Call Me a Professional, not a Superhero

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Shelagh Donnelly explains why it’s time for administrative professionals to put away the superhero capes and connotations

Have you noticed the prevalence lately of depictions of admin. professionals as caped office heroes swooping in to the rescue of their (presumably incompetent or endangered) colleagues?

I have, and I am here to make the case for leaving such caped crusaders to the comic books and movies where I believe they belong. Why? I suggest to you that such depictions are counterproductive to efforts around the globe to elevate perceptions of the administrative role.

I recognise that this position will be controversial to more than a few marketers. I can live with that. I do have concern that my views conflict with those of some admin. professionals I respect and like. These are high performing people who have incorporated the hero theme into their career identities. I can appreciate lighthearted fun, but at what professional cost? To those who espouse the superhero theme, we can agree to disagree. Or, perhaps, I can persuade you of the merit of my perspectives.

It’s worth acknowledging that I may be biased. I do not like cartoonish characters or superheroes. Well, almost none. At the risk of dating myself, I did love the Flintstones and the Batman television series. Were there any children of the 60s who had access to the Flintstones or Batman and Robin and didn’t enjoy them? I will also own, however contradictorily, to having been known to record and watch the current Supergirl series.

If office superheroes were real

You may have heard of the Supergirl show, or watched it yourself. The premise? Superman’s 24-year-old cousin Kara, who hid her capacities throughout much of her young life, has recognised that she can use her powers for the benefit of the people of earth. A noble cause. By the way, Kara engages in all her superhero activities while employed as the Personal Assistant to the CEO of a media conglomerate. Perfectly plausible, yes?

Are you with me? As I flick through an episode at 10:30 at night (having arrived home from my real-world meetings that can run until 9:30 p.m. or later), I alternate between laughing at the show and throwing challenges out to the unresponsive television screen.

I can certainly believe that more than a few executive, management and personal assistants have let the scope of their talents go unrecognised, just as the character Kara hid her capacities for a decade or so. That’s fair enough. You may find the concept of a 24-year-old serving as an Assistant to a CEO implausible. I might have, as well, except that I was in an equivalent role at an even younger age and know other admin. professionals who held high levels of responsibility in their early twenties.

We’ll set aside for now the niggle that an almost-quarter-century old female is referred to as Supergirl, and that there are no Superboy characters – at least none of which I’m aware.
Imagine for a moment, though, that such superheroes did exist – and that one worked as assistant to your CEO. Perhaps this will help you appreciate the taunts I toss out to the TV after a long work day. Some samples for you: How on earth would an Assistant to a CEO get away with all those absences from the office? Wouldn’t colleagues be concerned that Kara’s many mad dashes from the C-Suite might imply anything from morning sickness to a hard night of partying, or substance abuse? Really. You’d think that either the CEO or someone in HR would eventually take action. While we’re at it, surely more than one ambitious person would have tried by now to usurp the incumbent and snag the senior admin. job for her/himself.

How would a CEO function for prolonged stretches without the aid of an EA, MA or PA who is not only skilled but also physically and mentally present?

I’d probably begin asking whether Kara’s colleagues are truly so dimwitted that they’ve never noticed the bright blue, red and gold superhero costume beneath her stereotypically prim assistant wardrobe. Or how she tucks in that voluminous red cape so well that you never notice a bulge in her skirts and slacks. Speaking of which, does this superhero carry a portable steamer? I’d love some suits made of that cape fabric, since it’s never once shown a wrinkle.

One might also question why Kara’s colleagues have yet to clue in to her obvious penchant for racing toward the exterior windows on the umpteenth floor of their skyscraper office building. Do none of them notice that she continues to leave trails of clothes behind when she shifts into superhero mode, or are her colleagues blindly enabling her messy habits? More to the point, and while I have no intentions of ripping my own blouse off in public, how does she do it so swiftly and smoothly, without ever sending buttons popping off and flying into the air? I could go on with such silliness, but let’s transition back to the real world.

Patronising or compensating?

If we shift away from the fantasy world of television and movies to real offices, what does the concept of an office superhero say about said hero’s colleagues?  Let’s consider the message being transmitted when, however lightly, we identify women and men as office superheroes.

Is there an implication, intentional or otherwise, that one’s colleagues are incapable of managing the unexpected on their own? Or that they’re in regular need of rescuing? From what, exactly, are we saving our colleagues? Deadlines? Sorting out travel plans? Photocopier or printer jams? Themselves, perhaps?

Or, do executives and principals pick up on the superhero messaging and wonder if people are perhaps compensating? While it may be the case for some, it’s not always a matter of credentials, as a number of the women and men I interview for my Real Careers series have at least an undergraduate degree. Is it something to do with being lower on a hierarchal pecking order?

While many reading this work in their organisation’s C-Suite and don’t face such challenges to the same degree as women and men in more junior administrative roles, are some people perhaps compensating for a sense of being under-recognised or under-utilised? That I can certainly appreciate, but perhaps there’s a better way to go about resolving such challenges.

How does it end for superheroes?

Again, I’m no expert, but it seems to me that most superheroes return to empty – if spectacularly styled – homes at the end of their work days. They invest so much of their time and energy in caring for others that they neglect, in some respects, to take care of relationships or themselves. All right; there’s a definite analogy here. How many reading this have not worked through lunch hours or stayed late in the office while everyone around them has gone home to their family and friends? Hmm. Just who is it that may be in need of the occasional rescue? Do we sometimes need rescuing from ourselves?

