Cheryl Jamis leaned back in her Italian leather chair and gazed out her corner office window, watching glints from the setting sun strike the Mersey River. In just a few moments, she would meet with Marcus Addison, her boss, and she did not know what to do. Should she resign? Should she force the company’s hand by issuing some grand ultimatum? Or should she leave it all be for now and assume some opportunity might arise down the road that would let her spend more time with her daughter, Emma? After all, she still loved her job.
At least she would finally get some clarity about the promotion Marcus had mentioned several times. Then she would know what her options were.
Her stomach knotted as she thought about this past weekend, when she had narrowly averted another child care crisis. Frauke, Emma’s beloved German au pair, was called to Hamburg suddenly because of an illness in the family. Fortunately, Cheryl hadn’t had any urgent work commitments over that weekend, and since her husband, John, was traveling, she and Emma had spent an enjoyable couple of “girls’ days” together.
“Mummy, I wish you didn’t work,” Emma had sighed. “We could be together all the time.”
Cheryl had stroked Emma’s soft hair tenderly. “I need to work, darling. Someday you’ll understand.”
The experience had made Cheryl realize how much she missed her little girl. When Monday morning came, she vaguely resented leaving Emma in the company of her grumbling Gran, who had come up from London to take care of her until Frauke returned.
Cheryl sighed and swiveled the chair back and forth with her feet. Ah well, she thought, everything would get back on track soon. Or not. A pity that the child care panic hadn’t brought her any closer to a decision about her future.
She started to think back to how she had come to this pass after spending the better part of a decade at a company she was so passionate about.
Cheryl was the top account manager in a boutique advertising agency when Copro courted and won her. A respected casual-wear retailer and the sole marketer of the sought-after Smitty jeans brand, Copro hired Cheryl to run an in-house marketing team and help launch a new clothing line to appeal to younger, hipper customers. For her part, Cheryl was glad to get away from the dizziness of agency work, and she welcomed the status that came with heading up a group of talented designers, writers, and media specialists.
The marriage was a happy one. Cheryl’s ambition, ideas, energy, and enthusiasm were just what the marketing department needed. After one of her television spots—featuring a sexy young woman riding bareback in her new Smitty jeans—won a coveted Olie award, a beaming Marcus had presented her with a bottle of champagne from Derek Lee, the CEO. “Keep up the great work, Cheryl!” the note had said. Cheryl kept the flattering message to herself but made sure she shared the credit—and the champagne—with her team.
Cheryl had been promoted to marketing director while pregnant with Emma. At the time, Marcus had told her that the company was counting on her to come back to work, so Cheryl made sure she never missed a beat. She returned full-time when her daughter was just three months old, leaving Emma in the care of her first nanny—the one who later left Emma sitting in the grocery cart while she packed the bags into the boot of the car, then almost drove off without her.
Cheryl enjoyed her new responsibilities at Copro, and her already solid reputation grew even stronger. But it had been horrible at times to cope with having a young child when both she and John worked. A year and a half ago, when John was on a long business trip, Emma picked up a cold at school that developed into virulent bronchitis—and Frauke got sick, too. For ten days, Cheryl fed them both chicken soup, cleaned the vaporizer, and tried to work despite their coughing fits. She wasn’t terribly successful.
Six months later, she asked Marcus if she could reduce her hours.
“I’m sure you think it is rather late to bring this up. Emma is already seven,” Cheryl told Marcus.
Marcus nodded, his eyes gleaming sympathetically. “I don’t how you manage. I couldn’t work so hard without my wife’s support.”
Cheryl smiled ruefully. True, John hadn’t been much help at home, but Frauke was a champ, and Emma got on magnificently with her. “It’s not that I can’t manage, Marcus. And maybe I should have gone part-time when she was smaller, but I wasn’t interested then. Now that she’s getting a little older, she seems to need my help more,” Cheryl said.
Marcus tugged off his glasses and wiped them with the end of his tie, a nervous gesture that did not bode well for Cheryl’s cause. “Cheryl, I’m not going to tell you no,” he said. “You can make up your own mind, of course. But I’m advising you against it, not just as your boss but as a friend.”
Marcus patted her hand earnestly. “You’ll just end up working the same hours for less pay, you know. Your job is a big, responsible one. It just can’t be done in four days, let alone three.”
“Some of the team might benefit from additional challenges,” Cheryl started, but Marcus leaned forward and cut her off.
“Cheryl, you’ve built a great team over the past few years. Now you’re ready to focus on more strategic issues, which will be key for your next step up the ladder.”
Cheryl blinked in surprise. She hadn’t considered a promotion. It was flattering, of course, but it wasn’t on her agenda right now—or was it? “No,” she told herself firmly. She’d consider it only when Emma went off to university. But since Marcus was talking about a promotion, she might try another approach and ask for flextime.
“In the past, the company has been…” she paused, searching for the right word, “reluctant to consider more flexibility in my current hours. Marcus, I wonder if that’s something we might revisit.”
