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Friday, April 29, 2011

Administrative Professionals

It has always been my observation that the paramount positions in any organisation are, in fact, the front line personnel and the key EA's who are, without a doubt, always so integral to the most critical and sensitive functions of any organisation...   

But I have had some amount of reinforcement in this thinking
 I have had the privilege (or perhaps sheer blind luck) of working with some great leaders in my lifetime.  Among those would be President Likins of the University of Arizona, an institution similar in stature to the University of Alberta.  Dr. Likins was literally a rocket scientist turned administrator.  This explains the multiple mirror laboratory, space sciences facilities, and alliances with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory topped off by the honor of being the first public university to command an interplanetary spaceflight mission (The Phoenix Mars Lander).   
For a brief time, I was attached in special service to the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General Edward C. Meyer.  Later in life, after becoming a professor, I came to know Dr. Vernon Smith, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, also from the University of Arizona.

Perhaps one of the smartest people I ever knew was Dr. Cherry Murray of Bell Laboratories, a leader in Quantum Physics research, especially her work with Raman scattering from very small monodisperse Si quantum dots.  Like Dr. J.D. Garcia, another friend who is a Physics Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona, Dr. Murray could provide the brightest minds with riddles to ponder.... perhaps for years!  She has an uncanny ability to see into the future, much like Carl Sagan did.  Quantum physics can be both intellectually challenging and time consuming, but it is, above all, endlessly fascinating.  Over on the Computer Science side of the house, I had the good luck counting  

Dr. Larry Smarr as a distinguished friend.  Larry's doctoral dissertation centered on a question related to the computational overhead requirements needed to simulate a hypothetical collision of two black holes in space.  This resulted in his necessity to acquire access to the computational facilities of a National Laboratory, so as to provide sufficient computational power to evaluate his questions at the time. This research helped propel Larry to the NCSA, then to the PITAC, and he is one of the greatest visionaries and leaders in high speed high performance research computing to this day.

Above all, Larry is a very approachable, down to Earth, common sense kind of guy.  Through the enormous challenge of acquiring computational overhead sufficient to analyze his queries, he became involved with the science of lashing together, so to speak, supercomputers in order to facilitate massively parallel supercomputing facilities.   

The largest on earth today is Tianhe-i located in China serving the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Education (nuclear physics I should imagine), but the prettiest data centres are still in Chicago and Barcelona.
There was one common and most interesting trait shared by all of them.  Without fail, in conversations about their success, whether intellectually, academically, or financially; they understood with absolute clarity, that they could only be as great as the people they were surrounded by. 

Each of them would also say that they were no smarter than most, perhaps more focused in their particular areas of expertise.... true enough.  But they all recognized their accomplishments were only achieved through effective and collaborative teamwork.  Understanding everybody's relative strengths and weaknesses were, in their eyes, the most important underpinning girders upon which their accomplishments were crafted.

Each one of them, when asked what decisions they thought to be most crucial, would have slightly different lists.  But upon each list I carefully noted there was always one position that was never missing.  It was always on each list; and I might add... quite often at or near the very top of the list. 

What was the magic?  What was the secret sauce?  At the end of the day, most of the lists I gleaned from these giants of leadership are identical to those which can be found in any assigned reading for MBA students from Harvard to LSE and everywhere in between.  But what was the one item on all their lists that does not appear in any of the leadership or business books - what was on the list that never shows up in any MBA curriculum or any Business program?

All of these people listed, without fail, as one of their greatest assets; having an excellent Administrative Professional on their team. 

The art of being an Administrative Professional, I have noted in my lifetime, spans academic discipline, intellectual savvy, technological expertise, diplomacy, work ethic, morality, and probably dozens of fine characteristics I can't even begin to list.  But I find it fascinating that the wealthiest, brightest, most accomplished, and the most famous... each and every one of them had the role of Administrative Professional upon their list.

I did, of course, ask why...

Because without them... leadership, creativity, strategic decision making, and organisational excellence are summarily blunted.  Perhaps these people recognized they would be handicapped to such a tremendous degree so as to separate, with absolute clarity and surgical precision, a high performing organization from one of mere mediocrity.

With All My Esteem, Respect, and Admiration... I humbly honour all Administrative Professionals.

Some people place an extraordinary value upon leadership... whereas I do not necessarily subscribe, with blind faith, to that view.  Instead, I place a high value on understanding, with absolute clarity, the strengths of each and every member of a team and then deploying them to undertake the work they are most passionate about with authority to engage in their own decision making.  Upon this foundation of mutual respect and trust, tremendous obstacles have been overcome, battles have been won, and wars have been brought to successful conclusions. 

Leaders, I'm sorry to say, are a dime a dozen, but leaders who understand the value of their team and how to leverage their strengths and creativity are a rare commodity.  And so I humbly wish that Administrative Professionals shall receive this small and humble offering with the spirit with which it is given.

With the Greatest Admiration and Respect

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