our jobs have to read a lot of nonfiction books. There's some really great ones out there that teach you lessons about leadership and team dynamics. A lot of them are very boring and we just wanted to write a book that makes people realize they're not alone in the corporate world.

Jennifer: Have a sense of kind of co-misery and maybe hang out with some fictional characters that you wish you were having happy hour with in real life.

Joel: So what's the book about?

Michael: So, both books are about this giant Midwestern company that, as Jennifer said, is spiraling out of control and the executives make one bad decision after another. We take you behind the scenes to a group of quirky, smart middle managers who are just trying to fight through the bureaucracy of consultants and poor decisions and just, you know, getting bogged down in their day to day job. And eventually they figure out what's going wrong with the company and they have to band together despite their differences and figure out how to save this company from itself. Because at the end of the day, we're not an anti-business story. We're really about, you know, the joy and the pain of the corporate experience and all the great relationships you make along the way, as well as some of the, you know, the awful things you have to wade through to get through this.

Chad: The book starts out with this big earth shaking event and this is after BS Incorporated acquires another company. There's new leadership. I mean, there are so many moving parts just at the start, I mean, I started reading this, I'm like, holy shit. I was like totally immersed right out of the gate, but it's pure chaos. Is that what you experienced in corporate life because this is dark comedic and chaos laden book that seems that it was really based closely on reality.

Jennifer: Yeah. Well, you know, it might be weird to say thank you. Yeah,

we're, we're really dark. But yeah, we pride ourselves on that actually. And yeah, I mean absolutely. Some of this was stuff that we encountered in real life or that we've seen in companies in our backyard here in Minneapolis and certainly the ill-fated expansion to Canada is something that we experienced in the companies we worked for. And have seen other ones it in and you know, we, Mike and I have found ourselves in the companies that we have worked with, you know, mired in and trying to help companies wade through changes at the leadership at the top of the house. Maybe not as jarring and tragic as this book starts out, Operation Clusterpuck. But certainly these are things that we experienced. And you know, I've never had a job like my last where I had to sleep with my phone in my hand waiting for that 3:00 AM call that was going to be, oh, you know, now what you know, now what has the company done now what has a CEO done?

Chad: Which blows my mind because it's like every aspect of what's going on from a business standpoint and even some of these personal scandals and I mean everything goes through communications or it should go through communications and it just doesn't.

Michael: Yeah, absolutely. We had a, when we were at Best Buy, we had three CEO transitions in a six month period. The current CEO resigned supposedly under, you know, just normal circumstances. But it turned out there was actually a scandal going on that the board of directors tried to cover up.

Jennifer: And let's be clear, it was a sex scandal.

Michael: Yes. And that blew up in the board's faces. And so they appointed an interim CEO that everyone thought was going to get the job and then a dark horse candidate came out of nowhere and then ended up getting the job. So we were constantly scrambling to try to get in front of a what was happening or just catch up to what was happening and trying to keep all of our audiences informed and not have them, you know, employees bailing on the company or investors divesting of the company.

Michael: It was constant as Jennifer said, it was a 24 hour a day, you know, mind fuck essentially.

Chad: Yeah.

Joel: It's commercial time.

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Chad: It's show time.

Joel: So I'm envisioning Office Space for a book. How much of an influence was movie, if at all? I'm curious, most books have an antagonist. Did your book and tell us about that.

Jennifer: Yeah, you know it. How can you not be influenced by a movie like Office Space? You know, The Office and I mean God, those are great, great corporate stories, great office stories. You know that you watch even to this day, I mean, that movie is really old now. When you watch that and go, God, I hate my job too. Like yeah, that's, you know, my stapler is my, you know, the hallmark of the best of my day. I mean, how sad is that? So yeah, I mean, absolutely you can't help but be influenced by stories like that. And yeah, you know, we, we watched movies like that and think why aren't there more stories that take place in the workplace? It's such a rich environment for all the craziness that happens in the characters that exist. And yeah, absolutely. We were influenced by that.

