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Sitting on a File Cabinet, Naked, With a GunTrue Stories of Silicon Valley CEO Assistants
By Linda McFarland Joanne Linden Sharon Turnoy
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2009 Linda McFarland & Joanne Linden
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSITTING ON A FILE CABINET, NAKED, WITH A GUN
Joanne Linden, chief executive assistant at Synopsys, shares a story about a colleague at a prior company, Carol, who worked in the chaotic environment of high finance. At fiscal year-end, Carol was being pulled in all directions. Her stress level was at its peak when a coworker intervened with a story about a former colleague-an executive assistant to a CEO who had an unusual way of handling stress.
"It's not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it." - Hans Selye
My friend Carol, whom I've known for 17 years, is the epitome of the cool, calm, and collected executive assistant. She's flawlessly groomed, utterly competent, and maintains a patient smile on her face at all times.
What's surprising is that she maintains this demeanor in a crazy environment-finance. You may not think that a bunch of accountants with calculators in their pocket protectors would be a particularly wild group, but when the end of the fiscal year approaches, watchout! Stress levels reach their peak, and there's a constant lineof people at Carol's desk, each insisting on bringing something to the CFO's attention immediately.
One day, my coworker "Cheryl" and I found Carol in the break room, slamming cabinet doors and cursing: "Where the *@!# is the chamomile tea? Nothing is ever where it's supposed to be. Am I the only one who puts things back where they belong? This whole place is a mess."
Cheryl and I exchanged glances. This was not the Carol we knew and loved. Cheryl plunged in, "Having a bad day, honey?"
Carol grimaced, "It's fiscal year end. Need I say more? If I have one more investor relations prima donna trying to barge into John's office without going through me, I'm going to murder him-or her. I literally had to throw myself in front of John's door just now to keep Her Royal Highness Miss Princess Know-It-All from busting in. You know who I mean. I told her John gave me strict orders not to disturb him under any circumstances. She gave me a tongue-lashing and told me that if the stock takes a dive because I insisted on following 'protocol,' she would make sure everyone knows it was my fault. Now, where the hell is the chamomile tea?"
Cheryl walked past Carol to a cabinet under the sink. "I have a secret stash under here," Cheryl cooed. "Why don't you take a seat, girlfriend, and I'll make this cup for you." Cheryl put her arm maternally around Carol's petite shoulders and guided her to a table. She pulled the chair out for her, sat her down, patted her perfectly coiffed head, then went back to the sink to make three cups of tea. Meanwhile, I sat down next to Carol and tried to get her to take some slow, deep breaths.
Cheryl brought the tea over and took a seat. "Carol, would you like to hear about a coworker I once had? She had kind of an unusual way of handling her stress. It might be just what the doctor ordered for you right now."
Carol took a sip of tea and just nodded, with utter defeat written on her face. It was clear to Carol that nothing would help, but she was willing at least to pretend to listen. I turned to Cheryl with a look of anticipation, ready to hear another one of her infamous stories. (It seemed that Cheryl had an endless supply.)
"I used to work at a small start-up," Cheryl began, "which shall remain nameless to protect the 'guilty.' One of the women there-I'll call her 'Sheila'-was the executive assistant to the CEO, but she had to wear lots of other hats as well. She always seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown because she worked day and night with no let-up. She didn't know how to say 'no' when it came to her workload, and the stress would really get to her. Occasionally, she would blow up at someone, but she always recovered, except for this one time.
"One evening, as everyone was leaving, Sheila was still at her desk, trying to finish a report for a board meeting the next day. Apparently, she didn't have all the information she needed to complete the report, and she was in a total panic. Talk about stress! She was so far gone that when I asked her if there was anything I could do to help, she just mumbled something unintelligible and waved her arms at me to go away. I'm not sure if she even heard me; but either way, I got the message to steer clear.
"The next morning, the CEO was the first to arrive. Well, Sheila had never gone home. As he walked in the front door, she was directly in front of him, sitting on a file cabinet, naked, with a gun."
At this point, Cheryl sat back and took a long sip of her tea. She raised her eyes, looked slowly at Carol, then at me, and put the teacup down. Both of us were frozen in our seats, with our jaws dropped.
After the initial shock, Carol was the first to recover. "I guess I don't have it that bad after all. But if you see me going near a file cabinet, stop me, okay?" At that remark, we all laughed.
From then on, whenever Cheryl, Carol, or I realized we were having an especially stressful day, we would call up one of the other two and simply say, "I'm heading for the file cabinet."
