Simone White is the founder and Chairman of GAIN, the internal global network for BlackRock’s administrative professionals
Can we start with a little background information? Where are you from and what do you do?
I was born and raised in South London, in the UK. In fact, I still live within 10 miles of the hospital I was born in! I am an Executive Assistant and have been an administrative professional for over 20 years. I am responsible for the administrative management across a team of 45 investment professionals and provide executive support to the head of the team, whose remit extends across Europe and Asia and a further two investment team heads.
How did you become an Assistant?
Any of my close friends or family will tell you that I am the one who organises everything – so maybe it was just meant to be – I just did not know it! I graduated from university with a degree in Fashion Journalism and Promotion after deciding at 16 I wanted to design and make clothing. It was while studying at the London College of Fashion that I realised I did not have the patience to sew and also discovered that there was a whole industry that was paid to put on fashion shows and write about it! Until I was in that environment, I never really thought about how things like London and Paris Fashion Week came about. After being immersed in this world for close to six years, I came to the realisation that I did not want to be working in the field of fashion at 50 – I just did not have enough passion for it, to want to deal with the ups and downs that came with it. With the organisation skills, as well as typing speeds and the emotional intelligence (EQ) that I had attained while in that world, being an Assistant seemed like a good way to go. I have not looked back since!
You are the founder and Global Chair of GAIN – BlackRock’s internal administrative professionals’ network. Tell us about that.
With the network, I have found my true passion. I never really understood the power of networks and why they were so important in empowering individuals and building their confidence, until I began to lead one. I had belonged to various networks both internally and externally. I thought being part of one was a ‘nice thing to do’ if I had time, but I never thought of them as being able to make impactful change.
Starting the network (first regionally) meant that I had to look beyond my day to day at what was happening in the world of administration. I saw how little time we, as individuals and as a profession, took to look after our own development needs because we were so busy looking after the needs of others.
As a profession, we often work in the shadows; we are the ones who flourish behind the scenes, and we rarely celebrate our achievements. Due to this, as a group, our impact is sometimes not recognised, and we have gaps in our training because we do not highlight what we need.
The network enabled BlackRock’s administrative professionals to be visible as a community, to raise concerns as one voice and to actively play a part in our organisation as an administrative function rather than individuals siloed, each within their own bubble. We have been able to bring about tangible change, dedicated training and increased inclusion across the firm as participants as well as executors.
How do you balance your role as an Assistant, your role as Global Chair of GAIN and your non-work life?
It is easier because I love what I do, but it is a balancing act. I started the network regionally when my son was around 2 years old, and it went global before my daughter was 2. Having two children now aged 10 and 4, running a household and fulfilling two ‘day’ jobs takes a lot of management – but I have amazingly supportive sponsors in my managers past and present, and in my wider team.
The network is not just me. There are three chapters – Asia, Europe and the Americas, each with their own co-chairs and steering committees. They all support the delivery of GAIN goals. I also have an amazing group of Assistants that I work alongside in the global investment team, who actively help me when I have conflicting priorities and who motivate and encourage me. At home, I have great support too, with an amazing husband and two very loving, very crazy children. Those around me all play a part, so that I not only continue to deliver but thrive and enjoy it as well!
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your role?
I do not think it has changed my role. It has changed the way I fulfil my role. Change is something that we all need to be aware of and adapt to. I do not see the members of my team daily now, but I aim to interact with them as much as possible. I have needed to be more creative and use technology as my friend rather than see it as my enemy. My greatest productivity tools are OneNote and Teams. I use them both to collaborate with my executives and to keep track of projects and what is happening across both my team and GAIN.
I have found knowing how the team is feeling much harder to do now that I am not sitting next to them. Again, it is all about adapting – picking up the phone occasionally, dropping a quick chat, putting feelers out there. Once you know what your role is within your team and what you are accountable for and what needs to be delivered, it is much easier to navigate change.
You are known as an advocate for the Assistant profession. Why do you think the role of the Assistant is a valuable one?
Administration is the foundation of firms, large or small, and the importance of that cannot be underestimated. We may not be fee earners, but we can certainly manage operational expenses and positively impact a firm’s overheads. Not only that, we are so often the face and voice of our firms or the individuals we support. This is true in regard to the clients we may speak to or greet, the candidates and new joiners who come to the firm and our colleagues who we work alongside. We are the ones who can help set the tone and culture of a firm. We manage our executive’s reputations. How we act can positively or negatively impact a person’s view of our executive or the firm.
I advocate for us, because as Assistants, we need advocacy. We have been so used to working in the shadows and being effective executors that we do not believe we should also be participants and be celebrated. When our firms speak of inclusion, we do not think they are speaking about us or inviting us to the table. We even deride ourselves, saying that we are ‘just’ Assistants.
We need to stop diminishing the roles we play, the expertise we have and how what we bring positively impacts our firms. It is not easy to manage multiple individuals and differing personalities, as well as complex diaries, travel, events, documentation, facilities, offices – I could go on! We need to be proud of what we do and advocate for each other. No one is going to believe what we do requires skill if we do not believe it ourselves and keep saying that it is easy.
What advice would you give someone starting out as an Assistant?
Do not expect everyone to get why you are an Assistant. They do not need to – you do. Respect the role, know the role, continue learning and be a student of it. The role continues to evolve. Some of the fundamentals may stay the same, but the expectation of it is changing and you need to know what is changing and be able to adapt to it.
Connect with like-minded Assistants. If you want to grow and excel in this field, connect with those who are like you. Ask for a mentor, look for sponsors. You will need both.
Build your confidence, surrounding yourself with not only administrative professionals, but all professionals. You do not have to only do training and events for Assistants. Join many networks, whether it be a Women’s Network, Black Professionals, internal, external – round out your development. Understanding other people is a big part of our role and it is hard to understand them if you only surround yourself with people who do the same as you.
So, what’s next for Simone White? Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
Rest – ha ha. No, not yet. Administration needs an overhaul! It is rarely looked at when companies are restructuring or strategizing, yet administration is a fundamental part of company operations – in the same way that the COO function is. I want to continue to advocate for the administrative function and Assistants who work within it. I want us to feel proud of what we do and elevate the profession. I have had an amazing opportunity to do so at BlackRock and want to continue to do that, as I feel there is so much more we can do to support our organisations.
Across the world we have an amazing amount of untapped, underutilised talent going to waste, because there is a historical bias around being an Assistant. I want to help change that. If we go back in history far enough being a ‘secretary’ was an important role – you were the keeper of secrets, the trusted confidant, distinguished. This has been lost and diminished, and I would love to elevate the role – not back to where it used to be, but to help shape it to where it needs to be, to support individuals and organisations in the future.