The Gatekeepers: Executive Assistants
- photos by Anthony Jinson
Travel agent. Project manager. Organizational hub. Problem solver. Executive assistants can play any role the job calls for. Meet three professionals who are the key to getting things done.
City Manager’s Office, City of Columbia
Education: Columbia College
Strongest skill: “Skill, I’d say organization. Strength, I’d say empathy.”
Little-known fact: “I have a long-term goal to write and illustrate a children’s book called “The Literary Adventures of Bosco the Bookworm.” So stay tuned for that. Although it might be 10 years from now.”
Absence made Heather Cole’s heart for public service grow fonder.
After working in the city clerk’s office for the City of Columbia for a little less than two years, Cole started another job in the private sector. But she still found herself enthralled with city government during her free time, to the point where she would block off time to watch the telecasts of city council meetings.
“I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’” Cole says. “I didn’t realize until I wasn’t working here how much I wanted to work [for the City].”
Cole started a temporary job back with the City, and it was only a couple of months before new city manager Mike Matthes hired her to be his executive assistant in September 2011.
“Indispensable,” Matthes says to describe Cole. “I truly don’t know how I would manage without her. She’s one of the best people I’ve met in the business.”
Now, she gets all the city council action she could possibly desire. And so much more.
Cole finds it difficult to offer a tidy breakdown of her duties, since they are so many and so varied. She supervises two fellow assistants who are each assigned to three city council members, so that entails prep work for meetings, following up after meetings, logging the minutes, and arranging work sessions and retreats. Cole is also the keeper of Matthes’ calendar, which means juggling the more than 1,100 projects the city manager’s office currently has on its docket.
That, in turn, leads to an avalanche of emails. When Cole isn’t in meetings, she has her and Matthes’ email inboxes open side by side, and she’s constantly sorting.
“She can tell instantly if I need to see that email, or if it’s something we can archive or delete. She’s never made a mistake in that,” Matthes says. “Of all the people in the city, she’s probably got the most information about what’s going on at any given time.”
Matthes’ level of trust in Cole extends to the latitude she has to undertake projects that pique her interest and utilize her skill sets. Shortly after the two started working together, Matthes came to Cole with an offbeat idea: Would she be interested in installing a “fairy door” at Stephens Lake Park?
Cole found a tree with a hole in the base, installed the door and hand-painted an Altoids tin to set inside the door as the a sort of fairy inbox.
“I left a note in there saying, ‘I’m Willow. I’m a tree fairy. I just moved to the park and I’m looking to meet some new people. Leave me a message or ask me a question,’” Cole says. “I left it in there with a little pencil, and I went back maybe two or three weeks later, and there were messages. It was so fun. Probably over two or three months, I went back and would respond back to their questions, and there would be new messages to respond to.”
Recently, Cole also took the lead on the city’s “Vision Zero” project, which seeks to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries in Columbia by 2030. Cole serves as the project manager for the initiative, which presented its first three-year action plan to the city council in May.
“She has a profound sense of responsibility,” Matthes says. “When she takes on something, I know I can stop thinking about it, because it’s going to be done at the highest level.”
Vision Zero has placed Cole into an unfamiliar context. After a career of working behind the scenes, she’s stepping into the spotlight and being a public spokeswoman for the campaign in media interviews and at city council meetings. Cole says it has taken some getting used to, but it definitely beats watching the meetings on television and pining.
“It’s a project I really believe firmly in,” Cole says. “That’s one of the things I appreciate about my job, is I’m able to pick projects that are of interest to me. It definitely puts me out of my comfort zone to do on-camera interviews with people. I’m so excited about the program that I don’t mind doing it, but it’s not my normal cup of tea.”
Missouri Men’s Basketball Team
Education: Columbia College
Strongest skill: “Patience, attention to detail, and my organizational skills. My people skills, also — I’m always greeting people, smiling, asking how things are going, what I can do to help.”
Accomplishment you’re most proud of: “Continuing positive relationships. I love Mizzou. I didn’t graduate there, but I feel like it is my school.”
Over the past six years, Latisha Mayes’ family and friends have learned to respect her space when it comes to pumping her for details about the Missouri men’s basketball team, for which she serves as executive staff assistant.
Sometimes, though, it gets a little more difficult to refrain. Say, for instance, when the program has a new coaching staff that’s pulling in one of the most highly decorated recruiting classes in team history, as coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff have been for the past two months.
“Everyone’s like, ‘What’s going on?!’ I’m like, ‘I can’t talk about that,’” Mayes says. “They know to follow social media and, when things come out, then we can talk about it. I can’t really discuss confidential things, and they understand that.”
Martin and his staff are the third group of coaches with which Mayes has worked since taking over as the team’s executive assistant during the 2011-12 season. She has been working at the university for the past 11 years, spending time with the Olympic sports and with the Tigers’ Total Person Program before moving to men’s basketball.
During the transition from former coach Kim Anderson to Martin, Mayes’ daily duties have mirrored the hectic lives of the new coaching staff. When they go out on recruiting trips, she handles the travel arrangements and expense reports. As they look for new places for their families to settle in Columbia, she does her best to be a real estate go-between.
“It’s very intense and stressful, but not in a bad way,” Mayes says. “When the coaches get here, they hit the ground running. You get to know them very quick, feeling out what they like, what they don’t like, their needs. It can be kind of interesting when we’ve got four coaches out in four different places. Travel agent is part of my job, I guess.”
