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Inside Public Service: From Playing It Small to Learning to Play Big

Between now and August 1st, I’m practicing what I preach by making space to be with the people I love most in the world. I have a vacation responder in place for emails and limited access to Internet and cell reception. And instead of new blog posts, I’ve lined up several great articles from my column on Shasta Scout to share with you.

This story was originally published as part of my monthly Inside Public Service column on Shasta Scout. Would you like to receive free, nonprofit, independent and non-partisan news about Shasta County and beyond? Sign up here.

Here's wishing you spaciousness in your life, however you can find it this summer.


I recently met Janet Garcia, a brilliant, accomplished woman who is juggling raising a young family while leading a local organization that serves community members in crisis. On a good day, her clients struggle to buy groceries and gas on two full-time low-wage incomes. On a bad day, they juggle family conflict and vehicle breakdowns and an eviction notice and a medical emergency and almost losing their job when they arrive late. They usually reach out to Janet’s organization for help on their worst days.

When I first met with her, the exhaustion she was experiencing was immediately apparent in her posture and frame. “We’re down several staff right now,” she said. “So I’m the only one with the training who’s physically here right now. And it’s not the deeper work I want to do.”

I asked, “What is that deeper work you wish you could be doing?”

“I wish we could be more integrated with other organizations that work with the same population. I have all of these ideas about how we can remove barriers for people and do a lot of preventative work. I could really change the community for the better. But I feel like I’m not doing that. My day is wasted on little things, not the things I’m really good at and that I love to do. I feel like the work is really reactionary right now.”

Janet has already done a lot to manage the overwhelm she experiences daily in her work. She’s implemented a call log system so that her staff can easily triage people who need help. The new system allows less experienced staff to start the client acceptance process without her input and direct people towards support and resources right away so that Janet can focus on the most complicated issues.

She’s also learned to manage her own time well by batching smaller tasks so that she can take care of them all in one go instead of spread out throughout the day. Batching is a brilliant strategy that I recommend to many of my clients. Because it takes the brain a full minute, on average, to switch from one task to another and back again, frequently changing activities by responding immediately to every incoming notification or interruption can really contribute to lost time, exhaustion, and overwhelm. It’s far better to go through all your daily emails at a time and pay your bills one morning a month, to minimize the time lost to task switching.

Janet’s careful strategizing is already helping with her overwhelming time management challenges, but she’s still experiencing a loss of hope.

“The bigger problem,” she said, “is all the unexpected things. Like right before this call, one of my staff had to take their kid to the ER, and already had a scheduled meeting with someone coming from far away. We took care of it. I prepped the other staff, and I’ll meet with that person right after this meeting, but handling it took like an hour and a half of time. Surprise. Poof. Gone. It’s unplannable and makes my work life feel so reactionary.”

I reflect back, “It sounds like the dam is leaking from everywhere and you’re plugging the holes with your fingers when what really needs to happen is to stop and rebuild the dam.”

Janet laughs,“Yes. Exactly. I don’t know what to do. I can’t ever get into flow and get a stretch of time to do the bigger work. Sometimes it feels like the only thing I’ve done all day is put out fires.”

Together, we decided to focus the rest of the session on strategically figuring out how to rebuild the dam.

The most obvious solution was filling the existing staff vacancies in her office, but Janet felt defeated. She’d already made five offers in recent months but was turned down every time, not because of the nature of the work, but because the great people she wanted to work with were reluctant to move to Shasta County, something she doesn’t feel she has control over.

Janet was also hesitant to make a job offer to someone she felt unsure about because of a very difficult hiring experience she’d had when first coming into her role. “We hired someone who didn’t work out. I spent so much of my time undoing, redoing, fixing this person’s work. It took a year before they left because, ultimately, I don’t have the authority to fire someone. It makes me very fearful of hiring the wrong person because of how hard that situation was.”

If filling an existing vacancy felt hard, what about creating a job specifically to take all the little things off Janet’s plate so that she can focus on the big things? In other words, what about finding an executive assistant? The best executive assistants manage critical details–scheduling, emails, travel, paperwork, administration–so that leaders can focus the vast majority of their time on the things that truly require their expertise and skill.

I told Janet, “Scheduling is usually the first thing to go. You hand over control of your calendar and they schedule it all. If you want uninterrupted time daily for two hours, or an hour at the end of the day for emails, or Fridays entirely free, they make it happen and protect that time for you. The second thing to go is emails. You train your executive assistant to do around 80% of your emails for you.”

