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Executive Assistant Adjusts to New CEOs

5 min read

Stephanie Howard has made a career out of an unplanned appointment.

Howard, 36, spent 13-plus years as the executive assistant to the CEO at USA Truck Inc. of Van Buren, a job she started when she was hand-picked by then-CEO Bob Powell in 2002. Howard had started working at USA Truck at age 19 and was working in the human resources department when Powell’s EA left the company.

“One day out of the blue, one of the ladies came to me and said the lady who was working for Mr. Powell took another job, and he wants to know if you want to come work for him,” Howard said. “That was a major opportunity for me. I had started in driver orientation. It was a new role, but the same things I did in HR. It was a promotion.”

Through some turbulent times — not to mention three more CEOs — Howard held onto the job until August, when she left for an executive assistant position with Beall Barclay & Co. of Fort Smith. Howard said each of the USA Truck CEOs she worked for had different expectations for his EA, which was something she adapted to in turn.

Powell, Howard said, was an old-school executive who didn’t use a computer and wanted handwritten messages. Cliff Beckham handled a lot of his own scheduling, while John Simone wanted Howard to plan his day almost to the minute.

“What each one expects out of you is completely different,” Howard said. “With Mr. Powell, he told me, ‘I have no reason to learn how to use the computer. That’s what I have you for.’”

Learning the Job

Howard didn’t finish college but kept up to date with the technical requirements of the position with course study outside of the job.

Tara Dryer of the University of Arkansas Global Campus in Rogers said the university offers a host of online and face-to-face classes that are beneficial for assistants from the executive to the administrative level. Dryer, the director of training, corporate development and academic outreach, said some of the courses are a few hours long while others can be more of a typical semester study.

Courses taught include business communication, an eight-hour certification program; training in leadership and programs such as Excel and PowerPoint; and online courses in project management fundamentals, customer service fundamentals and supervision and management.

Dryer has two executive assistants on her staff, both of whom have earned master’s degrees, and she said executive assistants need such training because they often oversee projects run by other assistants.

“A lot of them are the ones who are running the show,” Dryer said. “A lot of times executive assistants will supervise people who have never been in that capacity before, where they are supervising other administrative assistants.”

Howard said that is often the case because, as the CEO’s representative, she kept track of projects and initiatives so her boss didn’t have to.

“Whatever goes on in the executive meetings, you want to make sure those things are being taken care of,” Howard said. “You take some of the load off of whoever you’re working for. If a project is supposed to be done in two weeks, whoever you’re working for doesn’t need to be worrying about that project. You should be following up.”

Howard said she took all the software courses to become an expert at Excel and PowerPoint and the like. That was a requirement because if her boss wanted her to do something, she couldn’t very well say she couldn’t do it because she skipped a class on Microsoft Word.

“They have all been extremely helpful,” Howard said. “You have to take them to keep it fresh. I can’t sit there and go, ‘I don’t know how to do that. There was a class but I chose not to go.’”

Dryer said the Global Campus regularly meets with local agencies such as chambers of commerce and the Northwest Arkansas Council to determine what courses will be most helpful to employers and employees in the area. Soft skills — things such as organizational ability, willingness to work on a team, dependability — are almost in as high demand as technical skills.

“Those were skills that were really popular many years ago and died down; now it’s back strong again,” Dryer said. Dryer’s EAs “are able to oversee and make some decisions, small decisions when I’m out of the office. I interact with them on a daily basis, and they assist with big project management. They’re not just answering the phones and typing up emails.”

Learning the Boss

An executive assistant in today’s corporate and academic world is a far cry from the secretaries of yesteryear. Howard said Powell selected her as his new EA partially because of her personality when Powell called the HR department to speak with the director and she answered the phone.

Howard said being an executive assistant is a natural fit for her because, even as a child, she was organized and liked to help other people more than herself. She said being organized and fluent in computer programs are essential skills, but a good personality is also a huge bonus in the job.

“The biggest thing with an admin is the attitude,” Howard said. “That’s probably what allowed me to keep my job as long as I did. If you have a bad day, you don’t go in and complain about how horrible your day is. You suck it up and go on. You cannot have thin skin.”

Thick skin helps when things go wrong and the EA is the only one there to take the brunt of a boss’s frustration. Howard, whose discretion is absolute, won’t say who did what but admits there were times she got yelled at; the key was never taking it personally and keeping her composure.

Leaving USA Truck was difficult, Howard said, but she felt she had nothing left to offer and needed a new challenge. A friend pointed out that Beall Barclay was looking for an executive assistant, so she took the plunge and now works for partners Robbie McDonald and Katie Lejong.

There have been adjustments for both parties: Howard because she is at a company where the people and resposibilities are new, and McDonald and Lejong because they have never had an EA before.

“I hate to say this, but women are more self-sufficient,” said Howard, who then laughed. “They will give me things and say, ‘Hey, can you take care of this?’ I told them, ‘You realize this is what you hired me for? It’s OK to give this to me.’ I think they feel like they’re putting a burden on me when they give me things and I’m like, ‘Give it to me.’

“My job is behind the scenes. Whatever it takes to make them look good, that’s what I’m doing.”

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