I entered Corporate America as a secretary following three years of managing a young women’s retail store. Retail clothing was fun; the managing and motivating of other young women like myself was challenging – but the pay and the hours were tough to swallow. The secretarial position promised an 8 to 5 routine with a better paycheck and even some room for growth. I worked with engineers who daily taught me and encouraged me to take on new challenges. We were a team – and I, their equal. Hard work paid off, but by the time I had climbed the ladder to my third secretarial position, I found I was earning more money only to be challenged less. The dichotomy stunned me.
Day One in my third assignment as a secretary began something like this:
Manager: “Well, these are my pencils,”[pointing to a divided leather pencil cup engraved with his initials].
Me: [thinking: well, of course they’re pencils! duh]
Manager: “When the pencils are point down in this side of the cup they’re good. When they’re point up in the other side of the cup, they need to be taken out and sharpened.”
Me: [thinking: he means me, doesn’t he? he means I should sharpen his pencils…]
Manager (blissfully unaware that I am staring at him in stunned silence): “And these plants in my office…these were gifts. I don’t know if you have a green thumb or not, but the girl always watered these for me.”
Me: [thinking: “The Girl” – Who’s that?? Am I “The Girl”?? Is he asking me to water his plants?! No – seriously – I think he’s TELLING me to water his plants…]
Months went by and I neither sharpened pencils nor watered plants. The plants were dying and he didn’t know why – he asked the corporate landscape contractor what was wrong with his plants – who kindly suggested he water them.
One morning, I entered the office to find about 50 pencils in his outbox. This was his not-so-subtle way of telling me that I better sharpen his pencils. After conferring with a fellow secretary, we located an electronic pencil sharpener and plugged that into his office – setting it next to his pencil cup.
The next day, the electronic pencil sharpener was in the outbox.
Finally, a couple of days later he came to my desk with a mechanical pencil in his hand and said “Do you think you could order lead for this for me?” To which I happily responded, “Yes – THAT I can do!”
I had won the battle!
When I entered the workforce in the 80s, I was unaware of how much I could do or how smart I really was — but I was equally unaware that I had any limitations. The job title “secretary” held no stigma for me. I knew I was more than my job title, and, in fact, used my job to continue acquiring skills. I went back to college at night eventually earning a BS in Business and Communications Studies. I used the corporate “jungle gym” to leapfrog from pure secretarial work to a hands on employee benefits administrator. I seized opportunities to go above and beyond what was expected of an administrator – learning to program on-the-job and increasingly identifying technology and process opportunities to reduce our workload. When a risky proposition was placed in front of me to join a team that would implement a new technology system (SAP software), I seized the opportunity to innovate and show others what I was capable of doing.
Success, leadership – these things are defined by ourselves. What drives us to skip through the corporate jungle gym or climb the ladder is personal. For me, I always had the spark of imagination and creativity that would spur me on to do more than expected. But a bunch of unsharpened pencils ignited a bonfire.