Tuesday morning at 9:00, they began filing into the Board Room. Jessica rolled her eyes as she looked around. What a stupid name. A long table with an imitation cherry veneer surrounded by huge black fake leather chairs. All style and no substance. The empty suit who was the interim director appeared to be irony-impaired. To keep his ineptness at bay, he added the perceived importance of having his weekly staff meetings held in a room called the Board Room. And, he needed weekly staff meetings to give him something to do. Meetings helped fill the time and gave the illusion of working without actually accomplishing anything.
Employees filed in slowly, bringing cups filled with black coffee, light coffee, light, sweet coffee, and cups filled with black, green and orange tea. Three people carried bags of candy: chocolate-covered raisins, M&Ms, both plain and peanut, and caramels so sweet, they made your teeth hurt. One person had donuts, glazed and chocolate, cream-filled and jelly-filled.
Jessica sat in front of her laptop. Most people set up their computers, then went back for food. Steve, the director, insisted on everyone bringing their laptops to the meeting, the only idea of his that Jessica ever agreed with, although for completely different reasons. She assumed he wanted the computers in front of everyone, because he thought it helped them look important and efficient. Jessica liked having the computers, because it made it easier for her to bring work to help pass the time so the inanities didn’t grate so much. Fortunately, Steve was usually so engrossed in his own gasbag pronouncements, he never seemed to notice people working on their computers while he talked.
Jessica despised Steve. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t do the job, although that was certainly a major cause of her guts clenching with irritation every time she saw him. It wasn’t just that he got paid three times as much as everyone else to do nothing but tell stories and eat lunch. The main reason her chest filled with loathing at the mention of his name was that the agency needed real leadership that he was incapable of providing. They were heading into some difficult financial headwinds, and Steve was not the person to guide them safely through. Jessica’s job was important to her. A single mom, with two teenagers, Jessica could not afford to be out of work. She felt a loyalty to the organization and a kinship with her fellow employees, but beyond all that, she truly needed her job for very practical reasons. She did not want this bullshit artist to send them crashing and burning.
Jim came in next. He winked at Jessica and took the chair farthest from the head of the table without actually sitting across from it. He looked around the room and laughed. “It appears we couldn’t get through a meeting without sugar.”
“Whatever works.” Jessica smiled and picked up a piece of red licorice.
Steve walked into the room, stopped and looked around. “Good morning, everyone.” He lifted his hand in a greeting and walked over to take the chair at the head of the table. Jessica felt as if she should kneel and kiss his ring.
“Good to see everyone this morning,” Steve said. “Please pull up the copy of the flow chart that I e-mailed yesterday. I’m sure you’ve had a chance to study it carefully. What did you think? Any suggestions before I take it to the meeting downtown tomorrow?”
“Actually, I did have a question,” Jessica said. “The topics looked a little general to me, and I wondered if it shouldn’t contain a few more specific details about what is going to be -- ”
Steve interrupted. “This is a very high level look at the issues. Yes, eventually, we’ll want to look at more details. I see each box in this chart as a heading, and it will have a list of tasks under it to be accomplished. But we’re not there yet, this is high level, high level.” Steve’s voice rose until the shrillness almost made it inaudible to the human ear.
Jessica clicked open an e-mail from Susan. “Do you have any idea when we might get some actual work done instead of all this high level crap?” Jessica grinned.
Jim’s e-mail went to everyone but Steve. “Dear God, please don’t let him say high level again. I’m not sure I can hear it without hurting him.”
Jessica hit reply to all. “Good plan to keep it high level. To complete detailed and specific task lists and timelines would require that he knows how to actually do the work.”
Steve continued speaking. “This is the beginning of our plan. We need something we can use to follow all the way through the expansion. This will be our broiler plate.” He looked as proud as if he’d just cured cancer. “Any further questions? No, then the next agenda item is the budget.”
“We’re looking at a very tight budget for next year. We have projected a conservative revenue increase, so that leaves the bottom line at a profit margin of only $200,000,” Jessica said.
Jim leaned forward. Susan sat up straight. Steve began drumming his fingers on the table. He turned sideways in his chair, and his left leg jerked in a maniacal rhythm, bouncing between the table and floor. His face was pale, and he didn’t look up from the computer screen in front of him as Jessica continued speaking. “With such a small profit margin, we’ll have to take specific steps to --”
Steve interrupted. “We better table this until the next meeting. There are two more things that I need to accomplish today, and we can’t run late. I’m having lunch with Senator Jamison. You know we’re old and good friends. I couldn’t be late for that lunch.” His clogged chortle fueled Jessica’s anger.
