When she started a career in publishing in the late 1970s, New Yorker Nancy A. Shenker found it hard not to be envious of friends who were investment bankers. They were living in luxurious apartments while she was trudging up the steps of a walk-up infested with roaches and mice. So she answered an ad in The New York Times, landing a job at Citibank and then moving up the ladder at a series of major companies. Thinking she was finally living the dream in the C-suite, she was surprised that it wasn’t always fulfilling. “Rather than looking for another corporate job at 48,” says Shenker, “I jumped off the edge of a cliff and started my own consultancy firm.”

Nancy Shenker

“I try to work out three days a week and walk to and from work. Exercising gives me an extra adrenaline rush every day. When people say ‘You don’t look 60,’ I say, ‘This is what 60 should look like if you take care of your body.’”

When Shenker founded theONswitch, a marketing and branding firm, her friends “thought I was nuts.” They told her that companies weren’t going to outsource their marketing departments, and if they did, it would be to well-established firms. But by focusing on smaller companies, she found her niche. “I grew big really fast,” she says. On top of running her own business, the 60-year-old WeWork 5th Avenue member wrote a cheeky book for women entering the workforce called Don’t Hook Up With the Dude in the Next Cube. Her latest venture is an online community for female entrepreneurs called sheBOOM, which she says will launch this fall.

Photos: Katelyn Perry

The role of executive assistant has been horrifyingly characterized in dozens of books and movies. Who can forget the terror Andy Sachs suffered at the hands of her impossible-to-please boss, Miranda Priestly, in The Devil Wears Prada?

But there’s more to the role than pop culture lets on. At “The Power Job,” a recent panel hosted by Conductor, speakers Katrina Conte, executive assistant to the CFO, The We Company; Morgan Sandoval, executive assistant to the COO of Firstmark Capital; Alexis Soper, chief of staff, Luntz Global Partners; and Melissa Crespo, executive assistant to the CEO of Conductor, discussed what being an EA really entails in the modern workplace, and how to succeed.

“I started at Time Inc. when I was 18. I was part of the secretarial pool, and every day was like secretary roulette—you never knew which man you were going to work for that day,” said Katrina Conte, recalling the start of her career more than 35 years ago. These days, Conte works directly for one person, and during her six years at WeWork, learning every aspect of her boss’s role has allowed her to excel in her own right.

The thing is, an EA job isn’t just an entry-level position anymore. In fact, the longer you’re in this high-pressure spot, the more valuable you are. As a virtual extension of the executive you support, you give her more hours in the day and twice as much brain power to complete tasks. The panelists agreed it can take a good six months to start really becoming adept at anticipating your boss’s every move.

“There is a lot of power in this role,” Conte told the audience. “Be wise with it.” With access to the people at the very top, there are plenty of opportunities to learn, make connections—and even get your own ideas and opinions heard.

The speakers shared the most important qualities of a power EA.

Hyperorganization. Details matter. “Never assume, and always confirm,” said Luntz’s Alexis Soper, who has been in her role for 13 years. She recalled one instance when she realized her boss, who was traveling through Asia, was without a visa for China. After a momentary panic and some quick research, she discovered that travelers going through China to another country can enter without a visa for 144 hours. Crisis averted—and lesson learned.

Ability to solve problems. Even the best executives are only human. When mistakes happen—files are lost, meeting rooms are incorrect—the panelists agreed it’s best to acknowledge it and be prepared with at least one solution. In the long run, being able to think on your feet is what really matters.

A thick skin. You know how you’re more honest and argumentative with your closest friends and family—emotionally or sometimes simply geographically—than with acquaintances? Prepare for a little of that from your boss. Throughout her career, Soper has reminded herself, “I’m the closest person to him, so he’s taking it out on me.” Unless it feels abusive, don’t take it personally. And if you do feel like you’re being mistreated, move on. “Don’t stick around with someone who doesn’t value you,” Sandoval said.

An acute sense of timing. This is another skill that improves the longer you work with someone. For example, consider the best time deliver certain news; if they’re running for a train, maybe it can wait. “Pay attention to their mind-set,” said Firstmark’s Sandoval. “I am very deliberate with my approach.” Also, learn how your boss likes to receive info: If she understands things better when they’re presented visually, don’t waste time typing up a summary that won’t hold her attention.

