Vanessa Nieman is a career administrative professional with over 25 years of experience. She worked her way from being a student assistant in her college years, to C-level support at larger organizations.
Vanessa’s career as an assistant chose her and then she came to embrace the role fully, but even more so in recent years as the support systems and networks for assistants have developed.
In the 100th episode (wow!) of The Leader Assistant Podcast, Vanessa shares valuable insight on getting the respect you deserve, saying no in a professional manner, and how to own your role.
Enjoy our conversation and be sure to check out Vanessa’s great article about resumes on LinkedIn here.
It is the ultimate luxury to combine passion and contribution. It’s also a very clear path to happiness.
– Sheryl Sandberg
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Vanessa Nieman is a career administrative professional with over 25 years of experience. She worked her way from being a student assistant in her college years, to C-level support at larger organizations. Vanessa’s career as an assistant chose her and then she came to embrace the role fully, but even more so in recent years as the support systems and networks for assistants have developed.
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Vanessa Nieman 0:00
Hi, I’m Vanessa Neiman. Today’s leadership quote comes from Sheryl Sandberg. It is the ultimate luxury to combine passion and contribution. It’s also a very clear path to happiness.
Podcast Intro 0:14
The Leader Assistant Podcast exists to encourage and challenge assistants to become confident game changing leader assistants.
Jeremy Burrows 0:31
Hey friends, it is episode 100. That’s right 100. I can’t believe that I’ve made it this far and I’ve kept this up this long. But really, I’m more surprised and more humbled that you are still listening after 100 episodes. So props to you for sticking in there with me. If you’re just joining Good luck going back and listening to all 100 episodes. It’s a lot of content, a lot of great content. There are a few hums and ahhs and sews and as from yours, truly, but I believe I am working on becoming a better interviewer a better podcaster. So thanks for joining me on this journey. And again, happy 100th episode, be sure to check out the show notes at leaderassistant.com/100 Leaderassistant.com/100. So thanks again for listening. I really hope you enjoy this interview with my friend Vanessa Neiman. I couldn’t think of a better assistant to interview for episode 100. And I hope you enjoy our conversation. Hey, everyone. Thanks for tuning into The Leader Assistant Podcast. It’s your host, Jeremy Burrows. And today I’m excited to speak with Vanessa Neiman. Hey, Vanessa, how are you?
Vanessa Nieman 1:53
I’m great. Thank you, Jeremy. Thanks for having me.
Jeremy Burrows 1:55
Yeah. And you’re on the West Coast. Is that right?
Vanessa Nieman 1:58
That’s correct. I’m in San Diego in North County.
Jeremy Burrows 2:01
So what was your very first job? And what skills did you take away from that job that you still use today in your assistant role?
Vanessa Nieman 2:10
My very first job was when I was 14, I assumed my mom’s house cleaning job. And she had a side job because she was also a career assistant, and a single mom. So she had to kind of do extra things to make ends meet. And she decided not to keep the weekend cleaning job. And I took it over for her and ported it over to Friday night. So I would take a bus into the neighboring town of Penny SCOTUS, when you were 14, and you could ride the bus by yourself. And it was cleaning the apartment of a pharmacist and he was never there. So it wasn’t creepy or anything he was he worked long hours. And from that he will leave me a list. And from that I learned, you know, to be on time to be there when I said I was going to be there to follow his list of instructions and to do everything very thoroughly. And then also the takeaway, if it’s never a bad thing to do anything extra and his apartment was small, but you know, I’d maybe if he just wanted me to launder his shirts, you know, I’d also fold them to or fold them nicely, because I’ve been doing my own laundry since I was seven. So as pretty much, you know, great at that. So from there, it just progressed. Now those are those were good takeaways. Even with you know, just a weekly job like that.
Jeremy Burrows 3:38
Yeah. So then you said your mom was an assistant.
Vanessa Nieman 3:43
My mom was an assistant. Yes, she held roles with the local school district. She worked for local tech company. She was well went back on they still use the horrible S word secretary. But yes, she tried to think how long her career was she probably worked as an assistant for about 15 years.
