During her time in the U.S. Army, Marja Lee Freeman excelled at administrative work. It came to her naturally. One of the fastest typists in her unit, she handled it all — court stenography, payroll, documents, and reports, as well as the management of conference rooms and security.
After leaving the Army her natural penchant for helping military personnel and their family members transition into civilian workplaces led to her current career path — one that allows her to travel the world and get paid for speaking and job training engagements.
“I would do workshops to teach them what the employers were looking for, but people couldn’t pronounce my name,” Freeman says. “They would say, ‘You know, the employment lady.’” The name caught on.
After working with military professionals and as a job trainer with agencies and programs for disadvantaged people, Freeman decided to start her own business. She called it the Employment Lady, using the nickname she had been given by her students. Based in Virgina and specializing in employment, job training, and placement, Freeman has conducted more than 1,800 seminars, conferences, and workshops worldwide.
Freeman will present “Keeping the Heart & Pulse of the Admin Strong,” at Salt Creek Grille in Princeton Forrestal Village on Thursday, April 26, at an event celebrating administrative professionals week. Hosted by the Central Jersey Chapter of the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), networking begins at 5:30 p.m. Freeman will speak at 6:45 p.m. Cost: $42. Visit www.iaap-centraljersey.org.
Wednesday, April 25, marks the 60th anniversary of Administrative Professionals Day. Initially called Professional Secretaries Week and Professional Secretaries Day, the IAAP changed the names in 2000 to keep pace with changing job titles and expanding responsibilities of the administrative workforce.
“Over those decades, the job of an administrative professional has changed dramatically thanks to new tools, techniques, and seismic shifts in the economy and culture itself,” says Mary Marrone-Polo, president of the IAAP Central Jersey chapter. “Admins have remained the steady center of efficiency through it all, helping ensure that jobs get done right, on time and under budget.”
“Admins are one of the engines of business, particularly in a complex economy,” she adds. “In a world that demands the accurate and speedy movement of digital information, admins are masters of data. And they do this while maintaining their more traditional role as the gatekeepers for many customers, clients, and employees.”
Today, there are more than 4.1 million secretaries and administrative assistants working in the United States, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, and 8.9 million people working in various administrative support roles. More than 475,000 administrative professionals are employed in Canada.
Freeman is all too familiar with the rigors of work as an admin. Born into a military family, she grew up in Fort Bragg, N.C., and traveled the country with her family. Her father, brother, nephews, and cousins were all members of the military, and her mother was a military wife.
Freeman followed in their footsteps, joining the Army and serving as a sergeant stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland. It was there that she excelled at administrative work.
She left the military in 1995 after Desert Storm and began training military professionals for their future careers. Freeman then joined the Laurie Mitchell Employment Center (she is currently board president), where she helped job-seekers who had gone through periods of mental illness or incarceration train for re-entering the workplace.
Eventually, she started getting more calls from people asking for help, but the decision to start her own business was not an easy one. Anxious that potential clients would not take her seriously because she did not have a college degree, Freeman turned to one of her military commanders, who provided words of wisdom and the recommendation letter that would change her life.
“He said, ‘You can’t achieve a goal you don’t try for,’” Freeman recalls. She applied for a federal loan specifically for women who were starting businesses, and forwarded her resume and business plan.
“My commander wrote such a powerful letter of recommendation for me; it was because of that letter that I was able to get a grant and start my business,” Freeman says. “As a matter of fact, I still have it. That letter was the catalyst to get my business out there.”
Freeman doesn’t only draw inspiration from her commander. Her grandmother’s advice — “If you don’t live alone, then don’t do it alone,” forms the basis for Freeman’s beliefs about maintaining a strong administrative staff in any workplace environment — ideas she will share at the IAAP event.
Share the work. Administrative professionals are the “heart and pulse” of the organization that keep its arms and legs together, Freeman says, but they need to stay healthy to allow the whole unit to function.
A lot of times, admins will take on all the work without asking for help. Any time a colleague offers support, admins should accept, says Freeman, whose expertise is in training administrative professionals to handle day-to-day stress that comes from working in an ever-evolving environment.
Planning is key. “Productivity is getting the right things done at the right time, not getting everything done at the same time,” Freeman says. “My thinking of productivity was to always look busy all the time. Mentally, I didn’t understand why I was drained at the end of the day.”
This is why focusing on the right needs when some of the other needs can wait is crucial. “You don’t keep the heart and the pulse strong if you don’t take care of them,” she says.
Take a break. Home life often adds to an admin’s burden. Freeman, who lives with her husband and stepdaughter in northern Virginia and is also heavily involved with family, church, and volunteer work, knows this idea well.
She usually travels every other week, and some of her speaking engagements have taken her to destinations including Bermuda, Australia, New Zealand, and London. This is why taking time for themselves and recuperating is also important for administrative professionals.
Effective multitasking is more important than ever. “The level of multitasking has expanded to a totally and completely new level,” Freeman says. “Initially, admins pretty much had one boss. You came in at a certain time and left at a certain time. You were given a task, you did the task, and you might have a couple of snags here and there, but you were still able to work, and you knew what your day was going to be like.”
With new technology, though, the work has escalated 10-fold, and admins are now working with off-site employees both nationally and internationally. This new technology also makes it harder to shut work off.
“The presumption is that because I can reach you, I can get you to keep working,” Freeman says. “You’re still getting calls and E-mails at 7:30 at night.” But when an employee doesn’t get enough sleep, he or she can make stupid mistakes.
“Our mistakes affect other people,” Freeman says. “That’s what we need to recognize — we need to be at our best. That all stems from taking care of you.”