Real Careers: Barbra Unger

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 to London, Ontario to visit with Barbara Unger.

Barbra Unger is Executive Assistant and Supervisor, Corporate Executive Support at Libro Credit UnionHere’s a look at her world.

An Early, and Informed, Riser

A typical day starts at 5:15 a.m., as I like to take time in the morning to sit with my tea and eggs while I catch up on news sites. I leave the house around 7:00 and drive to work, which can take between 30 – 45 minutes, depending on the traffic. Sometimes I pick up another tea from Tim Horton’s for the drive in, as long as the drive-thru lanes aren’t too long. Upon arriving at work, email is what I go to first as, even though I might have a task list ready to be taken care of, most days I need to take action on what is new in my inbox, and that of my executive.

At the Office

Primary responsibilities include supporting my executive through email and calendar management, pulling together executive meeting packages and related materials, coordinating meetings and conference calls, and managing a team of three other executive assistants – which includes coaching and performance management.

A typical day includes meeting with my executive to connect and communicate on updates, new priorities, and stay in sync. From there it involves email and calendar management, preparation of meeting materials, coordination of internal and external events, travel planning, and remaining proactive with all things admin.

How long is your work day? My work day starts at 8:00 and continues until 4:30 yet, as flexibility is key in our roles, there are days when I start earlier, work through lunch, or stay later, depending on the needs.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? A typical lunch is a leafy green salad with blueberries, nuts, coconut, cranberries, and topped with light vinaigrette. I try to get to the gym during the lunch hour two to three days a week and get renewed with a spin class. Lunch comes after, generally at my desk as I read through new emails.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? I will generally check emails from home in the morning so as to be prepared for what has come in overnight. This helps me to know where my focus needs to be when I first get to the office

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? The most challenging aspect of my role usually comes at the start of the work week on Monday, as much has circulated over the weekend, and I compete with myself to get as much completed and taken care of in order to prioritise the rest of the week.

I compete with myself

The most challenging aspect of my career was when I first started in the EA role. Looking back, I was overwhelmed with the amount of things that you touch in a day, both of your own doing and that of your executive. It was through this time, gaining experience and learning to effectively communicate with each other, that I was finally able to feel like I wasn’t drowning. That was when I realised that not everything gets done by the end of the work day, and it will still be there the next day.

What do you most enjoy about your career? I most enjoy being an executive assistant, as I am administrative by nature. I thrive on being able to support my executive in a way that allows him the time to focus on the strategic side of the business. Knowing that he has absolute trust in my abilities to support him allows me to make decisions with or without him present, knowing that I have the discerning ability to act in his best interest.

My executive coached me early on in my role that it’s okay to say no, especially when the request does not immediately support where my focus should be

On Saying “No”

Saying no is something I struggled with, so my executive coached me early on in my role that it’s okay to say no, especially when the request does not immediately support where my focus should be. I enjoy supporting and helping others, yet when I determine that I need to say “no”, I say it respectfully, along with providing resources and potential solutions that the individual can take away to complete it themselves, or within their team. Many times people ask you to do something as you have shown you are capable of such; yet there are others who are also capable and would welcome the opportunity to show it. Saying  “no” allows someone else the opportunity to shine.

Barbra’s World

Map of worldI was born in London, England and lived there until my family immigrated to Canada when I was six years old. We hopped the pond and now I live in a small community outside London, Ontario.

Outside the office, I enjoy spending time at home or on vacation with my family, and having our granddaughter amuse us with her wonderful antics. Our EA team also makes a point of volunteering quarterly within the community, which often involves cooking meals at not for profit organisations.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A nice manicure every couple of weeks is a pleasant treat.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? My husband and I are travel bugs, yet a dream holiday would be to the Maldives.



Preferred form(s) of social media? Twitter and LinkedIn

On competing priorities: When new ones come along, triage the tasks based on what the impact will be if the closest deadline is not met

 Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I enjoy wearing a jacket and skirt suit ensemble, paired with a button shirt or fitted top and scarf.

What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? Lipstick and lip balm

Heels or flats?  Flats, in the office and for my commute. Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? Nine West

Preferred scent: Daisy by Marc Jacobs

What might we find in your desk drawer? Tea, chocolate, pens and Post-its, in order of importance.

Travel or travel planning advice? Regarding travel planning for your executives, know their preferences before you book: preferred carrier or any carrier; first class or economy; window or aisle seat; emergency exit seating or not; direct flight or layovers; red-eyes or prefer to fly during the day; paper itinerary or electronic; loyalty points for redemptions or upgrades. If you are booking accommodation corresponding to their arrival, verify early or late check-in times with the hotel/resort. If it’s a new destination, research the distance to the hotel or venue from the airport and provide the best method of transfer.

Inspirational reads? When I first applied for and was successful in the Executive Assistant role, I searched online, and found a Harvard Business Review article by Melba Duncan, “The Case For Executive Assistants”, which was a phenomenal read. I then ordered Melba Duncan’s “The New Executive Assistant”, which contained a plethora of advice on the career I was stepping into.

Joan Burge and Jasmine Freeman from Office Dynamics have also personally inspired me within my career through their administrative webinar offerings and books. The Office Dynamics twitter feed is a great resource as well.

Peggy Vasquez’s book “Not ‘Just An Admin’!”’ is another great book, describing her personal journey within the administrative profession.

Don’t let mistakes be a stumbling block; acknowledge the mistake, learn and grow from it

Role models or mentors? I have to say that I have learned and observed so much from my executive, Stephen Bolton, President & CEO at Libro. It’s a joy to see the passion he has for connecting with his 600+ staff, along with his openness and transparency in relating to our customer/owners and within our community. He leads by tone from the top, not from orders from the top, and the resulting culture within our organisation is very welcomed.

I also had the opportunity to attend a Be The Ultimate Assistant Workshop offered by Bonnie Low-Kramen. Bonnie shared many of her personal experiences working as a celebrity personal assistant, which I was able to apply within my own role. Her book of the same title enlightens the reader to the dedication that an assistant creates in her role. She offers insights on soft skills, work ethics, and confidentiality.

I coached the new EAs … in best practices to partnering with your executive for mutual success

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. At a time when our company was growing, I researched and developed a team of four executive assistants who would partner with and support an executive team of seven. It was an intense few months as I coached the new EAs in all things admin. related, and in best practices to partnering with your executive for mutual success.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I am very satisfied with my current role and partnership, and I aim to continue growing in a leadership role as I coach others with their career goals.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Don’t let mistakes be a stumbling block; acknowledge the mistake, learn and grow from it, and keep on keeping on.

Saying “no” allows someone else the opportunity to shine

Your most effective time management strategy? When you have your list of priorities in front of you, and new ones come along, triage the tasks based on what the impact will be if the closest deadline is not met.

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Take some time at the beginning of your partnership to learn about each other’s families, interests and annoyances, as it’s important to know the person who is supporting you. It’s also important to know how to best communicate with each other when you’re in and out of the office, so set up regular huddles to take care of business needs and to limit interruptions. Understanding what makes each of you more efficient will then allow for seamless completion of work, and productive days.

Let your manager and/or executive know about your career aspirations, as this will enable them to direct related work flow, research, or projects your way

For those interested in promotion: Let your manager and/or executive know about your career aspirations, as this will enable them to direct related work flow, research, or projects your way. Be ready and willing to support where and when needed.


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