“Are you freaking kidding me?!” Cynthia grumbled loudly as her coffee cup slipped out of her hand and its contents spilled down the front of her left leg. It couldn’t have happened on the way to the car as she left the house. No, no. It had to happen on the steps up to the main entrance of the stately corporate building. The very busy main steps.
She knew when she had gotten out of the car in the parking lot that she shouldn’t have chanced it. Hauling her weekender-sized purse, laptop case and shoe bag were more than enough. Fumbling to take out her building pass had been the straw that tipped the carefully balanced bundles and she lost her grip on the cup. Which had no lid. Because she had been running late as she left the house and ignored the little voice that said, “Cynthia…you need the lid. It will spill.” Even as she had worked to silence it, it eked out an ominous, “OK…don’t say I didn’t try to warn you.”
She was quite familiar with that little voice and its warnings. She knew all too well from experience that when she didn’t listen to it, she always wished she had. But she had told herself, as she threw her bags in the passenger side and sank into the driver’s seat, that her bodiless friend was over-reacting today. It would be fine. She’d finish the coffee in the car and all would be well. Besides, she had a huge meeting first thing this morning and if she lost any more time, she’d be late. And this was one meeting for which she could not be late.
However, she hadn’t been able to finish the coffee on the drive in to work and there was no way she could get through the meeting without her complete first dose of caffeine. She’d just need to be careful as she balanced her bags and the cup, that’s all. So, once she had locked the car and put her keys in her purse, she slipped her right forearm through the shoe bag handle and slung the long straps of her purse up over her left shoulder. She took her coffee cup in her left hand and carried the laptop case in her right. Everything was going really well until…well, until it wasn’t.
As she began to ascend the steps, she let her purse slide gently down her left arm, being careful not to tip the cup over, so she could get her pass out for building security. She unfurled the fingers of her right hand from around the laptop case handle and tried to wiggle them into the pouch on the outside of her purse where she kept her pass. She almost had it, too. But she was paying so much attention to not spilling the coffee that she missed a step and stumbled. Only a little. But enough.
The shoe bag slipped. The laptop case slipped. Then it all seemed to slip. In fact, as she watched the ebony liquid trace its way down her beautiful, ecru silk pencil skirt, she thought she could see her future – her division’s future – slip away with it. She looked down at her watch. It confirmed what she already knew: There was no time to go home and change.
For a moment she thought of just dropping everything, literally and metaphorically, and skipping out on the meeting. How on earth could they take her seriously looking like this? But too many people were counting on her.
Two months ago, John Hollingsworth, the vice-president of human resources, called to meet with her. He had been her first manager when she started with the company 15 years ago and they had stayed in touch. They met a few times a year, for coffees or quick lunches, and he had become a sort of unofficial mentor to her. She wasn’t surprised, then, when he called to say he wanted to see her. But the tone of his voice said there was something afoot besides coffee or lunch. She didn’t even need that little voice to help her figure that one out.
Sure enough, when she got to his office, it was the same spiel other managers had told her they had gotten: unstable economy, need to find efficiencies, and the dreaded “We’ll need to let some people go.” In fact, Cynthia’s whole division was going to be downsized. When she quizzed John further, he clarified that the vast majority of her 114 employees would be let go and the remainder would be absorbed into other areas. Her job would be safe, though; she would take over as director of Andrea Kelly’s division as Andrea would be retiring soon.
Cynthia had been floored. Names and faces floated before her eyes. Stories of kindergarten graduations and weddings and vacations streamed through her memory. She couldn’t just let them go.
She spent some more time with John to find out exactly what the concerns were and begged him to give her two months to come up with another solution, to find her own efficiencies, and try to save at least some of the people she would otherwise have to let go.
She and her management team had spent a lot of late nights working on this and today was the day – win, lose or draw, it would all come down to this meeting.
Sighing, she readjusted her bags and slowly continued the rest of the way up the steps and through security.
