Real Careers: Barbara J. (“BJ”) Parrish

Exceptional EA showcases Real Careers, in which administrators from around the globe generously share the benefit of their experience. We’ve made virtual trips to Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Turkey, the USA and Wales. Today, we make our way to the US Capitol to visit with BJ Parrish.

Barbara J. (“BJ”) Parrish, CAP-OM, is a Senior Executive Assistant. Here’s a look at her world.

A Well Informed Early Riser

A typical work day begins at 5:00 a.m. with the news; because of my long commute (usually 1.5 hours), I like to know what to expect from the weather and traffic before I leave home. I drive to the office, and generally arrive between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. During my commute, I listen to R&B on satellite radio – without commercials – which I love!

The latest favorites on my playlist are: 1000 X’s and O’s by Prince; This One’s for Me and You by Johnny Gil and New Edition; and Can’t Wait by Jill Scott.  When the traffic is really heavy and I need an escape, I listen to old school rap artists like Tupac and Dr. Dre (very loudly, I might add!).

At the Office

Morning Routines: As soon as I arrive, I check my email, my bosses’ email, and my voicemail for any requests or things we need to know or act on immediately. Next, I start on my “to do” list from the previous day.  I’m not a coffee drinker; however, I love my cold caffeine and my drink of choice is regular Coca-Cola.

Primary Responsibilities: I support four principals of Biomedical Services at the American National Red Cross: the President, the Executive Vice President, the Senior Vice President for Quality and Regulatory Affairs, and the National Chair of Volunteers. Primarily I organise their work lives by managing their calendars, arranging their meetings, planning their travel, and managing the day-to-day operations of the President’s Office. I am the liaison to the other chief executives and their assistants, as well as members of the President’s and Board of Governors’ offices. I strive to be a resource to other administrative professionals by sharing knowledge and best practices.

There are no typical days; each day is different with its own set of circumstances. It keeps work interesting. My best laid plans often turn into rescheduling or cancelling meetings and travel. My days tend to be fast-paced because of the work involved with supporting four principals; however, having great organisational and time management skills really helps.

How long is your work day? My work day is usually nine to 10 hours, and I often work past the close of business.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? I seldom go out for lunch; most days I bring my lunch and usually it’s a salad with turkey, tuna, or chicken. Once the weather breaks, my colleagues and I like to get out more.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? No, I seldom work during my off hours and since I drive, I definitely don’t check emails or text while driving. Occasionally, I work from home if the weather’s bad or there’s something major happening near our office such as road closures, etc. Being across the street from The White House, I never know what might happen to close our offices or affect my commute.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? The most challenging aspect of my career has been getting management to understand the importance of the work that I do to make their work lives easier and the importance of my continuous professional development.

Getting management to understand the importance of the work I do to make their work lives easier …

I’m good at what I do because I work at it, and part of that work is to constantly improve my knowledge and skills. You don’t get good at anything by chance, it takes hard work and time to develop the skill set.

… and the importance of my continuous professional development

What do you most enjoy about your career? What I most enjoy about my career is the growth and progression over the years. I began my career as a Secretary-Stenographer in the Federal Government, then moved up to become the Executive Assistant to the City Manager of a major city, and years later, the Executive Assistant to the President and CEO of a major non-profit organization – that’s real career progression and I’ve enjoyed the work, and am proud of the skills I’ve developed with each position.

On Saying “No”

I often have to say no; science hasn’t developed a method to clone people so my bosses cannot be in two places at the same time. The demand on their time is great, and I often have to decline requests.

Offer alternatives

My tip would be to offer alternatives – people (others who can represent your boss or answer particular questions), dates, and times – and to always be gracious.  No one wants to hear “no” but there’s a way to say it that doesn’t offend.

BJ’s World

Map of worldI was born in Washington, DC, our nation’s capital. I live in Bowie, MD. I am definitely a city girl at heart; I love the hustle and bustle, and being from our nation’s capital, I love the monuments, restaurants, and the pulse of the city. The decisions that affect our country are made here; from The White House, to Congress, to the Supreme Court – the heart of our nation beats here and I love it!

I have a large, extended family and I like to spend time with them. I also have four wonderful grandchildren, so I spend as much time as I can with them. I’m an avid movie buff and I love to sit in the middle of my bed and watch movies, especially on lazy Sundays.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I really enjoy winding down with my partner and our animals – a dog and a cat – after a long day. They are my joy and they are all spoiled. A really good meal, a movie or a good book, and relaxation are my reward.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? I have a bucket list of places I want to visit: Hawaii, Paris, London, and Switzerland top my list.

Education and Professional Development

Peer and Professional Associations: The one thing that’s helped me the most is my professional membership in IAAP, the International Association of Administrative Professionals. Before I joined in 2004, I was feeling stuck; IAAP opened up a whole new way of viewing my career. Before IAAP, I held jobs; after joining IAAP, I built a career. It was a mind-shift and attitude change, as well as the opportunity to regularly network with my peers, share best practices, and really learn more about my profession, and what it takes to succeed. I never would have attained certification or known it was possible, if not for IAAP. The friends and connections I’ve made are priceless.