Jeremy Burrows 4:09
Wow. So when you became an assistant, was it under the influence of you know, just seeing her in that role and liking kind of how that went? Or was there a different path to becoming an EA for you?
Vanessa Nieman 4:24
I think both both of those apply when I was in college, I pretty much put myself through so I had to figure out a way to make money and amortize it to where I’d have enough to pay for each subsequent semester. So I started out in doing that and clothing retail after going from the cleaning job to babysitting to McDonald’s and then when I was 17 and I took took a job in clothing retail and did various clothing or toy retail for about three years. I didn’t love that after a while, it was great at learning how to work with the public and customer service and all that, but I need steadier hours and to get off my feet. So I decided like, hey, why not? Why don’t I look for something at my school, that would be really helpful and wouldn’t have to commute. So, back when the job board was actually, you know, a bulletin board with things tacked to it, I found a student assistant job in the department that supported or in the office that supported the art department, and consumer Family Studies, which was like, Oh, the culinary school, at the university and all that. So I was a student assistant to the assistant of the department center office. And that’s a long thing. And I don’t think I would have thought about that if my mom hadn’t said, hey, you know, why don’t you see if there’s some kind of assistant work you can do? Because that is steady. And and, you know, it’s, it’s interesting, and you’ll be there on campus? And I don’t think I would have thought of that if she also hadn’t been an assistant herself.
Jeremy Burrows 6:13
Yeah. So when did you kind of that was that you said that was at the school? That was at the school? Yes. So when did you move into kind of the corporate world? As an assistant,
Vanessa Nieman 6:25
I moved into the corporate world, right after college. So when I was in my early 20s, and it’s funny, too. And it’ll prop this will probably touch on another question. But I was looking for something in my field that I had studied in school, which was art. But back then I was not as I am now, I was very a more extroverted introvert. Now, back then I was pretty introverted introvert. So being an artist and having to sell myself and figure out what that was going to look like, I just, I tanked. So I needed to support myself right out of school. So I thought, well, I was an assistant in school, and I liked that, you know, just fine. So I’m going to look for assistant work that will also pull in some of my, their creativity, you know, the creative aspects that I studied in college. So I found a job with a mortgage banking company that needed a communications administrative assistant, and that was supporting their media relations department. And it was it was really fun. Just helping write press relief releases and distribute them when back when you had to send 100 Different faxes over a monstrous fax machine, where you had to call and newspapers have, you know, I’m not going to date myself, but anyone can figure out from when I graduated college, or where I am now how old I am. But I’m not going to say. And that was that was my first entry into the corporate world. I was with that job for a couple of years, and then just developed from there. But it was funny too, because I didn’t fully embrace that that was going to become my career for quite a long time to come. It was a make do, you know until I can develop out of it, because I think back then, or maybe later on shortly after, there were TV shows like Melrose Place where, you know, Courtney Thorne Smith had a role as a receptionist as her entry level job at a college and then she got a you know, high powered ad add assistant or something, you know, or, or add person at her agency, and it evolved out of that, Hi, I’m gonna do that, you know, this is just, this is just a placeholder. And I won’t say I didn’t take it seriously, but I didn’t respect it as a profession that I wanted to stay with for for quite a long time to come.
