Kristine Valenzuela has over 20 years of experience as an executive assistant and chief of staff in several industries.
In this episode of The Leader Assistant Podcast, I talk with Kristine about what makes an assistant a leader, how to identify leadership strengths, the difference between chief of staff and EA, and more.
Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.
– Sheryl Sandberg
CONNECT WITH KRISTINE
Kristine has over 20 years of experience as an Executive Assistant and Chief of Staff in several industries including aerospace, manufacturing and software. Her career started off as a receptionist many years ago and she worked her way up to operating as a Chief of Staff for C-level leaders at a multi-billion-dollar aerospace company. She strongly believes in advocating for other Chiefs of Staff and EA’s to make sure they understand their value in the workplace.
While she searches for her next career opportunity, she is staying busy refining her skills, networking, and reading the latest leadership books. Kristine resides in San Diego, California with her daughters and a rescue dog named Ollie.
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Kristine Valenzuela 0:00
Hi, I’m Kristine Valenzuela and today’s leadership quote comes from Sheryl Sandberg. Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.
Podcast Intro 0:17
The Leader Assistant Podcast exists to encourage and challenge assistants to become confident game changing leader assistant
Jeremy Burrows 0:28
The Leader Assistant Podcast is exclusively brought to you by goody which provides effortless gifting for all occasions. If you’re tired of sending tacky impersonal business gifts, then you should definitely check out goody my friends at goody offer a collection of hundreds of curated brands like Levain bakery, Thera body, milk bar, and Ember mugs. With goodie, if your recipient doesn’t like your gift, they can swap it out for one they do like you can find perfect gifts for any occasion. Whether it’s work anniversaries, birthdays, new hire onboarding or company swag. It’s free to start gifting and you get a $20 credit when you sign up. Also, be sure to mention The Leader Assistant Podcast when signing up and goody will add an extra $10 credit to your account. So go to leaderassistant.com/goody to disrupt the inefficiencies in your team’s gifting strategy. Again, that’s a leaderassistant.com/goody Hey friends, thanks for tuning into The Leader Assistant Podcast. It’s your host Jeremy Burrows. Welcome to Episode 170. To check out this episode’s show notes, you can go to leaderassistant.com/170 Leaderassistant.com/170 and today I’m excited to be speaking with Kristine Valenzuela. Kristine has over 20 years of experience as an executive assistant and chief of staff in several different industries including aerospace, manufacturing and software. Kristine, how’s it going?
Kristine Valenzuela 2:09
Good. Good. How are you? I’m super excited to finally talk to you.
Jeremy Burrows 2:14
Yeah, likewise, what part of the world are you in?
Kristine Valenzuela 2:17
I’m in San Diego sunny San Diego. Not a bad place to be. I love
Jeremy Burrows 2:22
it. Yeah, I love it. I’ve only been I think twice but San Diego.
Kristine Valenzuela 2:27
Yeah, it’s a great place. I used to vacation here as a kid with my family and and now I’m lucky enough to live here so
Jeremy Burrows 2:34
nice. What’s your what’s one of your favorite hobbies to do with your family? Oh,
Kristine Valenzuela 2:40
lots of things. Since we’re coming up on summer, any kind of watersports is great. My daughters like to do stand up paddleboarding. They just learned how to do that recently. So we’d like to get out in the bay and do paddleboarding. They really love the beach. So as the weather gets warmer, we spend a lot of time at the beach.
Jeremy Burrows 3:04
Well, you definitely live in a good place if you’d like to be. I do. Nice decision. All right, well, we’re gonna jump in and you actually had a good idea to almost do the reverse order of the questions I typically ask. So I’m gonna jump right in and ask you what makes an assistant a leader.
