Real Careers: Jacqueline McCumber

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Jacqueline McCumber is an Executive Assistant at Nektar Therapeutics. Here’s a look at her world.

Getting people on their way

On an average day I am hitting the alarm for the final time at around 5:30/5:45 a.m. to help my husband with our two year old, and get them out the door around 6:40 a.m. I have about 20 minutes or so before I have to leave, so I enjoy the news (for some reason, my two year old is not fond of the news) before I leave the house around 7:15. I try to stay on the healthier side for breakfast, so I grab either a protein shake or an RX Bar on my way out the door.

I am thankful to live in a city that still feels like a small town. My commute to work is typically only about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on traffic.

Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? I listen to music no less than 10 hours a day; it is an absolutely vital part of my day. Some of my favorites include Adele, Sam Smith, Brandi Carlile, James Arthur, Justin Timberlake, Jason Isbell, and Alabama Shakes.


At the Office

Primary Responsibilities: Planning and facilitating site-wide events, managing administrative support staff, contract management, business correspondence, assisting corporate with global all-hands meetings, meeting minutes for senior management meetings, and travel and expense reports. I am very fortunate that my boss includes me as part of his core team, and also entrusts me with various tasks outside of the normal day to day administrative tasks.

Morning Routines: As you mentioned, there really is not a typical day when it comes to being an Executive Assistant. I do, though, have a morning routine. My boss, VP of Manufacturing Operations and Site Head, has a 7:40 meeting each morning with his direct reports. It’s a quick check-in meeting to go over any safety issues, give positive reinforcement to anyone from our site who went above and beyond the previous day, and finally to do a quick rundown of what each of us has on our plate for the day. All together, this meeting lasts about 10 minutes and provides a wonderful opportunity to ensure the Operations team is always aligned.

Jacqueline blocks off an hour each Friday morning for Development Time Outs

After that meeting, I typically do a quick run through of any emails that have come over since I left the night before; I follow-up on anything urgent. If there are no fires to put out, I take about 15 minutes to check news articles and eat the breakfast I grabbed on my way out the door. On Fridays, I have blocked off an hour in the morning for what I call “Development Time Outs”. During this time I typically will watch TED talks, or read articles I’ve saved on LinkedIn. I’ll spend time on whatever I feel needs my attention at the moment – be it Emotional Intelligence, better time management skills, or how to provide development opportunities to my Administrative Support.

My mornings seem to be the only part of my day that is remotely static; some days I am in meetings for four to five hours combined. Other days, I have no meetings. On the days I have no meetings, I could have 15 people stop by my office with little things that all require help – or I could have five contracts that need to be routed through our Legal and Purchasing system. Each day is different, and the ever changing landscape is part of what makes my job so enjoyable.

How long is your work day? I typically spend anywhere from seven to nine hours in the office, depending on the time of year and workload. During times when we have a site-wide or off-site events, I have been known to work upwards of 11-hour days. As a society, we are constantly plugged in, so I’m not sure I am ever really “off” work; however, I am thankful for a team that rarely requests anything outside of the normal business hours.

Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health?  Our Environmental Health & Safety and Human Resource groups are incredible when it comes to getting us out of our chairs and moving. We are all afforded the option to use a standing desk and have regular ergonomic checks for our work stations.

It’s incredible to work for a company that puts so much thought in to our health and well-being

Also, we do global fitness challenges each year; all three of our sites compete to determine which group at each site is the most active; the competitive element tends to be a little more engaging. In addition, there are weekly ART (Active Release Therapy) sessions available, yoga class on Wednesday afternoons, and each month a massage therapist comes on-site and we are offered discounted appointments. It’s incredible to work for a company that puts so much thought in to our health and well-being.

What might be a typical lunch? I try to go out to lunch only once a week but, if my workload is in a moderate state, I will venture off site three or four times a week. Other than that, I eat at my desk – or if I need to get away for a few minutes, without leaving, I sit at a small table in my office and read or listen to TED talks. Giving myself that 15-20 minutes of reprieve has a wonderful effect on staying focused when I return.

Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role?  Not that I can think of – mostly because, as the site head’s executive assistant, I am always involved in some capacity.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Staying cognizant of all the stop-by requests from people, and ensuring I follow up. Sometimes it seems like those little tasks all hit at once, and I strive to maintain a reputation of being efficient and reliable.