Jeremy Burrows 9:19
So then you’ve kind of had a pretty extensive career as an EA and then a senior senior level EA. And then recently, you made a transition to a new company. Tell us a little bit about kind of that. Like, what you’ve learned what you learned from the process, and maybe you’re hoping that you’re not sending 100 faxes anymore. 18 But like, what’s something that you learned in that process of just trying to find a new job or maybe you made Have you found you
Vanessa Nieman 10:01
write? Well, I, once I did respect the role, I decided I wanted to keep developing, keep growing, and keep growing into roles with successively more responsibility. Because I’ve always great respect for individuals who can keep the same role for many, many years or decades that accompany but I knew that wasn’t going to be me, because I like to just keep developing even though out of college, you know that I was always just really voraciously wanting to learn and I applied that to my profession also. So that was my career trajectory, throughout and eventually I set myself the goal of, well, I want to get to the point where I’m a no offense to middle management anywhere, where, okay, I’ve learned how to support middle management, I want to support a senior VP. And then from there, I want to get into the C suite. And then from there, I want to support a CEO, and have just been setting myself those milestones along the way. And now about 27 years, and I guess, I’ve reached that. So at my last organization, and just in a sidebar culture is so important. And it’s a real buzzword nowadays, because I’m all over LinkedIn, and you know, other apps and platforms and things. And, and I didn’t really know what I didn’t know it back in the day. Occasionally, I will leave jobs that just didn’t feel right, they just didn’t fit me or my dynamic, but just didn’t have the nomenclature for it, you know, I would just sing well, this didn’t fit, but I’m gonna, I’m gonna try this. Instead. And, and it was culture usually more often than not, not a specific manager, but culture. So and the last place, I pretty much knew, and that’s on me my first week there, that it was a little off from what I would prefer. And by that, I mean, they did not have a deep well of, I hope this wasn’t too scathing, but of respect or understanding of the assistant role in any portlets. Like, there was no leveling, there was no mapping, there was no trajectory. Long ago, when the company first came into being about 40 years ago, it I think it was a secretary pool. And then anybody who is called an assistant of any kind, anyone could randomly come up to you and ask you to do any random thing ever, with no structure whatsoever. So 40 years on that culture was still very much in place. And I was a little bit shocked. And I am not the introvert introvert anymore by any means. And I’ve been doing this a long time. So it’s not like I’m, you know, the know, all e Ching. But I kind of know what works and what should be in place. And I love a process. And if there are no processes or infrastructure, or a cohesive culture, then that’s pretty glaringly obvious from the beginning, so that that was there. But like, well, I don’t like to just come in and then leave, I like to give things a year or two, because I feel like you can really sit in it, and do what you can do without losing your heart or your mind and the process. And, you know, add your value, and then figure out is this really gonna work for me. So my first seven months or for someone, we just, it’s not that we had animosity or anything that specific. I truly don’t think he had ever had an assistant and knew how to be assistant. And he was in a little bit over his head with those role. I felt so he would only speak to me, pretty much when I almost physically had to ankle tackle him when I had questions. He spoke to me six times in seven months. Yeah. And kept adding people on to my slight. So I had three people to including him that were full time just 100% just crazy busy meetings, travel expenses, and then four more that were kind of, you know, just happenstance here and there. And I hated it. Because that was not really what I understood the role to be. I didn’t like the lack of communication or direction. So I was just kind of biding my time to see if another role would open up, or I was starting to just, you know, put my feelers out. And lo and behold, another role opened up the one that I just exited from. And much better fit it was for the Chief Marketing Officer. So C suite, what I wanted. So I like to be where the decisions are being made, I don’t like to be several levels away from it. That’s just my voracious snus. I like to know what’s going on behind the scenes and why. And when you’re in the C suite, you’re right there where it’s happening. So that was that was great. And the offset, we very much clicked. And again, the culture and the infrastructure was still lacking. And he was very much aware of that. But our partnership was a partnership. And it was a complete opposite of the previous role. And we just got along swimmingly, and we knew our mandates and just went for it got a little weird when senior management changed in the last six months, and that partnership, began to crumble, and in ways that I just did not, cannot fathom or understand. Because there really no explanations for it. So it’s just got weird. And, and, strangely, you know, the universe kind of gives you what you need when you need it. Because that’s happened to me on more than one occasion, I wrote recruiter reached out to me during the beginning of this crumbly, weird era, and for the job that I now have, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Because the role the title, what I understood it to be, the compensation was amazing, because San Diego really struggles with with good compensation for EAS, that’s a topic for another show. But I like I can’t not go for this, I just don’t like to turn down opportunities and be regretful later. So I went for it. And during the whole recruitment course, you know, it just got really weird or, and I’m really glad that I had taken this opportunity. So probably a very long and rambling answer, but but also, I, I hit one of my milestones, or I’m, you know, beginning to hit it, because I have supported a CFO before and a CEO. And that’s lovely, because I can bring my, you know, experience to that. But I’ve only done backup to a CEO, and now I get to support work the CEO. Awesome. So that’s exciting. Yeah, I hit one of my, my wishlist items.
