Celebrating Administrative Professionals: Becoming Your Own Chief
In this month’s blog series, we are celebrating administrative professionals who are also successful business leaders. You can be a successful administrative assistant, executive assistant, virtual assistant, or remote assistant AND a successful business leader. The Association of Virtual Assistants is proud to have had the opportunity to interview some of the best in the industry and allow them to tell their stories in their own words.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Phoenix Normand
Phoenix Normand is the Chief at trīb, a private, global, online community of the world’s top Executive Assistants from 12 countries. He is a career, C-suite Executive Assistant-turned-multiple business owner who supported many of the nation’s most revolutionary Executives in Investment Banking, Retail, Gaming, Tech, and Aerospace. His book “AS I SEE IT Volume 1: Business” is a gloves-off, blatantly honest account of his 27 years at the top of the game filled with the stories that often don’t get told as well as highly relevant opinions that often get ignored because of the “Assistant” title. Phoenix is soon to launch trīb Virtuals, executive assistance and project management aimed at solopreneurs, startups and early-stage companies who need experienced C-suite level EAs and PAs to partner with without the overhead.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
I actually grew up on a farm in Texas. Most of my friends still can’t believe that I used to slop hogs and ride horses every day to herd cattle. Strangely enough, those skills were all transferable when dealing with executives and teams. I was a professional dancer and singer for almost 18 years in tandem with being an Executive Assistant. I would work during the day, go home, eat, take a nap, and then sing with my band until 2am in the morning several nights per week. Rinse and repeat for almost 2 decades. The entertainer I backed for all of those years ended up getting nominated for a “Best New Artist” Grammy. We lost to Amy Winehouse. She’s since gone on to grab 11 more Grammy nominations while I rerouted to being a career EA and now [EA] advocate and multiple business owner.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Wow. There are so many. Most of which are detailed in my book. I’d say one of my favorites is getting to design the pitchbook for the Investment Bank that eventually won the deal to take Amazon.com public 20 years ago. I had been working for a competing bank during the day, but a friend of mine was working at another bank and offered up some side hustle work doing a few presentations. I always approached PowerPoint as a design tool way back when it was first “a thing.” My PowerPoint presentations were always highly designed and utilized all of the tech at the time to make them stand out. I was tasked with designing a presentation for “an online bookstore” deal that the company was interested in scoring. I did the web searches (even Google was new then), gathered as much info as I could about the CEO (Jeff Bezos) and tried to create something that was visually compelling and would tell the story in a way that would resonate with the CEO. Well, it did. And the company scored the deal and eventually took Amazon.com public. And, well, the rest is history.
The lesson is to “always do your best.” I could have phoned in a nice, simple presentation and let the info take the lead. But I went the extra mile to not only represent the company but to represent myself and my brand to the best of my ability. Doing things outside the box and different than expected is my claim to fame and has consistently produced incredible outcomes. I had no idea Amazon would become, well, AMAZON when I was designing that presentation. An online bookstore? Really? But I made sure that it was the dopest online bookstore presentation ever created and you can see the results of those efforts. Moral: You never know what impact even the simplest things you work on could have on the world. Therefore, always do your best and represent yourself and your brand to the best of your abilities…always.
Looking back, what do you think made you stand out as an administrative professional? Was your employer or boss aware of this unique quality before you were?
My superpower has always been not accepting the status quo. Too many administrative pros are happy phoning it in or fitting in with the rest of the herd. I don’t have any joy or excitement in that. Nor do I accept being looked at or treated as “the help” in any professional environment. I know how hard I work and the insane bar that I set for myself, which is often higher than the one set by most of the executives I’ve supported over the years. I always stood out because my ideas were not the norm and were typically pretty revolutionary. As more of a right-brain-led professional, I always took a more “artistic” approach to solving problems and incorporating the more analytical, left-brain information to support my ideas. This wasn’t popular at first, but once executives saw that I was highly effective at solving some of their most complex issues, they relaxed and got onboard. I did that enough times to develop a reputation as a “unicorn” and was able to command top salaries and support executives at the top of the game looking for someone who thought and executed differently than the norm. And apply the same principles to the businesses that I run incredibly effectively now.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I was once a receptionist at a recruiting agency in San Francisco…one of my first jobs. I remember taking a lackluster phone message for one of the more demanding recruiters that didn’t include the last name of the caller or the company she’d called from, only the first name and phone number. Admittedly, she wasn’t my favorite recruiter. I found her to be a bit of an elitist snob and low-key condescending. I handed her the message when she returned from lunch. She read it and asked for the missing information. I had nothing. And then she hit me with the phrase that completely changed my life: “Always do your best, Phoenix.” Delivered with a sigh and the perfect amount of disappointment that seared that experience into my psyche. Anytime I feel myself slipping or wanting to do something “well enough” I remember that day and immediately snap back into beast mode.
Okay, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. How will you be celebrating Administrative Professionals’ Week?
Oddly enough I’ll be fulfilling orders! I’ve actually teamed up with an ex-boss who was instrumental in my life and helped me start my first company. We recently acquired a corporate gifting company called GiftSuite that we’re hoping to grow into a viable contender in the corporate gifting space, but offering items that are incredibly thoughtful, unique, and crafted by artisans throughout the US versus the cheesy, overly-branded swag that no one actually uses or covets. We’re launching in April and hoping to be the boxes executives choose as for their Assistants.