Marcus raised his eyebrows and tipped back his chair. Cheryl thought some of the tension in the air seeped away. “What do you have in mind?” he asked.
Marcus’s glasses reflected the sunlight off the river, and Cheryl couldn’t see his eyes. She wondered how far to push. “Emma gets home from school by 3:00 on most days. I could come in earlier and leave earlier on a few of them.” She made it a statement, not a question.
Marcus pursed his lips and tapped his fingers on the desktop. “You spend quite a bit of time guiding your team. Do you think a schedule like that is manageable?”
Cheryl mulled the question over. “Tuesdays should be OK. That’s the afternoon everyone else on the team meets with their counterparts in sales and production.” She paused. She had no regularly scheduled appointments on Wednesday afternoon either, but if Derek or Marcus decided to stop in, that was usually the time they picked. She sighed. Perhaps it was best to drop that one. She lowered her eyes from the view over Marcus’s shoulder to catch his gaze. “Wednesdays are probably out, but I think I could arrange Thursdays. I’ve been holding group meetings then, but I could change them to Wednesday mornings; it’d be more midweek and might even give us an opportunity to take stock as well as to move forward.”
“That’s probably doable,” Marcus said, a smile growing. “I can see I’m going to have to plan for some Tuesday and Thursday breakfast meetings.”
He gave her a light clap on the shoulder. Cheryl stood, nodded, and left the room. The plan wasn’t everything she wanted, but it was a start.
No Time for Tears
It took only a few months to realize that the small shift in hours wasn’t enough.
Emma rang Cheryl on her mobile minutes before a key executive meeting where she was due to give an important marketing presentation. At the sound of Emma’s teary voice, Cheryl shoved down her own anxiety and tried to keep her voice steady.
“What is it, honey? What’s the matter?”
“Mum, you promised you’d come.”
“Come?” Cheryl echoed, wracking her brains to remember what she must have forgotten.
“My play, at lunchtime. You told me you would be there.”
Cheryl’s stomach roiled. She cursed silently.
She scanned the conference room, which was rapidly filling. The executives were milling about, and there were only a few minutes left before the meeting started. There was absolutely no way she could leave now. “Honey, I’m so sorry. I forgot. I feel terrible, but I don’t think I can make it there now.”
“Never mind, Mum. You already missed it.” Emma rang off.
“I’ll make it up to you,” Cheryl whispered into the dead phone. If she had a bit more courage, she would just stop negotiating with Copro and take a stand. She thought about her old friend Nancy, who had quit the ad agency and was working solo. Why not do the same?
She decided she could steal a moment to recover unobserved. In the washroom, she dragged in a deep breath and stared at her reflection. She didn’t look like she’d just stepped into her own Bad Mother nightmare. Was it even possible to be a topflight executive and a good mother?
Cheryl sighed. It wouldn’t help to berate herself further. She caught a few strands of wayward hair and fastened them back with a hairpin. Maybe she was overreacting. She had a free weekend coming up. She could take Emma to Alton Towers Theme Park for a couple of days. Yes, that was just the thing. She’d call and book a hotel room after the presentation. And perhaps HR would have some ideas about what she could do longer term.
Feeling somewhat better, Cheryl returned to the conference room. The assembled executives were seated. It was her turn to speak. She forced herself to concentrate and strode to the lectern.
The presentation passed in a blur. Applause followed her closing summary, and she looked up, relieved. She unplugged her computer, tucked away the laser pointer, and packed up the rest of her belongings. She sucked in her breath when she saw Derek approaching.“Good stuff, Cheryl,” he said, smiling broadly. She thanked him with a grin and thought, “Just call me Superwoman.”
Back in her office, Cheryl booked the hotel for the Alton Towers weekend, which helped her stop chastising herself. She basked in Derek’s praise for a few moments before getting back to work.
The next day, Marcus called her in. Cheryl felt good, still buoyed up by Derek’s comments and relieved that Emma was happy, too. She had babbled away over dinner about the ferocious Congo River Rapids ride at Alton Towers. And Cheryl was optimistic that HR would have some thoughts for her. She’d get right down there after speaking to Marcus.
“Well done, Cheryl,” Marcus said, a big smile on his tanned face. “It was an excellent presentation and a good campaign proposal. It’s fresh and original. I’m confident it’ll be taken up when the board meets tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Marcus,” she said. “I was pleased with its reception.”
“Derek was really impressed. It’s your ticket into the upper echelons.”
Cheryl sat up straighter; it was the second time Marcus had mentioned a promotion in recent months. She grinned at him. “Do you have something particular up your sleeve?”
He waved a hand. “Nothing concrete, but there are some possibilities that might be in the frame.”
Cheryl found herself sorting through the various VP functions that might be within her reach. Such a position would be a real coup. She’d be one of a handful of women at that level. Despite Marcus’s airy dismissal, she knew him well enough to believe there was something in the works.
