Senior Shopping in a Pandemic

I drive slowly from my home toward the exit of our retirement community, observing the 15 mile an hour speed limit.  For a fleeting moment after pulling out of the garage, I consider keeping my headlights turned off, thinking that I might make a secret escape.  The management has asked us not to leave campus to minimize the likelihood that we will return carrying the coronavirus.  Though I am committed to following their request (no, their plea) in the future, I’m risking one last trip to the grocery store to get a few things that yesterday’s delivery service could not provide.

It’s 5:45 a.m. The supermarket opens from 6-7 a.m. for senior citizens to do their shopping in what everyone hopes will be a less contaminated atmosphere.  The drive takes 10 minutes, so I arrive at the parking lot at 5:55. It’s already almost half full.  I notice as I drive past the entry looking for a parking spot, that there is a line of grey-haired figures in front of the door.  A queue at 5:55 a.m.!

By the time I approach the entry, the line has disappeared into the store, but there is a police car parked nearby. (Are they expecting a senior riot?) Two supermarket managers, with name tags and big smiles, bid me a good morning.  It’s still pitch dark.  Inside I find a cart, place my one reusable shopping bag in it, and grip its handle, with gloved hands. I have a short list which I should have organized by shopping aisle as I usually do because I am immediately flustered. The shelf that should hold the first item on my list is almost bare.  I get down on my knees to pull out the last one from the very back of the bottom shelf. When I stand back up, I notice that the shoppers around me are giving me a very wide berth.

Indeed, no one is looking anyone else in the eye.  The variety of face coverings is impressive.  Shoppers have fashioned makeshift face masks from everything imaginable.  Some are the standard blue cup-like masks, but others are pieces of white cloth with ribbons attached to hold them in place.  Some folks are wearing scarves covering their mouths and noses.  Oddly enough, I notice that I have my mouth clamped shut and am hardly breathing.  We whisk past each other, eyes diverted as if we were embarrassed to be in the store.  I am ashamed when I see another member of my retirement community heading down the aisle toward me.  We both say a quick hello, but don’t linger to talk.

Even though I zigzag back and forth between aisles to pick up my dozen items, it takes me less than 15 minutes to get everything on my list. Of course, some of the things I am seeking (like toilet paper) are completely sold out. The shelves that usually hold a plethora of tissue brands have a few boxes of the store-brand.  A sign says, “Only two per customer per day.” I take one, thinking if I run out of toilet paper, I can use these instead.

I head toward the check-out counters.  Every check-out station is open.  This, like the pandemic itself, is a first in my lifetime.  I have never before found all the check-outs open in any store.  A grocery cashier stands before her aisle with a big smile on her face and bids me enter. It takes less than a minute to ring up my purchases.  When the moment comes for me to place my debit card in the machine, I hesitate.  I must remove my gloves to do so, and I have to touch the keys to enter my PIN.  Fear makes me pause.  Will I be touching a contaminated surface?  I’ve heard that the management has hired extra workers to clean and disinfect the store, so perhaps not, since I am the first to use this keypad.  Taking a deep breath, I punch in the numbers.  The cashier pulls out the receipt, puts it in a small plastic container, and holds it out to me.  I say a warm thank you with a big toothy smile, grab my cart, and run. 

Outside, I head to the car with a sigh of relief, opening my mouth and breathing deeply of the uncontaminated air.  Opening the car door to stow my purchases, I momentarily consider whether to put them on the backseat or the floor.  They might be carrying viral germs, so I choose the floor. 

Dawn is slowly breaking when I pull into my garage. The surrounding cottages are dark, so I imagine that my clandestine expedition has gone unnoticed.  Video cameras capture the comings and goings around the main lodge, but I don’t think there are any in the cottage neighborhoods. Not yet.

I unload the groceries from the car and bring them into the kitchen.  The bag stays on the floor while I place each item on the counter.  Before the fear of infection reached its peak, we were able to procure one small plastic container of Lysol Disinfecting Wipes.  We use them sparingly because it is unlikely that we will find another. I pull one out of the package and carefully wipe the surfaces of each purchase. I drop my grocery bag in the garage to air out for the required three days and add these new items to our food stash, before disinfecting the counter and every doorknob I have touched.  Then, into the bathroom for a long and thorough hand wash.

Phew!  I breathe easily and make myself a cup of decaf.  From now on, we will use a food delivery service until it is safe to shop freely again.  I hope the other retirement community member I met in the store won’t rat on me.  I certainly won’t rat on him.

Stay together, friends.

Don’t scatter and sleep.

Our friendship is made of being awake.

The waterwheel accepts water

and turns and gives it away weeping…

Stay here, quivering with each moment

like a drop of mercury.

–Rumi (Sufi mystic and poet who died in 1273)

This Rumi poem showed up in my “A Year with Rumi” Reader on March 20, 2020. On that day, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) confirmed more than 15,000 COVID-19 cases in the United States. Today, March 26, six days later, there are 68,440 total cases and 994 deaths in our country alone, and 23,199 deaths world-wide. It is impossible to comprehend the totality, the variety, the beauty of the lives these numbers represent.