The other would reply, "Do you still have your clothes on?"
If the answer was "yes," we knew all would be well. But the phone call-and especially the visual that came to mind-would make us both laugh, and the stress would dissipate.
Carol and I have stayed in touch over the years, and we still use that tactic to this day. I'm not sure what either of us would do if the answer to the question, "Do you still have your clothes on?" turned out to be "No." Thankfully, that hasn't happened yet.
Points of Wisdom[TM]:
Find a humorous tool you can use to break the tension whenever you feel close to going over the edge. Be willing to accept support from colleagues to make it through an immediate crisis.
Chapter TwoAN IRON FIST IN A VELVET GLOVE
Linda McFarland shares a story about her bumpy rise to her first CEO assistant position.
"Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just." - Blaise Pascal
I began my secretarial career at 17, when I was recruited for my first job at our high school job fair. Somewhere along the way, I managed to go to a university for a year, but the demands of a full-time job, a university education, and a brand-new husband forced me to re-evaluate my choices. Something had to give.
I wasn't about to give up my husband; but between college and work, I enjoyed work more. Besides, work brought money in, while college just took it out. In a parallel universe somewhere, I have an MBA. But in this one, I never did finish my undergraduate degree.
Over the next few years, I worked my way up through the ranks as a secretary and eventually supported high-level division managers and executives at a large company.
After four years, when I left to take a position supporting the CFO at a local hospital, I realized how much I truly enjoyed supporting C-level executives. I learned more about the inside workings of the business in this spot than I had in any of my prior lower-level positions. My ambition to become a CEO's assistant was born right then and there.
Unfortunately, the woman currently in that position had planted barbed wire firmly around her territory. So I eventually left to take a position supporting the branch president at a nationwide office furniture supplier. The CFO at the hospital tried to talk me out of leaving. He said I was the best assistant he'd ever had, and he didn't know how he would replace me. Though I felt a little guilty, since he had done a lot for my development, I was determined to pursue my dream.
As fate would have it, just after I arrived at the furniture supply company, my new boss got caught in the crossfire of a corporate restructure. Within three days of starting my new job, he was demoted. I had no idea if I even had a job, much less one supporting an executive. I called the CFO at the hospital and asked him, "Will you still take me back?" He hadn't filled the position yet and was ecstatic to hear from me.
As ours was a small hospital, the CEO routinely signed off on all the executive assistant hires and terminations. The CFO approached the CEO, fully expecting that my reinstatement would be a no-brainer.
However, life takes an unexpected turn occasionally, and this happened to be one of those times. Neither of us knew that the CEO's assistant was relieved when I left. She probably sensed my career ambition and felt threatened by it, so she "poisoned the well." When she learned that I was hoping to return, she told the CEO that I was returning because I "couldn't cut it" at the new company, and that the hospital shouldn't take back any "losers." Due to this woman's slander, the net result was that, despite the CFO's protestations, my reinstatement was not approved.
Although being dealt such a blow, I ended up in a good position after all. Everything worked out well at my new job with the furniture supply company. The new branch president decided to keep me as his assistant, and we developed a great partnership. My experiences with him strengthened my skills to support a CEO whenever the opportunity arose.
After just two years, the hospital I had formerly worked for went through a reorganization of its own. The CEO who had rejected my reinstatement departed, and without the CEO around to protect her, it was only a matter of time before his former executive assistant was terminated.
The newly appointed CEO at the hospital needed an executive assistant, and he asked the CFO for recommendations. My former boss didn't waste any time in calling me. He brought me up to date on the changes at the hospital and asked if I would be interested in coming back to interview for the CEO assistant position.
Was I interested? Wild horses couldn't keep me away!
During my interview, the new CEO explained that he had been sent by the corporate office to clean up a number of management and budgetary problems, as well as to implement some pilot programs. He had no less than 49 major action items to take care of in 18 months and told me that he needed to find someone with enough initiative and energy not just to keep up with his projects, but to stay one step ahead of him.
In addition, the CEO was very concerned with the political situation that had developed under the previous administration. He asked some very pointed questions to determine whether I would be likely to abuse the inherent power of my position. I answered honestly, point for point, and I must have satisfied him that my motives were pure.
Perhaps to ensure that I wouldn't get too full of myself, he asked, "What do you think about being called an 'executive secretary' instead of a 'CEO assistant'?" Though my heart sank a little, I bravely replied that the title wasn't as important as the opportunity that the position represented.