Jeremy Burrows 17:51
Yeah, you know, I’ve only I’ve only Well, chin of the 12 and a half years that I’ve been an assistant, I’ve been for almost maybe nine years, I’ve been supporting the CEO, basically. So it’s, I don’t know that if I could ever go back.
Vanessa Nieman 18:10
I know. Right? Yeah. It’s, and I guess doing it, the more I don’t want to, you know, old fashion. That’s there’s a better word, I’m sure. But from just doing that long trajectory. Yeah, I agree. It’s nice. It’s nice to have had that stone gathering the moss of experience, weird analogy, but but now it is, it isn’t unusual for people to come from, you know, their education. And they have all these great specific courses now for, you know, people that want to be assistance where you don’t have to go to a traditional, you know, academic college, you can go to a course, and come out and support C suite. And I think that’s fantastic. You know, more power to it, or I have a friend who she kind of did move from being a project manager into being C suite where she hadn’t really done a lot of assistance. But that was a great trajectory going from Project Manager, and as a C suite, because you are a project manager. So
Jeremy Burrows 19:14
yeah, you know, I was a admin assistant and I was a basically an EA for a couple times. And then I was project manager, right before I leapt into my EA to CEO role. haven’t turned back. So.
Vanessa Nieman 19:32
And I’m sure you’ve found your project management experience really helpful. Yeah,
Jeremy Burrows 19:37
it’s one of the roles that I’ve I’ve suggested to executives that if they’re having a hard time finding an assistant look for some project managers, and there, you might find a really good EA in that bucket.
Vanessa Nieman 19:49
I completely agree. I think it’s, I think it’s great that there’s so much more imagination and flexibility and malleability for the those that understand the role and how they want to recruit for the role. Yeah. That’s that’s a good sea change. I like it.
Jeremy Burrows 20:08
Yeah. So you talked a lot about how you just love learning, and you’ve always been just kind of a lifelong learner. So how do you recommend assistants can grow their skills and also develop new skills.
Vanessa Nieman 20:27
To Grow Your skills, I mean, it just depends on how you are personally. Because again, I just, I can’t not be in a learning mode. And that can be anything from Googling something that I just saw a fly by me on TV to, hey, I, I’m working for marketing. And there’s a PR course being given by our local community college online. So I think it’d be helpful if I just took that. And I kind of know what people are talking about more. And so the initiative, having the initiative, having the flexibility, just having that hunger, to just keep adding to your toolkit. And it can be courses, it can be conference systems, it can be all these great books and podcasts such as yours. LinkedIn has just wonderful articles on it. Just identifying what you want to learn. And then just like just flying squirrel, it just go for it, just eat it all up. Because we are hubs, we are information hubs in these roles. And you just really need to soak all that knowledge up, because you never know we’re gonna have to pull a tool out of your tool belt, say, oh, yeah, I took course in that. Yeah. Why don’t I just you know, the, and people Oh, really? What? Which, you know, that this spicier stage and my personality? When you get the Oh, you went to college? Yeah, I did. I did. Because sometimes, and the more elitist cultures that I’ve worked for, they think that this job is because you couldn’t do anything else. And no, that’s that’s not, that’s not accurate. We’re very intelligent. So
Jeremy Burrows 22:26
the job because you were the only one that could do all this.
Vanessa Nieman 22:30
Yeah, exactly. I must have impressed, you know, the last goodness on those many 10 people that I interviewed with over the course of my career, because, yeah, because I went to college, and I add everything to my LinkedIn, you know, every course I’ve taken in technical communication, because it sounded fun. And it really helped me structure presentations, or help structure them. I was also a minor in English and creative writing. So there’s that. I like words, and, and shaping them and shaping them to your audience. That’s just really helpful. So yeah, if you want to learn, you want to be the best assistant you can be, then just get out there and connect and learn and grow. And whatever manner you feel with that.
