As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Executive Secretary (now Executive Support) Magazine, Lucy Brazier shares the lessons learnt that we will be taking into the future
On 25 March 2011, weeks of work culminated in the first issue of Executive Secretary Magazine going to print. There were just two of us that had created the issue: the designer, Emma Beamish, and me. We had no marketing budget, so I taught myself social media, which to this day is pretty much the only marketing that we have done. We had a basic website. I sat on the kitchen floor packing magazines into envelopes and hand-writing the addresses for just over 500 subscribers.
It was meant to be a small, cottage industry business, where I could produce the magazine from my kitchen table without too much stress and get some work-life balance. What transpired couldn’t have been further from that vision.
10 years on, after speaking at over 500 events in over 50 countries, and embarking on a mission to change the world of administrative professionals, our Senior Editor, Kathleen Drum, suggested that for this 10th anniversary issue, I should put down on paper what I have learned in the last 10 years that I will be taking into the future.
It took me just 10 minutes to pen the list, and it came from the heart. It’s been an exhilarating decade that has changed my life and continues to teach me new things every day.
Jeff Bezos once said that as an entrepreneur there are only ever two states: abject terror and euphoria. I concur – and it makes me feel better that he thinks so too.
Here are my 20 lessons:
1. Reading stuff outside of your sphere is where the best ideas come from
It’s easy to get stuck in your groove and only read about the place where you sit, especially when you are busy. I have always been a voracious reader, and I am endlessly curious. I want to know all the answers – sometimes I am not even sure of the question. So, I read everything that I can lay my hands on.
Most of my most successful ideas have come from reading articles from other markets.
Sure, I read the trade press for publishers and everything that crosses my desk about the administrative profession, but I also read the top 10 articles on LinkedIn every day, I subscribe to Harvard Business Review, Inc and Entrepreneur, as well as having all the top business press on my social media feeds. You can never be sure when an article will spark an idea or take you off on a journey of discovery.
I tend to screenshot the paragraphs that sing to me and come back to them on a Saturday morning to see what still appeals.
2. Wherever possible, say yes
Have you seen the film ‘Yes Man’? It’s a terrible film featuring Jim Carrey, but in it, the main character finds himself unable to say no to anything. It’s a fun premise but it’s also an amazing way to live your life.
I have a strong faith and back in 2010, just before I started the magazine, I was working as a publishing director for one of the UK’s largest publishing houses and burnt out. It was a frightening time, and I prayed a lot. The outcome was that ever since then, I have run my life from the position of ‘I am handing it all over to you’.
It means that whenever I am asked to do something, I do my best to say yes. It feels like part of a much bigger picture and has taken me on an extraordinary journey of self-discovery and to all four corners of the world.
The power of saying yes and never being fearful is a game-changer. I feel blessed to not have to worry about whether something is the right decision or not. I believe that if it wasn’t, then it wouldn’t be on my trajectory. I just get on with enjoying the ride. I have met many incredible people and visited all sorts of places that I never thought I would go to. Unexpected doors have opened, and opportunities abound.
3. All that glitters is not gold
Having said that, I probably get half a dozen emails a week from businesses that want to work with me and will apparently make me a fortune – usually by utilising our community.
I choose which of these proposals I take on, if any, very carefully; I could count them on one hand. I have worked very hard to build my reputation, the reputation of the business, and gain your trust. I need to be sure that anything or anyone that I introduce to you is worth it.
For example, one company wanted to pay me a lot of money to endorse their product. It’s not something I wanted to get into. Yes, I know that referral marketing is now huge business but it’s not for me. If I personally endorse something it will be carefully researched to within an inch of its life before it gets anywhere near any of you.
On paper, it might seem like a lot of money, but the value of saying no will probably be much greater in most circumstances.
4. The money is in the conversation
I am fond of saying that in 2011, we started a conversation that is still going strong.
Talking to our community on a daily basis means gaining your trust but it also means understanding what you get excited about and how to talk to you in your tone of voice. The value of this cannot be underestimated. It’s at the heart of everything that we do.
Part of travelling the world as I do is about ensuring that we remain utterly relevant by talking to members of our community constantly and listening to what the issues are. I tell my team that every person we speak with must feel like we are listening and that they are the most important person that we have spoken to today.
The other way that we have meaningful conversations is through social media.
If you had told me at the beginning of my career that I would be able to talk to a community every day, in real-time, using them as a barometer for launching new products and generally conversing with them ad infinitum, I would have bitten your arm and your leg off. Social media is such an extraordinary tool if you use it properly. Quite simply, it allows us to have a conversation every day.
5. Keep learning
The first course that I went on after I launched the magazine was the late Susie Barron-Stubley’s. Susie’s visionary PA Retreat was way before its time. Arrogantly, I thought it would be fun, but after 24 years in business, I wouldn’t learn a lot. How wrong I was! I was blown away by the insights that I walked away with.