Michael: And I think for me, Joel, when we first started out, my, my frame of reference was to write a story like Fast Times at Ridgemont High in a business setting. So that it's still that [crosstalk 00:12:57] Ridgemont High in itself is a character in that movie, right? And we wanted our business to be almost like a character in the book. We wanted to have these unforgettable characters and this snappy dialogue and really just sort of immerse people in this world. So that was my personal frame of reference going in.

Joel: And was there a, an antagonist in the story?

Jennifer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's about the antagonist. So, you know, in Operation Clusterpuck certainly the rise of Lyle Kirkland who is the former chief operating officer- [crosstalk 00:13:26].

Chad: Total asshole.

Jennifer: Completely and we have worked for him, at least, you know, he is not a person wholesale lifted from our real life, but he is an amalgam of several of our worst bosses we've ever had all you know, squished into one character and certainly, you know, he is unethical, he is immoral. If you were to ask that character, you know about this book, he would consider himself the hero. You know, as a lot of executives do, it's like, ah, I make tough decisions, but I do it for the good of the company when they are, it's just completely selfish and, and on the unethical. But you know, people sometimes ask us like, why don't you write about good leaders? Well, because the bad ones are so much more fun to write about.

Chad: We don't want to have a boring book. How about that? So, so, so instead of just talking about Kirkland, who a total asshole, and you just said pretty much was a composite of different people. I'm going to throw some others out there. Because I've heard that some of the characters in the book might've been supporting cast were pretty much just pulled out of real life. So what about Anna?

Michael: So Anna shares a lot of DNA with my coauthor Jennifer, to be honest with you. Anna and Jennifer are both very driven, very career oriented people very smart, very, very good at what they do. And it was a lot of fun to sort of take 70% of Jennifer and create 30% of a fictional character around her. So I don't know if you want to add anything about that, Jennifer.

Jennifer: Well you know, early on in the first book, BS Incorporated when we first handed that manuscript over to an editor and the feedback was, you know, I don't know if Anna is likable and I'm like that's me. I'm sorry but I'm going to take that really personally. Yeah it was. But yes, Anna is definitely, we, like Mike said, we share a lot of DNA.

Chad: What about Will?

Jennifer: Yeah, Will is heavily based on my coauthor Mike. Similarly, you know, started out in a blue collar warehouse job, worked his way up in corporate roles, very diplomatic and very earnest person.

Michael: And let's face it, the true hero of the story.

Jennifer: Nice. I will point out that even though the characters of Anna and Will share a lot of our experiences, Anna and Will do have a romantic relationship in the book and that is where we, that is where we digress real life.

Chad: Okay, okay.

Jennifer: Our running joke used to be that Mike and I are married just not to each other.

Chad: Gotcha. What about, what about Eric who was another asshole?

Michael: So Eric, yeah, he's, he is drawn pretty much from scratch I think. Right? I'm not sure if we had a-

Jennifer: well to be honest, he's a tiny bit based on an ex-boyfriend I had but that just a little bit.

Michael: But Eric is that classic good looking charismatic guy who has, you know, a blind spot the size of the state of Missouri and just can't sort of get past himself and thinks he can do no wrong. But in the end isn't evil like Lyle Kirkland, he's just self-absorbed and that's really what trips him up in the end.

Joel: Was there any permissions that you guys need needed to get as you know in Best Buy? I mean you have, you guys said influences, you said this was loosely based. Have you had any issues with lawsuits or people being upset by the story and the characters in it?

Jennifer: No we haven't. And we are firm believers in that old adage to ask forgiveness instead of permission. So we just-

Chad: Join the club.

Jennifer: We just rolled ahead and told the story and told these characters and certainly especially with the first book we had, we had people read it, you know, they were texting us constantly like, oh come on. Like you didn't even try to, you know veil this character. It's like clearly this is me. Come on. Like we had this conversation on page 42 like come on. So I think people were maybe a tad worried for the sequel. Like well like, ah, now what have you done? Like, what notes did you take in what meeting that is going to show up in Operation Clusterpuck? But I guess the good news is that the people who might sue us, those bad leaders never see themselves in the bad characters. They're never that self-aware. So we were pretty secure in the fact that, you know, even though we lifted some horrible conversations right from real life that they would never remember.