I strive to be a resource to other administrative professionals by sharing knowledge and best practices

I am the immediate past President-Elect and a past Membership Co-chair of the DE-MD-DC (Delaware-Maryland-DC) Division of IAAP. I have also held leadership roles as a past Chapter President, Vice President, Membership Chair, and Fundraising Chair. I am a member of several online communities relative to our profession, as well as ASAP (the American Society of Administrative Professionals) and AMA (the American Management Association).



Preferred form(s) of social media? I prefer LinkedIn for professional communications with colleagues, Facebook for my family and friends, and Twitter for current events and trends. I like the pins from Pinterest; they’re my great escape.

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? Since most of my work is in the office, I couldn’t live with MS Office Professional. The app I use most relative to work is TripIt, to keep up with my bosses’ travel.

Opportunity knocks only for those who are prepared

Awards and Recognition

I’ve received quite a few awards over the years: two “Spotted” awards, one for working with the Administrative Professionals Group and one for chairing the Black History Month Committee; several “Member of Excellence” awards, an “Outstanding President” award, a “Recruiter of the Year” award, and a “New Member of the Year” award from IAAP. I’ve also received several monetary bonuses for “Outstanding Performance”, and several “Spirit of Excellence“ awards.

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I love a dark blue pants suit, a pinstriped blue and white collared blouse with cuffs, and pearl earrings and necklace. That’s my power outfit!

What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? My two must haves are my pressed powder and lipstick.  I can’t do without them!

Heels or flats in the office?  Heels, definitely. I’m a lipstick and high heels girl! For your commute? Heels in the car, too. Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? Nine West, Jimmy Choo, and Chinese Laundry; I love their styles and they carry my size.

Preferred scent: My latest scent is Omnia Paraiba by Bvlgari.

Before IAAP, I held jobs; after joining IAAP, I built a career

What might we find in your desk drawer? My favourite pens, a highlighter and a mini document holder, along with my must-have snack for those crazy busy days – a good piece of chocolate.

Travel or travel planning advice? I work with a travel agent so it makes travel planning much easier. Because I work with four principals, it’s a better use of my time to let the agent know their preferences and give me options from which to choose.

Inspirational reads? Personally, I like motivational speakers and novelists like Tony Robbins, Stephen Covey, and Darren Hardy. Professionally, I like Joan Burge, Dale Carnegie, and Websites like Office Team, Office Dynamics, IAAP, and Career Builder.

Take on projects to learn a new skill or engage with people with whom you don’t normally work

Role models or mentors? My role model and mentor is Patricia May, Director of Administration for the American Library Association, retired Naval Officer, CAP-OM, and past President of the DE-MD-DC Division of IAAP, with a Master of Science degree in Organizational/Industrial Psychology. Patricia is a quiet warrior. She took me under her wing from the first day we met. She is very knowledgeable about our profession and freely shares her time and expertise. Whenever I need advice, feedback, or someone to listen and brainstorm ideas with, she’s the person I call.

I’m good … because I work at it; part of that work is to constantly improve my knowledge and skills

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I’m particularly proud of being a certified administrative professional. I attained IAAP’s CAP-OM (Certified Administrative Professional – Organizational Management specialty) designation in May 2011, and the CAP designation in 2008.  I’m also very proud of being elected as President-Elect of the DE-MD-DC Division of IAAP, with over 500 members, in June 2014.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? Yes. I would love to see the Biomedical Services Administrative Professionals Group grow to become a thriving resource and networking group at the American Red Cross.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Have patience, because everyone is going through something and however you perceive you’re being treated, it’s probably not personal; don’t be too quick to judge.

Dress for the next level up; you need to look the part of the position you want

Your most effective time management strategy? I like to spend a few minutes at the end of the day to review my “to do” list for the next day. I find this helps me to mentally prepare for “tomorrow.” I also like to review my bosses’ calendars to ensure they have what they need to begin their next day. I also use Quick Parts to create redundant information to be easily recalled, rather than recreated every time I need it. I use Quick Parts for conference call numbers, contact information,  and acceptances/regrets for invitations, etc.

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? First, find out how your executive likes/wants to receive information and what are his/her pet peeves.

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Communicate, communicate, communicate – you can’t talk too much or too often. The more you communicate, the less chance of your assistant misunderstanding what is being asked and the outcome that is expected.

However you perceive you’re being treated, it’s probably not personal

For those interested in promotion: I believe the key to growth or advancement is being prepared. Find out what is required for the next level and get it. If it’s more skill, learn it; if it’s more education, get it. Network with people in the department where you want to work; learn about their office and its people.

If you want to change companies, go online and research them and view their social media sites to get an idea of their culture and what’s important to them. Dress for the next level up; you need to look the part of the position you want. Stay current with technology and social media. If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, create one; if you don’t have a professional portfolio, begin working on one.

Network with people in the department where you want to work

Be a continuous learner who is always seeking self-improvement, including the soft skills areas such as communication, teamwork, and emotional intelligence. Opportunity knocks only for those who are prepared; be prepared when it knocks for you. Don’t wait for things to happen; make things happen. Take on projects to learn a new skill or engage with people with whom you don’t normally work. Keep your eyes and your options open. Be fearless!


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources BJ referenced may be interested in checking the following links.

To explore a range of resources recommended by readers, click here for Exceptional EA’s Resources Page or click here to see all professional associations and networks recommended by peers.

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