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Act Up, w/ Bonnie Low-Kramen

Updated: May 9, 2023




Karen Mangia

Today on Success from Anywhere, we'll discover an aspiring actress whose role in a workplace drama cast her globally in the role of a leading lady. For every listener and leader aspiring to become a star, today's guest is for you. She has spoken in 14 countries, delivered TEDx talks and written for Harvard Business Review about the Power of Agency, and about how to be the ultimate Bonnie Low- Kramen. Welcome to the show today, Bonnie.


Bonnie Low-Kramen

Thank you, Karen. And that has to rate one of my favorite introductions. I love that. It's so cool.


Karen Mangia

Thank you. Well you know what they say “There's no business like show business” right?


Bonnie Low-Kramen

It was quite a ride. And none of it was planned.


Karen Mangia

Because we're talking about the world of work, I like to ask every guest on the show, what was your first nine to five job? And how did that job influence your career trajectory?


Bonnie Low-Kramen

I had wanted to be an actress. I graduated with a degree in Theater and English from Rutgers University in New Jersey, where I'm from. I gave it three months. And when I was not successful, I threw up my hands and said, “Well, I have to get a job.” I took a job in a theater box office in suburban Chicago, Illinois. That was my first nine to five job making $4.25 an hour. (I know I'm dating myself.) I learned so much about people and the different personalities in the workplace. I was working with a woman who was my supervisor who had been there for 16 years. Fresh out of college, I'm thinking that I'm going to be able to learn so much from her. Three weeks into the job, she called me into her office one day, and said, “I'm resigning. And I'm making you the manager.” She gave me a raise to $4.50 an hour. So I got a quarter raise. But, in a heartbeat, I was made a manager. I didn't know how to be a manager. And the truth is, I was a terrible manager at first. That was my first lesson in understanding that just because somebody calls you a manager doesn't mean you're a good one. There were a lot of lessons.


I'm so grateful to have had that first job that put me in the center of where actors, producers, and directors are coming through. I had a front row seat to all of these people, to what makes people tick and what motivates them. What's important to one is very different from what's important to another.


Karen Mangia

For any first time managers listening or longtime managers, we all have those moments that stand out. For instance, this can be the first 360 performance feedback. You read the comments and you think how am I working so hard and showing up so poorly.


When I was watching your TEDx talks and reading your Harvard Business Review articles, I was shocked by your statistics about the average age at which managers and leaders received their first training about how to do that job. Take us inside that story.


Bonnie Low-Kramen

It is a key story to what motivated my new book called Staff Matters coming out in February of 2023. I was in London at a conference where I was going to be speaking. I was standing at the back of the room as I watched the opening speaker deliver her talk. (There were about 250 high level executive assistants in the room.)


She asked a question of the audience that I hadn't heard asked before. (This was 2012.) She asked the audience “How many of you feel well managed?" From the back of the room I watched very few hands go up, maybe 25. Most were very tentative. And some were, "Yes!" You know, absolutely. I feel well managed. But the vast majority of the people did not raise their hands. And we're talking to seasoned assistants in this room. These were not babies, these were professionals. And I remember thinking at that moment, what is going on? Why is this? These people would be honest.. Why is it that they do not feel well managed?


I came home to the United States, started doing research, and found an article in Harvard Business Review written by Jack Zanger. Jack and I now know each other. I've been in his audience. He's written leadership books.


Jack and his team researched about 7000 leaders around the world. They figured out the average age that a leader gets her very first training in managing people was 42. This was mind blowing information to me. Because this explains why so few hands were raised. This was my aha moment. It's not that leaders are setting out to be poor leaders, but like me, when I was told you're the manager, they didn't know how. I had my degree in Theater and English. I learned acting. I've learned lighting. I didn't learn how to manage a staff and nor did those leaders who were managing those assistants.


The profession of assistants is 93 to 97% female. So these women feel poorly managed because their leaders haven't learned how to manage. Jack Zanger and team did the same poll in 2021. I listened to the podcast. Again, my mind exploded because the number has gone up. The average age is now 46. For me, it all comes down to solving the things that are broken in our workplace. Like many things, it comes down to education and training. I think more, much more of it is needed, clearly. I completely agree that those statistics are correct because I asked those same questions in 14 countries in the rooms of my students and the results are essentially the same as what happened in London in 2012.