Within a week, I was hired. I was thrilled when I received the offer. Ten years into my career, I had finally landed the CEO assistant position.
As my new executive had previously informed me, I was given the title of executive secretary. That didn't keep him from treating me like a full-fledged assistant who was expected to make independent decisions and manage an extremely busy office. He came to depend on me more and more with each passing day.
About five months into the job, the CEO called me into his office. "Do you remember during our interview when we talked about your title and my concerns about the potential abuse of power if we called you a 'CEO assistant'?"
I was floored. I had been scrupulously careful to ensure that I hadn't thrown around the weight of the executive's title. I had done my very best to be helpful and friendly to everyone equally, and I certainly had never spread any gossip. I racked my brain to see whether anything I might have said or done in the past five months could possibly have been interpreted as political or toxic.
I'm not sure how much time passed as those five months flashed before my eyes. I suddenly realized the CEO was waiting for my answer. I somehow managed to croak out, "Yes, I remember."
The CEO continued: "You seemed so confident in the interview that I wanted to see if you could prove yourself. I know you've been here only a short time, but you have not only proven yourself; you have actually exceeded my expectations." With that, he informed me that he had already authorized a bonus check, a raise, and a title change to CEO Assistant.
It took a moment for it to register that he had called me in to reward me, not to reprimand me. As the realization sank in, my face broke into a big smile.
Within 18 months, the CEO had accomplished every one of his 49 action items and was getting ready to return to corporate headquarters. I was very flattered when he tried to convince me to come with him, especially since this had been my first CEO assistant position. He told me that I accomplished more in one day than two assistants would at the corporate office. I was tempted by the offer, but did not want to move across the country with four kids and a husband who were firmly settled in Silicon Valley.
He reluctantly accepted my decision to stay, but he left me with an important gift. Over the years, I have reflected on the lesson I learned about not crossing the line while wielding the power one commands as a CEO's assistant.
Points of Wisdom[TM]: Don't let the title of a position get in the way of your dreams and goals; hard work will pay off. Respect the power of the position you command. Be professional, maintain your integrity, and hold high values. Be proactive, use good judgment, and strive to become a partner to the CEO. The respect you earn will put you in a league apart from the traditional administrative role.
Chapter ThreeWHAT WAS I THINKING!?!
Joanne Linden knew from an early age that she wanted to be an administrative assistant, but it took a twist of fate to land her the role of executive assistant to a CEO.
"You are never given a dream without also being given the power to make it true ..." - Richard Bach
I remember as if it were yesterday going to work once with my mother when I was nine years old. It was summer break, and on that day, none of my older brothers and sisters could take care of me. My mom had no choice but to drag me along with her and hope that I wouldn't be too much of a nuisance. (Little did she know that she was decades ahead of the nation's future "Take Your Daughter to Work Day.")
Mom was the only secretary at a small tool-and-die company in Cleveland. While I watched, a constant stream of people came to her desk, from the president to the receptionist, each one asking for her expertise in some matter. Until that day, I had no idea that she ran that company! She certainly had to be the most important person there, because no one seemed capable of doing their jobs without her.
That was the day I knew I wanted to be a secretary, just like my mom. (Or maybe it was because they had free donuts.)
I began my secretarial career directly out of high school. I was fortunate. Each position provided more responsibilities and regular promotions. My career was advancing and I felt fulfilled-that is, until I met my mentor, Dick Clark (no, not the host from American Bandstand and New Year's Rockin' Eve).
Dick Clark was the vice president of an RF (radio frequency) and microwave components manufacturing company, and I became his assistant. Up until that point, in a career of almost 15 years, I had always taken direction from my boss, waiting for him to tell me what he wanted me to do next.
Dick was different. He wanted me to manage him, not the other way around. Dick taught me to think ahead and anticipate his needs. At first, this was very difficult. What did he think I was-a mind reader?
Eventually, after a lot of hits and misses, I got better at this skill and could anticipate his needs to the point where other people thought I actually could read Dick's mind. This ability opened up a whole new world for me.
Dick became my first real mentor. He was very discerning about people's potential, and he took the time to explain the business to me-not just the products, but also the politics. None of my bosses before him had recognized that I was bright enough to understand all that information, as well as apply it to help make his job easier. Dick believed that I could go far. In fact, I'm sure he believed in me more than I believed in myself at the time.
Excerpted from Sitting on a File Cabinet, Naked, With a Gun by Linda McFarland Joanne Linden Sharon Turnoy Copyright © 2009 by Linda McFarland & Joanne Linden. Excerpted by permission.
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