Things fall into more of a pattern when the season starts and there are regular schedules of practices, games, and meetings to follow. It’s busy, but at least there’s a method. The offseason is less structured. It’s also prime time for organizations to request the head coach’s time at speaking engagements. Martin, being the new guy in town, is in especially heavy demand. Mayes has to be his gatekeeper.
“Everybody wants him everywhere,” Mayes says. “That’s the tough part, because everyone wants him and he just can’t do everything. I’m the first face and voice when people call or come into our office. I enjoy that, because I’ve heard I have a contagious smile. And filtering a lot of phone calls, happy and unhappy, is a big part of my job.”
Mayes enjoys the close relationships she is able to cultivate with the coaches and their families, with all the time they spend together both in and out of the office. She also values the rapport she is able to build with the players, serving as a surrogate mother for them when they’re away from their families.
Well, maybe not mother. More like a “big sister.”
“I don’t like to think I’m old enough to be any of their mothers,” Mayes says, with a laugh. “When they’re having a down day or are stressed about finals, just kind of being that encouragement they need. I play a small part in the program, but it is a big part to me.”
Through her job, Mayes gets to interact with the community and prominent members of the Missouri athletic department. The first time she met former football coach Gary Pinkel, she was almost too nervous to approach him. Now, he knows her name when she sees him around town.
She gets tokens of thanks from the coaches for her hard work — Chipotle gift cards are especially appreciated — and text messages on her birthday from coaches and players, even though it’s over winter break.
She wasn’t a huge basketball fan six years ago, but has learned much more about the sport since then. It’s part of her job.
“My (14-year-old) son loves it. He just is in heaven right now with it,” Mayes says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime type opportunity. I didn’t envision that when I came to Columbia, and I’m so thankful that my skills have brought me here.”
Education: Hannibal-LaGrange University
Strongest skill: “Detail-oriented.”
Little-known fact: “I commute an hour one-way to work each day (from Holliday, Missouri). Because I enjoy my job and the people I work with, I look forward to coming to work every day, which makes the commute much easier!”
For 44 years, Beverly Twellman worked at MFA Oil Company serving tenures in many roles, including assistant to the president and corporate secretary. She was an MFA Oil institution. In March 2015, Tami Ensor began learning what it takes to follow an institution.
“Someone who has that much experience and has done it for such a long time and did such a great job — you just hope you can fill those shoes,” Ensor says. “She knew all of the ins and outs.”
But Ensor’s task extended beyond replacing Twellman. She also added duties.
Beyond being the corporate secretary and handling the logistics surrounding MFA Oil’s eight-member board of directors, she also serves as executive assistant to president and chief executive officer Mark Fenner, chief financial officer Robert Condron and chief human resources officer Janice Serpico, and she serves as the secretary and treasurer of the MFA Oil Foundation, which provides grants to nonprofit organizations in the communities in which the company has significant numbers of members and employees.
Ensor’s main responsibility is to assist Fenner, but, as the only executive assistant at MFA Oil, a large portion of the scheduling, travel arrangements, event planning and other day-to-day minutiae of the entire management team falls under Ensor’s purview.
“She is extremely detail-oriented, and I’m not,” Fenner says with a laugh. “Sometimes I’ll accidentally double-book a meeting or something like that. She finds it before I do. She started to do things that we said, ‘Wow, we hadn’t even thought of that.’ We don’t need your old-school secretary. We need someone more about helping us coordinate and organize.”
It’s all in a day’s work at what Ensor calls her dream job.
Ensor served as administrative assistant to the plant manager at Cerro Flow Products, a copper tube manufacturing company in Shelbina, Missouri, for nearly 19 years before working for the president of Hannibal-LaGrange University for a year and a half.
She was looking to return to a job in a corporate setting, and she and her husband were already members of the cooperative of 40,000 farmers that owns MFA Oil. When the job came open, she jumped at it.
“Although my job is often done behind the scenes, I can be the first impression someone may have of the company and a direct reflection of those I work for,” Ensor says. “I make a conscious effort to be thorough and concise and conduct all communications in a professional, positive manner on a daily basis. My job also offers the opportunity to meet people from all over the community and around the country.”
With so many different balls in the air, Ensor admits that her typical work day is “not always my own.” She can survey the calendars of MFA’s executive team when she arrives in the morning to get a loose framework for how the day may go, but she also realizes that any number of things can change throughout the course of eight hours: All of a sudden, the tasks at the top of the pile when the day started get pushed to the backburner.
“I would say that there are almost no two days that are alike, because I have so many different facets to the job and so many people that I’m reporting to,” Ensor says. “Although I come into the day with a pre-thought plan, it almost never happens that way. On every level, it’s prioritizing. I have to figure out what the most important things are in my day, then try to squeeze my projects in around theirs.”
In the last two years, Ensor has learned the rhythms and predilections of Fenner, Condron and Serpico, her three main assignments. She has learned how their personalities interact with each other and how to give each the best chance to shine.
In short, she has made the job her own.
“We’re kind of opposites. I’m kind of gregarious and she keeps to herself for the most part and those things work together,” Fenner says. “If we were alike, we’d probably be butting heads all the time. She’s not afraid to pipe up and say, ‘Have you thought about this or that?’ I’ve got so much on my plate that I need help like that. She’s been a rock star ever since she got here.”