Behind the scenes with Microsoft’s indispensable get-'er-done aces
They eat chaos for breakfast. They routinely make the impossible possible. They are the steely scaffolding of companies the world over, including Microsoft. They’re the ultimate wingmen. They’re … administrative assistants.
“People don’t realize what all admins do. So much of it goes on behind the scenes, which is as it should be,” said Scott Roberts, executive assistant to Microsoft marketing executive Allison Watson. “The thing is, if people don’t realize it’s being done, then it’s being done right.”
Roberts paused. “Hmm, I like that. If I were running for office, that would be my slogan.”
The last week of April is Administrative Professionals Week, which presents something of a paradox for those in the profession. Admins are the ones who help some of the busiest people in the world remember important details, meetings, tasks, anniversaries and birthdays – heck, sometimes even remember to eat lunch. But who reminds people about Administrative Professionals Week?
“It’s tricky,” said Nancy Malm, longtime executive assistant to Microsoft executive Yusuf Mehdi and a “mama duck” to some of the company’s younger administrative workers. “It is kind of a silly Hallmark holiday, like Valentine’s Day, but it’s also nice to give people a chance to think about the meaning of the holiday – to appreciate what we do.”
Executive assistant Kousy Ramkumar agreed. "Admins work hard every day to support managers and groups in both their day-to-day needs and in the frequent fires they help put out. They don’t only handle the logistics of the business, they offer creative solutions to often difficult problems while making sure the team is in compliance – and all with a smile."
In honor of Administrative Professionals week, we spent time on the front lines with four administrative assistants including Genise Dawson.
“Take the time. Remember. Make your admin feel like his or her work is appreciated. Let’s be honest, a lot of admins feel like it’s a thankless job,” Dawson said. “Think about all those times you’ve gotten to your meetings or traveled without a hitch or gone days without missing a beat. It’s really important to say thank you.”
Twelve years ago, Dawson started working as an executive assistant to Rajesh Jha, corporate vice president of Outlook and Office 365. It was a good match, to say the least. “I have not had a single day where I hated coming to work,” Dawson said. “Rajesh is amazing. He’s a Zen master. He’s very professional and respectful, but what people don’t often see is that he’s also super fun. That’s how our dynamic has lasted this long. Another reason I enjoy working with Rajesh is our communication style – we both speak in bullet points:
Dawson said administrative assistants are not secretaries or personal assistants, but partners in making a business successful. She feels accountable for every aspect of her team’s success. “One thing I hate most is when someone says, ‘But I’m just an admin.’ Well I’m just a rug! I’m just a door! I’m just a chair! You’ll be treated as just that unless you change the way you view yourself,” she said.
“I’m most impressed with the way she’s dealt with ambiguity. She also puts the team first. We’ve gone through a lot of changes, but we’re still a team,” said Jha, who says taking care of his team of 2,500 people is a top priority. Dawson helps Jha cultivate the day-to-day tasks and culture for their team, which can mean everything from logistical work, like scheduling meetings or finding offices, to providing opportunities for fun, bonding and relaxation, like arranging for a Friday afternoon beer social or participating in a hallway Nerf gun war.
On the white board in her office, across from the back issues of “Fast Company” and the semi-automatic Nerf guns, Dawson has written and underlined the words “We are a startup.” Dawson was incredibly inspired by a recent tour of young tech businesses in Silicon Valley, and would like to bring some of the same energy to her team. “It’s truly about providing an environment where employees can do their best work, even if it means doing things differently than they’ve ever been done before,” Dawson said. “What is it Oprah Winfrey said? ‘If there was an easy button, I would have had it on ‘Oprah’s Favorite Things.’”
Growing up, Dawson wanted to be a comedian. “But I’m not funny,” she said. After even a few minutes with her it’s clear this is untrue, although she does have a bold, no-nonsense way about her. As outgoing as she is at work, she’s a “total introvert” who often recovers from her busy weeks by binge-watching television. “I love being by myself. I used to let people make me feel bad about that, but it’s how I get my batteries charged,” Dawson said. “I am an unapologetic reality TV junkie.”
“Scott Roberts is the most fantabulous admin at Microsoft,” said Allison Watson, corporate vice president of U.S. Marketing and Operations. She grinned at Roberts as he put his hands in front of his face, embarrassed. “Well, you really are the ultimate wingman.” Roberts and Watson have known each other for nearly a decade, and have been working together for two years. Watson said she recruited Roberts because she knew he would represent her team well. “He’s very good at what he does. He tells it straight, he has a great sense of urgency, and he brings humor to all who interact with him. He also throws good parties.”
Outside of work, Roberts is an avid traveler and boater, and he spends most of his time with his two dogs, Fred and Ryley Rae. The dogs, both from a St. Bernard rescue, are huggable and slobbery hits with everyone they meet. On the job, Roberts said his success comes down to three things: approach, attitude and fun. “Depending on how you approach it, some aspects of the job may be perceived as boring and monotonous. However, each day brings new challenges and opportunities that ensure there is never a dull moment. My most interesting days are the ones where I walk into a new challenge that I have absolutely no idea how to accomplish and through a little determination, resourcefulness, and a can-do attitude, I can make what was seemingly impossible, possible. Second, attitude affects everything with this job. If I come in with a positive attitude, something good’s always going to happen,” Roberts said. “Probably the most important thing to me is to always have fun in whatever you do. If you’re not having fun in this role, it’s gonna be grueling. My advice is to have fun and simply enjoy each new experience as it comes.”