Karen Mangia

Expectations without education is risky business. That's what strikes me from what you said. We have these expectations that leaders will be driving outcomes and managing productivity and at the same time we have an increasing expectation of a high level of emotional intelligence and empathy. Yet, we are not training people in those skills. We're not re-skilling leaders to know how to do this. You and I were talking pre-show that we don't even have a lot of support from state mandates or laws, either. Let's talk about some of this workplace training that needs to go even further.


Bonnie Low-Kramen

After I discovered that statistic, I started looking at the business school curriculum. In fact, that course is not really in most curricula. The question became if leaders are not getting it in business school, where then should they get it? In getting out of college and then getting your first job. it’s like Karen meeting Jessie. She's your assistant and here's your team.


Just because someone is great at accounting does not equate to being a great manager of the team who supports the accountant. It's just not logical. What I discovered fairly recently was that only six out of 50 states in America require sexual harassment training or any kind of behavioral cultures of respect training. And that was another aha moment because then in the other states, it’s optional and it's left up to the discretion of company leaders.


You and I both know that this kind of training costs money. So it's a choice. But we've got this landscape of great resignation, we've got lots of people quitting. And we know that many people have quit in the aftermath of the pandemic due to toxic work environments caused by poor leadership. And we've just talked about why that is. So for me, it comes down to where our company leaders in 2022 and beyond are going to spend their money. Are they going to continue spending money trying to replace the people who have made their stampede to the exit? You know, that it is very expensive to replace people. Or are we going to spend the money and invest in the people who are already on the payroll, who are already painstakingly hired in the first place? And I think we have to agree that it's a more sustainable solution to invest in the people you already have. I think that's the solution going forward. I will sing that from the mountaintops for as long as I can breathe.


Karen Mangia

You used a phrase that resonates with me about the toxic workplace. This is the first time employees are standing up en masse, demanding, in a sense, different working conditions or making an exit. What inspired this entire Success from Anywhere podcast is that I started thinking about work and where do we get these workplace norms. I realized it's as much about our lived experience, as it is about popular portrayals in the media. When we think about this relationship between leaders, and executive assistants, what's popularized in the media is this portrayal like in Madman or the Devil Wears Prada. This contributes to a notion of not only what assistants do, but also how they can be treated. It creates a norm. So what are some of the biggest myths and misconceptions that we all need to be challenging right now about the role of the executive assistant that you're so passionate about?


Bonnie Low-Kramen

Mass media has such power to shape perception. And as funny as a movie like Nine to Five is, it's not doing executive assistants any favors because it paints a picture from 1980. Most people are familiar with the notion of the abusive manager with their only recourse being to string him up in his office, keep him there, and kidnap him. And of course, in real life, that can't happen.


What's happening in real life is that much goes unsaid in the workplace about how the staff is feeling about how their managers are treating them; this certainly true in the land of executive assistants. It's a very happy reality that the Harvard Business Review article that I wrote has been shared so much. Assistants around the world are celebrating the fact that a publication like Harvard Business Review actually cared about the role. My own feeling, as well as many of the leaders in the assistant space and in the administrative space agree that part of the disconnect is because the profession is so dominated by females. Many assistants would believe they need to be grateful for the job; they just need to put their heads down and get it done, no matter what it takes. And if that means taking work home, and doing work at night, and on the weekends, they are going to do so. They will do whatever it takes to not give anyone a reason to let them go because so many women are single moms who do not make a fair salary and just make ends meet. They are reluctant to rock the boat or to put themselves (and by extension their children) in jeopardy if they are not able to put food on the table. That is terrifying for so many women. This is not to say that doesn't happen for men as well, but women are reluctant to speak about it.