A love of the job. Being an executive assistant can be a fulfilling lifelong career, not just a stepping stone to somewhere else. “Get up every day and be proud of what you do,” said Conte of The We Company. “We face a different challenge every day: One day we’re their therapist, sometimes we’re a seamstress—at other times, even the dentist.”

A desire to learn. Yes, there are schedules to maintain and errands to run, but in between those moments, the executive assistant role is like a crash-course MBA. You have access to every department of an organization. The more you recognize how everyone works and what you can do to fill in the gaps, the better the company will run as a whole. And if you ultimately decide that you’re not a career executive assistant you’ll be better poised to reach for a role that is.

Photographs by Stocksy

“When I told people I had a new book, they said, “Is it about cyber wars or foreign policy?” says Jared Cohen. It’s a natural assumption—Cohen, founder and CEO of Jigsaw (a technology incubator created by Google), worked in the office of Condoleeza Rice as one of the youngest foreign-policy planners in American history; served as chief adviser to Google’s Eric Schmidt; and is a New York Times bestselling author, having written two books on the intersection of technology and foreign policy.

His new book, as it turns out, is a little different. “It’s about dead presidents,” Cohen laughed at WeWork 500 7th Ave in New York. Cohen, along with MSNBC political analyst Elise Jordan, was there to discuss Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, a book he’s been waiting to write his whole life. As a child, Cohen was captivated by American history, and as an adult, his focus narrowed to the eight vice presidents who ascended to the top spot after assassinations and illnesses claimed the men elected to the job.

Far from being fated, according to Cohen, the rise of men like John Tyler (vice president to William Henry Harrison), Theodore Roosevelt (who became president after the assassination of William McKinley), and Harry Truman (successor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt) could have been cataclysmic for the nation, and it’s clear not all of the accidental presidents on Cohen’s list were cut out for the job. There was Andrew Johnson, whose biggest claim to fame as Abraham Lincoln’s second-in-command was getting so drunk at Lincoln’s second inaugural that, says Cohen, “he slobbered all over the ceremonial Bible,” or Chester A. Arthur, who spent more time redecorating the White House than he did governing.

Others, though, Cohen holds up as examples of leaders who triumphed over the odds and more than rose to meet the demands of their new positions. “In 82 days as vice president,” he says of Harry Truman, “he only meets FDR twice. Doesn’t get a single intelligence briefing, doesn’t meet a single world leader, isn’t briefed on the new patent project. He was an awestruck provincial politician from Missouri.” And yet with the help of key advisers who understood the importance of Truman’s success, he effectively ended World War II.

(Top) Author Jared Cohen with MSNBC political analyst Elise Jordan. (Above) “Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America,” out now.

While the stakes of modern-day business might not be quite as high, Cohen does see a correlation between presidents like Harry Truman and contemporary CEOs. “The ones that succeeded were the ones who had a combination of two things happen. The advisers they inherited wanted them to be successful and worked with them to help make them successful. And two, they had the judgment to figure out where to listen to them and where not to listen to them.”

It’s this balance of strategy and vision that Cohen frames as universal. “In many respects, the story of accidental presidents, it’s like CEOs taking over for founders: finding that balance between leaving your own mark and continuing the legacy of your predecessor.”

It’s clear that for Cohen, what we can learn from the men who weren’t supposed to be president goes beyond shock at how many times we’ve come perilously close to political chaos, but that their stories offer a glimpse into what we might do if suddenly faced with daunting new responsibilities.  “Every business leader should get a nice dose of history,” he says, “and I think biographies are good for the soul. If you can find time to go to the gym and meditate, you should find the time to read about Harry Truman.”

Photographs by Lori Gutman

From established entrepreneurs to those just starting out in their career, everyone is familiar with the perils of being driven to distraction. Now that technology makes us more connected than ever, “the office” follows you wherever you go. These blurred boundaries may help us be more flexible than ever, but it can also lead to burnout.

