The Executive’s Decision


God I hate ties I thought, finally getting the length right on my third attempt. I wasn’t conventional when it came to working practices and I guessed that contributed to how I’d got so far in my career at a young age. Kings of Leon played quietly in the background as I got ready for my first day at my new job.

I’d just been appointed as the Operations Executive, reporting into the Chief Executive Officer, of a national Charity. It meant that Strategy, Operations, Marketing, Fundraising, Data and about 5 other teams, totalling over 200 people, would be reporting into me. I was 31 but had moved fast through my career, taking to my roles quickly and delivering huge amounts of value for each organisation before moving on after 2 or 3 years. I took this job specifically because it would be long-term with the organisation needing to undergo radical transformation to survive and continue to operate well. I knew this would easily be a 5 year job if I was going to deliver the strategy and objectives intended.

I did my research before agreeing to join the application process when the Headhunter reached out. I could see from the accounts that the charity had been in financial decline for the last couple of years, losing income from donations and generally falling behind other charities that worked in a similar space.

I was offered an interview and while I had reservations, decided to meet the CEO and the Trustee representatives that made up the panel. I found the CEO Max, short for Maxine I’d guess, to be charming and honest. She was only a few years older than me and had been there for a couple of years. She seemed deeply frustrated by the lack of progress in the charity’s approach as well as the lack of growth in income. It was a gruelling interview process but one I was extremely happy to have passed, completely buying in to the purpose and objectives by the end of it.

I hadn’t been able to do much work for the organisation before joining as my job at the time was so busy. All I managed was a couple of video calls with my boss and the rest of the top team and a few email exchanges with my Executive Assistant who was basically my PA under a different name. Certainly she behaved like one, having scanned my calendar the night before I could see that my intro meetings had all been planned across the week with holds for lunch. When I’d do work, I had no idea as yet.

Actually doing the work I was hired to do, had started to become my biggest worry. Not because I felt I wasn’t capable but because of the last couple of exchanges with my new boss. Clearly the interview mask had slipped somewhat – which was to be expected, but in its place was a very forceful, bordering on aggressive woman. The emails from her that I was copied in on were blunt and rude. It very much seemed to be her way or the highway, contradicting what I had originally thought.

With my tie now perfect, I put a blazer on and grabbed my backpack, making my way into London and the big office block that the Charity rented 3 floors of. Like almost everyone in the organisation, Emma, my EA, had viewed my LinkedIn profile when I was announced to the organisation, so I had a rough idea of what she looked like.

At 8am in the morning, she wasn’t hard to spot in the lobby, being the only woman waiting around. I saw her first and had time to take in that she was tall, maybe 5’7 or 5’8 in her flats, with a thin body. She certainly had the build of a model with perhaps the hint of an ass behind her black skirt and tights. She was in a loose white blouse with her auburn hair flowing down to her shoulder blades. I saw she wasn’t wearing glasses so assumed she was wearing contacts as her Linkedin picture showed her with thick black frames that drew out her blue eyes. She had full lips and flawless skin with only a touch of makeup as far as I could see. Her nose was probably a touch more prominent than what would suit her face and I suspected that might have been what stopped her model career, if she was ever pursuing one.

By the time she saw me, I was entering the building through the revolving doors and extending my hand to her. “Really good to meet you Emma,” I said warmly.

“Mr Guard, it’s good to meet you too,” Emma replied in what I felt was a posh, outer-London accent.

“Please call me James,” I said with a smile, “and make sure everyone knows that too.”

Emma nodded and laughed a little. I hoped she might get my dry humour. We spent a few minutes sorting out my pass and her clarifying what floors the Charity worked from and then we were making our way upstairs. There were a few early starters already at their desks in the open plan office. I received one or two curious glances but most recognised me, as Emma led me to my office which was along the back. All of the Execs had their own offices with meeting rooms all around the open plan office. Emma’s desk was outside mine, within eyeline of my desk so she always had a view of if I was busy or not at the time.

She directed me in and left me to set myself up on Anadolu Yakası Escort the computer and sort my desk out how I wanted it. A few minutes later I saw her walk hesitantly over. “Can I make you a tea or coffee?”