The aftermath of the pandemic and the strong job market has finally given women more courage to speak up about what they need as the whole workplace was thrown into such chaos anyway, and there was so much change. Executive assistants knew way before the pandemic that a hybrid work schedule is really the ideal one: two days in the office, three days at home. Or flip that. They were advocating for that years ago. The leaders were reluctant to do that until the pandemic, and then the pandemic forced it.


There's a slide I use in our workshops that say assistants often know better. They truly do. For leaders listening to this podcast, it's not you versus them. The very best companies are led by leaders who see themselves in collaboration with the staff. And that's not like a Kumbaya, like nice to do, clouds and rainbows story. That's smart business, as far as I can see.


In the workplace of 2022 and beyond, it has got to be a collaboration and a new way of thinking. The hierarchies of pre-pandemic times are not working anymore. I truly believe they're gone forever, mainly because of the complexity of what this new workplace is presenting which includes the proliferation of technology.


And let's have some empathy for leaders. If they were not trained how to manage people before the pandemic, nobody was trained on how do you manage people who are partially at home, partially in the office, partially you've never met them in person. Humans are meant to be together; there's such power when we can actually be in rooms together.


There's a lot of mythology around this role, but the smartest leaders are recognizing that executive assistants can be very strong business partners in this workplace and to underestimate and not leverage that brainpower would be a miscalculation.


Karen Mangia

Assistants are essential contributors to the success of the people they support. I've been fortunate to work with fantastic assistants. I remember one looking at me one day when she could see I was in complete chaos. And I remember her just calmly staring into my face and saying to me, let go. It underpinned the trust that's vital in those relationships. When we think about how to create this collaborative environment between leaders and assistants, how do we make this transition? I mean, what are the investments we need to make in training up the assistants and training up the leaders for that to be an effective partnership? What do we all need to know? Where do we need to improve? How do we change this conversation?


Bonnie Low-Kramen

It's multi-layered. But these are not hard fixes.


It begins with the language we're using on the website and on materials about the culture of the company. Most companies have a careers tab on the workplace website. Where is anybody going to go If they're looking to work at any given company? They're going to go to the website. Many companies are missing the boat when it comes to that space to articulate in words, graphics, and videos, what it means to work at that company. And therefore, what the leadership is about. That's the first kind of step to making that partnership. Here's a vivid example: there's a black assistant in New York City, and he says, he goes to a company website And if he doesn't see any people of color, or any diversity at all in language, or graphics, or videos, he's like, why should I bother you? What is on the website sends a message, right? That would make a lot of sense.


Then it comes down to the creation of a job description that is detailed and not generic. There are many complaints by assistants that the company’s job description bears very little resemblance to what they end up doing. That makes a staffer wonder who's asleep at the wheel here. Leaders set expectations, This comes down to putting in time and attention. There's no magic here. Any partnership, any relationship takes hard work. And that means a leader understanding who it is they're hiring, and an assistant, a staffer, getting clear on what their executive wants. Because it's not one size fits all here. There is no one set of rules, which is what leads to the confusion and the ambiguity, because any assistant might find themselves supporting four executives with each having their own preferences. That's a very special person who can straddle all of that.


The smartest leaders take the time to spend time with their staff because it's not only the job description that a staffer is contributing, it’s what they know from their experience and who they know. The other complaint that I hear all over the world are assistants who feel under leveraged, that they're not being utilized properly.


The most visionary companies, the most advanced companies are the ones who not only do a great job of onboarding staff, but they do a good job of orienting leaders and executives. It doesn't have to be a long orientation, but it needs to be substantive. What do assistants do in the company? What kinds of things can you expect them to do? What are things that you cannot ask them to do? Those conversations helped to cement and build partnerships over time.


One on one time is necessary between leaders and staff. As hard as assistants try to read their leaders' minds, they can't do it. And as fast as people are running these days, and because they may be 1000s of miles apart, there needs to be an intentional coming together to communicate. The bottom line to all of this: there's not enough talking going on in the workplace. There aren’t not enough real conversations happening between leaders and staff, staff and HR.