Rumi’s images of the waterwheel and the mercury speak simply but powerfully to me. I am fascinated by waterwheels.  I can stand for long periods, as if in a trance, as one gathers up and empties water.  I’m not sure if I have ever seen a bead of mercury quivering, but since the image is so clear in my mind, I suspect I have. Rumi’s description of the circular motion of the water wheel speaks to me of receiving and losing, of taking up and letting go. The bead of mercury conjures the idea of endless energy, energy that never dies.  It’s how I like to think of each life – constantly transforming but never-ending energy – intrinsic to the energy that IS.

The Black-Eyed Peas, a rap band (whose lyrics, in general, are too “rough” for me) introduce their album “The Energy Never Dies,” with these lyrics:

Welcome to the END. Do not panic. There is nothing to fear.

Everything around you is changing. Nothing stays the same.

This version of myself is not permanent. Tomorrow I will be different.

The energy never dies. Energy cannot be destroyed or created.

It always is. And it always will be.

This is The END and the beginning.

Forever. Infinite. Welcome.

Strange as it may seem, I find these rap lyrics profoundly comforting.

In the Coronavirus pandemic, indeed, in all the moments of our lives, be they ones of tragedy or joy, is our challenge to receive, to accept what comes, as does the waterwheel? To hold every experience briefly, before it inevitably changes and flows on? We must necessarily let go, even if the letting go is done with weeping? Can we stay here, in each moment, all of us, quivering with the never-ending energy of life, as does a drop of mercury?  

Indeed, friends, our friendship is made of being awake. And we must, as Rumi counsels, stay together and stay awake. May we not scatter and sleep.  Not in this moment. Or the next, or the next…

Coping Tips

For some time, I’ve been meaning to share my friend Carolyn’s blog with my readers. Carolyn is a writer, mother, and philosopher. She publishes twice a week, or more, and I am amazed by her creative, resourceful and wise approach to every situation. She has wonderful tips for navigating all areas of life. AND she will make you smile and laugh! Thank you, Carolyn. I always find something in your posts to stimulate reflection.

https://thehandwrittenthankyounote.com/blog/f/some-sense-of-normal#disqus_thread

Some Sense of Normal

Make Every Word Count

People naturally want to stay in touch during an extended emergency.  Friends who haven’t been in touch for months or years are texting, emailing, and calling one another to make sure loved ones are safe, being cautious, and not “stressing out.”

Yesterday I spent five hours on the computer and the phone answering texts and emails, reading links to articles about the COVID-19 outbreak sent to me by friends, and then forwarding a few of them on to others. I love the people who are reaching out to me. I want to know how they are and to reassure them that my household is well – carefully watched over and shepherded through this situation by our capable and caring retirement community managers. 

The Coronavirus disaster is such a novel experience for me. Never before have I experienced life in a physical or psychological war zone. Being told to distance myself from others is so foreign to my way of thinking that I am intent on using all the technological means at my disposal to calm fears and bridge the physical gap between myself and those I love. Communication is paramount when we feel endangered. But equally important are solitude, silence, deep interior listening, and responding from the authentic center of one’s being.

Our current charged and all-consuming circumstances seem at the moment to demand all my physical and psychic energy. But perhaps I might turn my attention to the long haul because all the experts tell me that is what is ahead. I will have to conserve and possibly even ration my emotional resources as well as my food, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper.  And perhaps I should consider conserving my words as well.  If I don’t, I might spend all my “socially distant days” adding to a multiplicity of predictions, a cacophony of warnings, and a whirlpool of interpretations.  If I get sucked into the center of this informational tornado, I will miss the essence of what is happening to me, to those I love, and to all living beings. 

I have decided to offer a “Diary from a Social Distance” out of a sense that there are clues in this present critical situation to how to live peacefully, joyfully, and compassionately in every circumstance. If only I can be awake enough to find them!

I resolve to ration my words – to make my reflections concise and to the point. Thank you for generously giving your time to read my thoughts and to offer your perspectives.

Diary from a Social Distance

The COVID-19 outbreak in the United States and around the globe has changed, and is continuing to change, our lives, day by day and moment by moment. I’m making a renewed commitment to myself: to be alert to and aware of what is happening in and around me, during this unprecedented (in my lifetime) crisis.

I am calling this new series of reflections “Diary from a Social Distance.” I will share my insights in the hope that while we are being advised to distance ourselves physically from one another, we can actually draw closer together in spirit. May we look deeply and listen generously to ourselves and to each other. I invite you to react to my thoughts, to comment, and to share your experiences and insights. And I thank you for reading!

Amid the Most At Risk

Yesterday was Sunday.  It is always tranquil in our retirement community on Sunday mornings. Outside, the silence is only interrupted by the whoosh of environmentally conscious hybrid vehicles gliding through the 15 mile an hour speed limit. They pick up our residents for church and later return them for Sunday brunch, a weekly dining highlight. 

Yesterday was unusually quiet.  Local churches canceled services as part of the attempt at “social distancing” to prevent contagion by COVID-19.  As I took the dog for our morning walk, I noticed birdsong piercing the hush and our local brook gurgling and clamoring around its stones – sounds that are customarily muted by distant traffic rumblings, even on Sundays.