It paved the way for my ethos about learning. When I attend a conference, I attend it. I don’t turn up to speak and disappear; I arrive before the first speaker and leave after the last one. It means I am constantly learning about this profession – not just from the speakers, but from what the Assistants tell me in the networking breaks, over lunch and when they ask questions.
It’s the best way of keeping your finger on the pulse and creating connection.
6. Your network is your net worth
How wonderful to have lasting relationships with inspirational leaders across the world that share my values and passion for advancing this profession. Together, we are changing the world for an estimated half a billion assistants, worldwide.
My inner circle is a source of huge joy. I can be vulnerable with them and share ideas and fears.
One of the heads of one of the associations calls me ‘Switzerland’ because of my ability to work with everyone. It has become a running joke. But you must put in as much as you take out, and I work very hard at nurturing my network to ensure that I am giving as much as I am taking.
I don’t do cliques and there are very few people that I don’t work within the industry. Where not, this is usually because I don’t feel that they are treating the administrative community properly.
7. Business can be ethical, and you can be kind
The publishing industry is a rat race. I was in it for 24 years before I started the magazine and on occasion was treated appallingly by ambitious or insecure colleagues.
I have always believed that there is no need to clamber over each other or behave badly in order to succeed. We do not need to be unkind or unethical to get to the top.
I hope that I have proved this to be the case in the last 10 years. We try always to be kind and behave properly. Our business has thrived because of it.
8. This above all, to thine own self be true
Since I was 18, I have carried around this quote from Hamlet in my purse.
This above all: to thine own self be trueWilliam Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3, 78-81
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
In other words, as long as you know that you have behaved with integrity, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Authenticity and being truthful with yourself is everything.
Occasionally, someone may take it upon themselves to call your actions into question or to profit from a mistake you have made. I learned early on that if you take this personally, you are dead in the water. What feeds my soul is getting on with delivering our vision, in our lane. I rarely check out the competition. It is a waste of time and emotional energy. Far better to focus on what we are trying to achieve.
9. Your team works with you, not for you
I have always believed that you hire people for what they can contribute and then you let them get on with it. My team works with me not for me. I only step into the management role when I need to and I am always at the front of the work, leading the way. I never ask the team to do something that I am not willing to do myself.
A good leader will always want to grow their team members. After all, the ideal staff consists of people who can think for themselves and are empowered to drive those ideas forwards. I challenge my team all the time to strive to learn more, to be better and to get out of their comfort zone.
10. Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable
Nothing about being an entrepreneur is comfortable. From deciding which ideas to run with to making difficult calls, an entrepreneur’s life is about making and communicating difficult decisions and then living with consequences. In the beginning, this led to endless sleepless nights, but these days I have reconciled the fact that this is one of the banes of being in business. You can’t expect the highs of success without being prepared to step into the uncomfortable.
11. Go with your instinct
The higher you rise in business, the more you have to rely on instinct. At the middle management levels, it’s far more about complex problem solving or reading a balance sheet; the higher up the corporate ladder you get, the more instinct and learned judgement plays a part. The world is full of people who would do it differently. But they aren’t you. I grow increasingly comfortable with not feeling the need to defend my position or clarify my reasoning behind a decision.
12. Be proactive about protecting your mental health
I had burnt out just before I began this 10-year journey and as a result, I am proactively focused on protecting my mental health.
If you don’t make time for recreation, your body will make time for illness. Those of you that have attended my presentations will know that I am obsessive about making time for things that make your heart sing.
My burnout was down to a toxic work environment, bad nutrition, lack of sleep, no exercise and no time for anything outside of work.
A few points I have incorporated into my life for the last 10 years:
- Food needs colour – if you are eating brown food, it’s probably not good for you.
- I hated exercise but I have come to realise how much I need it. There is a reason the top executives in the world exercise every day and it’s as much about mental health as physical health. I now walk 10,000 steps a day to and from work. It releases the ‘endolphins’, as my son would call them.
- A good night used to be going out and falling into bed in the early hours. A good night now is a quiet dinner with friends or an early night or a night in front of the TV with food and a glass of wine. I need my 8 hours’ sleep a night to function properly.
- I don’t tolerate office politics or bullying.
- I timebox my leisure time and it’s as important as my work time.
And we finally made the move to Spain. Seeing something beautiful every day and living in the sunshine helps.
13. Ask the audience
Much of business is about listening more than talking. You ask the audience what they want, listen hard and then you deliver it. That is why we talk to you consistently about the problems that you need solved and how we can help.
We never develop new products or services until we have talked to our community about it first. Your reaction is the barometer as to whether it will go ahead or not.
