Fiona Carson left her office with the perfect amount of time to get to the boardroom for an important meeting. She was wearing a businesslike suit, her blond hair pulled back, almost no makeup. She was the CEO of one of the largest and most successful corporations in the country. She hated being late and almost never was. To anyone who didn’t know her, and many who did, she appeared to be in total control, and one could easily imagine her handling any situation. And whatever personal problems or issues she had, it was inconceivable that she would let them interfere with her work. A woman like Fiona would never let that happen.
As she approached the boardroom, her BlackBerry rang. She was about to let it go to voice mail, and then decided to check who it was, just to be sure. She pulled it out of her pocket. It was Alyssa, her daughter, who was currently a sophomore at Stanford. She hesitated, and then decided to answer it. She had time. The board meeting wouldn’t start for a few minutes, and as a single parent, it always made her uneasy not to answer calls from her children. What if it was the one time that something was seriously wrong? Alyssa had always been an easy child, and handled her life responsibly as a young adult, but still . . . what if she’d had an accident . . . was sick . . . was in an emergency room somewhere . . . had a crisis at school . . . her dog got run over by a car (which had happened once and Alyssa had been heartbroken for months). Fiona could never just let the phone ring and ignore it if it was one of her kids. She had always felt that part of being a parent was being on call at all times. And she felt that way about being CEO too. If there was an emergency, she expected someone to call her, at any hour, wherever she was. Fiona was accessible, to the corporation and her kids. She answered on the second ring.
“Mom?” Alyssa used the voice she only used for important events. A fantastic grade, or a disastrous one, something seriously wrong at the doctor, like a positive test for mono. Fiona could tell that whatever this was, it was important, so she was glad she had taken the call. She hoped it was nothing serious and sounded concerned.
“Yes. What’s up?” she answered in a subdued voice, so no one would hear her on a personal call as she walked down the hall. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, of course.” Alyssa sounded annoyed. “Why would you say that?” It never dawned on her what it was like being a mother, and the kind of things you worried about, or imagined, or how many things could go wrong, really bad ones. It was Fiona’s job to be aware of all those things, and be ready to spring into action when necessary, like the Red Cross or the fire department. Being a mother was like working for the office of emergency services, with a lifetime commitment. “Where are you? Why are you talking like that?” Alyssa could hardly hear her. She hated it when her mother whispered into the phone.
“I’m on my way to a board meeting,” Fiona answered, still speaking in a stage whisper. “What do you need?”
“I don’t ‘need’ anything. I just wanted to ask you something.” Alyssa sounded mildly insulted at the way her mother phrased it. They weren’t off to a good start, and Fiona wondered why her daughter hadn’t just sent her a text, as she often did. She knew how busy her mother was all day. But Fiona had always made it clear to her children that they were a major priority for her, so they weren’t shy about reaching out to her, even during her business day. So Fiona assumed that Alyssa needed to tell her something important. They knew the rules. “Don’t call unless you really need to, while I’m at work.” The exception to that had been when they were younger, and called to tell her they’d gotten hurt, or really missed her. She had never scolded them for those calls, neither Alyssa, nor her son, Mark.
“So ask me,” Fiona said, trying not to sound impatient. “I’ve got to go to the meeting in two seconds. I’m almost there.”
“I need a favor.” It better be a good one, Fiona thought, given the timing, the edge in her voice, and the introduction.
“Can I borrow your black Givenchy skirt with the slit up the side? I have a big date this Saturday night.” She said it as though it were a crisis, and to her it was.
“You called me for that? It couldn’t wait till tonight?” Now she was annoyed. “I haven’t even worn it yet.” She rarely got to wear anything first. Alyssa either borrowed it, or it vanished forever and became only a dim memory in her closet. It was happening more and more often. They were the same size, and Alyssa was starting to like more sophisticated clothes.
“I’m not going to wear it to a track meet. I’ll give it back to you on Sunday.” Which year? Alyssa’s notion on the timing of returns was a little vague.
Fiona was going to argue the point with her, but she didn’t have time. “All right, fine. We can talk about it tonight, when I get home.”
“I needed to know, otherwise I have to go shopping. I have nothing to wear.” That was too long a conversation to get into now.
“Fine. Take it. Talk to you tonight.”
“No, Mom, wait . . . I have to talk to you about my econ paper. It’s due Monday, and the professor hated my topic, I wanted to . . .”
“Alyssa, I can’t talk about it now. Later. I’m busy. That’s too big a subject to discuss in two seconds.” She was starting to sound exasperated, and Alyssa immediately sounded hurt.
“Okay. Fine, I get it. But you always complain that I don’t discuss my papers with you, and the professor said . . .”
“Not in the middle of my workday, before a board meeting. I’m very glad you want to discuss it with me. I just can’t do it now.” She was at the door to the boardroom and she needed to end the call.
“Then when can you?” Alyssa sounded mildly huffy, as though implying that her mother never had time, which wasn’t fair since Fiona did her best to be accessible to them, and Alyssa knew it.
“Tonight. We’ll talk tonight. I’ll call you.”
“I can’t. I’m going to a movie with my French class, and dinner at a French restaurant before that. It’s part of the class.”
“Call me after,” Fiona said, desperate to get off the phone.
“I’ll pick up the skirt on Saturday. Thanks, Mom.”
“Anytime,” Fiona said with a wry smile. They always did it to her, especially Alyssa. It was almost as if she had to prove that her mother was paying attention. Fiona always did. Alyssa didn’t need to test it, but she did anyway sometimes. She just had. Yes, I am paying attention, Fiona thought, and hoped Alyssa wouldn’t call again to ask for the black sweater that went with the skirt. “I love you. Have fun tonight.”
