Nancy Edwards, executive assistant to the president and CEO of AMERICAN SYSTEMS, is a Pinnacle Awards finalist in the Private Company Executive Assistant of the Year category. Below, she shares what has made her successful in her position, the biggest professional risk she’s ever taken, what it takes to be a great EA and more.
What has made you successful in your current role?
One of the things that has made me successful in my current role is that I subscribe to the theory that the only constant in life is change, so I’m always willing and able to adapt to my present circumstance. In my 22 years with AMERICAN SYSTEMS, I have been the EA to five presidents and CEOs, each very different in management style and each with their own vision for the company.
Some I supported for long periods of time, and others for shorter periods of time . . . from founder Tom Curran, to his internal successor Elliot Needleman, to interim CEO (following Elliot’s passing) and (former) Chief Financial Officer Mark Danisewicz, to external hire Bill Hoover, and for the past five years through current day, Peter Smith, who rose through the ranks of the organization.
Assuming I have time for one more CEO, should Peter decide to retire before I do, then I will adapt again!
What specifically makes you stand out from your industry counterparts?
I have a long and storied history in my field. Having been born and raised in Brooklyn, I have been blessed with practical street-smart sense. I began my career in 1980 when EAs were still called secretaries, and we were trained in school to work in secretarial positions. The technology I used back then included an IBM Selectric typewriter, a desk phone with light-up call buttons and a buzzer, and a Steno pad to take dictation in shorthand.
Over the years, technology and the role of an EA, have evolved. I have worked for Fortune 50 companies with more established systems, policies and practices, as well as smaller more adaptive organizations at which I could help develop new systems, policies and practices. I have worked for attorneys and can read, understand and write legalese. I have worked for true entrepreneurs who are a breed all unto themselves.
Since I, at one time in my career, worked in corporate communications — writing speeches and producing and editing informational and motivational videos, among other things, my written communication skills — both as an originator and an editor — are actively sought, and my eagle eyes are always the last to review all corporate communications.
And some 40 years later, I still use my Gregg shorthand daily. What?! Exactly — they don’t even teach shorthand in school anymore.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
When I joined AMERICAN SYSTEMS 22 years ago, the company was majority-owned by its founders Tom Curran and Woody Ramsey with 30% of its shares held by the American Systems Corporation Employee Stock Ownership Trust. During my first week supporting then-President, CEO and Chairman Tom Curran, he called me into his office, shut the door and told me he had something to tell me, and since he had no reason to not trust me, he was going to trust me with it. “I’m selling the company!” he blurted, which brought out a little of what I learned at the Brooklyn Charm School for Girls: “What?! Why the heck would you hire me if you’re selling the company?!” I replied. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s a good thing. I’m selling the company to the company!”
And with that, five weeks later, I became a proud employee-owner of a majority-owned ESOP company. Fast-forward several years, and AMERICAN SYSTEMS became the 50th largest 100% employee-owned company in the U.S. Being an employee-owner, I always ask myself: “What else can I be doing?” I align my day-to-day activities with the successful accomplishment of my organization’s key results and hold myself accountable for its success. AMERICAN SYSTEMS – We know what’s at stake.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
I began my career at Mobil Oil Corp. while still in high school through New York City’s Cooperative Education Program and was hired on permanently following graduation. Several years later, Mobil changed its mandatory retirement age from 65 to 70. A well-intentioned HR manager said, “Nancy, since you started with us when you were 16, if you stay until you’re 70, you would have 54 years with the company!”
Fifty-four years with the company, that’s exactly what I’ve always dreamed of — said no 20-something ever! In all actuality, I had always dreamed of being a rock star. I knew that I didn’t want to become a 70-year-old with regrets, so I found an opportunity to pursue my dream. I resigned my position at Mobil to become the lead vocalist in a band and lived my dream for 3.5 years until I met my future husband who resided in Virginia.
Since my band was a Top 40 cover band and was never going to be at the top of the Billboard charts, my bandmates and I eventually went our separate ways. I relocated from NYC to NoVA to end the madness of a long-distance relationship and was rehired at Mobil’s new Fairfax HQ, which brings to mind a song from A Chorus Line…What I Did For Love (music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban).
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
When Bill Hoover joined AMERICAN SYSTEMS as president and CEO in 2005, he asked me for a list of my position responsibilities. In addition to being his assistant, I assisted the CFO and the board of directors. I was co-chair of the steering committee for the partnership AMERICAN SYSTEMS has with a local elementary school. I administered our executive payroll, salary plan and bonus plan/awards, executive benefits and stock option plan. I also wrote, edited and designed the company newsletter.
Bill was surprised that I was doing what he considered “everyone else’s job.” He told the CFO to get his own assistant, he put the responsibility of the various tasks I administered back on the Accounting & Finance and Human Resources departments, and he hired someone to head up corporate communications. But most important, Bill said that I was a member of his executive leadership team and that he wanted me to participate in all activities that included his direct reports.
My responsibilities became more focused, allowing me to more effectively support the CEO and the board of Ddirectors, contribute to the achievement of the corporate objectives and help construct the updated strategic plan. I was able to share my ideas and have them debated, validated and accepted by the other members of the executive leadership team.
I am grateful to Bill for recognizing my skill set and capabilities and for transforming my responsibilities from those of a “jack-of-all-trades” to those of a true member of the executive leadership team. I also am grateful to our current President and CEO Peter Smith for continuing to recognize each of my contributions to the success of AMERICAN SYSTEMS.
What are the top one or two qualities necessary to be a great EA?
A great EA must be a trusted adviser, not just to the executive he or she supports but to the entire organization. It’s important to keep your finger on the pulse of the organization and be a perfect intermediary who knows when and when not to share information. It’s equally important to be a committed voice of reason…be honest, direct and to the point — tell it like it is!
What’s your best advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Help is defined by the recipient, so know your executive: how he/she operates and their expectations. Don’t assume that what you did to support a prior executive is what will work for a new executive. Have high integrity. Be a quick study. Be poised and polished and act with grace under pressure. Be detail-oriented while seeing the big picture, and always be forward thinking so your boss can be well prepared for whatever is to come. Your contributions, though unnoticed by most, are critical to a smooth-running company.