Real Careers: Laura Swallows

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 back to the USA to visit with Laura Swallows.

Laura Swallows is Executive Assistant to the Founder at Global Prairie. Here’s a look at her world.

On top of email and schedules before anything else

I am not a morning person, so my day does not start any earlier than it absolutely has to, usually around 6:30 a.m. The first thing I do every morning, usually while lying in bed, is check my executive’s calendar for any changes and check my inbox for any urgent updates that may have come in overnight. I am not a coffee person but I drink a lot of water and tea throughout the day. My first steps are usually to the kitchen for a glass of ice cold water, followed by a cup of tea.

I have an easy commute. I drive and it takes me about 10 minutes to get to the office. Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? I listen to Elvis Duran and The Morning Show. They crack me up and laughing is the best way to start the day.


At the Office

Morning Routines: Typically, by the time I arrive at the office, I am already caught up on emails and any changes that I need to make to my executive’s calendar. When I arrive, the first thing I do is open the office; I stock supplies, coffee and snacks, get the music going and make sure the conference rooms are orderly. Then, it’s back to the calendar and emails and making sure my executive has any materials he needs for the day either printed or loaded onto his iPad. Every Monday morning my executive and I sit down to touch base on all projects, align our priorities and discuss any hot topics or pressing issues. One of the many reasons I love my job is that there is no typical day. Every day is so different.

Every Monday we touch base on all projects, align priorities and discuss hot topics or pressing issues

Primary Responsibilities: My primary responsibilities include managing our Cleveland office, being the on-point IT person for our Cleveland office, and fully supporting our co-Founder. My support for him includes managing his calendar, and ensuring he is prepared for all meetings and stays on track with his calendar. I coordinate his travel, some personal appointments, filing, answering the phone, meeting planning, expense reporting and other miscellaneous administrative tasks. Separately, I also coordinate all onboarding meetings for new hires at Global Prairie.

How long is your work day? As I mentioned, I start my work day before I even get out of bed by checking emails and the calendar for any changes. I am in the office by 8:00 and try to leave by 6:00 p.m.

I spend time reading articles and blogs relevant to my profession

Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? Global Prairie offers team members a world-class health and wellness program, primarily focused on comprehensive offerings, proactive care, and friendly competitions. The program offers tools, tips, resources, guidance and incentives so that we can navigate our own personal wellness journeys.

Every full time employee is provided a Fitbit, and we consistently have some type of step challenge going on. We have access to a Varidesk, an adjustable stand desk, and team members can earn up to $500 annually in wellness reimbursements for gym memberships, fitness classes, race registration fees and more. Global Prairie offers quarterly educational wellness sessions facilitated by experts in nutrition, exercise science and disease management. We’re also given access to onsite biometric screenings as well as annual flu shots.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? I often eat from my desk, especially during the brutal winters we have in Cleveland. Because I live so close to the office, when my executive isn’t in, I like to run home for lunch to give my dog some company and get away from the desk for a bit. Otherwise, I’m ordering food for delivery or packing my lunch on a regular basis.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? I think it is a standard part of any EA role to know that you may be required to be available during non-traditional work hours. Personally, at this stage of my life, it does not bother me.

I do check emails while home in the evenings and quite often do end up working for a little bit before bed. However, if I am with friends or family, I try to refrain. It is not necessarily a requirement that I put in hours outside the office, but sometimes I like to spend additional uninterrupted time on various projects. I am also very much into my own professional development and spend time in the evenings reading articles and blogs relevant to my profession.

The responsibility excites and motivates me

Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role?  Inspired by social impact companies like Patagonia, Global Prairie was launched in March of 2008 with a sincere desire to “be the change we want to see in the world”.  Since its founding, the company has committed more than 10% of its profits annually to causes our team is passionate about. The company is a certified Benefit Corporation (B-Corp) and has joined the ranks of more than 2,000 like-minded companies from 50 countries and over 130 industries working together with one unifying goal: using business as a force for good.

Global Prairie has established Philanthropy Champions in each of its office locations, and I hold this role in our Cleveland office. My responsibilities as Philanthropy Champion including meeting with all new hires in Cleveland to educate them on our philanthropy program. I help them to get involved in the local community and ensure they understand how and why this is an important piece of Global Prairie’s culture. Additionally, I coordinate our Quarterly “Giving Days”, when we spend the afternoon volunteering with local organizations that our team members are passionate about and involved in.

I love the sense of partnership I feel from my executive

What do you most enjoy about your career? I love the sense of partnership I feel from my executive. It is great to feel needed and know someone is depending on me in order to be at their very best. The better I do at my job, the better my executive does at his job, which directly impacts the success of this company. That amount of responsibility excites and motivates me.


