The Secretary

Posted by jlubans on January 22, 2020

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I was thinking lofty thoughts.
It was by way of composing a tribute to the secretaries in my career.
All but one or two of a dozen were highly talented and capable people.
While I can still name several that I worked with – WITH was the operative word – two stand out. They were not only a great help to me – they made me look good. Both went on to advanced positions, one in law and one in higher education administration.
They balanced multiple demands never dimming their innate brightness, their calmness – their serenity. How did they make me look good?
Obviously, all their work was done in a professional way. Remember I began my career pre-internet, even pre-word processor.
Paper correspondence, including memoranda to staff – was typed from my handwritten drafts, put into envelopes and mailed out with carbon copies filed in long rows of upright file cabinets.
Pre-email, I had a large amount of professional and academic correspondence via surface mail and phone. And in my case as a quasi faculty member, there was research report preparation and distribution along with manuscript prep for publication.
One of the two was a graduate of a Manhattan secretarial school and knew how my office should appear to visitors. I had the most professional looking office on campus – everything was just so – no clutter. I yet remember the philodendron spreading gracefully across the credenza behind my desk; and, remarkably for an academic, my desktop gleaming proudly in its barrenness.
The appearance of efficiency was not imaginary, my work product really was efficient and of high quality thanks to my secretaries.
More importantly, while I was not very conscious of it, I am sure they guided me away from doing something stupid. I always felt like they were in my corner. Never, I believe, did they betray me nor align with negative factions. We were friends, good friends.
As I was reflecting on these two, along came a relevant, yet bittersweet, WSJ article: “The Vanishing Executive Assistant.
It describes how times have changed for this group of workers, mostly women. Technology has reduced the ranks of administrative assistants, executive assistants and secretaries. DIY - do it yourself – is now the norm for most managers when it comes to travel arrangements, communication and meeting scheduling.
The article explores how the secretarial path is no longer an entryway into the organization. It had been that once you got your foot in the door as a secretary, a young woman - often without a college degree - could demonstrate her talents and likely move up in the organization.
That door is now closed.
Recently I heard from a woman working for my financial adviser, a male. He is based in Portland, OR and his assistant called me from an office in Denver, CO where she lives and works. The WSJ notes this is a trend – no longer is one’s assistant nearby. Rather she (or he) may be far away and while they may appear to be dedicated to the one adviser, they are in fact handling scheduling duties for as “few” as 7 managers to as many as 70.
Indeed the workload is so dryly detailed, wearisome and task-oriented that there’s little opportunity for individual growth and movement. There’s no opportunity to shine.
No doubt the company has good economic reasons for this, but it can never be the same as the positive camaraderie that developed between assistant and boss from day to day contact. The camaraderie was apparent to visitors and to subordinates; it helped personalize work interactions.
For me, these assistants were exceptional people and it was highly positive that the organization provided this entry into the workforce.
Like my two, many young women have excelled as assistants and then gone on to higher careers.
Forlornly, the gains in technology have left behind a large number of people who could bring much to the organization.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020
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