Digby and I met an older man whom I recognized as a resident, but whose name I didn’t know.  He scuffed laboriously along the drive, holding tightly to the handles of his walker.   As we neared each other, he smiled broadly.  Digby did not bark and seemed at ease, so we crossed the road and approached the man.  His face sported a couple of days-worth of grey stubble.  His smile revealed a set of perfect dentures, his countenance glowed.  “What a beautiful day!”  he remarked.  I agreed. “The winter hasn’t been too hard this year. I haven’t minded it too much.”  Again, I agreed.  Digby stood unusually silent and still beside me. “Spring is more than just a hope,” he continued. “Yes!” I replied.  We beamed at each other then proceeded on our separate ways.  He, with tiny careful steps, and I tugged forward by an enthusiastic pup.

Later, near the end of Digby’s morning rounds in his little princedom, I saw a neighbor leaving her cottage.  We waved and called out greetings.  It was clear she wanted to chat, so the dog and I approached.  Again, Digby was uncharacteristically quiet.  “Isn’t it weird, the quiet,” she said.  “I think the recommended social distancing is very isolating.”  “Do you feel isolated?” I asked.  “Yes.”  We stood more than the recommended six feet apart.  “You are going to the store?”  She was carrying an armful of reusable grocery bags. “Yes, I don’t know what I will find.”  “Probably not toilet paper.”  I joked.  We made a few more comments on how odd and unreal it seemed to be in the middle of a viral pandemic and then wished each other well for the day.  I proceeded home with Digby, and she drove off at 15 miles an hour. 

Something about the contrast in my two encounters tugged at my mind.  The man, at peace, seemingly oblivious of the imminent threat, exulting in the joy of a sun-drenched stroll.  The woman, ill-at-ease, wishing for a different set of circumstances but standing in the fresh air, chatting with a neighbor about her perplexity.

How differently we react to the Coronavirus threat – to the news that we must reconsider and revise our ways of being in the world; we, the elderly in years, who hear repeated warnings that we are most at risk to contract this disease and perhaps die from it.  Behind some old eyes live brains that still think we’re young and strong. Inside some old chests, our hearts contract with caution or fear; in others, they expand with peace and joy, exulting in the precious gift of now: the birds, the brook, the sun.  Grateful for the slow, weak legs that carry us unsteadily through all this beauty. The smile, the friendly greeting, the “small talk” that binds us in our mutual concerns. The joy of noticing and honoring one another for who we are, exactly as we are.

Namaste – the light in me honors the light in you!

Respect amid a Pandemic

Those who try to find something positive amid turmoil, danger, or suffering are often considered Polyanna-ish.  Those who know me know I am not in the least so. I agree that the Coronavirus pandemic is a dangerous, frightening, confusing, and painful situation for people all over the world, and I too would frown on any suggestion that there is a silver lining in such an ominous cloud. 

However, there is an opportunity, and it is the same one offered to us after 9/11, 2001, and which we, for the most part, ignored.

We have the real opportunity (taking advantage of the genuine social isolation thrust upon us) to look deeply into ourselves, the chance to consider the trends in our societies, economies, politics/policies, and religions that have brought us to this moment in history.  There are sages, pundits, analysts, historians, scientists, and psychologists, you will say, who can do this work far better than I/you can – I the ordinary citizen of my town, state, and country, the average inhabitant of this world. True.  But the kind of radical change we need to prevent us from destroying ourselves and our planet must also happen within our hearts.

Our leaders and experts ask us to distance ourselves from others at this time, to withdraw from crowded places, to stay at home.  I respectfully suggest that we take this opportunity to savor a degree of solitude (or at least a slowing of our frantic pace of life) and use it to turn inward and ask ourselves the big questions that we so often avoid.

“Is she going to tell me what those questions are,” you wonder?  No, the questions that are important for you will arise within your own heart, mind, and life if you are quiet, still, and attentive. “There is a time and a season for every activity under the heavens…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) Is now the time to search our souls?

Last night I was talking on the phone with a close friend who said at the end of our conversation, “We will get through this, I know.  We will be okay.” I agree that most people will come through this present danger and be all right. But will we survive it to be wiser, more compassionate, and more aware of our interconnectedness, and our interdependence? Will we be more grateful for one another, more respectful of our differences, and more aware of the needs of each other and the earth? The magnitude of this crisis, one that many of us in my generation in the United States have not encountered before, will change us.  But how will we be changed?  Will we be more fearful, more distant, more judgmental, more blaming?

Or can we sit quietly, getting in touch with our most authentic, most vulnerable, and tender selves?  And can we acknowledge that others who may be different from us may also embody truth? That others also feel vulnerable and hurt and long for a resurgence of tenderness, respect, and hope.

This morning I read the following in an article entitled, “How Not to Freak Out,”by Judy Lief in Lion’s Roar.

