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Management's traffic cop: Administrative assistants play numerous roles, gain more respect

April 9, 2007

As a girl, Lori Drzal dreamed of becoming a spy, a policewoman-something where she'd be helping others. Her father had different ideas.

"Become a secretary," he told her. "You'll always have a job."

"Today," she said, "I think, 'Why did he tell me that?' But ... I've always had a job. I've always grown in my jobs, and I've always been challenged."

Drzal, 48, executive assistant to Steak n Shake President and CEO Peter Dunn for the past four years, is one of this country's approximately 4.1 million secretaries and administrative assistants. That figure ranks among the largest occupations in the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

During Administrative Professionals Week-April 22-28-bosses will have an opportunity to recognize the people who keep them organized and on task. Once called National Secretaries Week, the name change, which occurred in 2000, indicates the rise in status for the position.

The pay, too, has improved over the years. Senior executive assistants now command $39,000 to $54,750 a year, OfficeTeam, a national administrative staffing firm, reported in its 2007 Salary Guide. That's a 6.5-percent increase from 2006. Executive assistants and senior administrative assistants saw similar percentage increases.

Well-deserved recognition

"There will always be employers who tend to look at secretarial/ administrative duties as a lesserpaid position," Teresa Walters, outgoing president of the Indianapolis chapter of the International Association of Administrative Professionals, said in an e-mail. "However, what is exciting for us is the fact that so many corporations and businesses are now recognizing that we 'choose' to be in the role of administrative assistant, rather than use it as a stepping stone to get to another position."

That recognition is what Drzal is after for assistants everywhere. She has worked in administrative support roles for 25 years-in education, health care and now the restaurant industry-earning two associate's degrees and a bachelor's degree in business administration along the way.

She said Steak n Shake genuinely appreciates its assistants. You'd hope so, considering one of them came up with the idea to put hot fudge in milkshakes. She's not sure, though, whether other companies feel as strongly about their support staff.

"The job should be viewed as a partner, as an assistant," she said. "Not someone necessarily who is making the decisions, but someone who can help that top leader make good decisions."

If employers want someone to just file, type and follow demands, "that's a clerical worker," Drzal said.

"To become a partner and really become involved in the business of the organization, you need someone who's proactive, who's not intimidated by the top and is able to share opinions," she said.

That's how Dunn sees it. "It's a true partnership role," he said, "not just for me but for the entire leadership team."

Drzal provides complementary leadership-the fries to his steakburger, if you will, Dunn said. She's the traffic cop who coordinates his schedule, serves as his eyes and ears when he's away from the office and personifies the company's core values: serve others, make a difference, enjoy life, do the right thing and value diverse perspectives.

"Lori literally is more organized, more disciplined and more focused on moving critical issues down the field and through my office than I am," Dunn said. That allows him to focus on key issues affecting the bottom line.

"There is a major role she plays in managing my office and the calendar and issues of logistics around my office that is absolutely essential to my being successful and therefore the company being successful."

Drzal, he said, is involved in every leadership team meeting, providing input for and coordinating the efforts of top-level managers. She was a founding member and serves as an officer on the new Steak n Shake Associate Emergency Foundation, which provides aid for employees who have financial need due to catastrophic events. Drzal said she's working on a policy and procedural manual for that group "so that when I win the lottery and quit working, someone can step in and keep the foundation moving forward."

"She provides a different, down-toearth and common-sense perspective on issues," Dunn said. "She literally has a seat at the table."

Mary Duffer, executive assistant to the executive director of ATTAIN (Assistive Technology Through Action in Indiana) and an officer in the Indianapolis IAAP chapter, has been working in assistant roles for 15 years. She said the position now receives more respect than ever, largely because executives have realized that without administrative personnel, "things could go downhill real quick."

ATTAIN, which makes handicapped people aware of technology designed to make their lives easier, has seven employees. "If I take a day off, they can't take care of some things," she said.

Duffer likes the job and the responsibility.

"This is the type of field that, although maybe not as glamorous as other occupations, is always going to be needed," she said.

Indeed. Kelly Moore, division director for OfficeTeam in Indianapolis, expects to see administrative assistants' roles continue to expand and grow in the next decade.

"Companies are really looking for strategic thinkers, analytical thinkers-people who are willing to come in and take on projects [and] step in as team leaders," she said.

And most of these people will be women. In spite of job growth, men only make up about 5 percent of secretaries and administrative assistants in the U.S. despite dominating the profession before women entered the workforce en masse about 70 years ago, according to the International Association of Administrative Professionals, a Kansas City, Mo.-based trade association.

So, if Drzal had a daughter, would she offer the same advice her father did? Maybe not in those words, she said, but yes.

"I would let her know that it's a worthy way to get started, but to use it," she said. "If it's [not] going to make you happy, [use it] as an opportunity to move into something that will make you happy."

While she admits the career isn't for everyone, she says she loves it "because every day is different."

"I get to coordinate, manage and multitask-all the things I'm really good at. If I had a daughter, I'd encourage her to do what makes her happy. And if it's this, I'd be very happy for her."
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