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The reality of the Secretary’s Job

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Judy Wilcox, 28, Executive assistant, New Enterprise Associates, Baltimore, Maryland

Years in the field: ten

How did you break into secretarial work?

I worked as a medical secretary after high school. I spent four years in the front office of a health maintenance organization, registering patients, keeping medical records up-to-date, taking dictation, typing, filing and answering the phones. I then became the office assistant for two psychologists, but I didn't like it because I was alone in the office a lot and I was used to being with people.

What is your current job?

For the last six years, I have worked at the Baltimore office of a venture capital firm with offices all over the country. I began as a receptionist, moved to an office assistant job and have been a secretary, with the title of executive assistant, for two and a half years.

What kind of preparation did you have?

In high school I took business law, accounting, office procedures and typing for three years. Each company has a different set of software and programs, but I was always able to pick them up as I went along.

What are your current job responsibilities?

I work for four partners in the firm. I type the board meeting notes from my bosses' notes and handle all correspondence. Many times there is a large mailing about a particular fund, which I handle. I make travel arrangements. There is also financial clerical work, since two of the partners I report to are the chief financial officer and controller. I keep track of the records of what is going in and what's going out and the cash flow forecasts, for which I use spreadsheet programs.

What was the hardest aspect of working as a secretary the first few years?

Knowing what people are going to expect of you and how to handle how they treat you. I learned not to take it personally if someone wasn't nice to me.

What do you like most about your work?

I enjoy being involved in a project, to learn more about the business our company is engaged in and to find out where our money is invested. It makes the work more interesting and makes me feel that I'm part of the team. I also like interacting with people, which I do a lot of in this job.

What do you like least about your work?

The days when the phone does not stop ringing. I cover all four bosses' phones, and some days it's hard to get anything done.

What are you most proud of so far in your career?

I started out as the receptionist for several general partners, and I have become their "right arm." They let me know that they have confidence in me. I set up important meetings and do other jobs that show me they trust my judgment. They listen to what I have to say and respect my opinions.

What advice would you give to people interested in secretarial work?

Look at the growth potential in a job. Try to find out if you can move up. If you aren't enjoying what you do and aren't feeling challenged, it will be just a job. Also, stick with the tasks until you master them. In my current job, when I began typing numbers and financial information, I wasn't comfortable at first. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Mary Smart, 27, Administrative assistant, The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia

Years in the field: eight

How did you break into secretarial work?

My first job was with an insurance group as a part-time receptionist/secretary, as part of a co-op program at the local technical college. At school I took courses in computers and advanced typing for a year and a half. I then got a full-time secretarial job with a spice company. I did a little bit of everything. From there I came to the museum, where I have been for six years.

What do you do in your current job?

My immediate supervisor heads up four departments, so I provide administrative support to 15 people. About 80 percent of my work is word processing-correspondence, memos and documents. I spend the rest of my time maintaining database files, updating information and pulling reports for review. I may create a table to help track an exhibit or develop and maintain master directories of information.

What skills do you find most essential?

Typing, of course! A good working knowledge of computers and different software used in the business world is essential. It's critical to be well organized also. You can learn technical skills, but if you cannot keep your desk in order and the files under control, and know where things are when someone needs them, you will have difficulty functioning well.

People skills are also required. You have to learn to "read" people and to get to know them on a business level. I work with many creative and well-educated people, and I've learned to pay attention to each one and be flexible so that I can handle the variety of demands and personal styles.

What was the hardest aspect of working in this field during your first few years in it?

It took me a while to gain confidence in myself and my abilities. It's hard starting a new job, and doubly hard when you have doubts. I would constantly ask myself if I was doing things fast enough and wonder was I asking too many questions. I expected myself to be perfect, but I know now that you can't expect it all to come together immediately.

What do you like most about your work?

The challenges and diversity of the job. There is something new every day, and no day is routine. Working in a museum setting is very interesting; I like the atmosphere.

What do you like least about your work?

Filing! I hate to file. Despite the presence of computers and databases, we'll never get away from having paper to file.

What are you most proud of so far in your career?

Recently I coordinated a telecommunications project with local schools. I was the information controller. I kept track of everything, worked with the networks, gathered questions and answers, coordinated people in all different locations. I enjoyed seeing such a major project through from start to finish.

What advice would you give to someone considering secretarial work?

Take as many business courses as you can in high school. I took typing all four years, so I kept perfecting my speed and accuracy. With good typing skills, you can transcribe quickly from tape and you will be fast at keyboarding. I also recommend taking as many English courses as possible. The more you understand word usage, spelling, grammar and punctuation skills, the more capable you will be. Read up on things in the world around you if you want to get ahead.

Cathleen Tompkins, 31, Executive assistant, J. Crew, New York, New York Years in the field: ten

How did you break into the field?

My first job was working for the assistant general counsel at Prudential Bache. I functioned more as an office manager than as a secretary because I had additional secretarial school training after high school and I had secretarial experience from clerical jobs I'd done while I was in school.

In addition to performing secretarial tasks-typing correspondence, filing, logging in and keeping track of complaints, I supervised other secretaries. I scheduled vacations, arranged coverage for the reception desk and made sure all 30 lawyers in the department were covered with the clerical support they needed. I also helped get com-plaints assigned to the correct attorney.

How long did it take for you to feel established?

After two years I was promoted to the general counsel's office. He was also the Director of Corporate Services, which meant he coordinated everything from the employee dining room to compensation packages. We coordinated things between heads of departments-at one point I found myself choosing the colors for waiters' uniforms. My boss traveled a lot, so I made those arrangements. I felt very established in the profession at that point.

What kind of preparation did you have?

I took shorthand and typing in high school. The shorthand has come in very handy; so was learning how to use the Dictaphone.

In secretarial school there was a special, faster-track curriculum with courses that gave me specialized skills-a course in how to read the Wall Street Journal has helped me to be more astute in the business world. I also took marketing and accounting courses at a business college.

What was the hardest aspect of secretarial work at first?

Some people are condescending to secretaries, which is hard to handle. I like what I do and I do it well, so now I can deal with this attitude better.

How many different jobs have you held?

I have worked in the main offices of major financial service, real estate, advertising, manufacturing and retail companies. The basic duties are similar, but I have done tasks I didn't expect to be part of the job when I took it.

Can you give an example?

I once worked as the secretary to the president and senior vice president of the custom event division of a large advertising agency. In addition to my secretarial duties, I planned major events-a Radio City Music Hall event for 700, a San Antonio tennis tournament for top executives and salespeople-which required great attention to detail, diplomacy and the ability to deal with high-level people.

What do you currently do?

I am the executive assistant to the vice chairman of a well-known retail clothing firm. I check sales figures and report on any relevant trade news every morning, schedule business meetings, make travel arrangements, keep all of the files up-to-date on the computer, handle correspondence.

I'm also a personal assistant to my boss; I buy and wrap gifts, make personal appointments and generally keep my boss's life organized. This frees her up to run the business. I usually work from eight A.M. to six P.M. or later.

What do you most like about your work?

I enjoy handling details; I like things busy.

What are you most proud of so far in your career?

That I've been able to reach a top level of my profession in ten years. When I go on an interview and employers see my background and experience, they want to hire me. That makes me feel very good about myself.

What advice would you give someone considering secretarial work?

It is really worthwhile and valuable work. It's gaining more prestige and is a career that is beginning to look better. If you're good at it, it's worth a shot because you can have a real impact-especially at the higher levels, where good support is vital.
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