Joan Burge is the Founder & CEO, Office Dynamics

What is your background?

I was born and grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I attended Catholic school grades 1 through 12, so I was surrounded by nuns in habits most of my early life. If you know anything about Catholic schools way back when, the nuns were very strict. When I was in my early years of attending school, I wanted to be a teaching nun. I used to come home from elementary school and play school every day. I had my own little imaginary classroom which was actually part of our attic off my bedroom on the second floor of our house. To fit the nun part, Santa brought me a nun outfit one year which I would wear when I played school. (Can you just picture it?)

Then when I got into high school and had to make a choice between business classes or home economics, I chose the business classes. There was no way I was interested in being a homemaker. It was also about this time that I decided I did not want to be a nun as they had no real life –they could not date or get married and I wanted to do both of those things. I embraced the businesses classes which mostly consisted of typing, shorthand and the use of office equipment. I excelled in the classes and could not wait to get into the workforce.

In 1970, when I graduated, I headed right to work. My first job was as a Receptionist at Alcan Aluminum. That was the beginning of a career where I would plant myself for 20 years. I was always eager to learn and had a thirst for becoming the best I could in this profession. In the early days, I had dreams of working for top executives and those came true with hard work and dedication. Over a 20-year period, I worked in 12 different companies ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500. I worked in a variety of industries, supported a broad range of management styles, and lived in five states during that time. I had some good Bosses; not so good ones; and three outstanding Executives, who were my mentors. To this day, I am thankful they were in my life as they taught me about business and leadership.

I never attended college but I was a life-long student. I read, had mentors, was a sponge with everyone around me, attended conferences and workshops, listened to audio tapes and constantly took on new challenges from my executives. I volunteered at work for special projects and initiated projects and events that allowed my talents to shine as well as benefit my organisation.

What is your current role?

I am founder & CEO of Office Dynamics, an international leader in creating and presenting sophisticated training programs and information for all administrative professionals.

I have been in this role since 1990. I love my work as it has many dimensions and makes a real difference in the lives of administrative professionals. I do everything from writing the curricula, speeches, and customised presentations to conducting workshops, seminars and hosting an Annual Conference for Administrative Excellence. I write books and produce educational CDs, DVDs, and videos for our website. I privately coach Executives and their Assistants. I write blogs and newsletters and am a visionary for future programmes and products that will elevate the life and role of administrative professionals.

I work closely with human resources and organizational learning departments on the education of their administrative staff – helping them develop administrative competencies, discussing recruiting and interviewing and promoting succession planning for Assistants.

Another part of my work is ensuring Office Dynamics has vibrant staff, who are constantly growing and excelling so we can provide the best service.

How did you get into training Administrators?

This is a great story! We were living in Asheville, North Carolina at the time and I had been in the administrative profession for about 17 years. I had a magnificent career in that I experienced many different environments, industries, business sizes and people. I was working for a great company, Steelcase, and had an awesome Executive. But one morning I woke up and thought, ‘I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 40. (I was 37 at the time.) I don’t want to be working for someone else and I don’t want to be an assistant’. But I had no idea what I could do. I had no college education, I needed to work (and wanted to) and I had only known the secretarial and administrative profession.

Steelcase was a large facility with 900 employees and we had an employee counsellor called Vo. She was an external consultant and since I worked for the top dog at Steelcase, I got to know her very well. One day after work, I was talking to Vo about what was going through my mind and how I didn’t know what I could do with my future. She said, ‘Why don’t you train secretaries? You are great at what you do and you have years of experience in a variety of situations’. I thought it was a great idea, but didn’t know anything about training and was afraid to speak in front of a group of people, so I didn’t pursue it.

Then one infamous weekend, Vo and I had gone to the beach on the shore of North Carolina for a well-deserved rest. Sometime that weekend, Office Dynamics was born. Vo and I started talking and she also needed something different in her career. We came up with this concept of teaching Assistants how to be stars in their profession, which took a combination of attitude and skill. I was going to teach the skill side and Vo was going to teach the attitude side. We would be a great team.

Neither one of us could quit our jobs, though. We both needed steady income and we needed time to learn about opening a business and determine what to teach. We had to learn about writing objectives, learner outcomes and so much more.

Vo and I met every Saturday for six months. We learned about starting a business, worked on our curricula, talked about our dreams and even conducted a few little workshops together. I was able to do some mini training classes for Secretaries at Steelcase. I prepared for classes on my own time and did not expect any extra pay from my employer. I joined the American Society for Training & Development and found a few independent consultants who mentored me. I read, watched, listened and asked questions.

At the end of the six months my husband, Dave, accepted a promotion in his industry and we moved to Memphis. This was a great opportunity for him and so Vo and I parted ways. I dropped the idea of having my own business. After all, I did not have my partner. I went off to Memphis and was disappointed time and again with jobs. Eventually, I landed a good job working for the VP of Marketing for Coppertone. It was a really fun but I was still struggling internally. Finally, one day, I realized that I had to bring Office Dynamics to life and get into training. I also knew that to be taken seriously and hired for training or speaking engagements, you had to be published. I started to write and my first article was published in The Secretary Magazine.

Dave actually hooked me up with a consultant who sold Brian Tracy programmes (who I admire). I got more involved with ASTD. I moved on to a job as the Assistant to the CEO of Boatmen’s Bank. In that role, I started The Star Achievers group for assistants and then provided training.