14. The maddest ideas can turn out to be some of the best
Sometimes when we are brainstorming, someone comes up with what at first glance seems like an utterly insane idea. But they have turned out to be some of our best. We launched #AdminChat in 2012 as one of the first Twitter chats in the UK. At one point over 3,000 people a week were tuning in for an hour of free training a week. Although this has now moved to our YouTube channel, at the time it was ground-breaking.
And who would have thought that the #OneProfessionOneVoice Choir would have become such a huge success? Originally a teambuilding session at ExecSecLIVE, during lockdown it has taken on a life of its own and has become a lifeline for Assistants all over the world that needed community. The joy of singing once a week has become something truly valued by the Assistants that take part.
Or what about the Webathon Weekend that we ran to raise money for trainer Vickie Sokol Evans in 2017 when she discovered she had breast cancer? Two days of continuous training from the world’s top trainers. Sounds familiar? It stood us in excellent stead when COVID-19 hit because we had done it all before and knew how to create a virtual event.
Or what about the Isipho Admin Bursary? The brainchild of Anel Martin and Teri Wells, the vision was to bring educational opportunities to those in Johannesburg that wouldn’t otherwise have the option and to train them to become Assistants. I have long held that administration is a perfect career for those trying to escape poverty, as no qualifications are needed at entry-level. We became a registered charity in 2016 and since then many young people have trained for a year to become Assistants. It’s one of the greatest honours of my professional life to be part of this foundation. I hope that in the future, that we will be able to take it into other countries so that more people can benefit.
15. Don’t make decisions based purely on financial rewards but DO be all over the figures
None of the things mentioned in point 14 made us money. Neither did our decision to give a digital subscription away free of charge for six months at a time to those who are unemployed or at half price to those working for registered charities, but it built loyalty, community and trust. (If you want to learn more about these initiatives, please email Sophie Douglas.)
We are, of course, a profit-making business, but in my previous life as a corporate publisher, it would have been rare, if ever, that a project would have been considered if it hadn’t delivered revenue.
To me, publishing is about building community, not broadcasting content. That said, I manage the entire business through our budget. I am fanatical about knowing exactly where we are and what we need to make. It’s a living, breathing document that changes every day. You can’t run a business or make informed decisions without being all over the figures.
16. Get out of your own way and let people do their job
None of us likes to delegate. We all know that we can do it better – right? But I discovered very quickly that hanging on to everything, even if it was just to rubberstamp things already done, caused a bottleneck of epic proportions.
People need to be able to make decisions and be empowered to do their jobs or the business will never grow.
17. Communication is everything
This last year has given me the opportunity to be settled in one place for more than a couple of weeks. It’s been a revelation; the structured weekly communication between the team and me has been at the heart of how the business has handled the pandemic.
For the first time in a long time, we have been a focused, driven team working together in pursuit of a common goal. That’s not to say that we weren’t functioning before, but the way we operate now is a vast improvement. When I return to travelling, having regular contact so everyone is clear on the part they need to play is something that I will definitely be taking into the future.
18. The harder you work the luckier you get
I’ve lost count of the number of times in the last 10 years that someone has said to me, ‘You’re so lucky’. It is true that I feel blessed, but I have spent much of the last 10 years working 18-hour days, sometimes seven days a week. It’s a good thing that I am so passionate about what I do! It doesn’t feel onerous.
I am with Roman philosopher Seneca, who 2,000+ years ago said, ‘Luck is where preparation meets opportunity’. If you work harder, you typically have better preparation. Therefore, you are in a better position when the opportunity arrives.
19. Don’t focus on what you want to be, focus on what you want to do
When I was a child, I wanted to be a teacher. With a theatrical family, I also wanted to be on stage and spent a year singing in wine bars for a living. At school, I edited the school magazine and newspaper without understanding that this could be a career, and I have always had a passion for travel. Later in my career, I became obsessed with the fact that I wanted to do something which made a difference and contributed to the world. I remember working on one particular journal in the law space and telling my husband, ‘If this magazine never came out again, I don’t think anyone would notice’. It was soul-destroying.
I think we focus children too much on what they want to be rather than on what they want to do. I didn’t know that a role existed that encompassed all the things that I wanted to do, the things that make my heart sing, but I appear to have found it.
20. Bravery can change the world
Business is not for the faint of heart. These last 10 years have been full of blood, sweat, exhaustion and tears; of being sure they would say no but asking anyway, of negotiating the impossible, of finding money at the 11th hour when all seemed lost, of being let down, criticised and still holding my nerve.
But it has also been an unspeakable joy to have been given the opportunity to serve this profession, to meet thousands of you across the world and to have created a platform that is contributing to changing the world for half a billion administrative professionals.
We’re getting there.