When you think of a stellar admin, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Ann Hiatt. Period. I have never been more impressed with another Executive Assistant whom I would physically bow down to. She’s the dopest, most complete, BADASS Executive Assistant I’ve ever met and I hold her in highest regard. Second would be Andrea Besmehn. I took over for her at Levi Strauss supporting the Global President of the Levi’s brand. She’s one of the hardest working EAs and WOMEN that I’ve ever met and leveled me up 10x during the time I supported both her and the Pres of Levi’s. She’s now Mark Zuckerberg’s EA at Facebook. That should speak volumes.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Yep. Getting our company’s signage installed on the side of the historic Tower Records building on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood, California. The irony is that the building was known for having the most eye-popping, outrageous signage while it was still Tower Records. Our company signed a lease to inhabit the building, had the #1 app in the Apple iTunes store at the time, and had scored $70 million in funding. My boss wanted to make a huge splash so we painted the entire building this crazy red-orange and I created circular signage 7 feet in diameter from our logo to attach to the two front corners of my building. I went to the city to obtain the permit to install and was flatly denied.
While the signage was tastefully designed, this one power-drunk employee in charge of issuing the permits felt that they didn’t comply with an arbitrary aesthetic they were trying to achieve for the “new look” of Sunset Blvd. Meanwhile, many of the legacy/legendary businesses within a stone’s throw of our building (The Viper Room, The Whisky, The Comedy Store, etc.) all had “slap-you-in-the-face” signage.
Long story short, I went around the city employee and consulted with his boss who was unaware her employee had denied the request. Unfortunately, she sided with her employee but hinted that if we featured a street art mural outside or inside our building as part of an initiative they were spearheading, our chances would improve dramatically. You read that right. A graffiti mural as part of a “clean, new look” for Sunset Blvd. took precedence over well designed though large-ish round signage…on a bright red building.
As I’m not one to be low-key bullied by anyone and certainly love a challenge, I sent a heartfelt letter to the Mayor of West Hollywood recounting my experience and reminding him that we were a $70 million funded startup that wanted to stay in West Hollywood vs. the beach cities like Google and Snapchat, had moved into the iconic Tower Records building that had been abandoned for years, had the #1 app in the Apple iTunes App Store, and wanted to bring attention (and revenue) to a city previously only known for entertainment, cruising, and drugs but rapidly growing as an alternative tech hub. In the email I asked for a lunch between the Mayor and my boss to discuss further and see if he could help us with obtaining the permit to hang our signage.
Within two days my boss and the Mayor had lunch (at SOHO House, no less) and the Mayor made a couple of phone calls including one letting me know that my permit was granted. There was nothing more gratifying than going back to the gent who had blocked my application numerous times and watching him stamp my paperwork wreaking of defeat…and a little hatred. My signs were installed 2 days later and have made their way into numerous movies and shows that filmed along The Strip during the time we were in the building.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
I’ve been hospitalized twice with what were thought to be heart attacks from stress. The first was when I was 27 and working at the same investment bank that took Amazon.com public. The second was at 31 working for a horrid executive at Gap, Inc. I regale the whole, sordid tale in my book, but that situation plunged me into a massive depression, caused a personal bankruptcy, and affected my life and finances for over a decade. I swore to myself that I would never let anyone or any situation affect me again to that degree and that caused the mindset shift that I teach today to EAs all around the world who take my workshops.
Once I got “hip” to the game, meaning understanding the executives and business care far less about our personal well being than we think, I completely flipped the script on how I show up as an Executive Assistant. I trust no one in business. I don’t believe loyalty in business exists anymore. And I don’t bequeath any responsibility for my life, my livelihood, my education, or personal development to my bosses or companies. I started seeing myself as completely independent of my company and treated my bosses as clients vs. extended family members. By creating that separation (in my head) it allowed me to feel empowered and make decisions based on MY needs primarily vs. theirs, which actually helped me support them in a much more effective way.
I had no idea pushing back on ideas I knew wouldn’t work and offering my opinion without fear (and often unsolicited) in an effort to make them successful. Not all of my ex-bosses appreciated it. But the ones who did succeeded wildly with me at their side. The others are still struggling.
What would you say to someone just starting out on their assistant career?
Most importantly, don’t see yourself as “the help.” See yourself as a CEO of your own small company and approach your role with the same passion, intention, and aggressiveness as the people you support. In essence, you’re no different than they are. They’re just rocking a title that entitles them to certain things you’re not. It doesn’t make them “better” or more important than you. Only more autonomous. Treat yourself with the same importance as you treat the people you support. See them as peers, not “bosses.”
You are a person of great influence. Do you have any words of encouragement to share with our readers?
Do ALL of your homework to make sure you have the same core knowledge about the business, the products, the industry, and the business landscape as the people you support. That’s how you thrive in this role now and that’s what will save you as certain levels of this role begin to obsolete. I’m not the one to pat you on the head and exclaim that everything will be alright. It won’t. That should be insanely obvious right now. However, if you start seeing yourself as a CEO and your execs as peers, do your homework and “boss up” your knowledge, and tribe up with other highly experienced, equally passionate EAs so that you can aggregate your collective networks and find the support, advice, and resources you often need in a snap, you’ll thrive!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I live on LinkedIn. That’s the best place to catch me. I’ve written over 100 articles there, each with some fantastic takeaways to really crush this role. The other socials are for ME, so I tend to keep those as my safe place.
Thank you so much for celebrating administrative professionals with us!
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