Real Careers: John D. Shaw

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, the USA and Wales, and now make our way back to the US to visit with John D. Shaw.

John D. Shaw is Executive Assistant to the CEO, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Here’s a look at his world.

An Early Rise, and A Well Planned Commute

I usually get up around 5:30 a.m., scroll through email to make sure nothing pressing came through overnight, then go for a short run on the treadmill, grab a quick breakfast and head to the office.

I walk to work every day. It takes me 10 minutes to walk from door to door. When I moved to Seattle, I purposely wanted to find an apartment that was within walking distance to the office.  Who or what is on your commuting playlist? I go through phases. Right now I’m loving Jess Glynne, Florence Welch and Pit Bull. What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening?  My friends will laugh, but “Shake it off” – it’s a catchy little tune.

At the Office

Morning Routines: First and foremost – coffee! After I’m properly caffeinated, I’m constantly prioritising my executive’s schedule, monitoring email, and keeping up-to-date on relevant news while I triage meetings.

Primary Responsibilities: My role is all-encompassing. I manage every aspect of the CEO’s professional obligations, from strategising with our Chief of Staff on upcoming objectives to working with our communications department on media and interview requests. No two days are ever alike, which is one of the reasons I love my career.

How long is your work day? I usually arrive at the office by 7:30 a.m. and typically work 10-12 hours before heading home. After leaving, I continue to monitor things from home. The nature of my job means monitoring for constant fluctuations and changes in the office.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? I’m a creature of habit when it comes to lunch. Most days it will be a grilled chicken salad with champagne vinaigrette; however, my two weaknesses are Thai food and Italian. Honestly, I welcome the temptation. Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? Absolutely. It’s part of the job and my colleagues rely on me to be accessible around the clock.

 Trust your intuition

What do you most enjoy about your career? The diversity of my responsibilities and the opportunities I have to continually grow and learn.

On Saying “No”

Unfortunately, supporting any CEO means occasionally having to say “no.” The reality is that my principal cannot be everywhere at all times. Although it’s not easy to have to prioritise competing requests, I always aim to set realistic expectations and offer empathetic regrets when I have to.

A simple “Thank you” or “Is there anything I can do to help you?” can go a long way

John’s World

Map of worldI was born in Camden, Tennessee – population 3,600 – and I now reside in Seattle. At heart, are you a city guy or small community person (city mouse/country mouse)? City mouse, with a great appreciation for living a more simplistic life.

I spend as much time as possible with my husband and four Italian greyhounds.  We currently live bi-coastally, so if I’m not on an airplane flying to Atlanta to see him, you can find me in a TRX class – I’m completely obsessed.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week?  I make it a point to get a massage at least twice a week and make regular visits to the spa.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? The Amalfi Coast

Professional Development

Peer and Professional Associations: I’m currently a member of the NYCA (New York Celebrity Assistants) – an organisation that has become a phenomenal resource. I also belong to the American Society of Administrative Professionals.



Preferred form(s) of social media? Facebook and Twitter (@jshawnash) – I keep up with my friends through Facebook. We are so scattered geographically, it’s the best way for us to stay in touch. Twitter for my professional life and with my colleagues. After all, I don’t think they want to see my husband dancing in the car (true story).

Style and Substance

What are your preferred go-to pieces from your wardrobe to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I have a grey vest that I love to pair with a button-down, and some black patent leather Kenneth Cole loafers.

Your favourite mens’ clothing line? I love Kenneth Cole for the classic style and overall fit. Other staples are True Religion Jeans and Ralph Lauren, and Tom Ford, for his “creative and contemporary take on timeless work wear staples”.

Preferred scent: Cinque Happy for Men, Issey Miyake or Bvlgari Aqva (it depends on the season).

What might we find in your desk drawer? Two protein bars, a pack of gummy bears, a half pack of chewing gum, my desk manual for the CEO’s office and two pens.

Travel or travel planning advice? Having an exceptional driver for your principal when you are going to another city is essential. I always like having the same person for each city – someone who knows the routes inside and out.

Learn your principal’s preferences. This one little bit of advice is one of the best time-saving tips, and you never have to second-guess yourself. If the boss mentions that she really liked something while we are traveling, I’ll always make a note of it and get all the necessary contact information for a person, company, etc. … so that next time she goes to that particular city, I’ll utilise that resource.

Travel planning: Learn your principal’s preferences, and you’ll never have to second-guess yourself

Inspirational reads? Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography – she is truly an inspiration. She used her voice, grace and wisdom as a tool to shape the opinions of world leaders, influence policies and instill hope into her fellow citizens during a very turbulent time in our nation’s history. She is a remarkable example of what every person should strive to be.

Role models or mentors? I’ve been very fortunate in this area of my life. My first boss in the music industry laid the foundation for me and taught me how to build on that foundation, which led to great opportunities for me to flourish in the professional services and television industry.

Never say never

Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. When the first musical artist for whom I worked won New Artist of the Year at the CMA awards, our team had spent a tireless year to build his profile and to see all of that hard work pay off was a huge compliment to all involved. The second one was when I was offered my current role. I was living in Atlanta at the time when I received a call from a recruiter who wanted to talk to me about this opportunity. I remember thinking, “This will never happen.”  Never say never.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I definitely see myself speaking to a larger audience of EAs while mentoring the next and current generation of assistants. I not only think this is an important thing to do, but also a responsibility to share our knowledge and experiences with our colleagues.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? To not underestimate the value of good relationships. All relationships need to be nurtured and a simple “thank you” or “Is there anything I can do to help you?” can go a long way.

Sending hand-written notes lets contacts know they matter to you

Make sure you have a record of special occasions in peoples’ lives. Sending an unexpected “happy birthday” wish to a contact lets them know they matter to you. I prefer sending hand-written notes – it’s more personal. I’ve been very fortunate in having a wide-ranging professional network and have maintained many of these relationships for over 20 years.

Question things, and learn everything you can

Your most effective time management strategy? If it’s a simple task, do it immediately and prioritise the bigger tasks. Also, have a killer email filing system to keep things sorted.

Don’t be afraid to be bold and daring

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: First and foremost: trust and transparency. When you have those two things established, everything else will fall into place.

For those interested in promotion: Trust your intuition, learn everything you can, question things, and don’t be afraid to be bold and daring.


… and now, a note from Shelagh: Readers not familiar with the associations John 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.

  • ASAP – American Society of Administrative Professionals
  • NYCA – New York Celebrity Assistants
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