“In any individual life, there are easier and harder times. Circumstances are always changing. They change slowly and inexorably, and they change suddenly and unexpectedly.  Often, we see our own hand in the circumstances we experience, and sometimes we are blindsided by situations beyond our control…

There seem to be only two alternatives: the glass is half full or the glass is half empty. But a glass with water up to the midpoint is not making a statement either way.  It is neither half full nor half empty. Neither is it both half full and half empty.  Such a water glass is not elated by being half full, nor discouraged by being half empty.  It just is: a glass with water in it.

The world just is. It is not a this-versus-that, good-versus-bad world.  It is an interdependent world….”

…a world that is constantly changing and continuously offering us the opportunity to change along with it; to see beauty, to be kind, to offer respect, to adopt new attitudes, and learn new habits. We are sorely in need of some new perspectives and patterns of behavior. We have been brought up short by this pandemic.  Let us take some time to stop, look around us and within ourselves, and listen deeply to the voice of our humanity.

As a child in Sunday School, I sang the hymn “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.”  For most of my life, I have thought its injunction overly simplistic.  Age and experience have taught me to value and embrace the simple. Forgive me for quoting only the verses with which I agree and that serve my purpose.

Brighten the corner where you are!
Brighten the corner where you are!
Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar;
Brighten the corner where you are!
Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do,
Do not wait to shed your light afar,
To the many duties ever near you now be true,
Brighten the corner where you are.
Just above are clouded skies that you may help to clear.
Let not narrow self your way debar.
Though into one heart alone may fall your song of cheer,
Brighten the corner where you are.
Here for all your talent you may surely find a need,
Here reflect the bright and Morning Star;
Even from your humble hand the Bread of Life may feed,
Brighten the corner where you are.
-Ina D. Ogdon published 1913

Take Care of Yourself!

I am ending the series on the Executive Assistant and Respect with some comments on self-care.  If you have read the previous posts, you have watched me paint a picture of the ideal executive assistant – one who is skilled, wise, reliable, poised, and extremely hard working. You may have asked yourself, “How does this person manage to be all things to all people, still attend to her own personal needs and stay mentally and physically healthy?” 

My fictional “ideal” executive assistant is Blake, in “Madame Secretary,” a Netflix series chronicling the adventures of a woman US Secretary of State.  Blake, her assistant, is the perfect example of the EA who is always one step ahead of his boss, anticipating her every need. He is integrated into her personal life, getting involved in the exploits of her husband and children (occasionally to provide levity in otherwise grim situations, and sometimes to perform the kind of salutary miracle that only a super-assistant can pull off.) 

Blake is “always on,” “always ready.”  His character is humanized by his quirkiness; perpetually dressed in a suit and tie no matter the occasion, while others appear in pajamas or evening wear depending on the setting.  He has a dry sense of humor, making “on-target” remarks and facial expressions when the camera jumps to him amid national and international crises. He even sings and plays the piano!   He can get any world leader on the phone in a matter of seconds, has his boss’ coat held at the ready before she even knows she needs to exit, and hands just the right report to the Secretary as she steps out of the elevator each morning.  He is, of course, a caricature – one that is the paragon of behind-the-scenes effectiveness. The Secretary trusts him completely.  Their partnership, at least for me, is one of the most ingenious and interesting subplots of the series.  But, at least so far, the story has not delved into Blake’s personal life.  The other supporting characters have all shown their vulnerability from time to time, but Blake remains aloof and cool – the unflappable super-EA.

Not so the EA’s I have known in real life. Not so myself when I worked in this role.  Behind the scenes and sometimes barely hidden in the workday, we exhibit signs of exhaustion, mental and physical overload, discouragement, frustration, anger, and the full gamut of other human emotions. Acting in a role where one is “always on,” but perpetually “off-stage;” a role where the EA is expected to respond with a cheerful “Come in!” when a knock is heard at the door, ultimately takes its toll.

The most effective executive assistants are particularly susceptible to the self-destructive habits of overwork, the inability to say no, perfectionism, and ignoring their own personal needs. Like other professionals with these traits, they may “burn out” under prolonged stressful conditions.

In my case, the stress created by the expectations (my own and that of others) that I would be ever-efficient, continually responsive, and unfailingly reliable, built up in my body over more than 10 years until I was in almost constant pain. I decided to retire earlier than I had expected to seek relief for these physical symptoms. After retirement, I realized that stress was causing my pain, and I began the long effort to undo the damage. 

The advice I am about to offer applies to everyone but is tailored to EAs specifically. I am embarrassed, truth be told, to make suggestions that I was not able to implement myself when in the furnace of a stressful work atmosphere. Knowing what I know now, however, compels me to make these recommendations, embarrassment or no. 

First, create work boundaries and do your very best to maintain them.  Don’t allow them to become porous with too many exceptions. Know your limits and remember that extending them may have detrimental consequences for you and those close to you. Though it may be hard to recognize or admit, you will probably breach your own boundaries more often than others will.

Second, know yourself well – look deeply into your own motivations. Know yourself as profoundly as your well-honed insight will permit, but eschew judgementalism. Reflect on your personal work-life motivations with the kindness, generosity, and self-respect that you deserve and that you would not hesitate to offer to others. Are your attitudes toward your work partially responsible for the stress and burdens you are experiencing? Must everything be done perfectly?  Are you proud that you work harder than others? Do you like being the last person to turn out the lights and close the office door? Are you taking yourself and your role too seriously? 

