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“Wait, what?” Pete squinted in confusion.
“You heard me.”
“They fired Sam?”
“Made her redundant, but yeah.”
“Why?” Pete’s grimace tightened.
“No idea. I just met her in her office and she was packing her things. Says there’ll be a statement soon from Leaper.”
The pair sat on the end of Fran’s desk, staring into space.
“I don’t get it,” said Pete at last. “Sam’s a really safe pair of hands. Sales are steady, despite everything that’s going on. We all like working for her. Everyone she’s hired has stayed and done really well. I don’t understand. Do you think they’re downsizing?”
“Guess we’ll find out when the statement comes through,” said Fran, swigging cold coffee.
PETE: Have you fucking seen this?
PETE: What the actual fuck?
FRAN: I’m trying to dissociate right now. Give me ten minutes to pretend this isn’t happening and then I’ll be back to chat.
The statement did indeed clarify the situation. After twenty-five brilliant years with Leaper & Co., Sam Rose had been ‘offered a generous reinvention package’ to ‘pursue new dreams’, and to make way for something Phillip Leaper, CEO and son of founder Marcus Leaper, called “our quest for infectious vigour”.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” grumbled Pete. Fran shrugged as they read on.
“‘As we move into the 18-25 market, we need to get into our clients’ minds. We need to think like them so we can offer the solutions they need. With that in mind, we will be welcoming a new face to Leaper & Co. This individual brings talent, a wealth of insight and the radical energy to captivate the youth demographic.
Please join us for wine and nibbles in the conference room at 2pm this coming Monday, where we will introduce the new Head of Product for Leaper & Co.”
“Can we abstain?” said Fran, wearily.
“‘Attendance is mandatory for anyone who has not pre-booked leave,’” read Pete.
“For God’s sake,” growled Fran, putting her head on her desk. “It’ll be like we’re dancing on Sam’s grave. Besides, it’ll be a mess of pie charts and buzzwords and false smiles.”
“I feel sort of sorry for whoever is filling Sam’s shoes,” said Pete. “It’s hard to follow the best.”
“Who do you reckon they’ll land us with?” asked Fran. “Some bozo in a Hugo Boss suit with an MBA and six failed start-ups? That sort of CV usually dazzles old Leaper.”
“Christ, they’ll either be a tyrant or a cyborg,” moaned Pete. “There better be some bloody good pastries at this welcome do.”
It was 2.15 in the conference room and everyone was standing around, eyeing up the food but not daring to take any.
Ranj from Client Services rolled her eyes.
“I’ve got a stack of prospect queries up to my chin, Apollo Inc. ringing my phone off the hook about some delivery error, I just scalded myself on the kettle and I really don’t have time for this right now. Why do we have to make a song and dance about this? Just walk them round the office, say hi and let’s crack on!”
A murmur of agreement rippled through the assembled. Just then, Phillip Leaper walked in, beaming. His PA Linda carried a Congratulations cake.
“Welcome! Hi guys! Welcome!” gushed Leaper, his bright white teeth neon under the striplighting. “Just put that down in the middle, Linda. Help yourselves to nibbles, everyone.”
A dozen hands lunged for the straw boxes of goodies.
“So today is a very exciting day,” said Leaper, as Linda plugged his laptop into the projector screen. “A new chapter for our family here at Leaper & Co. We’re taking our first steps towards…”
A Powerpoint slide loomed up, reading “Infectious Vigour”.
“Now playing at the Starlight Ballroom,” Fran whispered to Pete, who covered his chuckle with a fake cough.
“Now, we’re all very sorry to be losing Sam,” said Leaper, putting on a sombre expression. “An amazing product manager, really knew the company inside-out. Lovely person, hard worker – very sorry to be losing her.”
“Yeah, you look it,” hissed Pete to Fran.
“But with every door that closes,” continued the dear leader, “a new one opens, and it gives me great pleasure to introduce someone who’s going to give us the radical energy we need to blow the youth market sky-high.”
Fran gripped Pete’s arm. Was the murderer in the room?
No, the door was opening…
“No,” mouthed Fran and Pete simultaneously, as Leaper welcomed in the new boss.
“Please,” he said, gesturing dramatically, “give a warm welcome to your new Head of Product, and the hardest-working young woman I know, Karly Leaper!”
