It’s time to climb out of our over-familiar boxes and see that we can have it all explains Debbie Gross

 When I was six, my favorite hideout was a massive refrigerator box. It was my clubhouse, my fort, my cave – whatever I wanted it to be. I could invite my sister or a friend inside if I wanted, but the box was mine. I felt extra secure and happy within that dim, monochromatic space, calmed by the proximity and smoothness of its six cardboard walls. When it finally fell apart, and Mom and Dad had to throw it away, I was very upset.

But I had to get out of that box someday, right?

And yet so many of us never do.

In my 26 years as CEA of Cisco, and as a trainer and coach of administrative professionals, I’ve come to realize that many of us are still playing or even hiding in that box.  Whatever its shape or size, we’ve become quite comfortable there. It’s safe and familiar, and we know exactly what we’re doing in that particular space. But if we don’t get beyond it, we’ll never go anywhere.

As adults, our boxes are made out of our beliefs about ourselves—beliefs about our inadequacies, our financial priorities, and other imagined constraints. Our walls are graffitied with words like “never” and “no good” and “not now.” Last year I invited an executive assistant to step up and speak at our upcoming Cisco administrators meeting. She stared at me in panic, wide-eyed. “I could never do that,” she exclaimed. “I’m no good at speaking in public!”

Over the summer, a young executive assistant told me she couldn’t attend an upcoming conference because “it’s not in the company’s budget.”  A few days ago, I was coaching a senior executive assistant who was miserable in her role, and who saw no room for growth. When I asked her why she didn’t just move on, she sadly replied “I will when the time is right.”

The time is right when there is no more room for growth—when the box has closed in around you or fallen apart. We can’t grow if we don’t step up or move on.

Growth happens when we do things we’ve never done before

I finally convinced that executive assistant to speak at our meeting and, as it turned out, she was a very good speaker. In fact, she continued to develop her speaking and presenting skills to become more than good, and now speaks confidently in her leader’s staff meetings. Because she increased her value to the organization, her compensation rose as well. That’s how investing in ourselves can pay off—but it means stepping out of the box and stepping up.

Sometimes our perceived inadequacies are less about specific skills than about aptitude. Executive assistants always tell me “absolutely” when I ask if they want to become business partners with their leaders. That’s often followed by “but I’m pretty sure he won’t give me a chance.” I encouraged one such professional to ask her leader anyway—the worst thing that could happen was that he could say no. She got up the nerve to ask and to her surprise, he was glad she did.  She became part of every staff meeting, including assisting in creating the agendas, driving the action items, and becoming an integral part of his executive team.

Share your brightest moments

We need to make sure our leaders know what we do—and sometimes that means telling them. We don’t like to toot our own horn – and no one should brag – but it’s important to share our brightest moments, thank-you emails, and recognition from others. This shines the light on our value, and can open doors. When John Chambers dictated his nomination of me for the Colleen Barrett Award for Administrative Excellence, I was touched by his awareness of my accomplishments—and aware that he might not have known of many if I hadn’t shared them with him through the years!

Asking your company to invest in your development, though, can be intimidating. We know it will pay off, for the company and for us, but we hide in the box of fear, telling ourselves, “Oh—I couldn’t ask for that!” I found myself saying just that very thing when I was asked, as the Colleen Barrett Award winner, if Cisco could be the event’s primary sponsor. I knew that the sponsorship would gain recognition for our administrative community, and I felt strongly that Cisco deserved that recognition.

My challenge was the company budget, which was being reduced across all of our organizations. I was “afraid” to ask for the dollars, but I faced my fear and went to our leadership team with hat in hand.  I should not have been surprised that I was given the support requested.  It was not enough, however, to reach the goal, so I again faced my fear and asked my own leader, CEO John Chambers, if he could help put us over the finish line. Not only did he agree to help, he personally paid the difference. I was walking on air that day, not only as the award honoree but as the coordinator of Cisco’s valuable recognition.

There may be a personal financial cost to increasing our skills.  We can’t let a company’s budget keep us in the box. In my two dozen years of working with administrative professionals, I’ve observed that many will invest in a fabulous pair of shoes or concert tickets, but not in their professional growth.  I’ve also known many to dip into their personal savings for the chance to learn, network and develop in their profession.  This is the mindset we must adopt: that investing in our careers will literally pay off for us.  The new skills we acquire are ours to keep forever, no matter where we go in our careers.

And where we go, and when, is always up to us, though there are of course many factors to consider. We must keep moving forward continually, and not let stagnation or lack of motivation creep in. If we’re not happy in our roles but have been telling ourselves “I’ll move on when the time is right,” we must decide that the time is right. Reach out for new opportunities. That miserable executive assistant I was coaching did leave the box that was limiting her capabilities. She moved to a new role in a new company and became chief of staff!