Take responsibility for your own well-being. No one else will “fix” the unhealthy situations in which you find yourself, nor rescue you from them. Identify what you need to feel mentally and physically healthy, and courageously claim it.  Be prepared that others may misunderstand or condemn your “self-protectiveness.”

While making these essential changes for your sake, be kind and respectful to those who cheer and those who boo, alike. Loosen the tether of expecting approval or disapproval from others. Be completely upfront with your boss about the physical and emotional toll that workplace stress is taking on you.  Ask if he or she will brainstorm with you how to change the work situation for the better – for both of you. If your boss does not understand your needs or support your decision to make changes in work patterns, it may be that you are not well-matched as a team. You may need to sacrifice an otherwise valuable work relationship for the sake of your health.

Cultivate a physical activity that can supplement the mental gymnastics that you are called to perform during the workday.   Find a creative outlet that can act as a counterbalance to the routine work tasks that are essential but can be both tedious and spirit-numbing. 

Find a trusted colleague or mentor who can help you to navigate the challenging and sometimes toxic work situations that you may encounter. Counter the loneliness of the “secret-keeper” EA, with supportive relationships outside the office.  I was exceedingly fortunate during my working years to be able to confide in my life-partner about situations that troubled me, knowing I could rely on her complete discretion.

Beyond all this advice, I suggest a practice that has been a healing agent in my own life – meditation. I began to practice meditation shortly after retiring, as a way to ease chronic pain.

Its use in such a situation is based on the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. “Developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, yoga and exploration of patterns of behaviour, thinking, feeling and action. Mindfulness can be understood as the non-judgemental acceptance and “open-hearted” investigation of present experience, including body sensations, internal mental states, thoughts, emotions, impulses and memories, in order to reduce suffering or distress and to increase well-being.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).

Meditation may involve sitting still in a comfortable position for periods of 20 minutes (or more) while focusing the attention on one’s breathing.  The practice quiets the body and the mind, promoting relaxation, a sense of peace and rest. Meditation is not, however, a quick panacea. Commitment, discipline, and patience are necessary to change old habits and reap new benefits. For me the continuing  effort is certainly worth it.

Regular meditation fosters the habit of mindfulness – paying attention to what is really happening in the present moment with acceptance, curiosity, and compassion. Mindfulness sets us free from the inclination to create storylines in which we are victims, heroes or saints.  It wakes us up to the gift of life in the here and now.  We can turn away from stewing in regrets about the past or worries about the future, to live as fully and gratefully as possible in the present moment. I find it to be one of the best forms of self-care in the midst of demanding situations.

Everything is constantly changing, including our thoughts and feelings about our work and all the other parts of our lives. Mindfulness creates an openness to the flow of things – an awareness of the bigger picture. It can also foster insight – a catalyst for change. The practices of meditation and mindfulness calm the body and the mind and awaken curiosity, creativity, hopefulness, and courage. 

A friend of mine has written a book about the impact of the practices of meditation and mindfulness in the workplace:  Mindfulness, a better me, a better you, a better world by Annabel Beerel.  I recommend it highly for leaders, executives, managers, and staff.  The book describes mindfulness, teaches meditation, and illustrates the benefits of both.  Annabel presents scientific data demonstrating the positive effect that mindfulness has on the brain and its advantages for the individual and, therefore, for the organization in which he or she works. She suggests introducing it as a workplace change-agent and believes that it is most effective when it is fostered and practiced by all levels of the workforce. 

Meditation and mindfulness have helped me, in retirement, to deal with experiences  similar to those I faced during my career as an EA:  feeling overwhelmed by the number of tasks on my plate,  trying to juggle and prioritize responsibilities to meet the expectations of those around me,  over committing, rushing, attempting to multitask, catastrophizing, and failing to comprehend the bigger picture.  Meditation and mindfulness have given me the courage and energy to change ineffective habits and harmful patterns of thinking. They have increased my self-understanding and self-compassion and my understanding of and compassion for others.   

My concern throughout this series of articles on the Executive Assistant and Respect has been for the health and well-being of EAs who serve valiantly and brilliantly, often behind the scenes, to promote the success of their principals and their organizations.  So, from the viewpoint of a retired EA: “Whatever nourishes your creativity, authenticity, self-respect, and compassion will make you a better EA, your boss a better executive and manager, and your workplace a better microcosm of the world.  Take care of yourself!”

The Failed Partnership

Disclaimer: Not every executive assistant (EA) is a woman and not every executive is a man, but for the purpose clarity in this post (and in keeping with my practice in the rest of the blog) I will use “she” for EA, and “he” for executive in most instances. Please don’t let my use of these pronouns cloud the point I’m trying to make.

A partnership is defined as an association of two or more people as partners. Synonyms for partnership include, cooperation, collaboration, coalition, and alliance.

