Emma was at the furthest end of the trade show, aimlessly doing “competitive research” and wondering if it was too late for coffee, when her phone rang.
A hearty voice at the other end invited her to dinner with the German sales team that evening, “in recognition of her work for the German market.”
Far from being grateful, Emma felt nothing but bewilderment. Had she done anything for the German market? A year prior she had customized some marketing material for a local customer. It took about a day. Somehow that didn’t seem worthy of dinner.
Cautiously, striving for polite but aware she was only achieving clueless, Emma checked: “Um - it’s Emma Michaels you’re looking for?” Yes, the voice assured her, it was. “Does Helen Benz know about the dinner?” Helen was her boss. “What?” the voice asked, less hearty now, more bewildered, and clearly a touch irritated that its gift horse was being scrutinized rather than being accepted with appropriate gratitude. “It’s just… it’s a thank you dinner with the team. You can be there, right?” “Yes” Ella assured the voice, deciding she would just have to figure this out on her own, especially since she was clearly violating the trade show rule of etiquette around leveraging every available networking opportunity.
Hanging up, Emma stood and pondered a moment, oblivious to the crush of bodies around. Why would she be invited to dinner? Should she go? Would anyone else be there? And then she realized - the entire US team was probably invited, and she was just the next person in the call queue. Relieved, she started the long trek back to the company booth.
Except when she got there, a few anxious queries showed that no one knew anything about it. No one seemed to care, either. “Just go to dinner,” said her co-worker Claudio, amused. “Why not? It’s free booze.”
So she went. What else was there to do?
Upon arrival, she discovered that the German team numbered about 50, all in the throes of extreme extroversion. She was relieved to see one other US team member and slipped in next to him. “Steve,” she whispered, “I don’t know why I’m here.” Steve, never the brightest bulb (albeit a nice guy), just grinned and turned back to chatting with the salesman next to him.
Emma inwardly sighed, turned on her brightest smile, and started making nice with the folks around her. She would frankly have rather been exploring the bierstube in town, but this was a working trip and making nice at social events was part of the job. She shared what work she had been doing, what she thought about Germany, and learned a great deal about the team - but nothing about what she was doing at this dinner.
Forks rang against glass, chatter died down, and the local GM stood up to speechify. After the usual enumeration of the year’s financial successes and product launches, which Emma followed only vaguely, he continued: “... and we are so excited to have Emma and Steve with us tonight in recognition of all their efforts to launch the P270, Europe’s first device of its kind!” Applause, nods, and then the GM continued with his set speech.
None of which Emma heard, for one very good reason: She had nothing, literally nothing to do with the P720.
Kelly Jacobs did, though. Kelly - the other young, female, short, white, brown haired product manager on the team - had worked her butt off for the past 13 months to get the P270 (Europe’s first, perhaps, but also a complete cluster technically) off paper, into development, and finally out the door. This was Kelly’s honor. This was Kelly’s reward. And where was Kelly? Probably triaging email over room service in her hotel room while Emma ate HER schnitzel.
“Steve,” she whispered, urgently. “Kelly’s supposed to be here.” Steve, Kelly’s closest co-worker, found this hilarious. She then turned to the gentleman next to her, who had proved to be an experienced senior product guy, and quickly - maybe a little desperately - explained the situation. He listened gravely, then shrugged and told her to ride it out. Apparently the team just needed to know they were celebrating Kelly. Whether or not Kelly was actually present was largely irrelevant.
“At least I don’t have to accept any awards or make any speeches,” she thought.
As if on cue, forks rang on glass, chatter died down, and the GM turned to her with a smile.
“Emma,” he said. “Among other things, we’re so grateful for the innovation you showed just before launch when the P270 was in danger of failing quality. You exemplified the company value of ‘all together’ when you pulled a cross-functional team together at the 11th hour and - well, I don’t want to tell your story. Will you take a moment to tell us how you approached this problem, rallied the team, developed the solution, and got us over the finish line?”
Emma froze, smile plastered to face. The senior product guy regarded her sympathetically, but said nothing. Next to her, Steve shook with suppressed laughter. (Ella made a detached mental note to never, ever, ever work with him if possible.)
Emma stood up slowly and with shaking hands took the proffered microphone. “Well” she said. “Hi. Um. I mean good evening. Um. How’s the show?”
“So,” she stumbled on, “I - “
And the door to the banquet room opened.
And in walked Kelly Jacobs.
Who took in at a glance what was going on, and whose expression turned murderous.
Emma, on the other hand, felt nothing but deep, sweet, relief.
“- I am delighted to introduce Kelly Jacobs, who was so worried she wouldn’t be able to make it tonight, and asked if I could represent her, and I’m so happy to say she is with us now and can tell you all the amazing stories about the P270! Ladies [shit, no ladies on this team] and gentlemen, a warm welcome for Kelly Jacobs!”
Never had it felt better to take a seat and drink some beer.
Later - after the speeches, the dessert, the schnapps, and the mingling - Emma found herself in the ladies room when Kelly Jacobs walked in.
Kelly looked at her.
“Kelly,” Emma began, “I didn’t -”
“I know,” said Kelly. “Claudio told me about it. He thought it was funny. Steve too. He said he thought you were going to pass out. Friedrich Schmidt was super nice about it, but didn’t seem to care at all. What is WRONG with them?”
Emma thought about this a moment.
It may have been intended as a rhetorical question, and for sure the situation was funny. She could laugh at it now.
But at the same time, it wasn’t totally funny. Something WAS wrong here.
She wasn’t quite sure what it was. Just 2 years out of college, the business world was still a strange and obscure place at times. But while she didn’t know what “right” looked like, she was pretty sure what “wrong” was, and this was a tiny piece of it. There was so much that was normal but off in this place - people working till the break of dawn for products that failed anyway, people unable to distinguish between the only two females on the team (to say nothing about the two black interns that everyone seemed to mix up), the not-funny jokes, the sink-or-swim attitude, the lack of a helping hand at the right time…
Emma didn’t know what was wrong. And she didn’t know how to fix it.
But for once in her muddled uncertain barely-a-career, she did see a clear next step, and she took it.
“God knows. Want to go check out the bierstube and talk it over?”