Over the past 20 years, I have attended several conferences ranging in topics from fiction writing to motivational to professional training and even a full weekend trying to become a more educated outdoor woman. Each conference offered a unique learning opportunity, but none of them provided the ideal balance of professional and personal development that last year’s conference did.
The Conference for Administrative Excellence not only provided many educational moments with a variety of speakers, I was introduced to some amazing people in my field as well. The conference exceeded all of my expectations.
How better to share the conference experience than a conversation with the creator herself – The professional, personable, and mentor to many, Joan Burge! I’m honored to have had the opportunity to ask Joan a few questions. Her answers are enlightening and encompass the experience that helps create one of the most respected conferences ever offered. I highly recommend reading them more than once (with a notepad!).
There is a team behind the amazing conference event. From the first phone call to register for the conference to picking up my name tag, the entire team carried out the professionalism of Joan. I never imagined my experience and learning would stretch so far beyond those few amazing days in October last year. We have so many ways to learn from Joan; webinars, books, blog posts, etc., yet here I am with another amazing opportunity to know and learn even more!
A Conversation with Joan Burge
Q: You’ve been a unique blend of experience as an assistant and now executive and business owner (with so much in between!). Can you share a mentorship opportunity you had as an assistant from another assistant and one or two takeaways from that opportunity?
A: Believe it or not, most of my mentoring came from executives; not peers. I was fortunate to work with some amazing managers and executives who were happy to mentor me about business and how to be a business partner. I do remember one time when an executive assistant mentored me. I was hired by a large corporation in Cleveland, OH as a secretary. I got to work directly with the EA to the CEO of the company. She took me under her wing and taught me a great deal. She and I had a lot of opportunities to interact because of the work we did and my executives reporting up and we physically sat near each other.
Q: As an assistant, what types of professional development opportunities did you learn from the most?
A: Live classes were always the best vehicle for me to learn. I love what occurs when I am face-to-face with other attendees and my instructor. I also learn by doing not just reading or watching. My next favorite was attending administrative conferences although there were not many offered in my day, mostly IAAP (then PSI) conferences. My third was reading. I was an avid reader and still am to this day.
Q: As a business owner and busy executive what top skills can an assistant bring that support you the most?
A: You are going to be very surprised by my answers because they are not going to be the typical administrative skills most people would mention. So here is my list:
* Resilience is critical in today’s busy office environment and constant change. An assistant must also be tough skinned when it comes to working with an executive and you have to be able to “take the heat” and not take things personally. You have to be tough enough to take on all the job responsibilities and support today’s executives who operate in a whirlwind on most days.
* Thinking holistically. Often assistants are in the woods most of their day. They need to step back and look from the top of the forest. See how things connect and work together; see the big picture of what is really happening. This is not an easy skill as some people’s brains prefer to think details. so you may have to work at this one. The idea is to picture yourself in an airplane in the sky. The view is very different at 35,000 feet than when the plane is sitting on the ground.
* Initiative is very important. Just jump in. Don’t wait to be asked or told what to do. But you have to listen and pay attention to your executive. Executives drop clues all the time about what they are thinking and what they might need.
* Detailed thinking is really important for my assistant because my brain likes to think big picture and vision. It’s not that I don’t get to the details. Of course, I must do that for the work I do. Most high-level executives are focused on the big picture or they are thinking of the 50 things they must get done, but they aren’t necessarily thinking of every little detail related to the 50 things.
* Be inquisitive. Ask questions? If your executive is meeting with a new client, ask questions about the expectation of that meeting? If your executive mentions a new project or task force they will be working with, ask them to tell you more about the mission and the people. When your executive delegates projects or even talks about an upcoming trip, ask questions. Be curious. The idea is to get inside your executive’s head so you can be proactive and assist at a higher level. I have always said, the more you get inside your executive’s head, the better you can do your job.
* Ability to change gears in a heartbeat. This is a must! We do not have the luxury of dragging our feet. The organizations I work with and the executives I interact with at large organizations are dealing with change minute by minute and their support staff needs to move fast. You can become change proficient. It is a skill you can learn just like any other skill. I have been teaching assistants to thrive on change for 28 years.
Q: In Give Yourself Permission to Live the Big Life, you talk about the five pillars in great detail. You highlight taking care of yourself. What personal development and self-care tips do you recommend to assistants?
A: #1. Make time for yourself. Notice I said, “make.” If you wait for someone to give you permission, it will never happen. Do something fun or relaxing during that time. Maybe go to the salon or spa. Or maybe go to lunch with a good friend. During the summer, I love to go to the Lifetime Athletic pool in Las Vegas, they have a gorgeous pool area. It is like a resort. I go on the weekend early morning, around 8:30 and hang out until right after lunch. I just chill. I put my air pods in, listen to music, go in the water, and people watch. Or just look at the beautiful blue sky and palm trees. It’s heaven.
#2. Your Wellness Pillar is critical. Make time to work out whether at home or at a gym. Or take walks throughout the week. You must take care of your body so it will take care of you. Now that doesn’t mean you won’t get sick or have surgeries. In 2014 I had brain surgery (successful) and in 2015, I had open heart surgery (successful). My doctors told me I survived these two huge, life-threatening surgeries because I was in good shape and took care of myself. Please…. get your annual exams, make good choices with food, and keep your body moving. This does not mean I never eat ice cream or cookies! I do and I love red wine (which is very good for the body as long as it is limited). Also, your mental health is very important. You must also feed your mind with good thoughts.