Kristine Valenzuela 3:25
Okay, so this is a great question. Back when I started in this field, we didn’t have books and podcasts. No, all we had was ourselves and each other. But the honest truth is that anyone who has spent time being an admin knows how busy you are. So it never really left time for socializing and sharing experiences. So it was a bit like we were all on boats by ourselves and had no choice but to figure it out on our own. So everything I’ve learned has kind of just been on the fly. And lately, a lot of my focus has been on trying to get others who do what we do, focused on the fact that they are most definitely leaders, you know, when most of us hear that leader word, we think it’s a word that applies to other people. You know, we’re all just doing our jobs. And we never think about whether we’re leaders or not, you know, and partially because of that humble nature that you so eloquently talked about in your book. You know, we just don’t think it applies to us. We’re too busy doing our thing to think about, am I a leader? It wasn’t until the pandemic that I read a lot and consistently heard about common traits that good leaders have. And after I’d finished a book, it dawned on me that as an executive assistant, and a chief of staff, we have a lot of those same traits. For instance, I I’ve always had senior managers come up to me for advice as to how to handle tough situations or how to break less than ideal news to my boss. I’ve always called this being an armchair psychologist, which is kind of a joke. But it’s also kind of true. The bottom line is that if senior leaders or anyone else is asking you for input on any topic, you’re a leader, they’re interested in your opinion for a reason. We’re also strong executive contributors. When it comes to sharing thoughts, honestly, executives have a hard time relying on input from their direct reports, because they’re never quite sure whether or not it comes with an angle. You know, when you think about it, people that report up to the C suite, are oftentimes aiming to get into that position. And I’ve had bosses share that sometimes it’s hard to fully trust the opinions of others for that reason, although yes, many of them have obviously proven themselves, to be honest. But usually, the executive assistant or chief of staff doesn’t have skin in the corporate game, so to speak, you know, they’re not usually looking to be the next sea level leader. So our opinions and input come across more genuine and originate from a thoughtful place. So when you step back and look at the fact that we have that platform to offer this type of input. Again, that’s leadership. And another example that I think many people will relate to is that we’re among the few positions that get handed the most random, crazy tasks. And we always find a way to get them done. Always right. We rise to the occasion, all the time. So how was that not leadership? Jeremy, let’s just just say that you’re leading a company, I would want to know that my leader is capable of managing anything that comes his or her way. So the fact that we can get just about anything done under any kind of circumstance, shows how resilient we are. And resilience is a leadership quality. Obviously, there’s a ton of other things that make us leaders, but for the reasons I just mentioned, and many, many more, I think it’s about time we start seeing ourselves in a leadership position.
Jeremy Burrows 7:39
Yeah, well said. So what specifically? You mentioned, it wasn’t until things during COVID, that you realize that, you know, whether it was in the books you read or whatnot, you realized you’re a leader, is there any specific examples that you can share on how you you identified those strengths in yourself or how this assistants listening can identify leadership strengths in themselves.
Kristine Valenzuela 8:07
It’s obviously it’ll vary person to person. But my personal experience started when I was transitioning from an executive assistant role to a chief of staff rule. When it came time for me to revise my resume, I came across a pretty shocking realization. But before we get to that, I’m going to back up and give you a little bit of context. One of my I’ll be the first to admit one of my less than stellar traits is that I occasionally have bad brain days once in a while. So if I’m called on to write something for my boss, on a bad brain day, it’s panic city. Like that’s just a bad moment for me. So I’ve always kept a Word document that serves as a scratch pad of different phrases or parts of sentences that I see over time and really like. And it really does help when you’re in a bind to write something because you’ve got all these phrases that you can use to get yourself started. So one of the many things I’ve included on my scratchpad is freezing from different executive resumes that I’ve seen over the years, because obviously, I knew at some point, I was going to have to revise my resume. And so I couldn’t pace just key phrases that I liked the way they sounded. Sometimes I would see things that would sound like an elegant way to describe things that I have experience with. And then the more that time went on, the more it dawned on me that these executive resumes describe my work to I mean, not exactly because obviously they’re at a different level, but a lot of times yes. And this is again, kind of what pulled me into thinking For a lot about leadership, it wasn’t until I’m doing this firsthand experience of updating my resume and looking at these executive phrases, that I realized, we’ve got all these common traits and competencies with the people that we support. You know, we have grit, self confidence, we’re decisive. We’re proactive, reliable, curious, emotionally intelligent, you know, we’re great at building relationships. We’re really, I mean, if we’re doing well, at our jobs, we’re expected to have many of the same qualities that our bosses have, you know, we’ve got to write emails that sound like that. Or we need to know their thoughts on certain subjects. So ever since then, I’ve thought that even if we have 50% of the traits, they have, we’re leaders to. We really are I mean, our roles are vital. And we really are of that leadership needle that threads its way through all the problems of a C suite. So I’m comfortable claiming that leadership title for us, because I think it’s about time we start seeing ourselves that way.
