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Back Story

The Gatekeeper

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Lola Michaels landed her current position of executive assistant to the vice president and CFO, Boise State University, Idaho, after picking up her son from a school playground in the fall of 2009.

“I ran into the associate vice president of finance, JoEllen DiNucci, on the school playground,” Michaels explains. “Our kids were fellow students and I let her know that I was looking for my next career move. She called me a couple days later and said, ‘We have the perfect position for you.’ Stacy Pearson, the vice president for finance and administration, had never had an executive assistant before but needed one, and I happened to be available. Ten days later, I was here.”

Stacy Pearson, who hired you, is no longer there. Who do you report to now?

That’s correct. Stacy left Boise State to become the vice president for finance and administration at Washington State University, Pullman, last winter. I currently work with Mark Heil, who is the vice president and CFO. Mark joined us from Micron Technology in February 2017.

Let’s talk about the transition period between the two VPs. What was that like?

Stacy left the university after holding several leadership roles within finance and administration over the last 22 years. When she announced that she was leaving, everything went from a cement sidewalk to a sandy path. Stacy was skilled at managing people and working through both financial and public administration issues, and people trusted her. Without her, we were losing years of institutional knowledge.

With Stacy, she processed everything internally. I often needed to pull information out of her in order to effectively support her role. I learned to read the environment, and to some extent, her mind. Once I figured it out, both her life and my life worked more smoothly.

Mark is the opposite; he’s very verbal. I learned very quickly that he prefers to process information using a sounding board. After eight years with Stacy, it took some time for me to adjust to an executive whose style was completely different. Mark is a pacer. If he’s pacing, he is working through an issue. When he stops, I know some sort of plan has been formulated or a decision has been reached. I enjoy watching and being included in his thinking process.

The key to the transition was appreciating what Stacy’s style taught me and then applying what mattered to Mark’s. We are fortunate in that both Stacy and Mark are authentic people who really care about the organization and the people who work here.

Were you worried about your job with the new VP?

No, I wasn’t worried. I was more concerned with making the transition as smooth as possible for both Mark and the institution. Based on my experience with Stacy, and what I’d learned about the university, I knew that I could help. Once Mark was on board, I attended meetings with him so that I could explain group dynamics, give him background on the discussion, and point out what was relevant.

Following meetings, we would debrief and often, I could decode someone’s point of view and say, “This is what the conversation was really about.” I could not have done so without the prior background knowledge that I acquired while working with Stacy. Now, thanks to that training, I am able to take a more strategic and managerial role within the division, while saving Mark time.

It sounds like you are an interpreter.

In a way, I am. Coming from a completely different background, Mark was drinking from a fire hose, which brings out the best or worst in a person. Fortunately, it brought out the best in Mark, which was very important for all of us who report to him to see. He proved very quickly that not only is he a capable and strategic leader, but he is willing to learn and appreciates help when it is offered.

What I like about Mark is that he is transparent and believes in building a culture of trust and opportunity. He brings fresh eyes and new ways to deal with old systems, issues, and environments, and he never backs down from a challenge.

Aerial view of the administration building, also known as B Plaza, at Boise State University

What’s your secret to managing access to the vice president’s office? Have you ever let someone in you shouldn’t or kept someone out who you should have let in?

The key to managing access is to know the players, know what is happening on a strategic level, and work in close partnership with your executive. An executive assistant must understand the organizational culture, politics, and personalities involved before making intelligent decisions about who gets access to the executive. Letting the wrong person in is not a mistake I can afford to make more than once.

For example, if the president or provost walks into the office, the executive is always available. My job is to stop the people with their hair on fire who say they need to see Mark right now when they really don’t.

It seems like there’s an art to managing this.

There is. It involves negotiating with and reading people. It’s knowing what is important to Mark, while also being aware of what’s on his plate. You have to be strong enough for people to respect your position as the gatekeeper, but soft enough to make it palatable to the other person to accept, “No,” or “How about 20 minutes from now?” or “If you tell me about the issue, I promise to get it to him.” I don’t want anyone to go away feeling like they have been shut out.

How can business officers keep their executive assistants happy?

Have a true working partnership with them. Executive assistants don’t work for someone; they work with someone. If you don’t understand that, you may miss out on the satisfaction of working with the strategic business partner who you want and need. As assistants, we manage time, people, and projects in order to allow the executives to do what they do best—lead.

What mistakes do business officers make when interacting with their assistants?

Not giving their assistants consistent one-on-one time with them. That’s the No. 1 complaint of any executive assistant, in corporate or higher education. If you don’t give the individual time to meet with you, if you don’t talk to them, if you don’t include them in your thinking, they will not be of much use to you.

Executive assistants aren’t in your office to only push paper, they’re strategists and managers who want to make your life easier. The more they know about you and what’s going on in your world, the more effective you will be. Executives must recognize that their assistants are an integral part of the executive management team, who play equal parts generalist and specialist.

There may be those who believe it’s a power thing, but it’s not. Those who are into power are in the wrong job. We are backstage managers who work hard to make our executives look and sound good on stage. Our job satisfaction comes from knowing that our executives have what they need, when they need it. By doing so, we support the overall mission of the organization.

What turning points changed your outlook on life?

When my son, Alex, was born, I realized that I had to get this one life right, which changed how I felt about the world. I stopped being an observer and became more focused on what is happening around me. I have to think about what I am teaching my son about the world he’s inheriting.

What’s one thing that you are teaching him?   

To be who he is. To be authentic. His generation is at such a disadvantage with all of the information being thrown at them by the news/social media. He’s now 16 years old. I discuss the news with him and say, “The way you live your life will determine everything. The world will always be chaotic, so you need to manage yourself.”

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.