Joel: That wasn't me. What is she talking about?

Chad: Your supporting cast in Will and Anna's team, they seemed incredibly real, almost like you pick them right out of reality. They didn't seem like a composites. Is that pretty much? Did that make it easier to write? So you're like, okay, so at this point they're supporting characters. So we feel like we can just really nail these guys on the head.

Michael: Yeah. Almost to a person. Every one of them started with a real person and the real fun in that is, you know, we would choose someone for the most part that we both knew. So we had a great starting point and I think the best example of that is Benny, the PR manager, Susan Benedetti. Everyone calls her Benny. She's based on a good friend of ours named Lisa and she, she's very much like that.

Michael: She's a Bostonian. She's bold. She swears like a sailor. She just sort of storms in and out of every room she's in.

Chad: Love her.

Michael: She's a real life scene stealing person and every everybody we know like immediately said, oh that's Lisa. Everyone knew that was Lisa. And so she was a really fun one to write because we could take some actual things that our friend Lisa had said, some of the hilarious one-liners and then it was just fun to make stuff up knowing that it was just true to her character as well.

Joel: Curious, there are a lot of external sources for commentary on the workplace, so I'm sure you're familiar with Glass Door, Indeed has reviews. Twitter obviously there are a lot of sources for sort of external commentary. Did you guys use any of that? And if you did talk about that.

Jennifer: Well that's a great point. You know, I think in both, in the cases of writing both books, we had such a rich folder of materials from our own experiences. Again, no shortage of stories. We ended up having to lop some out of the manuscript because it was too long. But we certainly talked to friends, we talked to people who worked at different companies. Operation Clusterpuck was based in some companies that we had been consulting for. We also had the benefit of, you know, while we didn't necessarily look directly at feedback like Indeed and Glassdoor, we also had the benefit of doing a ton of interviews like this for the first book where it's like the podcasters would turn off the mics and say, okay, let me tell you about the bat shit crazy thing that happened at the company I used to work for. So again, we got some great stories from people that we would say, you know what? We weren't there. This is somebody else's story. But man, this is going in the book.

Chad: That's awesome. So in the kind of consolidation or acquisition was happening, automation started to take center stage. Did either of you have experience with like communications around automation starting to take center stage, like the Best Buys of the world or some of your clients? Or was that just something that you ripped out of the headlines?

Michael: Again, it's a little bit of both. So we, you know, we worked for Best Buy along enough to where I'm the social media and internal social media really exploded and what sort of electronic and digital tools could we use to communicate with employees. And we were fortunate to be given a lot of freedom to spearhead those kinds of things. So, you know, working with IT, which is always you know, a bit of a like a dentist visit in every meeting we managed to push through and get some things done, but we also did rip some things from the headlines.

Michael: So obviously we had experience at Best Buy and Best Buy went into Canada with sort of middling success. But Target, which is also based here in Minneapolis, went into Canada with a huge splash and basically got kicked back across the Southern border and they had some real genuine automation issues and just some silly human error issues that we touched on a little bit in the book too, like not converting to the metric system or not realizing it's 10 boxes to a case instead of 12 or whatever that might be. So they had a, a rich story of failure really that we can just draw a little pieces from because we're not trying to tell that story in particular, but you know, the combination of all businesses facing, you know, challenges with systems and automation along with the human error side of it can create, you know, a cluster fuck.

Joel: So are you guys working on a new book and if so, what's it about?

Jennifer: Yeah. You know, we've always said that we may continue this universe but to be honest, you know, we were kind of taken a page out of the Marvel Comic universe of like what if we told something from an expanded business world. And so book three we are sketching out right now may have a couple of minor characters overlapping but really is a new industry, new characters. And we want to tell something a little different, something that we've had some experience in from a consulting perspective. Kind of the Wild West, if you will, of of what's going on with some of business growth and in some new industries. So sorry to be vague, but, but still, you know, putting thoughts on paper and you know, people sometimes ask us like, how are you afraid you're gonna run out of business stories to tell? Well no good Lord. Have you worked in corporate America? Like, no, we just have to choose which one, not to go dig one up.

