CC: Dorothy Nolan, EA to the CEO at ABM Industries

Dorothy Nolan on Returning to the Workforce, Negotiation Techniques, and Strategies for Successful EA/CEO Relationships

 

Dorothy Nolan, Executive Assistant to Henrik Slipsager, CEO of ABM Industries, has had a long—and impressive—career in administration and office management.  Nolan and I discussed her experiences returning to the workforce, strategies for a positive EA/C-Level Executive relationship, and developing negotiation techniques.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee, Dorothy Nolan, and do not reflect in any way those of the institutions to which she is affiliated. This includes ABM Industries. 

Elle Hernandez: Tell me about the early years of your career.

Dorothy Nolan: I started long ago as a receptionist.  It was the best way to get into administration.  I worked my way up to an administrative assistant with the attitude that no task was too big or too small for me.  At that time, the administrative assistant role was very much typing, faxing, filing and answering phones.

EH: Has the role changed?

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DN: Absolutely.  I took time off to start a family and when I returned to the workforce several years later, I remember being tested on my computer skills by a staffing agency.  I said, “What’s Windows?” I went home and started looking for tutorials and taught myself everything I could.  Technology changes so often and I understood early on that it’s vital in this field to keep up and be extremely proficient in all the current computer programs

Was it a difficult decision to go back to work?

Yes and no.  I did feel guilty no longer being a stay-at-home mom, but I knew what I wanted for my family, and part of that required being a double-income home.  It was hard to distribute my time between my family and my job, but I was very lucky that I had my mom to help raise my children.  At the end of the day, I knew that my kids, who were very young at the time, would be fine.  It was a decision that I made out of both desire and necessity.

Was the return to the workforce a shock at all?

I knew what was expected of me, as I believe everyone should before they take any role; I knew if I was going to support high-level executives that being present at my job both physically and mentally was key.  They don’t want to hear, “I can’t come in today,” or, “that’s not my job.”  They want you to be there to support them with what they need to get done and if you have to stay late, then, well, you stay late.  It comes with the territory.  I was fully prepared for that. I worked long hours for many years.

How did you evolve from the receptionist position?

As an admin, you can either be a clock-watcher or you can learn to be accessible.  I learned early on that making myself accessible to my peers and my superiors was the way to grow in this field.  I thrive in hectic, fast-paced environments that are challenging.  I learned early in my career that professionalism, development and dedication would pave the way for better opportunities.

Have you dealt with any tyrants along the way?

Some of the people I encountered had reputations for being difficult and/or overly demanding, but that’s their right and so I embraced the various styles.  I like to be challenged in my roles, and so I saw it as exactly that; a challenge.  I was told once by a former boss that he expected me to read his mind.  He was kidding, of course, but he did, at the very least, expect me to try to read his mind; so I did.  Interestingly enough, I seemed to develop that skill.  Read my mind has stayed with me over the years, and I strive to continue that practice.  I’ve been very fortunate to work with the people that I’ve worked with.  They’ve all understood and respected my role, and I, theirs.

How do you deal with multiple personalities?

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When I worked at Instinet, I was hired to support the Head of the Trading Floor. After a few years, he was promoted to COO; inevitably, his duties changed and so did mine.  After two years in that role, he relocated to London.   I then began supporting the CFO who had just returned to the States from a role he held in London.  During that time I was also asked to assist the CMO.  A couple of years later [the CFO] was promoted to CEO, so, once again, duties changed.  I truly was an Executive Assistant.  For me, it was always about molding myself to conform to the executive in question rather than expecting them to conform to my style.  It’s my job to be adaptable.  It has to be a hand-in-glove relationship or it won’t be successful.

Your work history shows a break in the Executive Assistant job function.  What happened?

When I was  at ABN Amro, I was Executive Assistant to the Chief Administrative Officer until he relocated to London—everybody  relocates to London!—I was promoted to Assistant Vice President of Dining,  Conference and Reception Services.  When ABN was acquired, I went to Lehman Brothers and worked there as the Assistant Vice President of Meetings and Conferences Services.  It was an experience; I was responsible for all conference and event spaces for five office buildings, which comprised over 450 conference & event spaces.  It was a role that required intense organizational and planning skills, strict attention to detail and strong management and leadership skills.  I left that role in 2008 when, well—we all know what happened to Lehman Brothers.

What does the majority of the work you do consist of?

As the gatekeeper, I do everything—that’s what we do as Executive Assistants; everything.  I would say I manage the day-to-day operations of the CEO’s office and the Corporate Office.  My job is heavily based on calendar management, extensive travel arrangements (both international and domestic), meetings and event planning, which take up a lot of time, but those are just the basics.  My responsibilities vary day-to-day and involve many facets of both my boss's personal affairs and his role within the company.  Henrik has—as many executives do—a very busy schedule.  At the C-Suite level, and for many other high-level executives, it's impossible to keep business responsibilities separate from personal responsibilities.  I understand how Henrik’s business and personal life blend together and ensure he has ample time to focus on each.