#3. Make sure you build a good network of friends and a support group. We cannot do life alone. I have all kinds of friends (professional and personal) who I can call on at any time. That is because, for years, I have reached out to others. I have been open to meeting people and getting to know them. In turn, they want to know me.
#4. Have fun!!! I know so many people who, as they chronologically age, they age in how they think and act. That is not me! I feel and think about 20 years younger than my age. I make an effort to stay “hip” by surrounding myself with younger people and talking to my children and grandchildren to learn about the latest music and trends. I go to live concerts with my girlfriends. Don’t get into a rut—that is for sure a death sentence.
Q: What professional questions would you recommend an assistant ask an executive when starting a new position or working with a new executive?
A: I would start out by asking about the big picture of the relationship. Ask questions such as, “How do you envision us working together? In a partnership?” “How can I best support you?”
It is also good to ask, “What are the top 5 skills most important to you that an assistant should possess?”
Next ask, “What are the top 3 things that drive you crazy?” Every executive knows the answer to this one and you want to know this up front, whether they are related to you or just in general.
Then I would focus on the daily processes and get in agreement as to how you both will handle them such as daily huddles, travel, meetings, follow-up, and email. A great resource for this conversation is my Executives and Assistants Working in Partnership Guide as I mapped out the most common processes and best practices. It’s a great tool to create the conversation you need to have with a new executive. (You can purchase this Guide at here.).
Q: Can you share one or two tips every executive and assistant could incorporate into their routines for better productivity and to build their professional relationship?
A: The best advice I have practiced for 4 decades and have given executives and assistants it to have daily huddles. Daily huddles are to be done in person or via the phone (not text or email). This is where you actually talk to each other, confirm the day’s priorities and get clarification on what’s happening relative to your executive or yourself. Next is to really pay attention to each other throughout the day by getting a temperature check.
Q: As an assistant how did you organize a typical day?
A: My typical day was to first understand the top priorities for that day. Then I would do my best to stay on the top priorities during the day. As new requests came in, I would determine if they were more important than what I was currently working on and if not, they got put aside depending on if they were a B or C priority. I physically keep things organized. I didn’t have papers and such strewn all over my desk. I had need stacks or piles according to priority. If something did not need to be worked on in the next 72 hours, it went in my follow-up system. I didn’t give it a second thought until I pulled it up days’ later.
I also kept very organized by taking copious notes. I jotted everything down whether on a post-it note or napkin. I knew I would not possibly remember everything that was thrown at me. I would go back through my notes and little papers throughout the day to ensure I didn’t miss anything that was a priority.
Q: Please share a few of your favorite books with us.
A: * The Compound Effect by Daren Hardy
* How to be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life (I just read this book this spring as I was starting to work with Walt Disney World). This is by far one of the best books I have ever read. It is a story filled with inspiration, hardship and hundreds of great lessons ranging from leadership to being an animated communicator, selling your ideas, never giving up on your ideas, and much more. Every person in the business world needs to read this book.
Q: What are a few ‘new’ technologies you use often?
A: I actually do not use a lot of different technologies or apps. Sometimes there are just too many options and it can be overwhelming. And I find some of them do not make me more productive. Of course, I love my iPad (newer, bigger, lightweight screen with the keyboard by Apple); loving my AirPods (no wires!); iPhone. I use a few good apps special to my needs. I have an Alexa I use frequently.
Q: What are a few processes or parts of your routine that have not changed throughout your career?
A: I have tried and true processes that I have not changed because they really work! They are my:
* Follow-up system. I still love the 43 hanging file system. It never fails me.
* To Do tray on my desk which only holds items I must get done within 72 hours.
* Prioritization method. I identify tasks and projects as A, B, and C. Within the A category, I have A1, A2, A3 and maybe A4.
* Staying focused. I try my very best to stay focused on my task or conversation at hand.
* Before I close up at the end of the day, I go back through my to-do items for the next day. I make sure I have them in the right priority order so I am ready to jump in the next morning.
* I run through emails one more time at the end of the day to make sure I did not miss anything important and flag items I need to get back to early the next day.
* Every day, I am a student. I pay attention to whatever crosses my path to see what I might pick up or add to my knowledge base or skill set.
Q: Finally, during the annual conference there is an evening celebration. You have said how important that evening is to celebrate the uniqueness and how special the assistants are and I’m so looking forward to this year’s Glitz and Glam Gala! (I have my dress already)….For fun….Which themed celebration evening during the conference did you enjoy the most? Why?
A: That is a tough question because the past several years we have had fabulous themes such as Havana nights and a Ghostly Gala. But if I have to choose, my favorite was about 8 or 9 years ago when we first starting holding Gala night. It was very much glamorous like this year’s theme. We had a red carpet for attendees and everyone dressed up. Our attendees loved getting glammed up because they rarely do that. We had Cirque performers that night, entertainment from the Strip (which we have every year), and an awards event. This year will certainly be as fabulous! We have some very special things planned for Gala since it is our 25th year anniversary.
I hope you enjoyed this opportunity to get to know Joan better. I know I sure did!
What question would you ask Joan?
Dana Buchanan is a 20 plus year professional assistant with a passion for writing and offers a unique and professional perspective to projects and brainstorming sessions! She enjoys helping others discover key steps toward their career focus, job search, or self-employment exploration by creating or editing resumes, researching a particular type of job search, discovering business ideas and the action needed to succeed and loves sharing interviewing tips! Dana is also available to speak to small groups.
You can read and follow Dana’s blogs at Success Encourager