Debbi Shaffer is an award-winning senior EA & Founder of Audacious Admin, a space dedicated to sharing resources and ideas to empower all administrative professionals to be AUDACIOUS!
Can we start with a little background information? Where are you from and what is your current role?
I’m from all over. While I was born in Baltimore, MD, I don’t have much memory of the multiple places we lived when I was very young. My first memories are from Minnesota. The three places I’ve lived the longest are Warrenville, IL (a suburb of Chicago), Northern VA and San Diego, CA. I currently live and work in Arlington, VA, just a few miles outside of Washington, DC.
I am the second of seven siblings, three boys / four girls. I’m married to a handsome and charming Brit and am the proud mama of two adorable fur-babies. Payton, named after Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears, is an orange tabby we rescued during Hurricane Sandy. Brodie, also a rescue, is a grey polydactyl cat named after San Francisco 49ers quarterback John Brodie.
I currently work for Jacobs, one of the world’s largest and most diverse providers of technical, professional, and construction services, with 50,000 employees in more than 30 countries. I provide support to multiple Senior Executives in the Buildings & Infrastructure line of business.
In addition to my role at Jacobs, I am also the Co-Founder, President & Board Chair of Audacious Divas, a non-profit organization committed to raising awareness and funding a cure for cancer. One of my most successful projects with Audacious Divas has been Celtic Pink Ribbon, a series of compilation CDs I produced with over 40 top Celtic artists and bands. We even have a theme-song, Audacious Divas, written by Trevor Tanner (The Bolshoi singer and guitarist) and performed by Rathkeltair, which can be found on Volume III.
What is your background?
I was about 10 years old when I began working. With guidance and assistance from my Dad, I created a quite lucrative babysitting business. He helped me make flyers and distribute them in our neighborhood, and I rarely had a night to myself again.
While in high school, I worked in various retail stores, although I never took home a pay check, because everything I made went towards the clothes and shoes I had put on hold. Later, I transitioned to the hospitality industry, working for Marriott. I started as a waitress, then restaurant hostess, then front desk clerk, and finally concierge. I was very fortunate to work directly for John Marriott my last year with the company. I was learning so much working with Mr. Marriott that I decided to take time off from college and focus on my on-the-job training. I ended up never going back, but instead obtained my PhD from the University of Life.
How did you become an Assistant?
One could say I’ve been in training for this job since I was very young. My Dad was a successful corporate executive, and I loved to go to the office with him on the weekends to play secretary. I adored and admired the fabulous women who supported him as he climbed the corporate ladder. Knowing the value a good assistant brings to the equation was a lesson I learned early in life. I knew if I needed something, it was often better to reach out to his Executive Assistant than to Dad directly.
Being an Assistant was not a conscious choice for me. I stumbled into the career quite by accident. I was blissfully happy working in hospitality, but my family kept asking when I was going to get a “real job.”
I believe anyone who has worked in the hospitality industry will agree with me that it is a REAL job … and a demanding one as well. In 1997 I moved across the United States to be near my younger siblings, and figured this was as good an opportunity as any to get one of those “real” jobs everyone kept talking about.
In my first few days in California, a family friend asked if I wanted to fill in as a temporary receptionist for his firm while I figured out what I wanted to do next in life. I agreed. Within a few months, the Vice President asked if I would like to support him, which I did for the next 10 years. When he left that company to open his own firm, I went with him. When I moved back to the East Coast for personal reasons, I continued to support him remotely. After a year I decided telecommuting was not a good fit for me and decided to put in my notice, but we are still great friends.
Since returning to the East Coast, I’ve been fortunate to support incredible executives across multiple industries including executive search, architecture, legal and government consulting.
Tell us a little about Audacious Admin – how did that come about?
Audacious Admin is an online presence I created in 2014 to share with my fellow admins ideas, books, articles, conferences, training, and other resources I’ve found to be educational, informational and inspirational. It started off as a Facebook page, then expanded to a website where I blog, and I’ve recently been active on Twitter as well.
Taking Audacious Admin online was simply the next step on a journey I began in 2011 when Kemetia Foley reached out to me via LinkedIn with an offer to speak to the Old Town Alexandria IAAP Chapter on Travel Planning. In preparing for and making the presentation, I discovered when you teach, you learn, and I was hooked. That email from Kemetia has changed the course of my life, provided me many wonderful opportunities, and expanded my network to include some extraordinary people.
I’m thrilled the next step in my professional development journey is to present at Executive Secretary Live London in 2017!! I’ve teamed with two amazing ladies, Susan Leahy & Anita Maginniss, to create a unique half-day interactive presentation designed to empower admins to embrace their influence. We are all very excited about this program!
What are the main changes you have seen in the time you have been an Assistant?
The role has evolved drastically over my lifetime. It is definitely a more prestigious job, and there are greater opportunities for advancement. Gone are the days when the job requirements were fast typing and the ability to make coffee. The scope of the job is now so vast that I’ve seen 10-page job descriptions. Assistants are valued team members and have greater responsibility. In many cases, the role of the Executive Assistant is a now a managerial position. There are more males in the role than ever before. Advancements in technology have made the job easier; putting a wealth of information at our fingertips, but have also complicated the role with the ability to work remotely and to be plugged in 24/7. Today, it is as important for Assistants to develop soft skills (EQ) as it to know how to use the computer. Admins are expected to be both tech-savvy and people-savvy.
What inspires and motivates you?
The incredible community of professional development speakers I’ve joined inspire me greatly. It is amazing to be included in any conversation with these incredible individuals. Even more amazing is the COLLABORATIVE mind-set in which they operate. It is truly incredible to experience.
Creation inspires me. I tend to have BIG ideas. Being able to create and execute those ideas motivates me. I wear a mantra bracelet to remind me to “BE AUDACIOUS,” which means to be:
Making my family and friends proud motivates me. I believe most people thrive on recognition and appreciation, and I’m no different. Appreciation is a motivator. Ultimately, my main source of motivation is to leave the world a little better than I found it and the people I meet a little happier.
What advice would you give something just starting out as an Assistant?
Richard Branson says, “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.” This is great advice and words I’ve lived by. When Marriott asked me if I wanted to be concierge, I said “YES!” then went to a computer to look up what a concierge was. When the VP of the asset management firm asked me to be his assistant, I had no idea what the scope of the job was, but said “YES” and figured it out as I went along.
Do not be afraid to voice your ideas, observations and opinions. If you keep quiet, you are doing a disservice to both yourself and your executives.
Create collaboration, not competition. You are only as good as your network and your team. NO ONE can successfully do this job without help. In that spirit, never accept individual praise for a group effort.
So what’s next for Debbi Shaffer? Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
Most importantly, I want to be happy. Life is too short to not be happy. If any path I choose leads me to a place of unhappiness, I hope I have the good sense to change paths!
There are some amazing opportunities in front of me at the moment, which makes this is a difficult question to answer. I’m weighing which one I most want to pursue. If given carte blanche on all my dreams, in five years a cure for cancer will have been found, I will have obtained my Microsoft Office Certification and be a Certified Speaking Professional who has spoken to and empowered admins all over the world.
For now, I’ll continue to strive to be the best Assistant I can be. I really enjoy my Audacious ventures, both Audacious Divas and Audacious Admin, so I plan to continue to grow both businesses and see where they lead me.