Real Careers: Sarah Duncan

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 23 countries to date: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mauritius, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates , the United States of America and Wales.

Sarah R. Duncan is Assistant to the Sr. Director, Labor Relations in her Seattle, Washington workplace. Here’s a look at her world.

Early to rise

My alarm goes off at 4:25 a.m. – coffee, commute, exercise, fluff, more coffee and I’m at my desk by 7:30 a.m. My commute is generally 90 minutes each way.  I am lucky to commute with my husband on most days.



At the Office

Primary Responsibilities: My primary role is to support the Senior Director of Labor Relations. What that looks like is different every day. There’s a lot of liaison work between departments and external business partners as well as calendar and email management, document production and presentation assistance.

Morning Routines: I like to start my day by reading my executive’s emails, then mine. I review the calendar and listen to any voicemail messages. This ensures that any late night/early morning changes are addressed without delay. The next thing I do is  a quick check-in with my executive. Any hot potatoes we need to deal with straight away are discussed and handled. So, I normally leave my first 30 minutes for “desk time” to accomplish these tasks.

How long is your work day? I am usually in the office eight and a half to nine hours. I routinely check email and my phone during the evening, but I don’t do so to the point where it’s all-consuming.  A healthy home/work balance is needed in all the relationships involved.

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 employer has given Sit Stand desks to any of us who want them.  I love mine!

What might be a typical lunch? I usually eat at my desk and have a meal replacement shake and hot mint tea.


Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career?  I think the political nature of our work is the most challenging for me.

Trust and respect come together as a package

What do you most enjoy about your career? The people and relationships. I love supporting our team to ensure we are “subject matter experts” in our organization.

Do you say “no”?  I really don’t.  At most I would say, “I can get that done by XYZ, unless I should reprioritize it …”


Sarah’s World

Map of worldI was born in Bellingham, WA and I live in Lake Stevens, Washington.  I work in Seattle, Washington. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? Country mouse

How long have you been an admin. professional? Nine years but, if you count the support I gave as a paralegal, 16 years. What was your first such role? My current one, unless you count the support as a paralegal; I began that role in 2002 as a personal injury legal assistant to an associate at a local law firm.

What might we find in your desk drawer? Not much; I keep most of the items I use frequently on my desk top, within reach.

How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? I learned about it through their website. The Port of Seattle has a good reputation as an employer, and I kept an eye on its website for openings.

I love supporting our team to ensure we are subject matter experts in our organization

Professional Development

Peer and Professional Associations: ASAP, the American Society of Administrative Professionals. How has participation in ASAP helped you? The annual APC conference has played a large role in advancing my knowledge. I have also attended their annual Tech Conference and really enjoyed everything I learn.  There are lots of webinars and it’s always a good resource for finding ways to help yourself move forward.

Inspirational reads? Think Less,  Live More by Shelley Row. I know it seems counterintuitive, but it really helps me stay focused and make better decisions.

I am not afraid to have “courageous conversations”

Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? My background is in the legal field. I am not afraid to have “courageous conversations” and feel that trust and respect come together as a package. You cannot have one without the other and you need both to successfully support any executive (or law firm partner).

Role models or mentors? I am not sure I have one specific person. I try to learn as much as I can from everyone around me.

What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I try to research as much as I can and watch YouTube videos to help!

What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I really want to learn more about Power BI (business analytics software)and how analytics can help me be more successful.


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

imageDo you publish to, and/or monitor a website as part of your professional responsibilities? Yes. What about social media? No. Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Yes  

What are your preferred forms of social media? Linkedin, Insta (Instagram), FB (Facebook)  Describe any impacts social media has had on the role you hold within your organisation. I learn so much from what other people post!

Have you used technology to digitize processes or materials in your workplace? Yes to all of the above. We use SharePoint and it’s easy to do tasks that used to take much longer. We also use all the phone apps we can when it comes to expense processing.

Looking for a job? Make sure you join every networking site out there and use LinkedIn to its fullest

Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital (relying on portals and/or PDFs of meeting materials), or paper-based? Both; it really depends on the people in the meeting.

Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint or other web portals? Yes; we use SharePoint! It went well; we had to build our own and then we had to upgrade, so it wasn’t perfect.  But, for a government agency, I think we did pretty well.

On expectations between you and your boss: It’s a two way street, just like any other relationship


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? Stay fresh and current in all technology and learn ways to help it make you invaluable, not replaceable. Whenever possible, learn it from the back end, not just from the user’s end.

Stay fresh and current in all technology and learn ways to help it make you invaluable

Lessons Learned

You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. What approach would you recommend? I would say ensure your resume is current, in PDF format and is easy to read. Make sure you join every networking site out there and use LinkedIn to its fullest.

Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Be honest. Remember to answer the question. Take notes so you don’t interrupt, and can come back to your thoughts.

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Remembering that I have expectations of my boss. It’s a two way street, just like any other relationship.

I try to learn as much as I can from everyone around me

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? Be honest. Be kind. Always offer to help, and try to find the answers yourself before asking someone else.

Your most effective time management strategy? Calendaring my tasks and keeping my desk clear of paperwork that I am not currently working on

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive / principal? Expectations! – for both of you. I expect my executive to let me know where he is and how to reach him; I don’t want to ever say “I don’t know” when someone is looking for him. I also need to know what his expectations are of me. I would then want to know what my challenges are going to be in the next 30 days. Finally, I want to know how his perfect day would unfold – arrival, coffee, printed emails; anything that he wants to have ready when he walks in the door.

Try to find the answers yourself before asking someone else

For those interested in promotion: Keep learning. Take as many classes as you can and remember to include EI (emotional intelligence) and relationship building in those classes.


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