He applauded aggressively, such that everyone found themselves dazedly clapping along with him.
“His daughter?” mouthed Fran and Pete to each other.
The new boss wore a Chanel suit, Gucci glasses and Louboutin heels. Her hair was cut in a blonde bob and her makeup was immaculate. She gave a laconic wave as she gazed upon her new subjects.
Leaper explained that he had considered many talented individuals for the role, but Karly’s experience volunteering for wildlife charities in the tropics, coupled with her MBA from Birwell and her soon-to-be launched luxury retreat start-up Gaia Passions (“she is actually selling her stake in order to join us”), made her the only choice.
“Youngest person ever nominated for Femtrepreneur’s #Goals Award, isn’t that right?” he said.
“Yup,” said Karly casually, which made Fran doubt it had been a struggle to finance such ventures. And now that she came to think of it, Femtrepreneur was part of Leaper’s publishing portfolio.
“Now,” said Leaper, “Any questions for me or Karly?”
“Um, sorry, when was the job advertised?” asked Ranj.
“Earlier this week,” said Leaper serenely, “though we’ve been liaising with headhunters for some time now – not, you understand, with a view to replacing Sam – but just looking to bring some fresh vibes, some new blood to the company.”
“So…three days?” said Ranj, frowning.
“About that, yes,” said Leaper, irritated by the question. Karly smiled blissfully on. “We had a deluge of applicants, so we closed the listing early.”
“Bullshit,” coughed Pete.
“I have a question for Karly,” said Fran.
“Sure!” said Leaper.
“What is your personal approach to product management, and who are your influences?” said Fran, staring into Karly’s blue eyes.
“Well I’m very passionate about product,” began Karly. “That’s what inspired my company’s name. It’s like, if you don’t have product, what can you even sell? And I suppose my influences are all self-made women because we have to support our sisters. I’m a feminist.”
“Wow,” said Fran, dully. “Anyone in particular?”
“No,” said Karly, staring into space. “Any girl-boss is an icon, really. I’m big on equality.”
Pete pinched Fran’s arm to stop her asking a follow-up.
“If they can fire Sam, there’s no way they wouldn’t fire you,” he hissed. “Maybe don’t troll the boss’s daughter on her first day, eh?”
“Well, we’ve taken up enough of your time,” yawned Leaper. “Thanks for coming, everyone. And don’t forget to run your ideas past. She’s incredible at turning a spark into an inferno of ideas.”
“An ideas arsonist, got it,” grunted Fran.
Everyone rambled back to their desks in disbelief.
Karly’s first month was going well. At least, that’s how Karly and her father saw it. She held meeting after meeting at luxury locations, networking with executives her father knew, seemingly without result. She would shut herself in her huge office with her headphones on, then emerge with one or two half-baked ideas, call an on-the-spot meeting about them and scowl as her subordinates explained why what she wanted was not possible.
Ray, the company’s bookkeeper, was ordered to provide a platinum card for Karly. Upon examination of the receipts each week, his face would turn ashen.
“She’s burning through hospitality money,” he said. Look at this: £100 on lunch, £150 on lunch, £500 on gift baskets. There’ll be none left for the sales staff when they need to meet clients.”
Fran tried to keep her head down but having schlepped in for 8.30am, it boiled her blood to see Karly rocking up at midday in a Burberry outfit, putting her bags down and heading out for a ‘stakeholder meeting’ at some Michelin restaurant, before returning and declaring she was tired and would be working from home for the rest of the day.
Blissfully unaware of the animosity she was stoking, Karly continued to cosplay as a manager, ignoring the unanswered emails and purchase orders piling up on her desk, in favour of ordering designer furniture for her enclave.
The final straw came when Ray, carrying some printouts for shredding, dropped two of the sheets in front of Pete. He scooped them back up with a sigh, but not before Ray had seen what Karly was earning.
“HOW MUCH?” Fran exploded.
“Yup. Like, the value of a three-bedroom house, every year. Plus bonuses.”
“Sam once told me what she was on,” said Fran, disgusted. “Not to boast, but to reassure me that she didn’t mind buying the drinks for our end-of-quarter bash. And let me tell you, it was not that. Not even close. Ooh, I’m so fucking mad right now!”
