Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Sally Thomas of Columbus, Ohio.
Sally Thomas is Sr. Executive Business Partner; Assistant to the President and CEO of her organization. Here’s a look at her world.
A silent start
A usual workday includes waking at 5:00 a.m. and doing a 15-20 minute at-home Pilates/meditation routine in silence. While getting ready for work, I listen to NPR and BBC radio programs and enjoy a latte.
I recently moved, and my commute is no more than 20 minutes, which has been a welcome change. If I am lucky, I will see and hear Canadian geese talking and walking in our neighborhood or flying in a V formation. Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? I typically drive to work in silence to hear nature and reflect or listen to upbeat music. The current playlist includes Cannons, Charles Fauna, Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons, Sia, Taylor Swift, Max Richter and Daniel Hope.
At the office
Primary Responsibilities: My primary role is ensuring my executives’ time is used most effectively, given competing internal and external demands.
I help coach and train new Executive Assistants and those who are transitioning into new roles. I work closely with the nine-person leadership team to ensure alignment with the President and CEO. I support additional executives who are in transition, which has been a good opportunity to learn about our business, clients and competition.
Morning Routines: Upon arrival to the office, I get ready for my executives to start their day and execute on any current directives or requests. I check in with my executives to ensure the day is okay as scheduled and they have what they need to be successful, and make any needed adjustments (repeat throughout the day).
How long is your work day? I spend between 10-12 hours daily in the office doing core work. When I leave the office, I like to be sure that things requiring focus and execution are complete. After hours, I check messages on my laptop or smartphone as needed and am accessible for travel changes, client requests, etc. When I go home for the day, I prefer to decompress as much as possible.
Our Executive Assistant team recently launched a monthly Administrative Professional Circle
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? My employer provides access to adjustable/stand desks, an onsite fitness center and discounts to a variety of health and wellness opportunities. Healthy items are available in our onsite café. There is an indoor walking track that spans the length of our campus as well as outdoor sidewalks and biking/walking paths.
What might be a typical lunch? I take quick breaks throughout the day, including lunch; sometimes solo, sometimes with coworkers. If my executives are traveling, I will take the opportunity to get together for lunch with those in my external network.
Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role? My employer recently launched a mentoring program and I have been paired with a technical employee who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy and biomedical engineering. It’s been great exposure to those on the frontline of our company’s client and technical work.
My employer recently launched a mentoring program and I have been paired with a technical employee who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy and biomedical engineering
Our Executive Assistant team recently launched a monthly Administrative Professional Circle. Administrative professionals throughout our company participate. Currently the focus is on internal subject matters that help with day-to-day work. We have plans to include company leadership, integrate our company’s culture initiative and invite external guest speakers.
Challenges and satisfaction
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Lack of time and, on occasion, resources to get everything complete and of the best possible quality.
What do you most enjoy about your career? The opportunity to work with and support smart, creative, driven, passionate people who lead with integrity, diplomacy and benevolence.
On saying “no”
I am the type of person who tends to take on too much. It’s a work in progress for me. I have a couple of strong coworkers I lean on to help. When I do say no, it’s mostly to external commitments. I am focused on completing current responsibilities before taking on additional assignments.
I was born in San Diego, California, and now live in Columbus, Ohio. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I prefer a mix of city and suburb. I have friends and family who live in the country. It’s enjoyable to visit, but great to come home to the city/suburbs.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I enjoy traveling with my husband. I also enjoy nature.
How long have you been in this career? I got my start as an Executive Assistant almost 20 years ago. However, I took a year and a half long hiatus within my company at the time to work as a Senior Advisor managing professional services (travel, culinary, communications, etc.), but returned to the administrative profession about two years ago. What was your first administrative role? I worked for the Director of Compliance in a Fortune 100 company.
How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? My current employer recruited me from California to work in Columbus, Ohio. I learned about the job on LinkedIn. I have worked with headhunters but, in my career, working directly with the employer has been the most successful approach.
Sally enjoys “the opportunity to work with and support smart, creative, driven, passionate people who lead with integrity, diplomacy and benevolence”
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I am a big fan of comedies and will watch a movie or show. I enjoy spending time with family and friends.
Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? A whitewater rafting adventure with class four or five rapids – any adventure that involves nature, and especially water, mountains or canyons.
Education and professional development
Working with a variety of smart, demanding and gracious leaders has been the best education and preparation for this job. Early in my career, I received mentoring from some very skilled and driven Executive Assistants who still influence the way I do things today. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management, which has been beneficial and opened doors.
Peer and professional associations, and benefits derived: I currently participate in more informal networks where ideas are exchanged on training, recruiting and best practices. I tend to be more drawn to these small group, or one-one interactions tailored to what is topical.
Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? Adaptable to change. Leadership capability. Hard-working and resilient. Integrity and diplomacy. Sense of humor is a must.
Act with integrity, discretion and diplomacy. Be confident, kind and efficient.
Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? I have received Outstanding Performance Awards (OPAs) from my current employer; it’s a formalized program to recognize employees. I have benefitted from similar awards at prior places of employment. The awards have not been administrative employee-specific.
Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. One was trying a completely different (mid-level management) role within the core of the business. I learned how the business works, how vendor relations are developed, sustained and managed, and gained understanding of the back of house processes and technology requirements. I also learned how to influence coworkers and leadership by sheer competency (read: sans CEO-level status).
Moving cross-country to start a new job in a new company is another accomplishment. After nearly two years, I am really enjoying the role and the executives I work with, and appreciate the mission and focus of my company.
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? Expanding my external network, developing a stronger, aligned internal Executive Assistant team and continuing to learn technology advancements to become more efficient.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? This is always a work in progress for me.
Understand what it is you want to do and what opportunities your company or external network offers
The digital age
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? LinkedIn, Concur, SuccessFactors, Google, Waze
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Yes. It can make for long days, but it is also a convenience to quickly check and ensure everything is okay. The executives and team I work for and with are very respectful of after-hours communications. It’s on an as-needed basis. I operate under the premise that “no news is good news” and “silence is agreement”.
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital, or paper-based? We have a hybrid of digital and in-person meetings. If the material is complex, it may be printed for easier consumption.
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. This advice is not new, but I do think it’s beneficial. Research and understand the company and interviewers as much as possible/practical. Be authentic; be your best self. Do have answers prepared for behavior-type and relevant work example questions.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Act with integrity, discretion and diplomacy. Be confident, kind and efficient. People respond well to the person who knows what they are doing, is helpful and saves time.
Early in my career, I received mentoring from some very skilled and driven Executive Assistants who still influence the way I do things today
What are a couple of suggestions you’d offer that new assistant on the block, in terms of how to build effective business relationships within the office? Be approachable. Be responsible and own your workload. Ask good questions and ask for or offer help (people like to be needed and helped and it’s an easy way to stay connected). Stay above the fray. No gossip. No mean girl/guy behavior.
Your most effective time management strategy? This is a work in progress for me. I’ve recently been working in a micro-team environment. We are a three-person team who complement each other’s work style, strengths and capabilities and share the extra workload. It’s been helpful.
Be authentic; be your best self
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Learn his/her working style and preferences. Be observant and ask thoughtful questions; take reliable notes and adjust as needed. Propose solutions; work through others to get things done.
For those interested in promotion: Understand what it is you want to do and what opportunities your company or external network offers. Position yourself accordingly and speak with those in similar roles and leadership. Get noticed.
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