Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Nov 11, 2009

A Secretary's Story

Misses Minchin and Bender share the distinction of having begun their career at the same entrée step, though it had changed its name to Administrative Assistant by the time Minchin had taken her chair. The fact that we share this experience is not so astounding. Many women – perhaps most – get their start in this role. What we find more interesting is how differently we experienced it, and how it shaped us for future roles. Neither is right or wrong, neither is better or worse. But one of us was happy in that slot, and one of us was not.  And both of those stories are true.

We thought we would reach out to the secretaries, admins, PAs, and receptionists among us by telling these stories.  Some of these points may speak to you too.

To paint the picture for you, I was the junior secretary in a shared office space with a Gibbs grad who frequently reminded me that she was my “soo-peer-i-ya.” Her Boss was senior to mine; therefore, she was senior to me. It was the rules of the Officers' Wives, and I understood that.

 I was 23, a full-time graduate student and a full time subordinate in a double-time office. It was everything I had imagined being a working girl in the city would be, except for the wool suit and nickel lunch.  (and sometimes I wore the suit anyway)

Expectations were very clear
This says more about management than it does about the secretarial profession, but remember that I had very little frame of reference other than Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox.   It was still common practice at that time for expectations to be laid out in the very first meeting, for culture and habit to be codified and all questions asked up front.  This was not about Power, but about Authority, which my Boss had in buckets.

The things that were mine were mine alone
After outlining the things that were within her authority, she outlined the things that were within mine.  I believe you can tell when you are supporting someone who has never had a secretary before, and who has never been one.  And I believe that the bosses who don't draw the boundary lines think they are helping.  But they are not.

She didn't have to offer not to get underfoot in my corral, because she did not expect to ever enter it.

There were daily opportunities for success
Some of them were very small victories.  You will find as you climb your ladder that some days you would give it all back for just one tiny victory.  I saw results all day long, and some of them were quite large indeed.

What a rhythm we had
I strove to be Radar to her Henry Blake, and when she departed, for her own next growth spurt, it felt very much like the choppers taking off.  I held entire parts of her brain for her, so the rest of it could work on bigger things, and she trusted me to do it.  I took representing her as a tremendous responsibility that instilled a professional maturity I would not have come to on my own.

I got to try everything

One reason the secretarial entree was such a powerful jumping off point for a generation of women who would have the opportunity to actually grow out of the pool (Bender-style) was that we had our hands in every pie.  Because we answered the phones, handled the correspondence, coordinated the meetings, organized the notes, we knew all the inner workings of our bosses' jobs.  Because we were mentored (or hazed) by those Senior Secretaries, we learned the politics of our organizations and the art of the deal.

(seniors smoked like chimneys even in 1987)

Now that everyone literally keeps their mail and phone calls in their pocket, it's no wonder no one knows what's going on in the building.

The sisterhood was real
There was 1 man in our sphere, and he was a temp after the departure of my Soo-peer-i-ya.  He was eventually replaced by a woman.  At the top of our food chain was a fierce old Yankee who supported the President.  Departmental secretaries and any grad student like me were at the bottom. The pecking order was as real as sorority hell week, but the minute you were in trouble (professional or personal), your team came right off the bench to your aid. 

Our Yankee leader once tugged my ear for leaving a staffer's review in the copy machine and sternly reminded me of the burdens of confidential access.  But she didn't rat me out.  I suppose 22 years later, it is safe enough for me to fess up.

For someone like me, the structure, the rules, the clear lines of demarcation were exactly what I needed to feel grounded and secure enough to stretch myself.  Miss Minchin can tell you the other side of that experience.  And her story is just as true.

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