With a bit of surprise, Cheryl realized the prospect genuinely excited her. She shook her head ruefully. If she couldn’t sort out her own values and objectives, she’d never make up her mind about what to do.
It was as if Marcus were reading her thoughts. “It’s a good thing you decided against the part-time option a couple months ago.”
Cheryl stiffened. “It is? Why do you say that?”
He must have caught the flicker in her eye. “You know how things are, Cheryl. The company has been flexible with your working hours. But look around. There aren’t many part-timers at the top of this company or any other. If a promotion is important to you, then that isn’t the road.” Marcus kicked back. “As it is, you’re very well positioned.”
Cheryl remembered Emma’s sobs over the phone yesterday and wondered how well positioned she could possibly be. HR, she repeated to herself, would have some advice.
Suddenly, Marcus whacked both hands on his desk and stood. “Listen, I’ve got a great idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner—it’s just the thing to give you some exposure and a chance to develop. I was going to go myself, but, now that I think about it, it would be perfect for you.”
Smiling at the boyish grin on Marcus’s face, Cheryl asked, “Whatever are you talking about?”
“Why, it’s that trip to Boulder I was telling you about the other day. We need to develop our business in the United States. Copro is setting up a task force there next weekend. You can go and take my place.”
Cheryl’s heart thudded painfully in her chest. Next weekend was her date with Emma at Alton Towers.
“Is it a must?”
“Do you have another commitment?”
“Well, I did have some plans,” Cheryl said. She cleared her throat to buy time. “I suppose I could rearrange things.”
“The exposure would be fantastic for you.” Marcus fastened his gaze on hers. “It’s a great opportunity—if you think you can manage it, of course. If not, I can still go.”
Cheryl forced a smile to her face. Why could she never say no? The word was just two letters long; it couldn’t be that hard to push past her lips. “Well, if you think I’d get a lot out of it, I’ll do it.”
Marcus smiled. “Great! That’s just great. You won’t regret it.”
Cheryl wasn’t so sure. She thought she might be regretting it already. She had no idea what she would say to Emma, and she would have to reschedule the Alton Towers weekend. At least her capital with the company was on a steep upward climb. The higher her position, the more flexibility she might be able to give herself.
A Middle Ground?
“Cheryl, from my perspective, a manager at your level needs high visibility,” Deb Roth, the director of HR, said. She shook her head. “That means being in the office, not working part-time or from home. Especially if you want a promotion, which you tell me might be in the offing.”
“Deb, I don’t want a promotion to the exclusion of all else. I’m trying to find a way to bring greater balance to my life and spend some more time with my daughter. And now I’ve accepted a trip to Boulder that wasn’t essential and conflicts with plans I’d made with her.”
“You know, it occurs to me that we do have several women who are doing some unusual job shares,” Deb offered. “I don’t think they are on the same level as you, but I could look into it—or, alternatively, I could talk to senior management on your behalf. Maybe there is some middle ground that none of us have considered yet.”
“Speaking to senior management might put my promotion at risk.”
“Not necessarily. The senior team is committed to meeting the staff’s needs, where possible. They’ll listen, though of course I can’t promise anything.” Deb tapped her pen on the table between them. “It would help if you could get a better handle on what you want. I used an executive coach when I was debating whether to leave the company some years ago.”
Cheryl shot her a look. “You considered leaving, too, did you?”
Deb nodded. “Of course. It’s tough, I know. I have three kids of my own, but they’re older now.” She sighed. “It’s more common than you think; I hear a lot of stories. I can give you a coach’s name if you’d like.”
Cheryl took the number, but she didn’t dial it.
The Moment of Truth
Cheryl looked at the Mersey outside her office window and realized the sun had set. The sky was streaked with pinks and oranges. She shoved herself out of her chair and strode to Marcus’s office. It was time to find out what high-powered job she was in line for. Then she could pin down her options—and make a choice.
When Marcus opened the door, he was frowning. “I’m glad you’re here. We need to talk.”
Cheryl raised her brows at him as he waved her to a chair.
“It seems there’s a board-level discussion about some of our positions, a strategy debate if you will.” He cleared his throat. “In any case, that promotion we expected to come through for you is off the table. Not permanently, mind you, but for the time being.”
“What does the ‘time being’ mean, Marcus?”
“I’m not sure, Cheryl. Listen, I’m really sorry about this. I know you’ve been coping with a lot and considering your next moves. Please, just don’t do anything rash.”
“Rash!” Cheryl thought, laughter burbling in her throat. She’d been anything but rash. An idea seized her and she narrowed her eyes on her boss. “Marcus, are you sure this doesn’t have to do with my repeated requests for part-time work or telecommuting?”
“No, of course it doesn’t. I know Derek thinks highly of you, and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. We value you too much to lose you.”
Cheryl frowned. She needed to make a decision. Now.
Sharman Esarey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Vienna-based editor of a handbook on criminal justice for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Arno Haslberger (email@example.com) teaches human resource management at Webster University Vienna in Austria and at Ashridge Business School in London.