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National Association of Counties * Washington, DC            Vol. 30, No. 18 * September 28, 1998

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Your 'Presidential' Cabinet May Be Closer Than You Think

The HR Doctor recently met with a group of secretaries. These are the people who, as most job descriptions say, “... provide responsible, clerical and administrative support for individuals or groups.”

This traditional role of the secretary is increasingly out of date and out of step with what is evolving in America’s work places. I was not just meeting with a group of “clerical support employees;” I was watching a presidential cabinet meeting taking place.

At one end of the room was an employee who acted as the “Secretary of Defense.” She pointed out liabilities that others in the room did not catch. She warned of impending attacks on the work of a manager and she offered suggestions for strengthening administrative shields against challenge.

Next to her sat the “Secretary of State” — the head of the diplomatic corps. This person knew a lot about protocol, the image of the agency and the importance of recognizing people’s accomplishments and promoting harmony and good will.

Another voice at the meeting was that of the “Secretary of Education.” She pointed out much that I did not know and helped educate me about what was going on in the work place. This secretary sees administration from an important vantage point; executive should pay very close attention to and learn from this perspective. Also in attendance was the “Attorney General” — the secretary who knew the laws and regulations of the organization and made it a point to help other people keep out of administrative trouble and comply with day-to-day requirements.

Voices in the meeting represented the perspectives of other “cabinet” secretaries, including the “Surgeon General” — concerned about employee health and how to improve the appearance and safety of the work place, and the “Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency,” scanning the work place environment, and ready to help eliminate toxic practices, such as arrogance and disrespect.

This meeting reflects the future of the relationship between a “secretary” and the senior executive. It can be a model for what human resource practice in every agency can look like in the future. This is a relationship built around knowledgeable colleagues who work together and respect one another, who care about the organization and their co-workers, and who mix a sense of humor with a sense of responsibility and accountability.

For the HR Doctor, this meeting was easy and convenient to attend because it was a meeting with only one person, the great HR Secretary Carole Burke who exemplifies all of the “voices” which occur in a meeting with any fine professional secretary.

In the future, the job of secretary — and the pay, rank and respect for the position in public agencies — will grow. Secretaries, or more properly, “cabinet secretaries,” with the skills and the attitudes described above, make an organization function. They deserve and have reason to expect respect and recognition.

The HR Doctor thanks and recognizes Carole Burke, and urges his colleagues throughout public administration to spend some time appreciating how much better their work lives would be if they could also attend “cabinet meetings” every time they meet with the secretaries who support their efforts and make them successful.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor



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