Change your mindset

We’re able to rid ourselves of the box when we change our mindsets and remove the walls we’ve placed around ourselves. This takes time and effort, of course; we can’t just hope things get better. A hope is nothing more than a wish. I’m convinced that if we tell ourselves “I will”, or “I can,” or “I’ve got this,” we’ll be far more motivated to put in the time and effort, and earn what we desire to gain in our profession. If you want something badly enough, you’ll find the time.

Could you find two weeks to take an all-expenses paid, completely-unplugged vacation to a dream destination? I know I’d make that fit in my calendar, and I’m sure most of you would, too. We must have the same desire to make time for developing our careers.  So many of us are heads-down and focused on the leaders, organizations, and companies we support that we won’t take or make time for greater things—like growing our value!  We need to see beyond our immediate roles and add value in a much bigger way.

We do not, however, need to leave our profession to grow!  Let’s not let others “put us back in the box” by degrading our roles with their misperceptions. Have you ever been approached by someone in your organization and asked, “Why are you an admin when you could be a project manager or a financial analyst?”  Why not respond “I love what I do—in fact, I’ll bet you’d have real challenges doing this job yourself!”

Have you ever caught yourself responding to “What do you do?” with “I’m just an admin?” Why not say proudly, “I’m an administrative professional”.  When we think “small” about our roles and responsibilities, it’s because we’ve allowed others’ perceptions go unchecked. If we feel what we do is just a job, then it truly is just a job.  Believe it’s truly a profession, and one to be proud of, too. We’re only as valuable as we believe we are; what we aspire to be is what we become!

Expand your network

We become something even greater when we stick together. Some simply stay in the box. They rarely make the time to look out or over the walls of their box-like cubicles.  Expanding beyond the day-to-day responsibilities of the job can yield remarkable returns. Many of my own career successes are a direct result of the continual expansion of my network. I’m continually pushing administrative professionals to take the time to nourish their networks and be part of a larger team.

Yet I often hear statements from administrative professionals like “I don’t have the time,” or “my executive needs me, so I can’t focus on anything else,” or, just yesterday, “I’m not really good at networking and would rather just go home at the end of a day.”

Not long ago I had the opportunity to coach an administrative professional whose leader was moving on, leaving her without a job.  She admitted that, even though she had heard me state many times how important it was to develop her network, she had remained loyal to her leader and only focused on him.  Now that he was gone, she wasn’t sure where to turn to seek out a new role.  Her network was almost non-existent, making it very challenging for her to find new prospects.

Amazing things can happen when we put our heads and hearts together. Our network can bring us new opportunities and relationships when we need them, and also when opportunities and relationships are looking for us!  Making time to connect with others makes you suddenly visible to the right people at the right time.  It allows all kinds of intelligence to flow to us that we need to have to be successful both for ourselves and our leaders.

Making the time to be part of something greater than ourselves can make amazing things happen.  For example, recently teams of passionate administrative professionals at Cisco have created initiatives centered around rewards and recognition, mentoring.  The have created an entire team dedicated to an administrative learning and development program.  Each of these programs has had huge successes for Cisco’s global administrative community.

We’re a powerful group of professionals when we act

Now is the time for us to climb out of our boxes and see that we can have it all!  What’s the point of protecting ourselves from the unknown, when we don’t even know what it is? How can we be afraid of something we don’t even know exists?  I know breaking out of the box can be scary.  I also know that if I’d stayed inside, I wouldn’t be where I am today, teaching, coaching and mentoring others.  And I certainly never would have stepped up on a stage to speak!  I would have missed the opportunities that have continually changed my life.

So, get out of that box you’ve been comfortable in. Develop your abilities, fund your growth, and don’t be afraid to move on. That’s exactly what I’m doing, as I close the book on my thirty-plus years’ career as an executive assistant. I’m stepping out of this familiar box to face the future of unknowns—a new book and a new career. A career that will make the most of all the time and skills I’ve invested in my growth.  I have a great new story to write!

Know that wherever you are, we’re a team, all here for each other. Don’t miss the chance to reach out. As the African proverb says,

if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Debbie Gross, former Chief Executive Assistant to John Chambers, CEO and then Executive Chairman of Cisco, has over 30 years of experience in the administrative field. Debbie is considered a trail-blazer in the promotion of administrative programs that ... (Read More)

One comment on “The Box

  1. Jenny on

    Such an inspiring article, Deb — I love your motif of the box! You’ve nudged me out of my own box many times, and I can’t wait to see what you do next. I know those thirty years you’ve invested are about to pay off in all new wonderful ways!


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