The poor recruiters are trying to find talent for these generic job descriptions, for leaders who don't want to take the time to tell them what kind of person they are looking for, what kind of tasks they need them to do. So all of this takes concerted effort. But I'm here to tell you that in the very best relationships, the partnerships are the ones where leaders get more time back in their week. They feel more at peace. Just like the assistant who tethered you down, I've had people do that for me. And I've been so grateful to my own assistant who just says I've got this, trust me, give it over, and I'll handle it. And the truth is for leaders, even though leaders know how to do their own correspondence, know how to do their own calendaring. I argue it's not the best use of their time. Are they really being paid a million dollars a year or whatever their salary is to do their own calendaring? I don't think so. And one leader when I said that to him, he looked back at me and he said, “ I actually liked doing my own calendaring and correspondence. You know, why? Because it's easier than doing the job I'm really supposed to do.” And I appreciated his honesty there. Does that help? Does that answer your question?


Karen Mangia

You shared so much wisdom. I mean, playing out of position, whether you're the leader or the assistant stops someone else short of realizing their full potential and finding purpose in the work they do and feeling their contribution. You highlighted that unstated expectations always go unmet. Or as Brene Brown would say, unclear is unkind. And what I'm wondering, if we were to modernize right now, our vision and view of what an executive assistant does now, what is this contemporary job description? What are the primary responsibilities? What should people be looking for, and putting into job descriptions to find and hire great executive assistants?


Bonnie Low-Kramen

The answer to that question is complicated because leaders are different. There certainly are areas of commonality. Most high level leaders travel a great deal, do many meetings in a week, and receive many emails. The best assistants are in their executives’ inboxes and able to triage different priorities. They are a partner, attending meetings, sometimes, instead of their leaders. It is a collaboration on that magical 24 hours every day. It doesn't matter who you are; that's all we get. That's it, every day. The question becomes, putting in a job description the ways that time is being utilized by both leaders and the people supporting them. There are assistants who are given the runway and the leeway to adjust the schedule, to evaluate and analyze how a leader is using their time and ask the hard questions. Is that really the best use of executive time? Can we make that 30 minute meeting a 20 minute meeting? To find the best assistants the job description should include tasks all designed to save leaders time, energy and to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.


In my own work with Olympia Dukakis, my goal every day was that every task I did was designed to enable Olympia to do the work that only Olympia could do. That's useful as an analogy. I could not memorize her lines for her. I could not go to her costume fitting for her.. She actually tried for me to go to an eye doctor appointment once to get fake glasses. I was like Olympia, I can't do that. I don't have your face.


Leaders are challenged with delegation. But if they've never been trained in how to delegate, then they can be overwhelmed. To leaders I advise that step one is to identify those tasks you don't like to do and that you're not good at. As Olympia used to say, “Sometimes you have to throw money at it.”



Bonnie Low-Kramen

We're paying a price somehow. It comes down to how leadership is spending money in companies. It's a short sighted strategy to cut the administrative staff. Companies that did that are ending up hiring them back because they're realizing they need the support. It's about the use of time, and what is going to achieve the goals of leaders and the vision of the company. How is that going to happen? It's not serving any body to have a revolving door of staff, to permit bullying, or to permit sexual harassment. In this new workplace, to build cultures of respect is the smartest way to go. Because people who believe, really believe that their leaders give a damn are the ones who are going to stick, no matter if they're not being paid as much as the next company. They're not going to leave a place where they feel valued, respected, fairly compensated and given an opportunity to grow.


Karen Mangia

Color coding! I was just in a flashback machine based on your comments. One of the people who taught me the most about how to be an effective leader, color coded my calendar so that I could easily see how much time I was spending in one on ones versus governance or team meetings and honestly mentored me in ways to reclaim some time.


We were talking about the great resignation, now quiet quitting. You're passionate about four things that leaders need to do or can do to help staff stay. And now in light of quiet quitting, I would say help staff stay engaged, what are the four things?


Bonnie Low-Kramen

They are in this order and based on 1000s of conversations, and all the travel, all around the world,. These are the themes that come back. Number one, the most important thing is respect. Respect, even when you just say the word to people, resonates. At our core, we want to feel that we matter. Respect is shown in lots of ways that don't cost any money at all. Things like saying please, thank you, and good morning or an executive showing up at the funeral of an assistant's parents who passed away during the pandemic. How respected does that make one feel?