Jeremy Burrows 11:14
Yeah, and I love what you said about, you know, reading these phrases in executive resumes. And just being honest with yourself and saying, You know what, I actually do that, too.
Kristine Valenzuela 11:26
Yeah, it was it was shocking, because I didn’t expect to find that I thought, I don’t know, I just sometimes I find keywords. I liked the way they sound. And I really did it for that for the key words. And then I, one day, I just kind of stepped back. And I thought, you know, this is describing something I do. And I liked the way the sounds and then I found more and more. And it’s like, wow, that’s that was, that was pretty remarkable.
Jeremy Burrows 11:54
So you have experience as an executive assistant, and also as a chief of staff, in your mind, and based on your experience, what’s the difference between an EA and a chief of staff?
Kristine Valenzuela 12:10
Well, dividing line between the two positions, I think comes down to being tactical versus strategic. So I’ve done both positions. Now, in the core of an EA position involves tasks like managing a hectic calendar, gatekeeping, creating slides, taking notes, tracking action items, taking care of travel and expenses. I mean, obviously, that’s not everything. But those are some common tactical tasks that many of us do. A chief of staff leans away from the tactical and moves more into the strategic realm. A lot of industries and executives define the position differently. Because this isn’t a position that’s been around for a long time, all I can do is talk about what I’ve experienced and what I know the position to be. But for instance, pointing back to tactical tasks, a chief of staff may still be involved with something like planning meetings, but it’s done from the viewpoint of making sure that the executive has certain conversations before, say, a big board meeting. So a chief of staff would be in charge of making sure any supporting meetings with the right people take place before then. And then you’re in charge of collecting the information that comes out of those meetings, and you pass that along to executives so he can be prepared. You know, just like an EA, the position spans many functions. But if I had to summarize it into core responsibilities, I’d say it’s part project manager, part, Chief Operating Officer, part PR person, and then there’s always that EA component as well. You know, you’re handling major projects and coordinating operations on an executives behalf and some of what she might do as an EA. But the big difference is that you’re expected to be the executive and represent their interests at meetings. So oftentimes, you have to speak and make decisions on his or her behalf. And I will say this is where having a really good relationship with your executive comes into play because knowing your executive well, can be the portal for an EA to become a cheeses chief of staff, and I know that definitely was the case for me. One way to think about it is it’s a lot like cloning your executive and allowing them to be in more than one place at a time. You may have heard people say their force multipliers, and I know I’ve used that phrase before myself. And that’s part of what this chief of staff position does we multiply the executive. Overall, I’d say if you’re curious about the position, you know, do some research. There’s a lot of really good articles out there that add great context around what the position does. I know Harvard Business Review has one Ink Magazine. There’s some other notable publications that have really solid articles. And there’s new ones coming out all the time. So if you’re interested in it, do some research, because these job, these articles do a really good job of capturing the essence of the position, I think,
Jeremy Burrows 15:41
yeah. Yeah. And have you found that it’s pretty broadly accepted as far as what it looks like the chief of staff? Or have you seen it vary by industry and an organization?
Kristine Valenzuela 16:00
I will say that it’s starting to come together, and the positions are starting to sort of line up with each other. I think the one area where it’s still, at a different level is within the political realm. You know, obviously, there’s a chief of staff that works in the White House. And that’s another level that I think, you know, many of us probably, I don’t know, that we’re, you know, ready for that kind of speaking for myself, I don’t know that I’m ready for that. But that’s a different realm, but a lot of them. I’ve been looking at a lot of ads, and it seems like they’re, they’re kind of coming together. So it’s, it’s, it’s becoming more common. And I love speaking up for we know why this kind of position is important.
Jeremy Burrows 16:52
Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I mean, it’s been pretty out there. And I think it’s still tough to know what they mean, when you see a chief of staff posting. But I do think that it’s becoming more and more consistent. And, and as more people talk about it, and write about it. So right.
