https://www.bonnielowkramen.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Forbes-image-Lucy-Melba-AlHusein-1.jpg 326 960 Bonnie Low-Kramen /wp-content/uploads/2020/08/bonnie-low-logo.png Bonnie Low-Kramen2019-06-03 10:00:342020-08-27 16:03:27FORBES COVER STORY The Ultimate Assistant Academy: Inside the Elite Training Program for America’s Top Executive Assistants
May 31, 2019 | Cover Story by Karsten Strauss | Forbes.com
Note from Bonnie: My strongest hope is that this Forbes article will help move the needle of awareness about the urgent need for training for assistants and leaders all over America and the world. To that end, this a link for an event for executives and assistants together in NYC on Thurs Oct 24th that will move us forward some more. Check it out and share with your colleagues. It’s big and it’s time. https://conta.cc/30qC8Ke
The first thing to know, Bonnie Low-Kramen tells a full conference room, is that you are not secretaries. You are executive assistants or administrative business partners. The second thing: The people you work for are not bosses. They are managers. She’s holding court during a sold-out day of lectures, lessons and discussions at the Sofitel Hotel in New York—part of a two-day workshop she conducts around the country called Be The Ultimate Assistant.
“What’s your superpower?” she asks the 30 women and one man in the room (around 95% of executive assistants are female). A smiling admin at a municipal agency says she excels at PowerPoint and public safety. The assistant to the president of a private college says she specializes in office secrets and booking travel. “You don’t have to be an expert at everything,” Low-Kramen tells them, “but you do have to know who the experts are to go to.”
Combining tips of the trade, tech pointers and Tony Robbins-type affirmations, she seeks to boost both the know-how and spirits of her students, who include top-level assistants, administrative staffers for companies and government, and household managers for super-wealthy families whose identities they’ve sworn to conceal. Each has shelled out $1,500 for the two days from her own pocket or her company’s funds.
Low-Kramen, 61, who herself spent almost 25 years as the personal assistant to actress Olympia Dukakis, also holds workshops at companies like CNN and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and she speaks before outfits like Merck, Freddie Mac and the Young Presidents Organization at $10,000 a shot.
“I empower them to understand that they do know better,” says Low-Kramen. “To see themselves in a different way, as a very powerful and influential set of eyes and ears.”
Here are some of the things she can teach you: You have to know your manager’s spouse, children’s and pet’s names, and their birthdays. You must keep a list of everyone your manager is willing to interrupt a meeting or a phone call for. Always have on hand the name of his or her doctor, pharmacy and tax accountant. Always have a scan and a printout of everything in his or her wallet.
But beyond tips and tricks, Low-Kramen works to build up her students’ self-appreciation—their most valuable asset—and the conviction that they’re sometimes more astute than their managers. “I empower them to understand that they do know better.” she says. “To see themselves in a different way, as a very powerful and influential set of eyes and ears.”
“Bonnie sits on my shoulder every day when I’m at work,” says Brenda Rogers, 55, the assistant to Norman Abdallah, the CEO of Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, a $50 million organization. Rogers first met Low-Kramen in 2011 for a one-on-one training session, and she returned for a Dallas workshop two years later. “I wanted to do the job better,” she says. “As a CEO’s assistant you just need to be better.” Each time she came away with improved confidence. “One of the things you learn is to speak up for yourself, that you are worthy,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess I am.’” Six months after she told her manager that she hoped to be named chief of staff, she was promoted all the way to vice president of administration and given a 20% salary increase.
Getting a raise is another thing Low-Kramen teaches. Record your achievements, documenting where you saved the company money. Find out what you’re really worth using tools like Glassdoor. That got Debbie Furlano, executive assistant to the CEO of a $120 million construction company, a 13% raise when she first broached the subject with her boss. But then, Furlano says, “I told him that it put me in the midrange for our industry. He replied that he wanted me in the top range and provided me with a significant bonus to get me there.” Later that year the CEO had to take several months off to deal with a family crisis and had Furlano do his job for him. Low-Kramen, she says, was a constant lifeline. “She was my sounding board for sure during that time.”