Jeremy Burrows 23:24
Awesome. So what about let’s talk a little bit about the role, so how can assistants on the role in a way that shows those that work around them that they’re passionate and self motivated?
Vanessa Nieman 23:41
Owning the role is key. I think I let the role own me and the earlier arc of my career, because you’re young and you don’t know what you don’t know. And I used to be easily intimidated. Not anymore. And you establish that with a more savvy manager I don’t like to use the word boss will say executive or manager on you work that out first, what is what is the understanding of my role? And then you just keep building your your little fence around that you just keep protecting it and you keep reiterating it and you own it and you’re confident in it nicely, not, oh, that’s not in my job description. Oh, no, I don’t do that. It’s more well, you know, I support person A, and as such, I am here to protect their time and to make sure everything is as strategically placed as possible with them. So if someone is trying to hit me with random stuff that they could do, or anyone could do, like, you know, that is not something that’s going to strategically matter to my manager. So you know, If I do say no, to things like that, and if I’m not sure, then I ask and most of the time, my instincts are correct. And it’s, it’s a no, I’m sorry, you can own that yourself or, but gone are the days when I was a department assistant, he had to say yes to everything. That’s a great learning mode. But now I know what I should know. And you just have to keep, you know, nicely drawing, drawing that line to protect. And it’s not about being poopy or, you know, lazy or anything like that. It’s no, that does not serve the needs of my manager. So no, thank you. And I had to do that a lot at the last place, because of the lack of culture, I had to just keep redefining what it was that I was there to do. And some people, you know, were like, oh, at first thing, well, you being offended, it’s not my problem, I own my role. And you don’t understand what it is. It’s it was the, there was definitely a mindset for a while until I kind of kept doing just the water torture drip on people until they understood that. Because you think my role is one thing is not actually what my role is, I know what my role is. And I’m going to deliver that back to you on the most professional way possible.
Jeremy Burrows 26:18
So let’s flip over to the executive side for a second, what’s one tip that you would give executives, to help them get more out of their assistants, but really, to help their assistants on the roll as well.
Vanessa Nieman 26:33
I would say, with executives, please be a partner in your own support. And by that I mean, stay out of your calendar, and let your assistant be your calendar, but also have a sense of where your time is placed. Because there’s nothing worse than the manager like oh, yeah, Vanessa, I told someone, so I’d see him tomorrow it did it. You’re on vacation tomorrow. And like, you know, San Francisco. Oh, okay. Just kind of have a broad sense of where your time is placed. And then I’ll handle the minutia. Sorry, I lost my train of thought on that one, but and then like harkening back to what I said before, have those conversations early with your assistant on how you’re going to partner together and partner. With the assistant, you can have that gut sinking feeling in the early days, regardless of how great your interviewing process was, Are you working with each other? Are you working for your executive? Because then you have to go? Is it one sided? Or is it two way? Is there room for dissension? Is there a room for suggestion? Or recommendation? Are you a functionary. And that’s how I feel executives can get the most other assistant by determining what the partnership will be. And then redefining it, you have to have open communication all the time. Even if it’s you know, you’re chasing them out to their car, across the building to the restroom or whatever.
Jeremy Burrows 28:18
Yeah, I do that a lot.
Vanessa Nieman 28:22
I think we all do. It’s funny, so Oh, five minutes. Yeah.