In regard to during the pandemic, CEOs that I even know about and I'm sure there are many more, picked up the phone daily and called staff just to say, how are you? How are you doing? What do you need? What do you need? It is. Respect is a broad term, but it has many faces. But there are stories of assistants who have quit jobs because their manager thought it was funny to not pronounce their name correctly. And there's nothing more personal to somebody than their name. And therefore it was felt so disrespectful, that she quit.


I share these seemingly small things, which end up being very big things. And usually when I speak this way, it makes others think back to when they felt similarly. But it's amazing how it matters if a leader comes in at least has the nicety to say good morning, Karen, how are you? Some leaders will say I don't have time to say good morning. Well, until we stop being human beings in the workplace and if in fact, a leader wants to retain people, I say make time to say good morning and good evening and to say people's names right.


Second thing is appreciation. Appreciation is also something that is shown in a variety of ways. But things as simple as before a Zoom meeting, if the leader says, “I just want to call out that Rob did a super job on that project last week and I want to thank him for his hard work, great job.” As a result people in the meeting start putting up thumbs up or hearts or whatever. These things need to be authentic and real.


The anxiety and the stress of this pandemic has caused mental health issues to rise. You have to be under a rock to not have seen it. The pressures that people have been under during this very crazy time have been relentless. It's been like we’ve been on this roller coaster. We're going back to the office; no, we're not. It's been a stop and start. We're doing this; we’re not doing that. It can actually be crazy making as we humans resist change anyway.


My theory is that as much as we knew people before the pandemic there's a whole lot we didn’t know and learned about them during the pandemic. We now know about people's pets, their home situations, and other things that we really didn't need to know, prior.


But appreciation is shown by the treatment of others as individual humans. We're not cookie cutter, we're not a number. People who feel like they're just a number feel that they don't matter. They're the ones who are saying, “Why am I working so hard? What I want is to go somewhere where I'm valued for the talents and skills that I was hired for in the first place.” These are the words that assistants and leaders say to me. Some leaders feel that way as well. HR feels that way.

Sometimes recruiters feel that way.


The third thing is fair compensation. Money won't mean anything. It won't make somebody stay, unless there's respect and appreciation. So those first two things need to be in place. And then leaders need to make it their business to make compensation transparent and work towards pay equity. I'm a huge fan of Marc Benioff and Salesforce and the commitment for pay equity between men and women in the workplace. It matters so much to know that leaders actually care about this. I was having a conversation with a leader when I brought up the wage gap between men and women. He actually said, “What wage gap? There's no wage gap. I don't know what women are complaining about. They aren't so good.” When women hear that, and some men as well, how loyal can they feel to a leader who feels like that, who's so in denial to the reality of what's happening.


The fourth thing that staff need in order to feel committed to work and to not want to leave and be willing to get run over by a truck for their leader is the opportunity for growth, to have an annual training budget. To be told, yes, we support you to keep learning. We know you bring these skills and talents to our organization, and we want to support you to stay and to learn and grow. And that means X number of dollars per year for workshops and training. And you don't have to take vacation days to take it by the way, you get paid time off. Because it's so crazy how in some companies, they reluctantly are given training, but you have to take a vacation day to do it.

That sends a message that you are not important. When leadership says, “Take $2,000. Go to this workshop. Come back and teach us to give us the benefit of what you've learned.” That sends a message of I believe in you. We want you here; you belong here. And we want you to keep growing and learning. There's nothing more powerful than being told, “I believe in you.” It’s fine if you make mistakes from time to time because mistakes are going to happen.


So those are the four things. I've gotten confirmation from all over the world. One assistant from Italy wrote to me the next day after the TEDx Talk aired (I say these things on TEDx ) She said, “You're so right, Bonnie, I think we can put up with most anything. But what we can't put up with is disrespect, is feeling like we don't matter.”


Karen Mangia

It's an error looking for an employee experience plan. There it is: respect, appreciation, fair pay, transparent and quantifiable opportunities for growth.