Kristine Valenzuela 17:15
And I would say regionally, it’s there are still some variations, because I’ve worked for a company where I had colleagues in Europe, and in Europe, it just is not a title that they that’s gained traction yet. So I’ve had people circle back and say, so what is your title? What do you do?
Jeremy Burrows 17:34
Yep. Awesome. Well, what can assistants listening do if they would like to become a chief of staff someday?
Kristine Valenzuela 17:44
They would like to come chief of staff? This is a great question. There are a lot of things I could cover here, because there’s so much that I’ve discovered on my own, but I’m going to just touch on a few things. The first thing is that you have to know yourself and whether or not you’re interested in a bigger challenge. Some people are super happy being an EA or another level of admin, and that’s totally okay. You know, if you’re satisfied with where you’re at, that’s great, because so many people aren’t. But if you’re someone like me, who gets that itch, and you know, feels like they really want to know more and take things to the next level, then I recommend paying attention to that energy, because it probably means you’re ready to start investigating chief of staff role. Once I found myself ready to make my job a little more fulfilling, I did a couple of interesting things. One was that I paid super close attention to the things that my executive struggled with. For instance, I noticed he would be in meetings all day and rarely had a chance to do actual work. I don’t think that’s too uncommon of a situation. And since I was the point of contact in his office, I’d see that he’d get requests from the president of the company to provide something that was due the following afternoon. But since he spent the entire day in meetings, he wasn’t going to know about this request until the very end of the day. And with me knowing that his next day look just as busy as the current day. You know, my thought always went to Well, how’s he going to get this done? You know, I’d panic every time I would I think about this, but then once I would settle down, I remembered that I was familiar with the subject matter experts within his department. So it took me proactively reaching out to people to say, Hey, Jeff got this request. It’s due tomorrow. He’s in meetings all day today. And all day tomorrow, this is the subject, do you have something that I could use to create a draft slide deck. And that’s really how I started working to different capacity. You know, again, I’ll kind of come back to the fact that he and I had this great working relationship to the point that I felt comfortable taking initiatives on taking initiative on things. I knew he’d provide feedback, if there was something I could have done differently. But I knew he do it in a respectful way. So I trusted him in that respect. And he and I knew he would be grateful for the help, even if it was only a 75% solution, or 50% solution or whatever it was. So that set me up well, to take some chances with helping him with sea level work. Other thing that I did, and I highly recommend this to anyone, even if you’re not interested in being a chief of staff, is to ask for context, anytime you’re given something to work on. It’s totally okay to do. And it’s super helpful. I think I heard someone else mentioned this on a previous podcast episode, and I was all about it. When I heard it, my ears perked up, because I was like, Yes. Like, in the example, I just mentioned of the president of the company asking my boss for slides, I would have contacted the President’s EA or reached out to him directly to ask for some background on the request, you know, I might have asked, you know, is this is a customer asking for this information? Are you getting ready to do a presentation or attend some sort of meeting? Are you trying to troubleshoot a problem? Having context is a great way to really narrow down that request, you know, if he’s doing a presentation to someone who’s visiting, you know, it probably just needs to be an overview of a topic, if he’s troubleshooting. And this was especially the case when I worked in aerospace, you probably need something that’s more technically on point. So having that context not only helps your boss, but you’re learning valuable information at the same time. And that’s the kind of information you need to step into a chief of staff role. But again, you know, even if that’s not something you’re interested in doing, your boss is always going to be incredibly grateful for any added information you can provide. You know, there, there’s so many things that you could do, I could go on and on forever. But I think these are a couple of suggestions that will set you up on a good path. And, again, if all else fails, I always recommend doing a Google search. And that’ll help you figure out which skills you need to have in place.
Jeremy Burrows 23:00
Yeah, no, that’s I think those are some good tips. Thanks for sharing. What’s one thing throughout your career that’s helped you grow in your competence?