Roberts said he loves working with Watson because she is strong, smart and driven. “As one of our few female executives, she balances the incredibly difficult challenges of her role along with being a role model to women seeking to move to the executive ranks inside and outside the company,” he said. “People may view her as all business all the time, but those who know her see she has an awesome sense of humor, truly cares about the people on her team, and always ensures her teams are not only working hard but getting the opportunity to enjoy and have fun.” Roberts said Watson’s personal philosophy is to seek challenges, balance, and fun every day. “I believe my job is to ensure she is able to live that philosophy each and every day with a smile.”
“The boss is here,” said Nancy Malm as Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president of marketing for Microsoft’s Devices and Studios group, walked into the room, a few minutes before his monthly team meeting. Malm has been Mehdi’s assistant for 14 years, moving with him up the ranks and through product launches. “It’s been quite the ride,” Mehdi said. “We have developed a phenomenal partnership over the years, and not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for Nancy. She definitely has an extraordinary knack for holding everything together with style and grace.”
Malm has two speeds: Fast forward, and stop. And even with those two to choose from, she pretty much only uses the first one. She runs half-marathons, in skirts no less, and started a running group at Microsoft. “I’m a big fan of endorphins,” Malm said. “It’s a mental health thing more than anything. It’s so enjoyable to get together with the girls – we chat the entire way. We have solved the world’s problems – marriages, divorces, babies, layoffs, job changes – and have caused a few more. We unofficially call our group ‘Running Therapy.’”
Being an executive assistant is interesting job, in that it’s fairly broad in focus, Malm said. “The thing I like best about my role is that I’m not simply a secretary, getting coffee and answering phones. Administrative assistants have responsibility and accountability to run our own ship, so to speak. We have budgets, we boost morale, we make decisions.”
Malm said with an extraordinarily busy boss and team, she has learned to roll with what each day brings. “You never know what’s coming down the pike. I come in each day and there’s a list five miles long and the calendar is crazy, and I leave at end of each day and list is still five miles long and the calendar’s still crazy,” she said. “I thrive on chaos, and just keep plugging away. Since I love what I do, it doesn’t bother me. This is Microsoft. You’re not supposed to be not busy.”
When I ask Malm the secret to her job’s success, she doesn’t hesitate. “Be nice,” she said. “Honestly, I’ve found my biggest strength is being nice. Don’t be a pushover, but be nice. I have mastered the fine art of saying no and having people still leave happy.” She will also freely admit that she may be too nice. “I have a hard time being the bad guy. Usually I find that being nice you don’t have to be the bad guy, but every now and then it doesn’t work and it comes down to having a confrontation with someone. That freaks me out. This is why I have never wanted to manage anybody. I’m very happy to keep doing what I do.”
When Kousy Ramkumar first started working for Steven Guggenheimer, corporate vice president of developer platforms and chief evangelist, he was quiet. “I didn’t know if I was doing well or not. After six months he still hadn’t said anything, so I asked him about it. He said, ‘You haven’t made any mistakes, so I didn’t need to say anything.’ I’ve enjoyed working for Steve all of these years – we’ve developed a good relationship. Over time, I have learned what his preferences are in maintaining his work life balance and can help him do that."
Ramkumar wears a traditional sari from her native India nearly every day. “I’m the only person at the company who wears saris to work. I like to add value to the culture that I bring – I’m very proud of being an Indian woman and working at Microsoft.” Ramkumar’s husband, a former banker and financial consultant, is currently traveling in India while he takes care of some family business. “He taught me so much about business, it was like having my own trainer. I miss him when we’re apart. I was there visiting him a couple of weeks ago and I plan to take trips to go see him as often as I can."
Administrative Professionals’ Day is important because it touches every single group at Microsoft, Ramkumar said. “No one really knows what goes into running an office. There’s a lot of self-sacrifice involved. We wear a lot of different hats, and we make things happen, sometimes with little or no information or time.” Guggenheimer said when it comes to making things happen, Ramkumar goes above and beyond. "She likes to stretch beyond the basics, planning events and getting involved with things in finance and HR," he said. "But she also helps me facilitate all the day-to-day things that need to get done. She's a jack of all trades. We've worked together for a long time, and it serves us both well. It's become a great partnership."
In the kitchen down the hall from her office, Ramkumar demonstrates her daily ritual for making tea. People walking by stop to talk to her as she adds milk and then pours the tea quickly back and forth between two cups to mix it and make it frothy. Ramkumar is personable and friendly, though she said she’s probably best known for her helpful attitude. “I look at things very positively,” she said. “I tend to try to help people whether it’s in my role or not, as long as it doesn’t affect how I am able to support Steve. I always tend to keep an open mind, and to maintain good relationships, which has helped me. I also believe in persistence and hard work – doing a little bit more than the next person.”
Ramkumar walks across The Great Room, a living room-like space Microsoft executives use to to host developers, partners and media and showcase the latest technology. She helped plan and design the room, one of the many extra-curricular projects she’s taken on during her time at the company. She’s also helped plan logistics, meetings and parties (or all three) for some of the company’s major events: the Build developer conference, the annual MGX employee conference, the Microsoft Giving Campaign and the Imagine Cup student technology competition. Being an assistant to a senior executive gives you exposure to the business and the senior leadership team, she said. "This is the best role, in that you can influence a lot of areas, and you can find a lot of personal and professional opportunities. I’m so grateful to be working at Microsoft."Originally published on 4/22/2015 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft Illustration by Craighton Berman