For years, experts have recommended that it’s vital for today’s worker to find meaningful ways to detach and recharge. But what about when it’s time to plug back in? A study published in the Journal of Management found that “reattaching” to work might be just as important as detaching from the grind.

“Through reattachment, employees are able to activate work-related goals, which then further creates positive experiences which allow people to be more engaged at work,” writes study co-author Charlotte Fritz. “They’re more satisfied with work, more committed to work, enjoy work tasks more, perform better, and help out more with extra tasks.” Through the study, Fritz concluded that reattachment practices led to positive performance results for employees and the companies for which they worked.

So how do you put this into practice? Whether you spend most of your day at a desk or work on the go, we found several ways to get your head in the game and make this habit work for you.

Get motivated. Using the first part of your day to engage in a little strategic planning, like making a to-do list, is a perfect way to reattach. Try and focus on three realistic accomplishments you can finish by the end of the day that combine tasks that both need immediate attention and move projects forward.

“Getting to the end of the day having answered a thousand emails but not feeling like you have accomplished anything is the worst feeling,” says Courtney Brand, founder of career-support network The Lighthouse, a member at WeWork 368 9th Ave in New York. “As an entrepreneur, there are a million things I have to do, but setting my top three at the beginning of the day helps me feel successful and hyperfocused.”

Block also sets aside an hour at the beginning of each week to review short- and long-term plans and company feedback so she can feel equipped to work more strategically in the future. For Block, this time of reflection is an important component of “future-proofing” her career.

Engage your brain. Think of reattaching to work like stretching before a race–your mind is like a muscle, after all, and you wouldn’t sprint before you warm up. Tapping back into a different, but complementary mental activity is a good way to engage your brain before you begin work.

Podcasts that take a deep dive into the trends and news of your industry are a useful way to reattach (and make the most of that daily commute). You may want to try How I Built This, where NPR’s Guy Raz speaks with business leaders about how they built their career, or Cntl Alt Delete with Emma Gannon, which focuses on internet culture. If podcasts aren’t your thing, subscribe to trade journals or magazines in your field—either way, you’ll be staying up to date so you can be informed when tackling the projects on your plate. Bonus: You’ll become the go-to person in the office for industry news, which will undoubtedly come in handy at your next networking event.

Energize your body and mind. Who says self-care can’t be productive? While you’re probably used to cooking a comforting meal or tucking into a good book when it’s time to unwind, you can also dip into your grooming arsenal to help you reattach.

Janice Buu, founder of CBD-focused skin-care company Kana Skincare, takes an organic approach to getting her mind in the right place. Buu uses lavender essential oils at night to wind down, but during the day replaces perfume with a citrus-scented oil for an energizing aromatherapy effect. For Buu, who runs two companies and is always on the go, a five-minute stretching and meditation with CBD is the perfect way to switch gears and get ready for her next project. “If I wasn’t using CBD, I wouldn’t be able to handle work as well,” she says, noting that CBD can provide a sense of calm and focus.

Meditation can also be a powerful tool to help you reattach. Studies have shown benefits to include a sharper focus, more creative inspiration, and decreased stress—all powerful parts of a productive workday. If you’re not used to the practice yourself, download a guided meditation—look for one with the keywords “stress” or “productivity”—and zen out at your desk. If you’re in a rut, meditation can also be a great tool to help with problem-solving. Ten minutes before you begin your day or as part of your afternoon coffee break is not only energizing but could provide the creative breakthrough for which you’ve been waiting—and with your new practice of reattaching, that breakthrough could last all day.

Illustrations by Alana Peters / The We Company

 

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In this column, Work Flow, we delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard, but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything: creator@wework.com.

I’ve been job-searching for a while. Typically, when I get an offer, I ask for a reasonable or even large sum for my salary—then the employer counters with radically less than that. At this point, I’m not really in the position to say no. Is there a way to say yes that might a) set up a path for better compensation, b) acknowledge that we both know I should get more, which might help if/when I either bounce for a better-paying job or inform them I’ve got a better offer in, like, a couple of months, and c) maintain my dignity?