Now with that I want to test your improv skills with your acting background. I like to do a little virtual water cooler segment so that folks on the show can get to know you as a person a little bit better. I have five quick questions for you. So picture we're having a five minute spontaneous discussion around the water cooler, say whatever comes to top of mind. Are you ready?. Okay, you're getting into character as you learned in your training, I'm sure. So, first of all, what time of day do you do your best work?


Bonnie Low-Kramen

5:30am.


Karen Mangia

Morning person. If there were no dress code, how would you dress for work?


Bonnie Low-Kramen

Oh, I like looking nice. I want to get dressed. Not necessarily with makeup, but I want to be dressed. It's not my style to be sloppy. No, I really do like looking good. As good as I can.


Karen Mangia

What is the part of your routine that you most look forward to each day?


Bonnie Low-Kramen

Coffee. If they ever discover that coffee is bad for you, I think I'm just gonna have to die.



Karen Mangia

No joke. My doctor shared a study with me at one point, you know, that suggested coffee would take years off your life. And my response to him was how many years? And when they couldn't give me an answer. I was like, I'm willing to roll the dice on this.


Bonnie Low-Kramen

Do you know what? I'm with you. I'm addicted. I admit it.


Karen Mangia

I'm an addict. If you could have any job in the world, what would you do? ,


Bonnie Low-Kramen

I would be the Head of Signage in the United States. The Head Road and Street Signage because it irks me. I travel a lot. And I believe New Jersey, where I'm from, is one of the most difficult places to drive. I think GPS has changed our life, but it makes me nuts when they've used the name of a street like three times in the same town. Signs that are covered by foliage; they’re faded. I have my favorite cities where there's great signage like Las Vegas has great signage, no big signs; they're lighted and you get a warning. I think street signs change the quality of our life.


Karen Mangia

That is to show first signs, signs everywhere. I love it. Head of Signage. Now imagine there are 25 hours in the day instead of 24. How are you going to spend your extra hour?


Bonnie Low-Kramen

Oh, easy, I would be in a playground with my two granddaughters? They're three and a year and a half. And in them, I get inspiration for what's possible. And frankly, I feel like the clock is ticking, that by the time they're in the workplace, I want some of the things we were talking about in this call to be fixed. And I'm gonna do what I can to make sure of that.


Karen Mangia

Well, and as we close, how can listeners connect with you? And also, what are you most excited about? What are you working on with regard to the current workplace?


Bonnie Low-Kramen

I am so excited about this book that's coming out in February of 2023, called Staff Matters. I too care about giving a voice to the people in our workplace. This book does that with case studies and interviews. I've done over 1500 interviews for this book. I believe it says the quiet things out loud. It says so many of the things that are not being discussed in our workplace that are needed, if in fact, the training for leaders is not happening in business school. My hope is that this book Staff Matters gets on recommended reading lists at business schools as a tool for leaders who want to cut them to the chase, to know about what they really need to be alert to. Even if they can't relate to it personally, at least they will have a heads up about it, a reminder and a preview of what might happen in the workplace. My website is my name bonnielowkramen.com. I have many, many free resources on the website, including a free ebook about workplace bullying and an ebook about anti- racism and how to be an ally. My work is about addressing the elephants in the room, the issues that are slowing us down and stopping us dead in our tracks. Because what I've seen is when women are bullied, when men are bullied, sexually harassed, they're paralyzed into inaction, and it preoccupies our brains. We cannot do great work when we're being disrespected in any way in the workplace. So I want leaders to hopefully start moving their minds towards how we build cultures of respect. Not because it's nice to do, but because it is super smart business to do.


Karen Mangia

Good humans are good business. Thanks to Bonnie Low-Kramen and international thought leader and author of Staff Matters for presenting us a playbill for a new future of work and for reminding us that the act that matters most is being a class act when it comes to how you treat the people around you. Thanks again for joining us today Bonnie on Success from Anywhere because success is not a destination. Success is not a location. Success is available to anyone, anywhere at any time.


Transcript from Success from Anywhere podcast.




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