Few circumstances are more disappointing in an executive assistant’s career than to enter into a relationship that she believes will be a working partnership, only to discover that the executive does not understand what partnership means and is incapable of building or sustaining it. Of course, the same disappointment may occur for the executive.

A professional partnership with one’s boss is not expected to be an equal one.  The executive is the employer and the EA the employee.  A natural imbalance of power is built into the relationship.  However, if the two are to create an effective two-person “collaboration” or team, a degree of partnership – a characterized by mutual respect, trust, reliability and even friendly intimacy – is essential.

Starting Right

The creation of an effective partnership begins with the interview process.  It is hard to learn much about the suitability of a prospective partner in a series of relatively short interviews in which each party is putting the best foot forward. (Or at least one party is!)

In a world in which there is a perceived “glut” of laborers, the power differential in an interview is skewed in favor of the boss.  He schedules the meeting and conducts it on his turf. He has the power to hire or not and decides the offered salary. The dynamics of the process are often crafted to create as much stress as possible for the interviewee.  The candidate meets with a confusing series of individuals and groups, one after the other, with little transition time in between, answering the same questions multiple times. A job interview is often characterized as a marathon.  

It may seem as if the potential boss/ hiring team hold all the cards.  But the prospective EA holds cards as well.  And it’s best for both parties if they each put as many of them as possible on the table during the hiring process. 

EAs, try as best you can to discover the executive’s work style. If you are interviewing with others on his team, ask about this directly.  Indeed, ask the executive himself. (It will give him a chance to self-reveal in a way that may be key to your decision about the suitability of the match.)  Is the executive able to delegate?  How does he do so? Is he open to suggestions from his team, does he seek them?  Is he a visionary who hopes for an EA who will embrace and help him implement a vision? Does he like to be involved in and consulted about the details of all projects or is he more of a big-picture – only if you hit a roadblock – kind of manager.  Is he capable of articulating a work style and a vision?

Look around. Is his office messy or neat?  Does he ask you questions during the interview, or does he talk only about himself, his needs and those of the organization?  Is he passionate about the goals of the organization and his own role in it? Does he seem interested in your career development?  Is he willing to go to bat for a fair salary?  How hard does he work?  What is his work-life balance and what are his expectations of his EA in this regard?   If he is likely to value a true partnership with his executive assistant, he will not be “put off” by such questions.  He will know how important they are in establishing a partnership.

Of course, each party comes out of an interview process with only a limited amount of information, and the reliability of first impressions will be dependent upon how open and honest both parties have been.

I interviewed for a job four times during my career. During all but one of these interviews, the hiring manager monopolized the conversation, describing the position, the organization, and his or her needs.  He/she seemed to have given my resume a cursory glance and to be uninterested in learning more about me or in asking probing questions to determine what I might have to offer. 

In the best interview, the interviewer (who was not the executive herself) asked very complex hypothetical questions about how I might handle certain situations that were likely to arise while assisting the executive with whom I would work.   By the end of the interview, I had a good idea of what I might be getting myself into, and what the relationship between my new boss and me might be. And the interviewer had a fuller picture of how I was likely to react in various real-life situations and whether my reactions would suit the executive with whom I would be working.

More and more, the real hiring decisions for executives are now made at the lower levels of management – human resource (HR) departments and office managers – with the executive simply giving a final blessing to a candidate that has been recommended by his staff.  Depending upon the skill of the HR hiring officer (and the salary and personnel constraints under which HR is operating), the personal compatibility of the executive and EA may or may not be given its due weight. Indeed, if you find yourself offered an EA position with an executive whom you have hardly met, the chances are very slim that he is looking for a true partner.

Several times during my EA career, my bosses inherited me from their predecessors. I knew the circumstances of the office, the personalities of their colleagues, the job description of my boss, and the goals of the organization better than he or she. Therefore, I was in a stronger position to demonstrate how my own skills and talents could add value to their work lives and to position myself for a working partnership.

All of this is to say, that the seeds of a true partnership are sown during the interview process. The EA who wants to partner with her boss should not be shy about demonstrating a “partnership” attitude or about speaking openly of her hopes to develop such a relationship for the good of the office and the organization.  If this attitude and the open expression of her hopes are rebuffed or ignored by the hiring executive, the chances are good her efforts to build a productive partnership later on will be frustrated.

Let me not be “pie-in-the-sky” about the interview process.  In the present employment climate, in the majority of workplaces, employees are expected to do more and more for less and less salary, with longer hours and shrinking benefits. Any job, with any boss may seem more attractive than unemployment.  You may need to “settle.”

Developing the partnership

If an EA has been hired by an executive who has demonstrated clear signs that he wants to work together as partners, both will start building such a relationship immediately. Their “check-in” time together (daily if possible, except when the boss is traveling) will be held sacrosanct. It will be well organized; information will be exchanged in a streamlined and efficient manner.  It is primarily the EA’s responsibility to schedule, plan and conduct these check-ins.  Each will listen deeply to the other, learning essential details about every agenda topic, but also studying the other’s reactions, way of thinking, values, concerns, and priorities. The EA knows her executive will make decisions without seeking her input in many instances, but still, she will feel comfortable offering her views and expects them to be valued by her boss.