Visibility and cross-functional exposure have provided numerous opportunities

What do you most enjoy about your career? As an Executive Assistant, I am involved with every single group at our site and with people in various departments from our other sites. This type of visibility and cross-functional exposure has provided me with numerous opportunities to support projects and teams from varying parts of the business. These contributions have provided me with tools in every facet of the business, from Purchasing to the Emergency Response Team. I believe adaptability an important tool for an Admin; by learning what each department needs, it provides me insight as to how I should adapt my approach for people within those different areas.


On Saying “No”

I remember that, for the first few years as an Admin, my yearly reviews always had a comment from one of the managers I supported, “Jacque needs to say NO more often; I fear she will be unable to maintain her level of support.” I have not gotten that comment in the last few years – which means I must have gotten better at hiding the workload. In all seriousness, I rarely say no; I often ask what their timeline is and try to provide a respectable date as to when I can provide the end result. In the instance that I do have to say no, I aim to always make sure I point the employee in the right direction of someone better suited to help.


Jacqueline’s World

Map of worldBorn in Lemoore, California on a small Navy base, I moved around a lot as a child. I’ve lived in Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, Hawaii and mostly Alabama. Since graduating college, I have resided in Huntsville, Alabama, and it is definitely home.

At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? City – although, I’m not sure anyone who has not lived in the true country would consider Huntsville a city.

How do you like to spend your time away from the office? As I mentioned above, I have a two year old, which means my evenings and weekends have been full of dinosaurs and play-doh. I would not trade it for anything in all the world. In addition to spending time with my family, I enjoy being active. Running is my exercise of choice. I strive to get in at least four runs a week.

How long have you been an admin. professional? Eight years  What was your first such role? Receptionist at the same company I work for now

What might we find in your desk drawer? Outside of the normal pens, markers and colorful post-it notes, I always have tissue paper and birthday cards on hand. In addition to the party supplies, I am never without static guard! No one needs a pesky blouse sticking to them all day; I like to think I’m prepared for everything.

Understanding business needs will assist in determining what type of development will be most beneficial and job-sustaining

How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? It was an internal reference – my husband works for the same company and had been employed for roughly three years prior to me being hired. I attribute his incredible work ethic for getting me in the door for an interview.

How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A large glass of wine and renting a movie on AppleTV. If that’s not going to cut it, a night out with my friends will generally do the trick.

Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? Tropical – I live for trips to the beach with family and friends. My husband and I are actually traveling to Greece this year, which is a bucket list item for me. We are unbelievably excited.


Education and Professional Development 

Education: I did not go on to become a famous actress or award winning director with my Bachelor of Arts in Performing Arts degree from Jacksonville State University, but I did walk away with some invaluable lessons in resiliency, confidence, meticulous attention to detail, diligence and adaptability. These have served me well in the corporate world.

Most recently, in 2017, I attended the Executive Assistants’ Summit in Las Vegas, and was blown away by the various instructors and workshops I attended. I came back to my office with incredible new ideas, tools and contacts.

Peer and Professional Associations: ASAP – the American Society of Administrative Professionals  It provides administrative specific resources such as webinars, articles, and conference information and discounts.

Do you hold a leadership role in such an organisation? I was selected to the 2018 Advisory Council for the Executive Assistants’ Summit which runs concurrently with the Administrative Professionals Conference (APC) produced by ASAP. How is this leadership role impacting your career? Serving on the Advisory Council is fostering the drive I have to be viewed as leader in our organization, and will enable me to work with an incredibly diverse group of professionals from across the country and in varying industries.

Describe any positive benefits your networking has had on your career, and/or for your employer. The greatest benefit networking has provided to the company is my vendor relationships. I have maintained great relationships with various event coordinators throughout Huntsville and this has proved fruitful in situations when we need last minute accommodations or event space. I ensure these relationships stay relevant by attending as many of their networking events as possible.

What are the primary means of communication for members of your network(s)/professional association(s)?  Email and LInkedIn

Inspirational reads?

  • Her Corner Office: A Guide to Help Women Find a Place and a Voice in Corporate America, 2nd Edition by Trudy Bourgeois
  • The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability by Roger Connors, Tom Smith and Craig Hickman
  • Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable … about Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business by Patrick Lencioni

Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position?  Communication, planning/strategic outlook, interpersonal skills and flexibility

Role models or mentors? Ms. Paulette Tyler has had the biggest impact on my career; she took a chance on a young girl with a Performing Arts degree. When she retired from the company, about four years after I was hired, she had over 20 years of professional administrative experience. In the four years I had with her, she taught me everything she knew and afforded me the opportunity to create systems in my role. I credit a large amount of my success to her foresight, patience, and capability to take a chance on the wild card applicant.

