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 21 countries to date: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the USA and Wales. Today, we’re off to Richmond, Virginia in the USA.
A Believer in Advance Preparation
I’m not a morning person, so I usually get up around 7:15 in order to be at my desk by 8:30. I let the dog out to chase squirrels while I get ready. I try to get my clothes and bag ready the night before so I’m not too frantic in the 45 minutes before I leave. I often pull up my email just to make sure there are no crises to be prepared for, but I very rarely need to reply to anything before I get to the office.
I drive about eight miles to work, and just this year I learned a shortcut so it takes me about 20 minutes from my driveway to my office. Who or what is on your commuting playlist / podcast? On my morning commute I listen to a lot of Band of Horses and Pete Yorn, but I tend to listen to classic rock radio on the way home. I like to sing along, and I’m grateful there’s no one to hear me!
At the Office
Morning Routines: I turn on the Keurig (perhaps my greatest contribution to the work/break room) when I get in, and my computer immediately after, which probably says something about my priorities. By the time all the machines have warmed up, I’ve checked the supplies and refilled paper trays, and can sit down with my coffee to dive into my email.
Primary Responsibilities: I’m the only staff person in my department of professors, so I have a hand in almost everything: planning meetings and events, monitoring budgets, keeping the website/social media updated, being the face of the department, course scheduling, and processing a lot of expense reports and p-card statements. I also supervise a couple of student workers, who are able to take care of things like copying and scanning—that used to be a bigger part of my workload.
How long is your work day? Hourly staff at my organization tend to work 7.75-hour days, from 8:30 – 5:00 with a 45-minute lunch break. I will be here past 5:00 p.m. maybe once a month, but we have a flexible schedule policy to keep us within the allotted hours – and so staying late doesn’t necessarily mean I’m working more.
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? Except for the cursory email scan in the morning, I really try not to take work home. I used to do it a lot, as did some of my colleagues, but we’re trying to all work together (staff, supervisors, VPs, etc) to keep work levels and expectations reasonable. For us, that generally means we shouldn’t be working outside normal business hours.
This is a culture shift … because so many admins feel like they have to work off the clock to get everything done
That can be challenging—no one likes to let things go undone, even temporarily—but it helps knowing that my peers in other departments are trying to follow the same guidelines. This is a culture shift for us, I think, because so many admins feel like they have to work off the clock to get everything done, which sets unrealistic expectations for everyone. If we are all on the same page, we can hopefully get to a place where everyone is able to leave their work at work.
What might be a typical lunch? This is another thing I’ve really had to work at, and it varies depending on the time of year. In the summer when my workload is a bit more flexible, I often work through lunch so I can get to a second job in the evenings — so I do take my lunch break, but at 4:00 instead of 1:00.
During the academic year I mix it up, either eating at my desk but with the door closed or working through my meal, but leaving my office for a little while to refresh and reenergize. We also have several opportunities (lunch-and-learns) for personal and professional development, so I try to take advantage of those a few times a month.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Working in a dynamic organization and field means that important information sometimes doesn’t travel fast enough. The admins in my division have an email group to share updates, policy changes, etc. so that we’re all working from the same information, since it doesn’t always get passed down to us from the top—at least not as quickly as we need it.
I love working in higher ed because people want to be here
What do you most enjoy about your career? I love working in higher ed because people want to be here: my colleagues are excited about their research, the students are (usually!) excited about their classes, and there are so many opportunities to get involved and educated. My organizational and planning skills make it possible for a lot of other people to be successful, and that makes me feel successful, too.
On Saying “No”
How readily or often do you say “no” to people? Not often enough, probably! When I say no at work, I try to offer a different solution. But I’ve also been practicing “no” as a complete sentence, especially in my personal life.
Beth Ann’s World
I’m definitely into small communities, even if that just means small pockets within big cities. I did my Master’s research on community cultures, including how we shape and are shaped by the places we live. You learn so much about a city and its priorities by walking its neighborhoods. While I love the freedom of being alone in the country with the big open spaces, I definitely prefer the arts, culture, food, and convenience of the city.
How do you like to spend time outside the office? I try to do activities where I can bring my dog, so we go for walks or drives on the weekend. I read a lot, and binge on Netflix a lot more than I should. I love live music, so I go to several concerts a month. If a band I love is playing within a couple hours’ drive, I’ll usually make the trek to go see them, but I’ve definitely slowed down on that as I’ve gotten older and become more invested in work, home ownership, and friendships.