She thought of which executives were most likely to be in the meeting this morning. She knew John would be there. He was skeptical, but also seemed like he hoped she’d be able to do it. There were a couple of others who might also quickly see the benefits of what she was going to propose – benefits to the employees, but also for the company. But as the other faces floated through her mind, she started to feel that temptation to flee again.
There were a couple in particular who always managed somehow to make her feel like she was off her game. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but somehow whenever they came around and asked questions she felt like she was a novice and completely incompetent, rather than the strong, professional, qualified woman she otherwise knew herself to be.
She had worked years of long, hard hours to get where she was and still maintain her integrity. She had been hired through a program within the company to hire recent university graduates. There were several other graduates hired with Cynthia that year. Some had burned out within the first five years and some had zoomed past her on the corporate ladder. But most of those, she knew, had sold either themselves or those around them out in order to obtain their prestigious positions. To be honest, there was a time when she had felt herself heading that way, too, but she had caught herself in time.
It was during her first opportunity to work on a major project. There were, of course, tight deadlines with some critical deliverables. In her inexperience, she had missed one of them. She was terrified she would lose her job. Her parents constantly told their friends and family how proud they were of her and she had no idea how she’d ever be able to tell them she had gotten fired.
The night before she was to provide an explanation for what had happened, Cynthia had dinner with Brian, one of the graduates she had been hired with. He suggested that she should throw the blame onto one of the two student interns who were also working on the project with her. He made it sound very appealing: They were interns and students. They had plenty of time to get experience before they graduated. Plus they weren’t even getting paid, so they wouldn’t really lose anything. On top of that, Cynthia had learned her lesson and it wouldn’t happen again, so there’d be nothing really bad that would happen to anyone.
Cynthia didn’t sleep much that night. No matter how much she tried to bring herself around to Brian’s way of thinking, she couldn’t do it. Though she was terrified of what would happen, she was completely on the same side as her little voice the next morning when she accepted full responsibility for having missed the milestone and presented a plan to make up for it so that the entire project could stay on track.
She knew then that her integrity could not be bought or sold. She saw Brian less and less and even when she saw him and others like him promoted over her time and time again, she consoled herself with the fact that she could sleep at night and never had to worry about answering for her actions. She knew she wouldn’t make the right decisions all the time, but she also knew that whatever decisions she did make were for the right reasons and she could defend them.
While the climb up the ladder had been slower for Cynthia, it had also been (unbeknownst to her) a sturdier climb. She had annoyed a lot of people with her continued commitment to integrity, but she had also gained a lot of allies. And everybody, including those who didn’t particularly like her, knew she was committed to the company and they respected her for it.
That respect, built over the years, was the reason that John had given Cynthia those two extra months and that the other senior executives had agreed to meet with her. They were certain that whatever she would say would be well-researched and that she’d be able to substantiate anything she would propose. They knew that while she was very committed to and respected by her management team and employees, she was also very committed to the company. She was able to see and understand the complete picture.
Of course, Cynthia didn’t know any of that when the elevator bell rang and the door opened. She stepped off and looked towards the executive boardroom. She could see them all in there through the wall of glass. Impeccable Gucci, Armani and Prada suits sat around the highly polished conference table…everybody in there looked executive – from well-coiffed top to luxe leather bottoms. And not a coffee stain to be seen.
She looked down again at her skirt and sighed.
Then she quickly glanced back toward the mirrored reflection of the closed elevator doors. She didn’t see her face or even her stained skirt. She saw the faces of the people who depended on her, the people who had encouraged her and toiled endlessly beside her the past two months. She saw the many employees who had told her that regardless of what happened, they would know she had done her best for them and would appreciate the effort that she had made to save their jobs.
Turning away from the elevator, she shook off the doubt. By the time she got to the conference room, she had forgotten about the coffee stain. With a bright and confident “Good morning, everybody!” she opened the door and entered the room.