No Longer “Secretary,” CEAs Hold Power in Silicon Valley

It's taboo to label some of the Silicon Valley's most powerful people as secretaries

When you think about Silicon Valley, who’s got the power?

We’re not talking CEOs, COOs, or CFOs -- try CEAs.
That’s Chief Executive Assistant. The woman who created that a decade ago is Debbie Gross, the executive assistant for Cisco CEO John Chambers.
“I gave myself that title ten years ago when I realized I was playing at a much higher level,” Gross said. “You are the leader of the administrative community. We have 1000 administrators globally within Cisco.”
But when Gross first started in her profession, it was called “secretary” and the duties of the job were much different. Her friends know all about that, too.
“Do a lot of coffee assistance, refreshments, catering, things like that,” said Bonnie Savage, now a senior executive assistant to the Avaya CEO. “I was limited. I used to think about it and say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t wish my daughter would continue in this role.’”
“We were not taken very seriously then,” agreed Sherry Parsons, now a senior executive assistant at Avaya. “We were just there to get some coffee, schedule some meetings and do some filing, just keep things in order.”
But secretary, once the title, is now a taboo term. These ladies say both the title and the job have evolved into becoming a real business partner. They’re more than friends, they are master instructors of a class titled “The Administrative and Executive Assistant Program” offered by the University of California Santa Cruz Extension in Santa Clara. The class covers everything from interviewing skills and business relationships to travel and scheduling.
“And finding that magic in who you support, and having them believe in this as well,” said Rachael Chambers, a former executive assistant who now works at Cisco.
“We teach them soft skills you can’t learn out of a text book. We have very interactive classes. We teach them how to be a business partner by learning the goals of the company and the executive they’re supporting to bring value in all they do,” Parsons added.
One of the biggest lessons offered is focused on being strategic instead of just tactical: learn what the company is doing and what it’s ultimate objectives are to transform once-simple tasks like writing down an appointment into making what could be considered a critical business decision.
 “Not just putting something on the calendar or just answering the phone and taking the message,” explained Gross. “You really have to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
Chambers offered a common example. “That person calls and says this is really important, I need to be on so-and-so’s calendar immediately. In the old day you took them at their word and said , ‘Okay, you get on the calendar, you said its important.’ Now, you can say, ‘You know what, I know based on what these objectives are, based on sitting in the staff meeting, that this is not important. I’m going to get you in 60 to 90 days out.’”
The job also involves a level of data-mining that had never been included before, according to Gross, namely on studyin data to track trends and numbers.
“What I see trending: you’ve got an x amount of hours in this quarter, you spend 90 percent of it on operations or 90 percent on customers,” said Gross. “Then it forces him to say wow. He doesn’t have time to look at that data, so we’re becoming data miners as well. When I share that stuff in my classrooms you can just see the light bulbs going off like oh my gosh, I never thought I could do that.”
If you don’t believe them, try asking their bosses. John Chambers, CISCO’s CEO, said in a statement, “
“When I was looking for an assistant, what people didn’t understand is that I was not looking for a senior secretary, I was looking for a true business partner, someone who makes it a point to know the business, what my priorities are and who could represent me as well as the organization in the absolute best professional light.”
CEO at Avaya, Kevin Kennedy, praised Savage for being the best kind of colleague.
“Bonnie’s terrific – she invests a lot in any job she does,” Kennedy started. “That attitude and way of working with people is an extension of you, so it makes a big difference.”
On the job itself, Kennedy agreed it has expanded immeasurably. “They are making judgment calls when a board member has a problem, when customers have a problem, to deal with issues of urgency.”
All four women agreed their goal is to help the students who take their class, especially because they feel many of them box themselves into a dated job description.
“This isn’t just a stepping stone,” Chambers said. “That this is a career and that they should be proud of it, and that really impacts how they go and perform their job.”
For those of you who still doubt what they said,  Gross skipped a rebuttal and instead, offered this invitation:
“Come over and sit at my desk for a day and tell me how well you can run this show.”

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