Jeremy Burrows 28:27
I’ll take it. Yeah. So what about networking with other assistants? What do you have any tips or thoughts on networking
Vanessa Nieman 28:40
and past roles, networking really, mostly just entailed and this before the internet just got so marvelous and lovely, but just email, you know, finding out who your your EA constituents were, and just connecting with them and trying to go you know, establish some sort of structure if there was an of a monthly dinner or maybe you hit him up to go to the coffee house, you know, nearby or if you have one actually, on your campus and things of that nature, just to connect, you know, we’re all in the same boat together and, and have lunch and learn some things. That’s actually at some places was discouraged, which is very saddening, so didn’t stay long at those places. Nowadays, you can connect across LinkedIn, you can connect across Facebook, you can connect by going to conferences and such and I’ve made some great contacts that have recently been including yourself that have really opened my eyes to what could be and I would for my next round, not just for learning something, but now I want to execute something I would like to start a network for E gays in San Diego because I feel like we really need it. San Diego has always been a little bit of a strange place to be in EA. And I’m not sure why I have some ideas to why, but I mentioned compensations and issue, respect for the role as an issue. And support is an issue of each other. So I think that would be really nice to start opening that dialogue. And I really like what Adele, Selby and Mina italiano are doing over in Australia. So I’m going to reach out to them. Yeah. Soon, and, and see if I can pick their brains.
Jeremy Burrows 30:40
You know, I just thought of this the Do you know Jessalyn grin? Did you hear the interview?
Vanessa Nieman 30:48
I just listened to that. And I think she’s in San Diego. So I’m going to hit her up too. And Melissa people’s I met her at a couple conferences that I attended. And she’s going to be coming through San Diego soon. And she’s like my new EA, Guru BFF. So we’re gonna figure out some stuff together. Awesome. Yeah, it’s been a good like a weird year with that last place, but a really good year for other things for connecting. So I can’t complain. That’s
Jeremy Burrows 31:18
great. So what in your mind makes an assistant, a leader,
Vanessa Nieman 31:25
an assistant as a leader by going back to what we were talking about, about owning your role. And being confident in that ownership. And you, you do lead you are the face of your manager, sometimes you’re the face of your department, or even organization, depending on high, how high up you go. And people look to you for things. So to me, that’s a leader, you are co leading with your manager executive, just by being that Knowledge Hub, and being that face and you know, having the access to the calendar and the minutia that other people may not have. So to me, that is leadership, even though others may not see it that way. It definitely is.
Jeremy Burrows 32:20
Awesome. So, Vanessa, thanks so much for taking time to share your story and your tips and wisdom. For my listeners, is there something that we can do to support what you’re up to? And where can we find you online?
Vanessa Nieman 32:36
Online. I, I love social media, that’s probably the art and the writer and me I like to connect, I like to connect. And I like to read what other people are saying. And eventually I’m going to write my own articles Besides sharing other people’s. So there’s, there’s something too, I’m in my I haven’t evolved into my final form yet. So I’m working on that. But I’m on LinkedIn. And I’m on Facebook, and I’m on Instagram, and I’m on Twitter, and probably mostly on LinkedIn, and Instagram right now, I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook or Twitter, Twitter’s mostly my news amalgamation app. But I don’t tweet a lot, unless I’m pushing something through from Instagram that just toggles through, which is easy. How others can support me is I guess, just you know, watch and see what I do next i i would love someday to be, you know, like Phoenix Normand whose book is on my night table waiting to be read. Or Peggy grande or you know, someone that has, I can consolidate, you know, my, I guess wisdom, as you call it, thank you. For others to read. I truly never thought I would have this platform back in the day. And I think it’s really great that you and others like you are starting to make these connections. So like I guess just watch and see what I do next and see if you want to, you know, be a part of that.
Jeremy Burrows 34:07
Awesome. Well, I’ll share all those links in the show notes so that people can like, comment, follow Connect, you know, all that fun stuff. And keep up with what you’re doing and yeah, really appreciate you taking the time out of your day. Enjoy your San Diego evening.
Vanessa Nieman 34:25
Thank you. Our 80 degree evening.
Jeremy Burrows 34:29
Yeah, hopefully I’ll get to visit in the middle of in the dead of winter.
Vanessa Nieman 34:33
You’re always welcomes. Come on by. Awesome. Thank you, Jeremy. Yeah,
Jeremy Burrows 34:38
thank you. Thanks again, Vanessa, and thank you for listening. That’s a wrap for episode 100 Check out the show notes at leaderassistant.com/100
Podcast Intro 34:49
A slew of you on Apple podcasts goburrows.com