She and Pete sat on her desk once again, despondent.
“Fuck it,” said Fran. “We have to do something. It’s only been a month and already we’re all worn out. If this plank passes probation, she’ll be locked in until Leaper retires and makes her CEO. I don’t think I can handle that.”
“What can we do?” said Pete. “You up for making a complaint to HR?”
“Very funny,” said Fran. The Head of HR was an old chum of Leaper’s and equally inept. Only his assistants kept things ticking over.
It took another month, during which Fran nearly took up smoking and Pete nearly walked out altogether (doughnuts coaxed him back), before an idea hit.
Pete ambled over to Fran’s desk, which had been cleared of all her photos and mementos, following a visit from Karly’s interiors shaman and a verbal warning.
“Would you look at this? What a load of guff!”
He slid a flyer across the keyboard. It showed a CGI phoenix rising from the ashes and the words “Your Life. Your Ascent. Be The Fire.”
“Came in today’s post. Keep seeing billboards for it, too.”
“Religious stuff?” said Fran. She flipped it over to find details of a ‘leadership and synergy boot camp course’, organised by someone with several questionable acronyms after his name.
“They’re huge business,” said Pete. “License to print money. Just come up with a metaphor and tell people basic home truths, mixed in with that metaphor. Sit them down in groups with some plasticine, show them some graphs and tell them they’ve become leaders.”
“Hmm,” said Fran, twitching her nose in thought.
“Nothing,” said Fran. “And maybe something. Leave this with me.”
“You’re not signing up?”
“Ha! Do I look like I’ve got £5K to burn?”
“Hey,” said Pete, grinning, “if you do, you might emerge from the flames like a phoenix.”
Fran chuckled, pocketed the leaflet and flapped her arms all the way to the kitchen.
That evening, Fran begin scribbling and researching, glancing back occasionally at her notes. She sent a few emails to friends outside the company, with the subject “Practical Joke”.
At midnight, she looked up from her screen, exhausted.
“This is stupid,” she thought. “It’s never going to go anywhere. I’ve just tired myself out for tomorrow. I just need to get on with things and let this drop.”
“Now don’t flip out,” warned Pete, “but your desk looks a bit different.”
“What now?” snarled Fran.
Her chair was gone. In its place sat a large exercise ball. More to the point, her desk was not just different. It too was gone.
Fran banged on Karly’s door. She heard the sound of feet clattering off the desk and onto the floor.
“Hang on, I’m just on the phone to…suppliers.”
Fran pretended she hadn’t heard, and entered. She forced a smile.
“Hi Karly. I don’t suppose you know where my desk and chair are?”
“Oh, cool! They sorted the refurb!” said Karly. “I’ve been reading a lot about yoni grounding, and I thought my sisters in the office seemed a bit tense, so I’ve surprised all the women with expressive spheres instead of chairs. Oh, and these!”
She handed Fran a tray with shoulder straps, like that worn by a programme seller at the theatre.
“Please tell me this is not my desk,” said Fran, her head filling with smoke. “And I would like my chair back please. I need lumbar support, not yoni support.”
Karly was winded.
“Oh wow,” she said quietly. “I didn’t realise you were so…closed-minded.” There was a distinct threat in her tone, and Fran felt an invisible sword dangling above her head. “Wow. That…doesn’t seem right for the Leaper brand. Maybe we need to, uh, revisit your role.”
“I’m just saying, maybe you should try it before barging into your boss’s office and throwing a tantrum. K? Or, you know, you could always look elsewhere for a boring, conventional office job. Anyway, I have an online meeting, so…”
She waggled her fingers dismissively. Fran turned blankly on her heel, too angry to talk. She walked across to her ball, sat down on it clutching her tiny tray-desk, and fumed.
“You ok?” asked Pete.
“Oh, I will be,” said Fran, as a wicked grin broke out from under her grimace. “Mind if we grab a coffee? I’ve got an idea I’d like to run past you.”
Pete couldn’t suppress a grin of his own.
Fran waggled the leadership leaflet, then tapped her own notebook.
“A little re-education.”
“How are you going to…?”
“Oh, I’m not. She’s going to do it all by herself. Just like a big girl!”