A dream holiday or travel adventure? I keep meaning to see the world, but instead I keep going back to the UK. I tend to visit two or three cities per trip, spending a few days in each one. I’m open to most kinds of accommodations: hotels, B&Bs, or renting an apartment on Airbnb or something similar. But I’m not into rustic—no backpacking or camping for me, thanks!
Own your successes; it’s not bragging to share good news or good ideas
Peer and Professional Associations: I’m on the board of my organization’s staff advisory council, where I serve as parliamentarian, keeping the meetings orderly. I’m only a few months into my two-year term, but I’ve already learned a lot about diplomacy and making sure everyone has a voice.
I’m also a member of ASAP (the American Society of Administrative Professionals).
Preferred form(s) of social media? For truly social connections, I use Tumblr and Twitter. I am terrible at LinkedIn, but I have been working on using that as a networking and learning resource.
I’ve also been practicing “no” as a complete sentence
Awards and Recognition
I was very humbled this year to win my employer’s Outstanding Service Award for the Clerical Division. I also received ASAP’s Eureka! Award this year at the Administrative Professionals Conference.
Additionally, I received a grant from my employer to undertake a project at one of our partner universities abroad; I’d applied for this grant several times before, so I was thrilled to receive funding for a worthwhile project.
Style and Substance
Name a go-to piece or two from your wardrobe to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I prefer dresses when I need to look and feel put together, because I don’t have to worry about matching! I keep a blazer hanging in the office in case of surprise encounters with VIPs, but we’re a pretty casual environment so it’s rare that I need to wear a suit.
Inspirational reads? I am outing myself as a Millennial, I guess, but I read a lot more workplace blogs than books. I especially love Alison Green at askamanager.com and Jennifer Dziura at getbullish.com for work and life advice.
Role models or mentors? I worked several summers as an HR assistant and my manager, Pat, taught me so much about a good work ethic, picking your battles, and finding the right fit. She’s retired now, but still gives me advice about how to be a better manager to the students I supervise and how to make the most of the resources here.
Pat … taught me so much about a good work ethic, picking your battles, and finding the right fit
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. A colleague and I co-founded a networking group at work several years ago, and it branched into five separate employee engagement small groups supported by our staff advisory board/HR office. They give folks a chance to come together over common interests and get to know their colleagues in a more personal setting.
Digitized: the faculty tenure and promotion process
I also revamped a big annual project, the faculty tenure and promotion process, and made it digital. Over the course of a couple years we transitioned from submitting 2,000-page portfolios in three-ring binders to putting everything online in secure cloud storage. There’s still room for improvement, but I’m so proud that my little project to make life easier for my department was expanded to all 22 departments in my division.
What might we find in your desk drawer? Chapstick, gum (in an attempt to avoid the candy dish!), and emergency rations for days I forget my lunch … As I open my drawer to answer this question, I realize I could probably survive for a while if I got stranded in my office. Time for a clean-up!
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I’d like to get my Microsoft Office Specialist certification in Word – and possibly also in Excel. These are the two programs I use most often in my day-to-day work.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? Having recently attended my first professional conference, I’m really interested in seeing how my organization can make that opportunity available to all the admin professionals here. So many resources go into student and faculty development, as they should, but I’d like to see how we can find some resources to get administrative staff in particular into professional organizations and conferences.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Don’t spend too much time trying to solve a problem on your own—certainly try, but don’t be afraid to ask for help. It makes you more efficient and it helps you build connections.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Your most effective time management strategy? Plan ahead. I spend the last few minutes of the work day planning the next day’s schedule, and I block off time on my calendar for the must-do list. I have a master to-do list with deadlines for important projects, but I know the must-do list is the urgent one.
Differentiate between To-do and Must-do lists
Advice for new executives on how to best capitalise on working with an assistant: Ask for their advice! Too often, ideas and initiatives are put in place without anyone talking to the admins who handle the day-to-day logistics. Including your assistant from the early planning stages allows them to offer suggestions and feedback based on best practices and gives them a heads up about what projects they need to be prepared for in the future.
For those interested in promotion: Own your successes. It’s not bragging to share good news or good ideas, especially when they can help others be more successful, too – and those ideas are the things that get you noticed and recognized by forces higher up in the organization.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Beth Ann mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- ASAP – American Society of Administrative Professionals
- askamanager.com – Alison Green
- getbullish.com – Jennifer Dziura