Money is an inescapable issue for Low-Kramen’s students and people like them. “Every single female executive assistant I’ve met is underpaid,” says Al-Husein Madhany, 43, a former top assistant to Facebook’s then-CIO Tim Campos, who now works as an executive assistant search consultant, coach and salary negotiator. He says that in cities like San Francisco and New York annual total compensation for experienced assistants can reach $500,000, but most are in the high five figures and undervalued for their hours and work. People assume their employer will take care of them, and they’re wrong, Madhany explains. “They’re directly impacting the bottom line, and they’re not asking for things to compensate them for that.”
(Left to right:) Lucy Brazier, Melba Duncan and Al-Husein Madhany are in the business of educating ambitious executive assistants on how to be better at what they do and encouraging them to seek higher compensation.
How do you know what you’re worth? Lucy Brazier feels a four-tier measure of status should be developed, with low-level admins at one and top-tier chiefs of staff at four. “When they say, ‘I’m a level-four assistant,’ everybody understands what that means.” Brazier, 50, is another self-made expert on executive assistants. Last year she spoke at 183 events in 41 countries, charging up to $10,000 a day. It all began when she found herself with the job of turning an unprofitable British newsletter called Executive Secretary into an instructional magazine. “I could see that assistants weren’t getting training, and I figured if there was a really cost-effective option it would get into the hands of the people who needed it.”
Before long she was invited to speak about secretarial work at a conference. The requests kept coming. In 2015, at Buckingham Palace, she addressed the royal personal assistant staff. Like Low-Kramen, she also does two-day training programs, 30 of them a year for groups of an average of 30 assistants at up to $1,000 a head. (That comes to several hundred thousand dollars altogether.) She also runs a touring show of executive assistant gurus, Executive Secretary LIVE, that sells out 150-seat halls at $1,600 a person from London to Atlanta to South Africa and beyond. Her speakers have included Reggie Love, former personal aide to Barak Obama; Zelda La Grange (Nelson Mandela); and Lauren Jiloty (Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton). Low-Kramen is a regular on Brazier’s tour.
“Contribute beyond what is expected,” Ann Hiatt advises. “At my level, that’s a common thread. Nobody asks us to do it. We just do it, and we do it so well that they’re going to ask us to do it again.”
Brazier says she wants to get assistants to think bigger—to become uber-assistants, strategic partners to their CEOs. “These are not people who are sitting there doing tea and typing,” she points out.
Ann Hiatt, who has been an executive assistant to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Google’s Eric Schmidt, has appeared on Brazier’s tour multiple times. Supporting executives at that level means mirroring them and knowing how to manage them. “How to get one step ahead,” she says, “and anticipate their needs, think like they do, know what they’d like and really become that body double, that brain double that executives can go to for quick options or gut-checks.”
As his assistant, Hiatt developed a curriculum to teach Eric Schmidt about artificial intelligence and helped negotiate with NBC for YouTube’s use of Olympics footage. “Contribute beyond what is expected,” she advises. “At my level, that’s a common thread. Nobody asks us to do it. We just do it, and we do it so well that they’re going to ask us to do it again.”
How can you land a job like that? You might start by approaching The Duncan Group, a New York-based search firm that places top-level assistants with CEOs and wealthy families, charging 30% of a first-year’s salary that averages between $125,000 and $150,000. CEO Melba Duncan, former executive assistant to Lehman Brothers chairman Peter G. Peterson, says she first learns all about the executive in need, and “once I understand the personality, the temperament, the behavior and the expectation, I then match that person with our candidate database.”
Landing a place on that database is no easy task. “If you send me a résumé that has typographical mistakes, misspelled words and, we get this all the time, somebody who doesn’t know the difference between principle and principal, I’m not interested,” she says with a wave of her hand. “That is so foundational to what you do as an assistant.” Then, if you make it to an interview, of which there are several, everything you say “means something. … It may give me a sense of, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure this person is smart enough.’”
She also runs the Duncan Leadership Institute that offers, among other things, $2,400-a-person two-day boot camps and a “premier” six-day course designed by Columbia University professors for 10 to 12 lucky students at up to $10,000 apiece. The students who take that course are mostly working assistants looking to up their game. They’re schooled on how business organizations work—tricks like adopting various social styles to be persuasive and strengths like the ability to say no to a CEO’s face.
Duncan likes to think of her students and the assistants she places as “executive life managers.” Whether they reach the top or not, they’ll never have it easy, she admits. “Nobody is going to say you did a great job. You just don’t get told how wonderful and great you are. You have to tell yourself that.”