Role model: Paulette Tylor took a chance on Jacqueline and taught her everything she knew

Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? In 2017, I was awarded a Company Star Award for my commitment and dedication to a site infrastructure expansion project. Personal contributions to the team award included responsibility for processing all contracts, photography throughout the project, and working with multiple cross-functional groups to complete the task within the set timeline and designated budget.

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. Being promoted to Executive Assistant. That might not sound like much to some, but remember, I started out as the Receptionist. As a young woman, I had to ensure that I continually relayed my willingness and ability to learn and take on more tasks – which meant asking senior management for more responsibility, standing my ground when necessary to highlight my maturity, and providing flexibility at times to show my understanding of what was required of me in times of crisis or chaos.

I continually relayed my willingness and ability to learn and take on more tasks

What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I tell my employees all the time, “If you’re not ever uncomfortable, you’re not challenging yourself.” When I am faced with doing something outside my comfort zone, I focus my attention on the detail that is causing me the most anxiety – and redirect my energy into increasing my awareness of that detail, project or system.

This meant asking senior management for more responsibility, standing my ground when necessary … and providing flexibility

What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I am serving on the Advisory Council for the Executive Assistants’ Summit, part of the APC, this September/October. In addition, I am very excited to attend the conference and participate in the workshops and seminars.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I recently applied to the University of Alabama Graduate School to secure my Master of Arts in Communication Studies, specializing in Organizational Leadership. My goal is to graduate, obviously, and pursue a career in Executive Coaching and Leadership Training.


The Digital Age, and Evolution of the Assistant’s Role

imageDo you publish to, and/or monitor social media as part of your professional responsibilities?  No, I do not publish to any social media sites, but I do provide articles and photographs to our company-wide internal publication.

What are your preferred forms of social media?  LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram

Do you maintain, monitor and/or publish to a website as part of your professional responsibilities? Yes, I manage the internal SharePoint site for the PDM Org. (Pharmaceutical Development & Manufacturing).

What apps do you make use of in your professional life?

  • TurboScan – I love being able to turn a picture into a PDF and send it to my email.
  • All the major airline apps: Delta, Southwest, American Airlines, etc.
  • CONCUR – easy expense tracking
  • TripCase for tracking employees who are travelling

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? Is something that reads the minds of others an option?

Have you used technology to digitize processes or materials in your workplace? We are digital with all of our purchasing, procurement, time sheets and our annual review process. Two years ago we digitized our training system and, while the transference of documentation and records was very difficult and involved, the fact that the new system provides real-time reports of employee training has given more transparency to managers. I personally appreciate being able to stay on top of training rather than having to ask our Quality Department to run a report and find that there are 10 different modules that require my attention.

The new  digitized system provides real-time reports of employee training

Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Yes. Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability via smartphones, etc. may have had on your quality of life. Fortunately, I don’t feel it has had an adverse impact on my quality of life. Like I mentioned before, our senior management members are quite respectful of your time off. If they are trying to contact me after business hours, it is very important. That helps me feel like I do not need to be on alert at all times. The positive impacts are endless; our IT group is incredible at taking feedback and consistently increasing our productivity using our smartphones.

Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital (relying on portals and/or PDFs of meeting materials), or paper-based? Digital  Does your organisation make use of a portal for any of its bodies/committees?  We currently use WebEx. Implementing new systems or processes always has its problems in the beginning, but again, I feel like our IT group is fantastic at combatting the issues as they roll in. This makes the process much more bearable.

Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint or other web portals? We use SharePoint for our internal portal.


Digital Innovation and Disruption

Let’s talk about the pace of change in the admin. world in general.  This depends on how it is presented and what the business requirement is for the change. Introducing new digital innovation is incredibly challenging in the pharmaceutical industry, due to the large amount of paper-based work that is done on the front end. We definitely have to use a more planned and logical approach to ensure full transfer of data and to ensure we remain compliant with regulatory standards.

Your experience and thoughts on cyber security/data security practices? We are always increasing our cybersecurity, with good reason. Our proprietary information is of utmost importance. I am thankful that we seem to always be evolving with the market and making changes as necessary.


AI, Digital Assistants and the IOT: Their Impacts on this Career

It’s not unusual to read that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will increasingly impact employment prospects across a range of occupations. What forms of professional development would you recommend to assistants who want to ensure their roles remain relevant and rewarding in this digital age?  I think that assistants should take a step back and really look at what their immediate groups, or even their entire organization, seem to be struggling with – and find a way to combat those problems. As administrative professionals, we are constantly looking for ways to make our bosses’ jobs slightly easier. Just take it a step further and really listen during those staff meetings.