I smiled in thanks. “A coffee will be great, just milk and no sugar. Generally I make my own coffee though so don’t worry about adding that to your responsibilities.”

Emma smiled shyly and said, “Well that’s okay, your predecessor always had me making him a tea.”

“Well in that case you must be a pro, I look forward to trying one of your teas on my birthday as a little treat,” I joked.

Emma smiled a little and walked off gracefully. She returned a few minutes later with a coffee from an espresso machine. It was my turn to laugh. “I thought I was getting one handmade! Your old boss really overworked you with the teas then.”

Emma laughed and handed me my mug. I was a few inches taller than her and but it barely showed with her frame. I wondered briefly if her height stopped her wearing heels. We seemed to have a pleasant little dynamic forming and I felt we’d get on. I’d never had an assistant before but I’d been around bosses that had one so I generally knew what she was here to help with.

“Mind if we grab a few minutes to go over expectations?” I said casually.

Emma’s faced flashed surprise but then smiled a false smile that I recognised from all other Personal Assistants when they wanted to present a pleasant and approachable demeanour. “Of course, let me just get my pad,” she said, hurrying off.

I sat on the sofa in the corner of my office as oppose to the meeting table. Emma’s eyes searched for me when she walked back in, initially confused before she spotted me and walked over, head down slightly as though she was self-conscious of her walk.

“Nothing to worry about, I just want you to know how I work,” I said warmly. “First, I never have meetings across every day of the week. I always want one, preferably two days where I have no meetings and just do work. I’ll normally work from home on that day.”

Emma nodded, writing something down which I read upside down said ‘move Wednesday meets’ in her flowy handwriting.

“Given where your desk is, it’d be helpful if you give me advance notice on Teams if someone’s coming to see me. I have an open door policy but I’d rather know first. I’m also not keen on the number of individual meetings you’ve put in. Can you consolidate them into groups? I’d also like to do a welcome meeting with every department after I’ve met their Head Of. Can you set that up?”

Emma nodded, taking it all down. Perhaps she realised I was also assessing her, as she got right to it while I had a brief welcome with my boss who was based upstairs. I walked up and saw a less crowded space with a smaller number of teams. A sign pointed towards the ‘CEO area’ and I discovered that Max’s office was directly above mine but also included the office next to mine so it was twice the size. I was intercepted by Max’s PA as I was walking over.

“Hi I’m Fiona, welcome!” She said warmly, extending a hand.

I took it with a broad smile. “Glad to be here. Am I okay to go in?”

Fiona nodded. “She’s expecting you.”

I walked into Max’s office and found a very sterile room. There were a couple of corporate pictures on the walls, showing the work of the charity and that was all. Even the mug was plain. It all looked exact. Indeed, Max herself was sitting precisely in the middle of her desk.

I’d never met her in person having done my interviews online so I was struck by her mannerisms now. She came across extremely neat and a perfectionist, though I’d already picked up on the latter in her emails. What struck me in person was how confident and magnetic her presence was. She stood up from the desk with a slightly wooden smile and was close to my height in her high heels. I’d have said she was 5’4 or so without them. She had her blonde hair cut into a bob and it looked like it cost a fair amount too. Her teeth were white and flawless, her eyes blue and piercing. The engagement ring on her finger, paired with her wedding ring, looked stunning.

“Ah James, I’m glad you’re finally here.”

“It’s great to be here, sorry my notice was so long,” I replied, sensing her tone.

“That’s okay, though I had to take a greater hand in your area than I’d have liked,” she said crisply. She indicated I should join her at her large wooden table which could easily sit 12 and looked like it cost quite a bit. “Passed on from the last CEO,” she said, reading my thought. Clearly, not a lot got passed her.

“It’s nice,” I offered.

“Mm,” she replied coldly, sitting down at the head of the table and pulling her chair up close to the table so that she was sitting with her perfect posture as she gazed over at me. “Your area needs a strong hand which I trust you’ll provide. Too much lax behaviour and not enough effort, from what I can see. I’d like a clear plan of action around the people side and the operations Bostancı Escort side as soon as practical.”