The big push for me came when Dave was offered a fantastic new job in Virginia. This was only after two years of living in Memphis. At the time of our move, Dave said to me, ‘You either have to give up this Office Dynamics thing or be quiet about it. You are driving me crazy. You don’t want to be an assistant but you are afraid to quit your job’. This was my turning point. I couldn’t give up my dream and I knew the only way I would find out if I could make this business a success was by doing it full time – even if I had no money set aside or regular income and was in a strange city.

Keep in mind that providing in-depth training to assistants and secretaries was not being done in those days. There were the one-day CareerTrack workshops and a few programs by the American Management Association, but nothing of any real depth was available. And companies just didn’t invest money in developing Assistants.

We moved to Virginia Beach in June 1990 and I did not get my first piece of work and see my first little paycheck until February 1991. After two years of getting known in Virginia, Dave got another promotion and we moved to Lansing. It was like starting all over again. But I was vigilant and determined. We stayed in Lansing for eight years and then moved to Las Vegas 11 years ago. Office Dynamics has continued to grow despite us almost closing the doors three times.

What inspires and motivates you?

I excel when I am in a visionary mode. Most often, I easily see the future and where the profession is heading. I also listen to my clients in terms of their needs, challenges and goals.

Once an idea clicks with me and I know exactly what I want to do, then I am motivated to put the pieces into place and bring it to fruition.

I am motivated by challenging assignments from my clients. I have some very high-end clients in diverse industries. Many are quite demanding and some have internal challenges. While their expected outcomes are sometimes daunting, I am invigorated and step up to the plate.

I am also inspired by my students. It is amazing and inspiring how creative Assistants perform when you empower them and give them the opportunity to develop their talent. This doesn’t always occur in the workplace because the Assistant thinks they don’t have the potential, or their Manager holds them back. I learn as much from my participants as they do from me. I treasure many of the assistants who are in my classes.

What are the biggest challenges facing administration professionals currently?

Assistants are facing many challenges today so I will only mention five.

1. Keeping up with technology.

This encompasses everything from learning a new software program to social media and the hardware side of it. I have met some Executives who rely heavily on their assistant to learn the newest and greatest and then teach them. It is very difficult today to keep up because the technology is changing and evolving at warp speed.

2. Demonstrating their value every day – not becoming extinct.

Today’s Managers and Executives are more independent and are tech savvy. Therefore, they perform several tasks that Assistants once performed. They have told me that they don’t need an Assistant. The problem is that someone just hasn’t taught them how to use today’s modern Assistant. I see Managers performing tasks that an Assistant should be doing. As a business owner, this says to me that a Manager is not bringing the appropriate value to the organisation.

3. Assistants are feeling time compressed.

There is much work to do and not enough hours in a day to get everything done. Technology has created a 24/7 work mindset. I’m not saying that is right. Assistants say their executives expect them to be on call after hours and on weekends. I highly recommend assistants set healthy boundaries on this subject.

4. We are a ‘just in time society’.

There is no more planning days and weeks out, or taking several hours to hold a meeting to discuss what is on the horizon. Assistants must learn to think strategically and be future focused, while delivering their services today.

5. Assistants are not, and will not be, promoted just because their Manager is promoted.

I am working on some big projects where organisations are saying to their assistants, ‘You are like an independent contractor, who must provide outstanding services and skill to move ahead’. So, the Assistants who care about their careers need to develop a broad range of skill sets and competencies. And it is not all about technology. It’s knowing when you need to have a face-to-face conversation or pick up the telephone. It’s about people skills.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

This is a hard question for me. I have had many highlights, such as: the first time I held my first book in my hand; signed a big training contract with a client; saw the Star Achievement Series® workbooks in print; moved to my first commercial office space; saw a dream come to reality; launched my first educational video; and worked with (and continue to do so) an outstanding assistant, Jasmine Freeman. Also, my first time on a huge stage for an administrative webcast; hosting my Annual Conference for Administrative Excellence; being asked to speak at a big Cisco Systems admin event; teaching 60 assistants at a bank in Bermuda to be world class; teaching my first Star Achievement Series® Trainer Certification class and seeing the new trainers blossom and spread the star philosophy into their organisations. Even hearing when a person in my class was able to buy her first home soon after I taught a class on goal setting; and receiving a vase of fresh flowers during a class because the participants appreciated me.

Often for me, highlights aren’t big national awards or news that makes the headlines. I have been blessed to have many highlights during my career.

What’s the best piece of advice that you could give to our readers?

Don’t be so full of yourself that you stop learning. Don’t ever think you are too old to learn or you have been in the profession to long, or you know it all. You will be left in the dust. Be hungry to learn. Open your ears and your eyes, and pay attention to the world around you.

Know that who you are today is not all you are capable of becoming. Even if you are at the top of your game, you can always learn if you open your mind and commit to being a life-long student.

What’s next for Joan Burge?

In five years, I would like every Assistant to be a follower of Office Dynamics and know that we care about them and their success. It is my hope that they will look to us as their shining light guiding them through career challenges.

For me personally, I will be involved in the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (a disease that my husband fought for four years). I will be taking more time to write books and taking pleasure in watching Jasmine Freeman share the spotlight with me, as well as a seeing the other members of the Office Dynamics team blossom. This will give us more strength as company to support the needs of the new generation of assistants.

I will still be doing what I love – and that is helping and growing star-performing Assistants. And will spend more time teaching executives how to maximize the time and talents of their assistants. The future holds endless possibilities and I can’t wait to see what doors God will open for me.

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Lucy Brazier, OBE is one of the world’s leading authorities on the administrative profession. As CEO of Marcham Publishing, specialist publishers of Executive Support Magazine, Lucy is passionate about ensuring the Assistant role is truly recognised as a ... (Read More)

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