“Steve, the budget is very important. We have to take it to the board next week, and I want to let everyone know what’s going on and get their feedback. This is critical.”
“Now, now, don’t get all excited. I have a good relationship with everyone on the board; you’ll be at the meeting to answer any questions. It won’t be a problem. We need to focus on priorities,” Steve said.
Now, now? What am I, twelve? Next, he’ll reach over and pat my head. Jessica stared at her computer, afraid if she looked straight at him, the intensity of her anger might actually stream from her eyes and laser him in half. Of course it won’t be a problem for you, she thought. Goddammit, I’m the one who has to answer all the questions. You just stand there with a big stupid smile on your face and repeat what I say. Jessica took a deep breath and clicked on an email from Susan. “Do you think he’d notice if I threw my coffee in his face?” Jessica winked at Susan, feeling a little better.
Margaret’s e-mail popped up. “I’m making that coq au vin recipe I got from you. Will doubling it be enough for seven people? Todd’s family is coming over for dinner tomorrow.”
At least someone was using the meeting time productively. Jessica replied, “I think that should work.”
Steve continued talking. “We only have a few minutes left, and I have a very important item left on the agenda to cover. I have very good news. John Smalley, you all know John, he’s the CEO of Waterford and Associates, and we’ve been friends for years, well, he asked me to sit on this committee with him, and I think it will be an important link to the community for us. It’s vital that we have a seat at this table, and I was saying just the other day to Mark Davidson, our State Senator, how important our work is and why we need to be a part of these high level discussions. Then I sat next to Max Jenson at the committee meeting; he’s the president of State Bank, you know, and he’s been really involved in this group. I thought it was important that I tell you, since I’ll be working so closely with them on this project, I really won’t have quite as much time to focus on the work here, but this is short-term and so many heavy hitters are involved that….”
Jessica studied spreadsheets until Steve finally wound down. The group filed out slowly. At lunch, they commiserated, with Jim leading the discussion. “I can’t believe he’ll actually get the permanent director job. I mean, interim is one thing, just because he knew someone’s cousin or something, but they must have figured out by now what an idiot he is.”
Susan answered, “I don’t think so. The rumor is that he has it pretty well sewn up. He spends every waking moment politicking for it, and he has people convinced that he has amazing connections.”
“But the board members aren’t that stupid. He can’t have all of them fooled.” Jim looked at Jessica. “What do you think? Is there any way to get rid of him?”
Jessica sighed. “I’m not sure. We could talk to the board, but that’s a big risk. Not one I really want to take in this economy. It might be months before I found another job, and my daughter just joined a hockey league. The equipment costs alone are unbelievable.”
Everyone nodded. They all had families, cars, house payments; no one wanted to take the gamble. After all, these were good jobs, even with a fool for a boss. Good jobs were not to be taken lightly in these uncertain times.
On Wednesday, after another long meeting with Steve, Jessica pondered the risk. She didn’t want to lose her job. On the other hand, if Steve continued as is, the company might go under, and they could all lose their jobs anyway.
She poured a glass of Shiraz and put her feet up. Realistically, the company probably wouldn’t tank completely. They had some very good senior staff, and those people, working together, could keep the agency afloat in spite of Steve’s ineptitude. Of course, they’d have to work twice as hard to get half as much done, so eventually, they’d wear themselves out.
Jessica pulled at a cuticle until it tore off, a jagged piece of skin and a tiny rivulet of blood. She winced and stuck her index finger in her mouth. The copper taste of blood steadied her. If Steve looked incompetent in front of the board, would they catch on and fire him? Or would he be able to make excuses? If she tried to point out his incompetence and failed, she wouldn’t last long. But how long could she continue to work with Steve?
She’d worked here for more than twelve years. She liked the company, liked her co-workers. If she had the power to change the course of the agency’s downward trajectory, did she have a choice? But she really couldn’t risk losing her job. She just paid $200 for a pair of Bauer Supreme hockey skates; as much as Jessica wanted to act on principle, it wasn’t fair to her kids to be reckless about their income.
Jessica drank more wine. Maybe the board would figure it out on their own and fire him. Damn, if only he’d drop dead or something.