“Sure thing,” I replied, a little taken aback. “I’ll provide an initial assessment in a couple of weeks.”

Max shook her head. “We have an Exec meeting every other Tuesday so next week is a good time or you’ll have been here a month by the next meeting and that’s far too long.”

She ushered me from her office a little while later and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not as I made my way downstairs.

One positive of my first morning was that within the hour of our earlier chat, I saw revised meetings dropping in and people coming over to talk to Emma, glancing my way as they did so. Emma was extremely friendly and charming. She knew everyone, it seemed, and everyone knew her. I had a quick look at her LinkedIn bio and saw she’d been in the role for over a year and given when she graduated, was in her mid 20’s, which looked about right.

I clicked off and prepared for the first of four back-to-back intro meetings. They all followed a similar pattern of basic intros, a summary of what their teams did and then where the challenges were. Collectively, I saw bigger challenges than they presented. Our ways of working, use of data and use of technology was poor. Our current strategy, due for renewal soon, hadn’t delivered. I sighed, this would be a big challenge. What concerned me more, however, was the nervousness that these senior leaders tried to hide. They looked like they’d been beat up a fair bit.

I stepped out at the end of the last meeting keen to go for lunch but aware I’d be walking through a packed office and walking passed without any intros would be a bad look. I already had a view of what the culture was likely to be and I didn’t want to fall into expectations of that continuing. I sighed again and put on my best impression of a PA’s false smile before walking out and making my way along the rows to introduce myself.

It became a bit of a queue in the end, rather awkwardly. Staff were hanging around waiting for me to get to them and basically ask them the same questions – what was their name and what did they do. I was interested but the volume of people meant I’d remember none of it. Worse still, those that had gone for lunch were now coming back and those that I’d missed were hanging around at the end of rows. I must have said hello to 80 people by the time I was finished.

I looked at my watch, 12.50. My next meeting was in 10 minutes which meant no food until my next break at 2.30. I grumbled quietly and went back to my office. Emma was waiting for me as I got there and handed me a sandwich and a diet coke. I took them gratefully, amazed at her thoughtfulness.

“Thank you,” I said with a huge smile.

“Just doing my job,” Emma said, but looked pleased nevertheless.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked, getting my wallet out.

Emma shook her head, pointing to a drawer. “I used your corporate card in the canteen downstairs.”

I smiled and nodded. “Good thing you knew I have one, at least.” I turned to walk into my office and paused, turning back. “Emma, for future reference, if the corporate card is paying, get me something hot.”

Emma laughed. “Sure thing, James.”

I got through my afternoon meetings in a similar fashion, glad the 1:1 intros were almost done. I much preferred a team meeting – better dynamics and more collaborative. I noticed that Emma was engaging with all the senior managers that stopped on their way through to see me. She carried herself well and adapted her conversation to each of them. It was impressive. I wasn’t sure if it was normal having never had an assistant before but it was impressive either way. I noticed she did a spinning thing with her pen when she sat their thinking, absent-mindedly rolling it between her fingers.

Emma stuck her head in the door towards the end of the day. “All your meetings should now be sorted. Anything else you need James?”

I sighed and sat back, gesturing to a chair opposite me. Emma took it hesitantly. “Emma, I’ve spotted another mistake.”

Emma went red immediately, it was a surprisingly cute reaction. I continued with my serious tone. “You’ve put in one to ones with all my direct reports except one.”

“But, no, I don’t think that’s right. I’m sure I haven’t missed anyone.” Emma replied.

I kept looking at her while she looked at me blankly, becoming flustered. I sensed she was scared of making mistakes. “Are you not one of my direct reports?”

Emma blushed magnificently and I felt guilty putting on the fake disappointment with her but she also needed to learn how to work with me.

“Oh, I… didn’t think you’d… yeah.” Emma finished lamely.

I laughed, breaking the ice. Emma smiled too, not looking me in the eye. “Put some time in for us tomorrow Emma. Then head off, you were here early.”

