Plucked too soon, a grape lacking in maturity will compromise the quality of the wine.

“Nora, wake up!” the voice was familiar, but disorienting, and disturbing my dream that Thor, the God of Thunder in The Avengers, had come to rescue me from a burning building and was carrying me to Asgard to be his queen because Natalie Portman dumped him. My eyes strained against the morning light and immediately informed my neck that I’d fallen asleep at the desk where I started my all-night venture to save this account 12 hours earlier. I was crestfallen not only that Thor was not standing there but that I’d slept well past the time I normally arrive at the office, fresh pressed and lubed up on coffee.

The office is always dark when I arrive. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I come early because I can’t sleep. I work better in the mornings and nobody is here to harass me. It’s better for me to start the day slow, get in a few hours before the morning drones march in. I like the solitude. It’s unsettling to have dawn hit me like a gut punch with my assistant standing over me with a steaming pot of black coffee.

“When I came in and found you asleep, I followed conventional wisdom and brewed a fresh French Press before waking you up,” Brenda whispered, “but I have to warn you that Bryson is here and he’s not happy. He just heard about Noble.”

The words hit my already knotted solar plexus first, then shot up to my brain right between the eyes. Our CEO was visiting from Chicago and he’d already planned this visit to meet the new client before this debacle. On top of the fact that he’s in the current managing director’s office right now, his bright new potential managing director was looking as lovely as ever in yesterday’s suit, with racoon eyes from what must have been her 3 a.m. emotional breakdown.

“I have to shower.” Brenda didn’t hesitate. She set down the French Press with her right hand and produced in her left hand the freshly pressed suit that the building concierge just dropped off from this morning’s dry-cleaning service. My eyes locked with Brenda in a knowing glance that forces larger than us are at work here. Call it the Universe, or God, or whatever else you think runs the galaxy, but today I’m getting a larger share of goodness than I deserve.

“The guest suite is open. Bryson stayed at The Meridien again. But go now before anyone sees you escape.” Brenda pulled me out of my chair, shoving the dry cleaning into my hands. I turned to go, then stopped and turned back to grab the coffee, grabbed my shoes and shoved them under my arm with the dry cleaning and ran in stocking feet down the back stairs to the guest suite.

I know women who have a two hour morning routine and I pride myself on the fact that I can be ready in ten minutes without a shower, 30 if I need to wash and dry my hair. I appeared on the 21st floor clean and pressed as I walked into the executive office. We have an open site plan, which means I could see right from the elevator into our Managing Director’s office, where our current MD, Matthew Bond, was discussing his replacement with our company CEO, Bryson Keller. I imagined seeing my name, Nora Jones, on that door. Matt grew this office from a single account 22 years ago. He hired me when I was still wet behind the ears, fresh off the train from Colorado.

I literally started in the mail room and worked my way into responsibility without a college degree. He groomed me as his first pick for a successor, but Bryson was unconvinced. Bryson Keller comes from the generation where deals were made in dark paneled rooms, smoking cigars and drinking aged scotch. He never had to earn his way to the top. His father was the founder of the firm and promoted him into management right after graduate school, right over the heads of better executives. We respected his father, so we embraced his confidence in Bryson.

His more progressive protégé, Matt, was more of a pet to him than a trusted executive. No doubt he gave ample credit to Matt for the growth of the San Francisco office, but he had a very distinct perspective on the succession plan for this office. And Bryson Keller is not the sort of man who sees a woman thriving as a senior executive in this company. I had to change his mind.

Both men were looking out the window when I rounded the corner to the executive suite. They didn’t turn when I gently knocked. “Is this a bad time?” I prodded. Matt, startled at my words, turned to me and nodded his head toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Not again. I’d seen this before from my corner window.

I saw the police cars, the crowds peering over the edge of the bridge facing the bay…and the ambulance. Like a dangling participle in the choppy water, a barge. Another jumper. I’m always fascinated by the altered universe of watching barges enter the bay from far away — away from the sound of water breaking at the bow and churning at the stern, the sound of the warning horn, the scuttle of the crew preparing to dock. It’s not unlike watching half my life from the distance, the part I left behind 22 years ago when I came here. Moving steadily, oblivious. A dead weight. Cold steel adrift.

“Divers found the body,” Matt said. We watched as the ambulance crew descended on the lifeless form and I imagined a man full of life climbing onto the cable, pausing briefly and hurling himself off the bridge into the churning wake of the barge. Life on. Life off.

Who was this guy? What drove him to suicide? Why am I assuming it’s a guy? Whatever it was, he has what he wanted. I’m happy for him. Maybe it’s because I’ve been dead inside for so long there’s nothing else to feel. I almost envy him.

Bryson turned around. “Matt, you know the owner of the shipping company, don’t you? There’s some new business ready for the plucking. This is their PR nightmare.”

Matt’s eyebrows nearly touched the ceiling. Does the man have a shred of empathy? The reflection of Bryson’s gaze took care of any question about whether he was serious. “No, but I can get the mayor’s office on the phone. We’ll have the account by lunch time.”

“Good.” Bryson took three steps over to the couch and picked up his coffee only to find it had gone cold; he set the cup back on the coffee table. “Might mitigate the damage of the Noble loss,” he turned his gaze to Nora.

“Not lost yet,” Nora returned without hesitation.

“Do you think a handshake and a lunch can undo your mistake?” He tossed back.

He knew it wasn’t my mistake, but it doesn’t matter in this business. Any mistake with our logo on it is a brand impact for the whole firm. Every action by every individual was a reflection on Keller Donohue, regardless of title or experience. I was the executive holding the trust. “I have a plan,” I bluffed. Not really. I’d been up all night and I had nothing. The solar plexus knot tightened.

“I look forward to seeing that,” Bryson stood up to get more coffee.

Amazing, I mused. I thought of the fancy women’s leadership course they sent me to in San Diego last year and wondered if Bryson had ever attended a leadership course. He clearly needed it.

“I’ll see you at 11:30.” I shot back and got the hell out of that office.

 

DISCUSS

The posted image is a view from the top of the Golden Gate Bridge. How does perspective change your outlook in this story?
Have you ever worked with a leader lacking in empathy or basic emotional intelligence?
How did you respond to behavior uncharacteristic of a leader? How do you lead in the gap?
Do you have examples of other “grapes” in your career, “lacking in maturity”?
On the lighter side, who is your Thor? Who do you dream will rescue you from your life.