Salary strategizing is worse than dating. Everyone’s keeping their cards close, trying to guess what the other person will say or do, and you’re supposed to somehow meet in the middle on the basis of being indirect. What a mess! But you’re doing things right here: Go in with a sense of what you think you deserve, whether that’s “reasonable” or “large.” Many of us have a hard time asking for something other than too little (I have made it a goal to always ask for a little more, just for practice, and I’ve found I get it more often than not). Don’t go in uninformed; do plenty of research, on the internet and among friends, into what the market rate is for compensation—and have a practiced speech making the case for why you deserve more than the average.

Also, spend some time thinking about what you really want with this job. It’s not wholly about money, generally, though, of course, work is always about money. Go beyond the realm of salary. There are ways to get “more” that don’t involve compensation: vacation days, work flexibility, office perks or benefits (phone credit? gym credit? educational subsidies?), or future opportunities to expand the role. You may be able to request a salary renegotiation after, say, six months, or bonuses for work well done (make sure this is quantitative, like selling 10,000 picnic tables in a year). The more strategic and thorough negotiation you are willing and able to do, the better sense the company has of how much you’re worth, because YOU know what you’re worth, and are willing to fight for it. A recent study found that almost 40 percent of people didn’t negotiate at all. You’re never going to get more money if you don’t ask for it.

As for bouncing for a better offer, your answer is in the question itself. That’s often the easiest and fastest way to get a company to up your initial salary, particularly if you’ve proven your worth in your time with them. If something better comes in, definitely bring it to the attention of your boss.

Dignity-wise, the best thing is to truly know thyself. If you feel in your gut a job is not going to be worth it, if you know you’re going to resent every single moment (and if you can afford to do so): Keep looking. According to the numbers, employment is up. Sure, a lot of that depends on your industry and your particular job needs—but you’re always worth more than what you do for a living, even when American society tries to make you feel differently.

In a culture that assigns social cachet to being “busy,” how do you avoid falling into the trap of chasing busyness as a badge of honor?

Sometimes I look at people around me who are accomplishing a lot, and I wonder how they possibly do it. So-and-so has written a third book before her second is even out? Does that successful person not sleep at all? Why is everyone else so good at what they do, and why I am achieving so little in comparison? I must be lazy, or bad, or bad and lazy.

It’s enough to make you waste an entire hour on Instagram, spiraling out as you view another’s portrayal of go-go-go success, feeling like crap all the while. But the thing is, we know very little about what others are truly giving up to get where they are, or how they’re doing it at all. We only know what they put forward for us to see, which is often a depiction of this “busyness” thing, whether it’s posting up a storm or being always available on Slack or constantly taking meetings or seemingly writing six books in the time it takes the rest of us to write one.  

This is the trap: the perception, the presumption. Tune out the busyness. It doesn’t matter. Tune out the sense of competition around you, of life being a race that you can never give up or back down on, and for which you have to keep running faster. Stop trying to keep up, to seem like you’re keeping up, because it’s a losing game. Instead, go somewhere quiet, somewhere away from the busyness noise, and look at the thing you want to do, and start to tackle it bit by bit by bit. You’ll actually be busy, then, but it will be real, and when you’re done, you’ll feel great about it rather than spent and thwarted and confused about what your purpose was in the first place. Chase the thing, not the busyness.

Also, spend more time away from social media. You’ll find you don’t miss it, and your life is oddly fuller. You’ll spend less time being “busy” and more time being happy, and isn’t that the point, really?

My whole office is moving to a new building, and my friend has a plan to take over a spare empty desk with her plants. Our other co-worker is vehemently against it. What should my friend do? What kind of person hates plants?!

Alas, unless you have permission from the boss/human resources/Mother Earth herself, it’s poor form to co-opt another desk, no matter how nice one’s plants (or portraits of clowns, or Rubik’s Cube collection, or ant farm) might be. Plant-haters might be allergic, they might be jerks, they might have prasinophobia (fear of green!), they might just prefer the peace of an empty desk in the midst. Whatever it is, your friend should focus on her work and work on her green thumb at home, and you should do the same … but if you want to keep a plant or two at your own desks, so be it.

Illustrations by Alana Peters / The We Company