Joel: As you guys had done this for a while, do you find that things are changing rapidly or do you find that the more things change the more they stay the same?

Michael: You know, I think the human element stays the same. Certainly the business landscape is rapidly evolving, as you've mentioned with automation and digital tools and there's an entirely new, you know, the startup culture is sort of permeating even big companies now that they want to mimic and mirror that. So that landscape is sort of shifting beneath our feet. But in the end people are people and you're always gonna run across, you know, absurdity, selfishness, greed, all those kinds of, you have the seven deadly sins, so to speak, of human behavior set on a shifting landscape. And that's why we feel like there's many, many stories yet to be told.

Chad: Okay. So I have to say I'm sad because first and foremost I received Operation Clusterpuck and it's one of those things where, you know, I either dive into it or I just think it sucks and it gets half read and it is what it is. Right at the end of this book, much like many of the kind of like Netflix series that you get into that you really enjoyed at the end of the last episode you're like, ah fuck, I'm done. I gotta wait until the next season. Right? That's where I was. So I went online and I'm like, oh shit, there's a first book. I can do this, you know, almost like the prequel. So I bought the first book because I enjoyed Operation Clusterpuck so much. But I have to say, I'm kind of pissed that you're not carrying it onto a trilogy. So I would like to make a request that you definitely pull some of those characters over. And also, what about audio books? Are you guys looking at doing audibles at all or anything like that?

Jennifer: Well, first of all, you've now just made us feel like Big Little Lies where it's like, wait, this is the end of the series? It's like, no, what's the second one? You want to know what happens next. So, no, but thank you for that. And yeah, I mean if, if, first of all, if you read Operation Clusterpuck, you know, you don't need to know the background to jump into that one. As you said, BS Incorporated is kind of the origin story of, you know, Anna's first day at the company and you know, how the company has has progressed. So definitely you can read them out of order. It's all good. And as far as audio, yeah, we've danced around that idea. We thought it might be fun. You know, I would love to, you know, get like the Lisas of the world, our real people to play their characters in the audio version. I don't know if that's possible, but wouldn't that be fun?

Michael: That would be fun. And if for some reason we don't go back to this, you know, this company and this set of characters, there's always an opportunity for other people to write fanfiction, of course.

Chad: Yeah, of course. So what about, are you pitching this because this is, this is funny shit. This is very Office Space. Like are you pitching this to any companies to perspectively being on the big screen or anything like that?

Michael: That is the big dream for sure. And we've had a couple of conversations that that just haven't materialized. And of course that's the thing that gets an author really excited. The opportunity to take these characters in this story and put it up on the big screen. So nothing has materialized yet, but our phone lines are open for anyone who might be interested.

Chad: Well I have to say Jennifer Rock and Michael Voss again, the book is called Operation Clusterpuck. Where can they find out more? Give us all the websites, give us all the social and all that other fun stuff.

Jennifer: Well you know our central location for all things Clusterpuck is RockandVossbooks.com and from there you can find direct links to get the books on Amazon, on Barnes and Noble, direct from our distributor. You know all the places that fine books are sold and you know, dark humor and not so fine books are sold. So you can find us all there online and you know what, you can find our social media and our email address out there as well. And you know, if you've got a particularly awful corporate experience story that you'd like to share with us to see in a wound into a future book, man, we'd love to hear that too.

Joel: Awesome. Thanks guys.

Jennifer: Thanks for having us.

Chad: Thank you. Excellent. We out.

Joel: We out.

Walken: Thank you for listening to, what's it called? A podcast with Chad and Cheese. They talk about recruiting, they talk about technology, but most of all they talk about nothing. Just a lot of shout outs to people you don't even know. And yet you're listening. It's incredible and not one word about cheese but one cheddar, blue, nacho, pepperjack, swiss. So many cheeses and not one word. So weird. Anywho, be sure to subscribe today on iTunes, Spotify, Google play or whatever you listen to your podcasts. That way you won't miss an episode and while you're at it, visit www.chadcheese.com just don't expect to find any recipes for creme cheese is so weird. We out.

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