Red flags should go up for the EA if the executive routinely cancels their meetings, isn’t willing to listen when she has a viewpoint to offer or seems uninterested in her concerns.  The executive will feel comfortable sharing confidential information with his assistant.  He will realize that situations will be handled more professionally and effectively if his EA has the full picture.

The executive must understand that the EA needs uninterrupted time to accomplish tasks and projects that require extended periods of focused thought and he will ensure such time is available. The executive will also understand that an assignment that he thinks is relatively simple and quick to accomplish might take much longer than he imagines. He will, however, trust that all the invisible (to him) steps will be taken, hoops jumped through, or emails exchanged.  He may be happy in his ignorance, but he is solid in his trust.

Failed Partnerships – Some scenarios

ONE

Cindy walks into her boss Jay’s office soon after he has taken on his new responsibilities with the company that she has served for six years.  She and Jay have both read a series of emails from others in the company complaining about a problematic employee who reports directly to him.  Suspecting that Jay may not have a complete picture of the situation and wanting to help him deal with it effectively, she says, “May I offer some information and a suggestion….?” Jay cuts her off, responding. “No.”  Cindy is dismayed but hides her reaction and leaves the office to process what has just happened. 

Her interactions with Jay up to that point have been positive.  She will, of course, give him the benefit of the doubt, but will, in the future, carefully choose those moments when she offers an opinion or a suggestion.  Over the next few months, her observations of and interactions with Jay confirm her initial impression.  He is not open to her ideas, does not value her input and prefers to use her as a clerical secretary.  He is insecure enough to believe he must have all the answers and make all the decisions unaided by her experience.  Others in the company are whispering about similar interactions with Jay.

TWO

Deborah hired Naomi with great fanfare and goodwill.  She liked Naomi’s professional manner, her energy and self-assurance and her extensive experience. She felt an immediate rapport with Naomi.  In the first months of their work together, Naomi proved competent, reliable, and a good problem solver.  She usually came to Deborah to report how she had headed off a problematic issue, rather than to dump the problem in Deborah’s lap. 

For her part, Naomi felt trust growing between her and Deborah.  She felt respected and valued.  But about nine months into their partnership, Deborah made a business decision that shocked and disappointed Naomi.  She thought long and hard about all Deborah’s possible motives, trying to understand what had brought her to this decision. Finally, Naomi decided to talk with Deborah directly about her discomfort and to offer her perspective on the injustice the decision had created. She hoped that their conversation would not only help her to understand Deborah’s point of view, but also that Deborah might change her mind.

Deborah listened to Naomi’s views and offered reasons for her decision, but Naomi did not believe those reasons were justified or valid.  She left the meeting feeling that Deborah was blind to the injustice she had caused.  Naomi struggled with her convictions, sought counsel from trusted friends and ultimately decided she must resign from her post.  Her values were incompatible with Deborah’s on this matter.  She believed that their promising partnership could not sustain this incompatibility.  It had foundered on opposing values. Deborah was sorry to lose Naomi but understood the strength of her EA’s feelings and respected Naomi’s commitment to her values.  They parted saddened but understanding each other’s perspectives.

THREE

Richard respected those who worked for him.  He said openly and frequently that he could not do his job without the skilled, loyal, dependable staff who supported him and the organization so effectively.  He took an interest in their career development, offered them opportunities for continuing education, and understood their needs for flexible schedules and a healthy work/life balance.  He was proud of them when they moved on from his department to higher levels of the organization and to more challenging work.  He was exceptionally gratified by the professional growth of his EA, Alex.  He had hired him as a temp fresh out of college, seen his potential and promoted him to be his executive assistant.  He trusted Alex completely, and Alex didn’t disappoint.  They worked together happily and productively for eight years. 

Though he didn’t carry the title, in many ways, Alex functioned as Richard’s chief of staff making the whole department run more smoothly.  They understood each other perfectly, Richard thought.  Alex could anticipate his unspoken needs and fulfill them.  Others commented on their close partnership.

In their ninth year together, Alex started arriving late to work in the mornings.  Richard ignored this, thinking that Alex would explain himself at some point and that the reason must be good.  Alex worked as hard as always but began making odd errors, forgetting important but routine responsibilities. Richard tried to talk with him about the possible causes of these mistakes, but Alex said he was tired and that things would get better when he began sleeping better.  One day Alex did not show up at work leaving Richard stranded with an important meeting to chair.  The meeting room had not been reserved, the catered lunch did not arrive, materials were not printed and distributed. 

This was the last straw.  Richard called Alex at home, exploding about his frustration and embarrassment.  Alex apologized vaguely but showed up at work late again the next morning and seemed not to remember their heated call the day before.  Richard called HR and asked the senior human resources officer to meet with him and Alex.  The HR officer was skilled in handling such situations and created safe space for Alex and Richard to talk about what was happening to their partnership.  Alex admitted to experimenting with drugs, during a time of personal loss (his father’s death).  The HR department recommended a treatment program, leave was arranged, and he was assured that his job would be waiting for him when he returned. 