On Saying “No”

Saying no is tough, especially when you like to help others. However, when approached by someone else for support on any project or task, I ask myself, “Is this directly helping my executive, or is this conflicting with another project or task that would be helping my executive?” If it conflicts, the answer is no.

You have to have the confidence in your role and your responsibilities to say no when necessary

If I have available time, I will absolutely help. You have to have the confidence in your role and your responsibilities to say no to people when it’s necessary, otherwise it will have a negative impact on completing tasks for your executive, which is always the priority.


Laura’s World

Map of worldI was born in Dayton, Ohio and moved to Cleveland, Ohio after graduating from college. I’ve been here since and absolutely love it! It is definitely one of the most underrated cities in the US. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? City Mouse! I love the hustle and bustle energy in the city.

How long have you been an admin. professional? I’ve been an admin. professional for four years. What was your first role as an admin. professional? I landed my first role as an EA to the CEO of three companies right out of college. I graduated on a Saturday and started the job on Monday. The woman who held the role before me left before I graduated, so I was literally thrown into the job with no training. It worked out perfectly because I learned straight from the CEO exactly what he wanted in an EA and he helped mold me into just that.

How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I love to be outdoors and enjoy exercising. I like to travel, see new places, and spend time with my friends, family and dog. I recently became an aunt to my beautiful niece, Paisley, and she is one of the biggest joys in my life!

How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? Exercise is great, but after a tough day, I’m diving straight into some ice cream or a bottle of wine!

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? Anywhere new! I love exploring new places. Unless I absolutely love a locale, I don’t like to go back to places I’ve already been. There’s so much in the world to explore. My vote is always somewhere new, and preferably warmer.


Education and Professional Development

Education: My degree is in Marketing and Event Planning. My dream was to be a wedding planner but, as I watched a few friends and family members get married, I noticed a lot of people enjoyed planning their weddings themselves, especially with all the creative ideas Pinterest has to offer. As I stepped into the EA role, I realized just how much my Event Planning background actually benefited me. My organization, attention to detail, creative thinking and ability to think quickly on my feet are imperative to being a great EA.

My organization, attention to detail, creative thinking and ability to think quickly on my feet are imperative to being a great EA

Peer and Professional Associations: I built a networking group in Cleveland for local EAs who meet quarterly to discuss best practices, hot topics and meet new members to the group. It has been very fulfilling to help bring like-minded, passionate EAs together.

What are the primary means of communication for members of your network/professional association? Email and LinkedIn

How has the network helped you? I started Executive Assistants in CLE after my own struggle finding a mentor in this specific field. In each of my EA roles, I’ve either been the only EA in the company or one of two. Without much of an EA network, but with a determination to learn how to succeed in this career path, I took it upon myself to research local EA organizations or networking groups and found zero. That’s when I decided to utilize LinkedIn to build my own networking group. Our first meeting had six attendees, and now I’m working on coordinating our next meeting with my now 60+ members!


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

imageWhat are your preferred forms of social media? I prefer Instagram. I love seeing how people take ordinary things and turn them into creative, beautiful images. It’s amazing how cool a Starbucks cup becomes when you hold it up in front of a cityscape and snap a photo.

Describe any impacts social media has had on the role you hold within your organisation. In my professional career, LinkedIn has been the most beneficial form of social media for me. When my boss is meeting with someone for the first time, I check out the person’s LinkedIn profile to gather any relevant background info that might help him to better connect with or understand that person. Additionally, I use LinkedIn to help build my own network. I built a networking group for Executive Assistants in the Cleveland area, solely by using LinkedIn to search for Executive Assistants near me.

Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Global Prairie will either provide us with an iPhone for business use, or cover our person phone bill should we choose to use that for business. Personally, I prefer to work from one phone and so I use my personal phone for business, too.

It’s important to have a mentor who works at the level you strive to reach

Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability via smartphones, etc. may have had on your quality of life. It’s important to disconnect, especially this day in age when everyone is so tied to their cell phones, tablets, etc. Sometimes I struggle with disconnecting. If I get an email notification on my phone after hours, it’s hard for me not to open it. In the same breath, I don’t mind being totally connected and available 24:7 because I am still young and single, and right now my career is my number one priority. As my life changes and I start a family, disconnecting after hours will become a priority.

What apps do you make use of in your professional life? My favorite app is Asana. I typically use the desktop version at the office for tracking my projects and to-dos. Every single thing I have to do in a day goes into Asasna – I love the ability to prioritize my tasks and projects in this app through due dates. The mobile app for Asana is convenient for referencing when I am home or out of the office.

I also use CamCard to easily take photos of business cards and import them into my Outlook contacts. I use iHydrate on my apple watch to remind me to drink water throughout the day.

Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital, or paper-based? We do a biweekly All team Meeting where each of our offices around the globe connects through video conference. We utilize Box (a cloud-based file sharing system) to share meeting notes.