Why did you go back to the Executive Assistant role?

A friend of mine recommended I interview for the role of EA to the CEO here at ABM Industries, so I did—reluctantly.  I was hesitant about going back to a support role and having a one-on-one relationship.  I had prior experience as an EA—after all, that’s where it all started.  When I met Henrik, I knew the role was perfect for me.  

You have a very positive relationship with Mr. Slipsager.  How do you maintain that business partnership?

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The person you support has to understand, recognize and value the work you do.  I don’t mean the nuances—they don’t need to know how you created a spreadsheet.  I learned Henrik’s style quickly, how to best interact with him and when.  Henrik likes high-level details, so when we meet to discuss anything, I speak in bullets and only give him the important information.  That’s valuable to him.  It’s also important that as his Executive Assistant and gatekeeper, I use my best judgment; when anything comes up, I need to know who it is, what it’s for and when he’s accessible to address it.  Most people understand this aspect of my role, even if at times, some don’t appreciate it.    You have to assert yourself in a way that people both understand and respect what you do.

Compensation is a hot topic in administration for both employers and employees.  What would you say to each?

Early in my career in one of my roles, I learned that my compensation was not equal to that of one my peers.  One day, after a year’s time spent building trust with the executive I supported, I brought it up nervously.  He listened to what I had to say and told me that I was absolutely right, and was concerned as to why I hadn’t brought it up sooner.

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And in terms of timing, he was right.  He basically talked me through my negotiation.  This goes back to me being fortunate with the people I supported; it’s not every day your boss helps you through your own salary negotiation.  Ask for what you want.  That’s advice not only for your career, but in life.

 

What about employers?

You get what you pay for.  It’s like shoes… or a car.  You can buy a Honda or you can buy a Mercedes.  If you aren’t willing to pay top-dollar for administrative support, the support you get will be sub-par.  Executives don’t become successful through mediocrity, so why should their support be anything but exceptional?

You don’t have a degree, something that is rapidly becoming the standard for new administrative hires.

I don’t have a four-year degree, but I understand the idea behind requiring one.  It’s unfortunate for job seekers when this requirement stifles opportunities, but in a way, it can also help employers eliminate people who potentially have limited business acumen. 

What advice do you have for admins who don’t possess a degree?

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Build your networks.  When I returned to the workforce, I was hired for my first two positions through recruiting agencies.  I was hired by Lehman through networking, and for my current role, through a friend.  With social media so prevalent, networking is incredibly beneficial and much easier than it was 10 years ago.  If you can prove yourself through your skillset and ability to excel in the role, employers may reconsider the degree requirement.

As someone who has worked in different types of financial institutions, and now at ABM, how do you decide what industry to work in, or is that irrelevant?

Every opportunity that came my way, I approached with the mindset of who is going to challenge me most, where can I grow, who wants to partner with me and my skill set.  That’s really key: development, growth and partnership.

Any last words?

If you hold a position as an EA or are considering one, be a partner to whomever you support; give the role the same value and dedication you would if you were a Vice President or CEO.  Go above and beyond with every task and/or project.  Be professional, dress the part, and work hard for what you want.


Final Thoughts from Dorothy Nolan, EA to the CEO at ABM Industries

Fill in the blank: Never wear your favorite nightclub outfit to work.

Career advice:  Read everything.  I acquired many mentors throughout the years and to this day still value those relationships and what I’ve learned.  I have a small library of books.  There’s no such thing as too many resources.

Negotiation advice:  Start a conversation about your role and accomplishments and speak to what you’ve taken on in addition to your current responsibilities.   Ask for what you want with confidence. 

Three qualities every admin should have are:

  1. Street smarts/savvy,
  2. Understanding discretion, and what to say to whom and when,
  3. And accessibility. 

Timing is everything with busy executives.  Make it your business to read your boss’s body language.  It will tell you a great deal without the need for a conversation.   It’s about making their lives easier, which usually means making ours hectic, but that’s the job.

Finish this sentence, “company culture…”  Varies from industry to industry.  Financial services and hedge funds can be very buttoned-up and very corporate.  Advertising and retail are more casual and creative.  At ABM, the company culture is more casual.

Memorable Work Experience:   Henrik was on Undercover Boss in 2010.  That was a very cool experience for me.  I was involved in everything that went into planning and coordination, from working with the producers of the show, to interacting with the select number of employees who were recognized for their contribution to the company.  We had to keep the entire process a secret.   The whole premise of the show is that the employees don’t know that they— and “the boss”—are on one!

 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee, Dorothy Nolan, and do not reflect in any way those of the institutions to which she is affiliated. This includes ABM Industries.