During Alex’s leave, Richard struggled with his fear that his and Alex’s trust had eroded.  He felt he had failed Alex by not noticing the depth of his mourning for his father, and that Alex had failed him by not reaching out earlier to tell him what was happening.  Alex struggled with embarrassment and shame and wondered how he could face Richard and work with him again.  At the end of his sick leave, Alex resigned from his EA position.  He and Richard said a sad farewell and eventually lost touch with each other. Alex flourished in his next job. Richard found a new EA and built a solid partnership with her. Both acknowledged that they had learned from their failed partnership.

Trust is the bedrock of any relationship.  And trust is the rock on which a partnership can founder.  Choose your partner carefully – eyes wide open.  Trust your intuitions early on.  Don’t overlook signs of the relationship’s instability. Invest your best energy, your best self, in developing a loyal, trusting, relationship. Be clear about your values and your boundaries. Seek to understand those of your partner. Communicate and keep communicating. Accept that things change, and people change – you and your partner are no exception. Value your partnership; don’t take it for granted.  Do your best to strengthen it if it becomes fragile. If it fails, let go and move on but learn from the experience. Don’t allow yourself to become jaded; do be careful. Invest wisely in the next partnership.  Respect yourself.  Respect your partner.

Why is a working partnership between the EA and the executive so important? If both feel secure and draw out the best in each other in the workplace, the benefit for the organization will be invaluable.

The EA may sometimes feel misunderstood and undervalued.  She works behind the scenes deriving her satisfaction from the success of others.  She doesn’t seek the limelight; she may be embarrassed when placed in it. She doesn’t consider herself a leader but nor does she feel like a follower.  She knows the value of her contributions and thrives on using her skills and wisdom in the service of her boss’ accomplishments. She doesn’t seek praise, but she appreciates the thankful smile, or the knowing glance, or the simple “Excellent!” now and then.  The failure to achieve a partnership with her “principal” (as EA’s call their executives) can be a considerable disappointment in her life and career.  When respected and valued, when allowed to use all her skills and talents, experience and wisdom, she will flourish and so will the career of her boss and the mission of the organization.

When Respect Is Not Offered

Blog article by Moriah Freeman

Now I touch on the situations in an Executive Assistant’s (EA’s) life that disappoint and cause heartache. 

Occasionally, at Harvard, EAs who supported deans across the university would gather for a “retreat day” or an “off-site;” a day together, away from their offices to encourage each other, share experiences and lessons learned, and hear from an expert in some area of higher education.  These days were few but treasured. Few because getting away from our desks was such an enormous undertaking.  Yes, we could arrange our own work lives to make time available, but we didn’t live and work on our own schedules, instead, on those of our boss and his or her team. Treasured because they assuaged the isolation that we sometimes felt, wondering if anyone else really understood our concerns, problems and, yes, even our victories.

At one of these retreats, I happened to be part of a small group whose members included the EA of the dean of one of Harvard’s most prestigious graduate schools. Her boss had recently been appointed the president of another renowned higher education institution and had invited the EA to join her in the move.  The assistant felt honored. Her life circumstances made it possible for her to accept, and so she did.  She talked about the partnership she and the former dean had developed over the years; conversations they had at the beginning or end of many days, reflecting together on the issues that had emerged and how to resolve them.  Her boss, she said, was always open to her perspective on any situation, bounced ideas off her and valued her judgment and input.  The EA looked forward to the same kind of relationship as they faced this new challenge together. 

We, her colleagues, rejoiced with her.  Congratulations flowed like wine, and it was a very happy small group discussion.  But I came away feeling deflated, and I wonder how many others did as well.  I suspect few of us had this kind of mutual partnership with our bosses or felt so valued.  I have lost track of this EA over the years, so I don’t know how things went as she and the new president settled into their roles. Perhaps in a different setting, the partnership was harder to sustain.  I hope not.

Many EAs have poured out their energies, insight, and hearts to support executives who do not value the treasure with which they have been graced.  The executives are glad that the office runs smoothly, that projects are completed, and their needs are anticipated and met.  But they never give a thought to what goes on behind the scenes during the work day, late at night or on weekends to accomplish these feats.  One of the most disheartening experiences for an EA is to know, in her heart, that her boss doesn’t have a clue what she is doing to perform the miracle the executive requires. 

A gift from his travels, a remembered birthday or special occasion, faithful “thank-you’s” don’t touch that place in the heart of a dedicated, hardworking, insightful, and wise EA who longs to partner with her executive.  What would be her true reward? To be consulted about projects, to have her advice and insight sought, to be treated as a valued problem-solver and an integral part of the executive team.  In other words, to be a partner in the endeavor at hand, not a servant, however relied upon and appreciated that servant might be. 

My advice to all bosses would be to look up and around you; to look deeply into the potential of your Executive Assistant; to comprehend the opportunity to foster a close and mutually beneficial relationship that will serve your goal, your EA’s, and the good of your organization. Nurture, support and grow your partner.  Invest in him or her as she/he invests in you.  Consider your EA an invaluable resource and treat him or her as such.  You will never regret it.