Kristine Valenzuela 23:14
Ah, I love this question. Because no matter who you are, or how much experience you bring to the table, almost everyone can benefit from growing their competence. I mean, I’m not as easily shaken anymore as I used to be. But yeah, for sure. There are days where I get into a funk. And I freak myself out unnecessarily. And my confidence goes straight out the window. So I have two things that I would recommend. And the first one is that although this might sound counterintuitive to some people, the biggest part of my growth has come from doing things that absolutely scare me. And I mean, that scary feeling that makes you feel truly nauseous. You know, our brains are wired to protect us when we’re faced with things that are unfamiliar. So our first reaction is always to get scared and want to back away. But the challenge with that is that as admins, we’re not wired to say no to things, right. We pretty much take on anything and everything we’re given whether we’re ready for it or not. You know, I can honestly say that the most growth has come from those projects that a boss has given me where I literally had absolutely no clue about what I was given. And it took me a while to reflect back on those moments and see how much they boosted like competence. Because they showed me that I was capable of doing something. It wasn’t always something difficult, but it was something very unknown. On and I got it done on time, maybe not perfect, but it really gave me something to build on. The second thing and is to not be afraid to say or ask obvious questions. Now this was a really big one for me, because it sounds so obvious, like too obvious, right. And for a long time, I always felt like bringing up obvious things was an insult of sorts to whatever executive group I was with. So I always kept quiet. I didn’t want to offend anybody. So I kept to myself. And all it took was that one time hearing someone else asked what I thought was a super obvious question. And hearing people say, You know what, I totally lost sight of that. That’s a great question. I had to be in that situation many times before. I ever worked up the courage to ask one of those questions. But almost every time I did it to this day, still, someone would thank me for doing that. So my lesson learned was that there’s always going to be at least a few executives that are just as afraid to ask simple questions, as we are, you know, and it’s not a knowledge thing, necessarily. I mean, these are all very smart people. I think the problem is that once you get into senior management, people get so focused on solving certain problems, that they lose that bird’s eye view of things. And they completely miss the obvious. So by asking the simple questions, you’re helping them to recalibrate their brain to keep an eye on those bird’s eye view issues. And I’ll give you an analogy for this. It happens every day, when I walk my dog. He’s very active. He’s all about chasing lizards, and rabbits, and birds and all the things right. And he does this pretty much the entire length of our walk. What’s funny is that I regularly see him get super focused on that one little bird that’s in the bushes, and he goes after it with everything in his body. Like, that’s all he cares about. But what he doesn’t realize is that during the time, he’s focused on that one little bird, two other birds and a rabbit have appeared four feet behind him. But he’s oblivious to it, because he’s looking at that one bird. And I feel like this same thing happens to executives, they get so focused in one area, that they can lose focus on the big picture, they can lose focus on the things that are right next to them or behind them. So yeah, work up the courage to ask those obvious questions. Because once you see how helpful that is, it will boost your confidence.
It takes a while to warm up to that, but it’s such a huge help.
Jeremy Burrows 28:17
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I love how it’s like, you know, like your dog like, so focused on this one thing, they don’t see these other things around. And that’s what we as assistants or Chiefs of Staff, we have a good perspective and a unique perspective that our executives don’t have. And so that’s more of the value that we can bring.
Kristine Valenzuela 28:39
Right? It’s that it’s that force multiplier, right? Where we’re giving them another set of eyes to see all the things that they can’t see. Again, through no fault of their own, it’s just we see how busy they are. And you can’t be everywhere, paying attention to all the things at the same time. So that’s where we come in handy. Yeah.
Jeremy Burrows 28:59
Awesome, Kristine. Well, thanks so much for chatting with me today and sharing a bit of your story. How can people reach out and say hi, and connect with you? Um,
Kristine Valenzuela 29:11
I would say LinkedIn is probably the best place. Probably the best place to reach me.
Jeremy Burrows 29:17
Awesome. I’ll put your url in the show notes at leaderassistant.com/170. And people can send you a connection request, send you a little note, tell you that they heard you on the podcast, and yeah, I’m sure you’re up for networking. Right.
Kristine Valenzuela 29:35
Absolutely. Awesome. Well, thanks
Jeremy Burrows 29:37
again, Christine. Good luck with the dog and the daughters and all that stuff. And we appreciate you being on the show.
Kristine Valenzuela 29:45
No worries. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Speaker 4 29:57
Please welcome you on Apple podcast. says Goburrows.com