Understanding the business needs will assist you with determining what type of development would be the most beneficial and, more importantly, job sustaining. I want all administrative professionals to realize that we have incredible influence within our groups. Empower yourself to think outside of the proverbial box and use your influence to introduce new ideas and systems that will make their daily work more productive. Don’t be afraid to speak up.

I am thankful that we seem to always be evolving with the market and making changes as necessary

What positive impact(s) do you think AI (artificial intelligence), Digital Assistants and IOT (the Internet of Things) will have on the admin. professional of 2025?  I believe the growing number of apps for productivity will allow for less data entry and better work/life balance. I don’t think the administrative professional will ever be a job that is completely taken over by AI, because we are constantly evolving. Look at the average job description of a secretary of 1960 and that of an executive assistant in 2018; you will be looking at almost two completely different jobs. As long as people are involved, there will always be a need for someone to assist; it’s just up to the assistant to ensure they stay relevant with new ideas and a bright outlook.


Travel Planning

Travel or travel planning recommendations? Try and nail down dates as early as possible. I know that this is not always an option, but changing dates at the last minute can cost you/your company double with all of the change and cancellation fees. I try to map out dates for events that require travel at least six months in advance.

What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and for tracking expenses? We use SAP Concur for our travel booking and expenses. I also use TripCase to track my travellers. It does everything from telling me when flights have been delayed to letting me know which baggage claim is designated for their luggage.


Lessons Learned

You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. What approach would you recommend? Update your resume to highlight the areas that showcase your abilities best suited for the type of position you are seeking. Aim to educate yourself in areas of the field with which you are not completely confident – attend some webinars, meet up for a drink with a friend who understands the industry, gather some articles. Do whatever it takes to enlighten yourself on the trouble areas. Make sure your profile is up to date on LinkedIn, and get out there. Stay open to opportunities that don’t necessarily fit in to your wheelhouse and, most importantly, exude confidence.

Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Be confident in the systems you know and don’t pretend to understand systems that you don’t know. I understand it can be scary to admit you might not understand every aspect of the position, but highlighting your willingness and drive to succeed will leave a lasting impression.

Use your influence to introduce new ideas and systems

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Manage the expectations you have for yourself, and ask for help when you feel overwhelmed.

Let’s talk about goal setting. Set obtainable goals, personal and professional. If you start out setting lofty goals that are hard to accomplish, you will find that you feel defeated before you’ve even started. Start small; the momentum of completing a goal will launch you in to the next phase with confidence.

If you’re not ever uncomfortable, you’re not challenging yourself

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? Have 1:1s with all the managers/directors in the departments you support, in order to establish your role. Ask them for feedback regarding areas where they could use some support, and provide insight in to what else you might be able to provide to them and their department. Starting a professional relationship by initiating this type of meeting will show your dedication not only to the position, but to the organization.

Your most effective time management strategy? LISTS!!!! Multi-tasking is very important, but make sure you write down what you need to complete. So many people catch me in the hall with random requests, and if I don’t write them down then there is a good chance I will not remember until I am lying in bed at midnight.

Advice for a new parent returning to the workplace? The guilt you are feeling is completely normal. It is absolutely soul-crushing sometimes, especially if you have just returned from maternity leave, where your days are full of snuggling a newborn. Someone told me , while I was pregnant and fretting over this, that they felt being a working parent made them more engaged. I was not following their logic, but they explained that the time they spent with their children after work was void of interruption and their children were provided hours of their undivided attention – it is completely true! I tell myself every day that I work hard to provide my son with a great life and to exemplify that diligence and hard work provides the best stability.

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Discuss the amount of engagement they like as far as scheduling goes – my boss likes to manage his own calendar and does not want me to accept all of his meetings. I have full access to move and reschedule meetings, but I know that he wants a heads up if someone is trying to schedule something the same day. Also, make sure to measure how much engagement they would like in staff meetings, and make sure to bring attention to the types of ways you might be able to assist – offering to take minutes, building slide decks, meeting invites, etc.

Set obtainable goals – the momentum of completing a goal will launch you in to the next phase with confidence

For those interested in promotion: Sit down and have a discussion with your boss to determine what the requirements are for the position you are interested in. Determine the current gaps, and build your goals around filling those gaps. If you are interested in a completely different career path, request mentoring from someone in the field of interest. If you are as fortunate as I have been, your boss will help figure out ways to apply your lessons learned to your current workload to enable growth.



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

  • ASAP – American Society of Administrative Professionals – also on LinkedIn

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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