For meetings at our office that require content sharing, it is typically shared from a laptop through AirPlay to the Apple TVs in our conference rooms.


Digital Innovation and Disruption

Let’s talk about the pace of change in the admin. world in general. Do you see variations in how people adapt to change? I feel that the EAs I have encountered who have been in their role for many years are hesitant to change and embrace technological advances. I’m not sure if it’s a disinterest in learning something new or a comfort in the way things have always been done. My generation has grown up with ever-changing technology and so I believe it comes more naturally for us to adapt with new technologies.

My generation has grown up with ever-changing technology

What about the impact of Digital Assistants/AI (Artificial Intelligence) resources such as Siri, OK Google and meeting-scheduling bots that can correspond with actual assistants? I could see executives who have not typically worked with an EA utilizing virtual assistants for some support. However, I do not see executives who have always worked with an EA switching to virtual assistants. For my boss specifically, I know there is a sense of comfort in face-to-face communication and me being physically present in the office.

Some EAs I have worked with utilize virtual assistants to take on minor tasks that support them to, for example, make reservations, place supply orders, or find answers that require quick research. This is something I would consider in the future as my role expands and workload increases. However, as I mentioned, this would be a resource I would manage for simple tasks, not something my executive would pursue. Additionally, I think the success of an EA-Executive relationship is dependent upon comfort and trust in one another – which, in my opinion, is difficult to build virtually.


Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyName a go-to piece or two from your wardrobe to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I have a pair of black high-wasted flowy pants by JLO that I absolutely love. They look great with a pair of heels and shirt tucked in. They’re trendy and comfortable.

You can never have enough pointed toe black heels. They work with everything and can dress up a more “casual” look.

What might we find in your desk drawer? Post-its and fine point Sharpie markers

Inspirational reads? I really enjoyed Fairy Tale Interrupted by RoseMarie Terenzio, JFK Jr.’s Assistant.

 I am incredibly proud of how much I have increased my network over the past few years

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I am incredibly proud of how much I have increased my network over the past few years. From starting a networking group for EAs in Cleveland to stepping outside of my comfort zone and attending an EA Conference across the US and making connections with EAs far my senior, I am proud of the initiative I have taken to surround myself with like-minded, successful and passionate EAs.

I want to mentor younger EAs  and help provide them with the networking skills, confidence and resources they need

What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? One of my biggest goals for the next year is to become what I always wanted as a new EA. I want to mentor younger EAs new to the career path and help provide them with the networking skills, confidence and resources they need to become successful in their careers.


Travel Planning

Travel or travel planning recommendations? Because we do so much international work and have offices in different time zones, I’ve found that printing out a small map with time zones and writing 10:00 a.m. ET and the corresponding times in the other time zones across the top has been very helpful for me.

This has been a great time saving resource, and it’s taped on my desk next to my mouse. I reference this when booking travel in different time zones as well as when scheduling meetings with attendees across various time zones.

Additionally, if you’re consistently using the same local hotel for guests coming in to your office, negotiate a special rate. I’ve found that hotels are very easy to work with when establishing these rates, and I negotiate even lower rates with them after six or 12 months of consistent use.

What apps or programs do you and your executive find useful for travelling and for tracking expenses? For tracking expenses while travelling, I send my executive with a small sealable clear folder to put all receipts in. This is simple for him; he doesn’t need to worry about taking pictures of receipts and emailing them to me or entering them into an app. He gives me the folder of receipts when he returns and I handle it from there. For purchases I make, I find it easier to just take photos of receipts and email them to myself.

When my executive uses Uber for travel, I use his credentials to log into the app and pull the receipt.

Lessons Learned

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? I think the most important conversations you should have with a new executive are around expectations, boundaries and communication. It’s important to clearly define expectations early on and understand how and when they plan to communicate with you.

The most important conversations with a new executive: expectations, boundaries and communication

For example, are you comfortable with them texting or calling you late at night or on the weekend? Do they expect an immediate response from you during normal “off hours”? Do they prefer text, a phone call or email? Do they expect you to stay in the office late if they are working late? Will you be handling any personal tasks or communicating with their family members/spouse/etc.? Having these conversations early on will prevent any lack of clarity down the road when these situations inevitably arise.

For those interested in promotion: I think that communicating your interest in career growth/promotion to your executive is essential to being successful. Discuss with your executive how you see yourself growing within the role, and how they view your growth. Consider ways to provide additional value to your executive so that you can be viewed as more of a strategic partner.

Consider how you add value so that you are viewed as more of a strategic partner

I also think it is important to have a mentor who sits at the level that you strive to reach. Use this person to help define career goals to get where they are and where you essentially want to be.


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Laura mentioned 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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