Janet laughed in disbelief. With the grin of a child who’d just received an elaborate gift topped by a huge red ribbon, she said, “Tell me more.”

“If your inbox is anything like mine,” I said, “50% of it is junk or a one word, one sentence response. Another 30% is simple Q&A, directing people to resources, delegating, or scheduling. Leaving only 20% for you to do.”

Janet said with a skeptical laugh, “Okay, I’m writing this down. It sounds crazy. But I trust you.”

“Don’t trust me. Do the test.” I invited Janet to go ahead and open her email right now. “Which ones actually need you?”

“Four of these are just projects that I’ve kept in my inbox as a reminder. One doesn’t need to be looked at at all. One is about scheduling. The other is just an agenda for a meeting. Everything else is just junk. Oh, I also need to respond to this one email about resources.”

I asked, “What would it feel like if you could make almost all of your emails go away?”

“Better.” Janet laughed again. “This feels really radical to me. And I know it’s not.”

“One of the hardest things for someone moving from having no executive assistant to having one is the loss of control.” A burst of laughter, “That’s exactly what I’m feeling.”

“Yes, there’s a bunch of things that would no longer be in your control. Instead, what you get is peace of mind and space so that the things you do every day are the things that actually need your expertise. First to go is scheduling. Next is emails. Then it’s delegating away everything else that doesn’t truly need your brain.”

We considered whether an executive assistant might have been able to troubleshoot the situation with the staff member who had to take her kid to the ER.

“I feel like I’m pulled into things and doing it because I’m the only one who’s here. It didn’t really need me, but I was the only person.” With an executive assistant, she wouldn’t be the only one. Leadership often feels really lonely. It doesn’t have to be.

We explored next steps such as talking to other leaders who already have an executive assistant.

Janet reflected, “I’m taking this all in. It feels like it is all shifting inside. But it also feels weirdly like a lot to take in.”

Her immediate concerns included the logistics of creating a new role that doesn’t currently exist in her organization. She was also worried about the loss of control and finding the right person, which she knew would be absolutely key.

And then this powerful, brilliant, accomplished woman made this heartfelt statement: “And just to be completely honest, there’s this thought that I’m not important enough to have someone help me in that way.”

Wow. Don’t we all feel like that sometimes? I know I do.

I tried to help Janet see that the person she was today was stuck in place, with her fingers in the holes of the dam. Maybe that Janet doesn’t feel important enough for an executive assistant. But the other Janet, a future Janet, who is fully partnered with other organizations, who is removing barriers for people, who is changing the community for the better by impacting the entire system, maybe that Janet is more than important enough for an executive assistant.

I explained, “Stepping from one to the other feels scary because you’re moving from one identity to another. It’s totally natural to feel like you don’t deserve it. But that’s because right now, you’re playing small. And you’re constrained by the current system to be small. What are the ways to change the system around you so that you can play big?”

We concluded our session by co-creating a list of action steps to move Janet closer to that new identity: researching what other organizations do, talking to people with an executive assistant, and investigating, “Does this really really have to be done by me?”

Here’s to that future Janet, and all the others of you out there, seeking a solution to plugging the dam with just your fingers. Let’s rebuild it all and play big for the benefit of our whole community.

Read More

You can learn more about executive assistants and they role they play in the workforce HERE.

Learn more about time blocking and managing your energy in this free video from my online course.

Going Further

If you're a woman like Janet -- overwhelmed, juggling, and plugging the holes in the dam with your fingers -- please consider joining me and Tutti in Mendocino September 29-October 2 for a weekend to restore, rejuvenate, and reconnect with yourself and other brave, adventurous female leaders. Custom-crafted leadership development + towering tress + sea kayaking + campfire circles + inspiring women = hope, inspiration, and clarity about your future. Enrollment closes August 18th, 2023. Learn more and apply today.

I'm just beginning to look for an executive assistant for myself for 1.5 hours per day. I can pay OR I can trade one-on-one coaching for your help. If you are someone who adores a beautiful calendar, gets a dopamine rush from checking off all the to do list items, and is energized by cleaning your email inbox, reach out by email (And right now...this is the ONLY way to become a one-on-one client with me. Otherwise I'm taking a waitlist.)

Finally, you don’t want to miss the summer series of blog posts which take you inside a coaching session with me. Subscribe or share with a friend.

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