Unfortunately, Steve maintained his excellent health, and two days later, the meeting went just as Jessica predicted. Whenever the board president spoke, Steve nodded eagerly. My God, he can’t agree fast enough. He looks like a bobble-head on steroids, Jessica thought. It’s too bad I can’t just stick him in the rear window of someone’s car. He’d be the perfect decorative item, something he’d excel at.
“Could you please tell us about this building maintenance projection? It looks a little high to me,” one of the board members asked.
Steve looked at Jessica. His face was an odd shade of pink, like undercooked mackerel.
Gazing back at Steve, Jessica pictured the next ten years working around him, spending twice as much time as needed, instead of moving forward with someone competent in leadership. Flames of uncertainty burned through her guts and she clenched the portfolio in front of her until her fingers ached. The film in her head moved with alarming speed, and Jessica watched the company’s profits sink each quarter, the board clueless, the agency going down little by little, until it was unsalvageable. Fear of losing her job wrestled with fear of losing her self-respect. She’d be able to buy her kids all the skates in the world, but setting a horrible example for them. And, it didn’t matter that they wouldn’t know. She would know. Integrity pinned fear to the mat, and Jessica decided to make at least a small effort, so she could lecture her kids with conviction.
“Steve, I tried to talk about those projections at the staff meeting on Tuesday, but you made it clear you had other matters more important to discuss. I understood that you were going to bring the budget information to this board meeting, so you’d be able to answer any questions.” Jessica tried for cool, but she felt her eyes narrow at Steve.
Steve’s face turned from pink to red – mackerel to broiled salmon. He sputtered and spewed and opened his folders, then shut them, then opened them again. He pointed at numbers and squeaked a little, then gave up, and said, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Jessica stared hard at the board president, willing him to understand, but his implacable expression stymied her. Then he frowned, directly at her, and Jessica was no longer unsure of what he was thinking. “Jessica, I believe it’s your responsibility to run those projection reports. Did you do that?”
Jessica’s resolve lasted as far as ‘your responsibility.’ Feeling the heat push from her toes to the top of her head, she knew her face was as red as Steve’s. “Yes.”
“Then, I assume you can answer the questions.”
Jessica felt acid spread through her chest from the intensity of his glare, but she blinked back tears and pulled the spreadsheets from her portfolio. “I’d be happy to answer your questions, if I can.” She was shocked that her voice sounded close to normal.
Jessica answered questions as she always did, competently and effectively. She glanced at Steve only once; he looked completely disengaged from the proceedings. He probably didn’t even understand what she tried to do, so at least she wouldn’t have to watch her back with Steve. An unexpected silver lining to working for an idiot.
Still, she couldn’t begin to feel safe, not with the board chair asking questions in a clipped, harsh tone. She’d have to work hard to recover from this debacle. Such a small effort, and it took all the courage she had. From now on, she’d keep her head down and just do her job. At least that was something she could handle. Fear, shame and defeat mingled in her guts; shame dominated and felt like thick green mucus in the back of her throat.
Jessica made it through the meeting and slunk home like a junkyard dog. She made it through the evening with her kids, drinking wine with dinner and taking the bottle with her to her bedroom, later. She felt hollowed out, a shell of a building left after a bombing, too exhausted to even cry.
She sipped more wine and realized what a failure she was. Jessica always wondered how she would react under stress. Would she be one of the people who hid Jewish people in Nazi Germany or would she have been a collaborator? Now she knew. She didn’t even have enough courage to stand up to an oaf and a bully. But, she still had a job. Her daughter would always have hockey equipment, even if her mother had no self-respect.
Two weeks later, Jim all but skipped into Jessica’s office. “Did you see your email? Steve’s out.”
“What?” She scrolled through her messages. “Are you sure? When?”
Jim leaned over her shoulder and pointed. “It’s from the board chair, and it’s pretty vague about why, but clearly, Steve no longer works here.”
He was right. Steve was really gone. The news hit Jessica like a belly flop from the high board and sucked all the breath from her chest. She couldn’t take her eyes from the screen.
Jim laughed. “My god, I can’t believe it. They finally caught on. Just when I’d given up all hope. We’re meeting at Main Street Pub to celebrate. The party starts at five, and I’m sure it will last far into the night.” Jim paused by the door. “But first, I have to get a little work done. See you at five.”
Steve was really gone. No more bullshit passing for leadership. No more working extra hours to do her own work and part of his. No more endless vapid stories. Her job was safe. Jessica kept staring at the email, trying to understand why she no longer cared.
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