“Yeah, me too. Have fun at the board meeting. Sorry I bothered you, Mom,” Alyssa said, and hung up. Fiona turned the phone on vibrate then and slipped it back in her jacket pocket. She had work to do now. No more lend-lease program calls for the latest brand-new, as-yet-unworn skirt. But this was real life in the life of a modern-day CEO and single mother.
She adjusted her face to a serious expression, and walked into the boardroom of NTA, National Technology Advancement, and smiled at the board members gathered around the long oval table, waiting for the others to arrive. There were ten members on the board, eight men and two women, most of them heads of other corporations, many of them smaller and some of equal size. Half of the group was already gathered, and they had been waiting for Fiona, the chairman of the board, and four other members before the meeting could begin. At forty-nine, Fiona had been the CEO of NTA for six years, and had done a remarkable job. She had come in on the heels of a predecessor who had stayed too long and had clung to old-fashioned, minimal-risk positions that had caused a dip in their stock in his final years. Fiona had been carefully selected by a search committee, and lured away from an important job.
She had taken over in her quiet, thoughtful way, had been incisive in her assessments, and bold and courageous in her plans. She took no undue chances, and everything she did was well thought out, her long- and short-term goals for the company had been brilliant and right on the mark. Within months, their stock had soared and continued to climb ever since, despite the tough economy. Both management and stockholders loved her, and she was respected by her peers and employees. Their profits continued to increase. She was merciless when she had to be, but everything she did was meticulously researched and carefully executed, and with their bottom line in mind. Fiona Carson was a star, and had been for her entire career. She was an intelligent woman, with a brilliant mind for business. She was one of the most successful women in the country, at the helm of one of the largest corporations in American business, and responsible for a hundred thousand employees.
She chatted quietly with the board members as they filed in. It was still ten minutes before the board meeting was due to start. She usually arrived a few minutes early, so she could talk with them. The chairman, Harding Williams, always arrived just as the meeting was about to begin. He had had a distinguished career in business, though not as illustrious as Fiona’s. He had been head of a large corporation for most of his career, though not quite as big as NTA, and he had run it like a dictatorship, which had been the accepted style in his early days. Things were different now, as Fiona tried to point out to him when he made some rebellious move, based on his own opinions and whims. Fiona adhered strictly to the rules of corporate governance, the boundaries corporations and the people who ran them were supposed to respect. And Fiona expected the board to do the same. It caused disagreements between Harding and Fiona almost every time the board met. Fiona very charitably said that they were like two parents, who had the best interests of the child at heart, and that their widely divergent opposing points of view frequently benefited NTA, when they arrived at compromise positions. But getting there gave Fiona severe headaches, and brought out the worst in them both. She respected Harding Williams as a chairman, and his long experience, but it was obvious to everyone that she loathed him as a person, and he hated her even more. He made no secret of it, frequently making uncalled-for derogatory personal comments about her, or rolling his eyes at her suggestions, while she was unfailingly diplomatic, respectful, and discreet, no matter what it cost her to do so. He hurt Fiona’s feelings with the cutting things he said, both to her face and behind her back, but she never let it show. She would never have given him the satisfaction of letting him see how much he upset her. She was a professional to her core. Her assistant always had two Advils and a glass of water waiting on Fiona’s desk when she got back to her office after a board meeting, and today would be no different. Fiona had called the emergency meeting, to attempt to solve a problem with the board.
Harding thought the meeting ridiculous and had complained about coming in. He had been retired from his own job for the past five years, but was still a powerful chairman, and on several other boards. He was going to be obliged to retire as chairman of NTA’s board by the end of the year, when he would turn seventy, unless they voted to overturn the rule about mandatory retirement age for a board member, but no one had done so so far. She was looking forward to his leaving at the end of the year, in seven months. And she had to deal with him constructively until then. It was an effort she always made, and had for the past six years, since she had come to NTA as CEO.
And she had known for the past six years, since she took the job, that Harding Williams said she was a woman of loose morals and a bitch. He had been at NTA, on the board, long before she got there, and they had crossed paths before, in her youth, at Harvard Business School, where he taught a class during her first year. He had formed his opinion of her then and never changed it since.
Fiona would have been a beautiful woman with very little effort, which she chose not to make. She didn’t spend time worrying about being attractive to the men she met through her work. Her only interest was in guiding the company and its hundred thousand employees to ever greater heights. She had long since adopted the style of women in the corporate world. She was tall and thin, with a good figure, she wore her long blond hair in a neat bun, and she had big green eyes. She wore no jewelry, no frills. Her nails were always impeccably manicured, with colorless polish. She was the epitome of a successful, powerful female executive. She was the iron hand in the velvet glove. A strong woman, she did not abuse her power but was willing to make all the tough decisions that came with the job, and she accepted the criticism and problems that came with it. No one could ever see her own concerns about her decisions, her fear that things might go wrong, her regrets when they had to close a plant that eliminated thousands of jobs. She lay awake thinking about it on many nights. But at work she always seemed calm, cool, fearless, intelligent, compassionate, and polite. Her gentler side, and there was one, never showed at work. She couldn’t afford to express it here; it would have been dangerous to do so in her job. She had to be their fearless leader, and she was aware of it at all times.
Fiona waited until all the board members were seated, and Harding Williams called the meeting to order, and then he turned to her with a sarcastic look, which she ignored.