At an international conference a few years ago, I went off-site for lunch with a dozen or so counterparts. Each of us reported directly to a CEO, and many – like me – were also operationally accountable to a Board of Directors and our respective Board Chairs. As you may anticipate, this was a group of accomplished and dedicated admin. professionals. What was one of the challenges many of us shared? It was the never ending pursuit of work/life balance. One was recuperating from cancer. While some were perfectly fit, at least a couple were concerned with weight gain.

We were all so committed to taking care of those around us in the office, and the spot fires that are as predictable as year-end deadlines, that a number of the group (myself included) sometimes failed to make time for themselves. A focus on self-care, or physical fitness, can sometimes be among the first things we drop when we continually push ourselves to make sure that everything’s on an even keel in the office. As peers weighed in on the conversation, one of the fittest – and oldest – in the group piped up. She told everyone around the table that they were fools to sacrifice their health and their family time to their careers.

This admin. professional challenged the others in the group: Does your CEO expect you to be in the office at nine o’clock in the evening? Is s/he there in the adjacent office when you’re burning the midnight oil? Is your Board Chair even aware of the hours you put in? Or are you working ridiculous hours without the people to whom you report expecting this of you, or even knowing you’re doing so? Her last question hit close to home for many: When you move on to a new job or retire, do you think your successor would be expected – or willing – to put in such untold extra hours week after week, and month after month?

We are vulnerable

Like it or not, we aren’t made of steel. The careers of many women and men who are office professionals are better served in well cut suits than in flashy capes and lycra. Some of us may lay a claim to Teflon, and to criticism not sticking, but we are flesh and bone. However invincible we consider ourselves to be in our twenties and thirties, we do age – hopefully well, but time brings with it both the unexpected and a reckonings of accounts that may reflect our long term lifestyles.

Is your lifestyle primarily sedentary because you’re at your desk all day? The American Journal of Preventive Medicine is among the bodies that have reported on associations between early mortality rates and women with primarily sedentary behaviour. Not to cause unnecessary fright, but do your own research. Then, consider making the business case in your office for a “stand desk”. You may not be a superhero, but you can certainly advocate and articulate for long term cost savings for employers who install or phase in such desks in the workplace. In the interim, set alerts on your smartphone or office computer for every 60 minutes. At minimum, get up and stretch or walk across the office. Take at least a portion of the coffee breaks to which you’re entitled, and go for regular walks – even if they’re just around the office.

If the workload is untenable and you’re consistently pressed to keep up, assess whether this is a reflection of your capabilities or your employer’s expectations. If the challenge is yours, enhance your skills or education. Join a professional association or network and secure mentoring. If you’re unable to keep up despite an appropriate skill level and commitment to performance, make a business case for change. If that doesn’t work, plan for a dignified departure for a more appropriate opportunity. I know that this may be financially or otherwise impractical (if not seemingly impossible) for some, and that there has to be a weighing of priorities.

Professional Attributes

Believe it or not, there are websites dedicated to the characteristics of superheroes. What do they tell us? Well, as a result of my rather entertaining and highly informal research efforts, I’ve learned that a true superhero will possess at least the following traits:-

  1. commitment and honesty
  2. courage
  3. erudite
  4. hard working
  5. intelligence
  6. motivation
  7. organised
  8. responsible
  9. self-starter
  10. strong moral code

Oh, and by the way, apparently superheroes will also have extraordinary power and abilities … and should have a high tolerance for pain! Hmm. Pain aside, I can see why some of my peers have an affinity for the cape. These are all traits to be admired in an administrative professional. Why not, however, just call it what it is?

A profession

Before we go too far down this path, I acknowledge the voice of those who abide by longstanding definitions of just what constitutes a profession.

The Cambridge Dictionary describes a profession as, “any type of work that needs special training or a particular skill, often one that is respected because it involves a high level of education”. Oxford Dictionaries explains that a profession is, “A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification”.

However, dictionaries also refer to professionals as “characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession”. Merriam-Webster references a professional as “exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace”.

Australia’s Professional Standards Councils1 states, “A profession is a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards. The group positions itself as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and is recognised by the public as such. A profession is also prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others.” That association also acknowledges, “The word ‘profession’ means different things to different people. But at its core, it’s meant to be an indicator of trust and expertise.”

Local, national and international associations of administrative professions offer professional development courses and/or certifications. Their members participate in order to elevate their skills and knowledge, not to mention enhancing career prospects and building networks of peers.

Numerous individuals also advocate on behalf of counterparts globally for the elevation of perceptions of the administrative career as a profession. I believe that if you want to be seen and recognised as a professional, you need to both merit and command that respect.

Are you with me in thinking that tucking away the cape and hero connotations might be a good next step?

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About Author

Shelagh Donnelly

Shelagh (pronounced “Sheila”) Donnelly is the founder and publisher of Exceptional EA. She presents internationally to career-focused executive assistants, and to governance professionals who support boards. She writes about administrative and governance careers for a number of publications and is the author of “The Resilient Assistant”, to be published in 2019. Shelagh worked with C-level executives for well over two decades and supported a board of directors for the last decade of that career. Shelagh and her audiences connect because it’s clear that she’s walked their walk and is invested in their success.

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