She nodded and walked towards the door. “Oh and Emma,” I said, waiting for her to look back. She turned around and played with Erenköy Escort her hair as she did. “I like work to be fun. I’m going to tease you a little bit sometimes and I want you to feel able to do the same back.”

Emma blushed and nodded, walking out. In that moment I sensed something might have grown on her part.


The next day I met with Emma at 9.30 before my team meetings. This time I didn’t wear a tie. I found out that she studied English Literature at a University in London, having been raised in Hertfordshire. She loved being a PA or EA and saw it as her career for the next few years. I told her that I was born and raised in London, from a run-down estate. I hadn’t shared that with anyone else in the job and didn’t plan to, but I felt it good to be a little more open with Emma.

“Okay, so what can I do to help you develop?” I asked.

Emma thought about it only briefly. I suspected she knew a question like this was coming as I’d been asking my other direct reports similar questions the day before.

“I’d like to have more exposure to projects… and I guess I’d like you to give me things to do that isn’t what’s usually in my role. I’d like to be given tasks that you wouldn’t ordinarily ask me to do.”

I nodded. “I can do that, sounds good to me.”

I spent the rest of the morning in hybrid meetings with the teams I was in charge of. Those that were in the office joined me in the meeting room and then we video called the rest into the meeting. There were new faces in person and online across each meeting. By the end of the day I’d met with almost all of the 200 or so people that were under me and felt like I was starting to understand some of the challenges and the priorities. It felt like I was being seen as the big hope to turn things around which was equal parts daunting and exciting, as I relished the challenge. My feeling around Max was reinforced, however. She was a taskmaster. Nobody said it but she was clearly killing morale in her pursuit of improvement.

I was working from home on Wednesday and started it by sending Emma a list of things I wanted her to work on or organise, including one or two ‘stretch tasks’ which I’d assess the quality of the next day. Emma came back with one or two clarifying questions but otherwise worked independently. Some of my direct reports reached out across the day to see how I was getting on. I knew it was because they were nervous for their own futures, which was understandable. I already had capability concerns with one or two but I wasn’t about to move on that so soon, especially as they seemed to be working in a state of fear.

I heard a Teams notification and saw a message come up mid-afternoon which I opened as it was from someone I’d never met before.

Laura Hudson: Hi James, I’m Laura, your HR Business Partner, here if you need any support around HR matters. It’d be good to catch up at some point soon.

I typed out a quick response.

James Guard: Hi Laura, good to meet you. That sounds good, could you speak to Emma about putting in some time tomorrow.

I clicked on Laura’s picture and saw an attractive woman probably in her late 30’s with brown hair that had some blonde in it and dark eyes. Unlike Emma, she definitely did wear quite a bit of makeup but it didn’t make her less attractive.

I worked later in the evening, spending a lot of time looking into things and starting to put together outline plans and suggestions that I was aiming to take to the first Executive meeting the following week.

Emma and I met in my office the next day where she presented the work she’d done. I was pleasantly surprised not just in the work she did but the way she presented it to me. I could tell she’d done some rehearsing of sorts but she presented better than people who were levels above her in their career. She had her hair up today and was still going with a skirt and blouse combination but I felt like there was a touch more effort to her look which I partly hoped was for me. During that conversation, I felt myself developing an attraction for her. There was something about her that I couldn’t place but was nonetheless starting to become captivated by. I had to keep my staring in check.

“This is excellent Emma, really well done!” I enthused. Emma looked delighted. “No it is,” I reinforced. “I feel you’ll just need to change a couple of bits around how you present the data so it’s digestible. Let me show you.”

After she left I sat back at my desk and exchanged a few messages with Marion who ran the marketing department and John who ran the strategy team about the need for them to work more closely together, built on some of the analysis work I’d asked Emma to do of our internal webpages.

In the afternoon I met with Laura for the first time. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an immediate attraction on my part. I reasoned my attraction to Emma earlier didn’t help keep my mind from going to the gutter. Laura wore trousers and a shirt which wash’t unflattering but also didn’t give anything away. At the end of the admittedly-pointless briefing meeting, I stood up to see her out and as she walked passed me, we locked eyes and I could have sworn we were both thinking the same completely inappropriate thoughts.

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