Editor’s Note: We're searching for the best and brightest admin professionals and workplace operators in the US. Know an outstanding Ninja? Nominations for the 2020 All-Star Awards are now open!
Meg’s OfficeNinjas All-Star Award is presented by Keurig Commercial! Treat your team to a coffeehouse experience.
Name: Meghan Cooney
Title & Company: Executive Assistant, PGIM Real Estate Finance
Location: Chicago, IL
# Years as an Office Ninja: 3.5 years
Mantra: Happiness is a choice; positivity is a choice. If you choose them enough, it just becomes second nature.
Fun Fact: Has visited Ireland nine times in the past five years.
Meghan Cooney knows she’s a people-pleaser. “But don’t take that as being weak!” says the Executive Assistant at PGIM Real Estate Finance in Chicago, IL. Her perpetually positive attitude sets the tone at her office (nearly all of her nominators mentioned it) and helps create an open, collaborative work environment.
“I will do whatever it takes to ensure that I meet the needs of those I support. I love being the one people turn to when they are completely baffled by a problem that arises in their day,” she says.
And Meghan has proven time and time again that she has the answers, even to questions her colleagues have yet to ask. She single-handedly revolutionized her company’s onboarding process and took it upon herself to become the resident “expense guru,” managing expenses for 14 people and hosting trainings for her fellow admins.
“There are few things I love more than when folks I have never even talked to reach out with an expense system question, because it means my name has been passed along. I never see it as an inconvenience; it’s an opportunity to reinforce the knowledge I have, while happily and clearly explaining it to someone new,” she says.
It takes a one-of-a-kind Ninja to find joy in expense reports! Check out our Q&A with Meghan Cooney, 2019 OfficeNinjas All-Star.
You didn’t set out to be an Office Ninja. How did you find your way to this career?
I started as a Senior Administrative Assistant and was promoted to Executive Assistant this past June. I had zero intention of working in the administrative field, and I’m so happy that my career path zigzagged this way.
I studied Secondary Education & Mathematics at DePaul University for my first three years of Undergrad. I knew I was meant to help people, and I always thought that education was the most direct way to do it.
During my final year at DePaul, I switched my major to Sociology with a concentration in health and human services. It wasn’t until I started shadowing at local high schools that I saw the disparities students faced outside of the classroom. I was fascinated and heartbroken at the same time, which was why I shifted my focus to Sociology. I knew I had to help people — that desire had not changed — but I had no idea where that would take me.
It wasn’t until I interviewed at PGIM Real Estate Finance that I realized the administrative role could be a perfect fit, even if just for a year or so while I “figured out” what I wanted to do long term.
At my interview, I distinctly remember asking my now-manager, Patrick Kempton, what was his favorite part about working at Prudential. He paused and said, “People are equally as smart as they are kind.” It honestly felt like everything suddenly clicked.
That was what I wanted: to work with people who strive for success while still taking into account the human side of things. What I thought would be a quick stint in the administrative field while I “figured out what I wanted to do” has turned into me knowing I am where I’m meant to be.
What’s your favorite part of being an Office Ninja?
Forming relationships with the people I support. I enjoy getting to know the things that make people tick and the things that bring people joy.
This may be giving away my secrets but … for example, any time someone mentions their favorite drink from Starbucks, I write it down. That way, if he or she is having a bad day, I can run downstairs and return with their go-to drink.
I am a firm believer that having a treat you enjoy can turn your day around. That’s why I’ll often text my friends a Starbucks gift card on the morning of a stressful meeting. It’s something so small, but it really sets a nice tone for the day.
I love being the one people turn to when they’re completely baffled by a problem. Asking for help can sometimes make people feel vulnerable. No one ever likes to admit not knowing something. So I always reinforce the idea that no question is a dumb one, and it is never a waste of my time.
My job is to help you and give you the answers! I always want the people I cross paths with to be able to look back on their day and think I helped bring even a little bit more light to it.
Meghan comes to work each day with a good attitude and a willingness to help anyone and everyone. Her positive approach positively impacts her coworkers and is contagious! – Mary
What do you do when you’re stressed or upset at work?
If I’m feeling stressed, I will make my way to the cafe downstairs and get a coffee. I always feel like I’m treating myself and, therefore, it turns my mood around. I think my brain is programmed to think “this coffee is a treat, therefore my day is better!”
I know most of the time my stress is self-induced, and one small change is all it takes to put my day back on a more relaxed and focused trajectory.
Also, never underestimate the value of a deep breath. When I start feeling overwhelmed, I take a moment to pause and regulate my breathing. There are so many times when I realize that I’m so caught up in what I’m doing, I forgot to breathe properly!
How does your company help you succeed?
From the day I started at PGIM REF, I felt like a valued team member.
I think it’s easy for Ninjas to say “Oh, I’m just an admin.” We downplay our successes and what we contribute to the bigger picture. But, PGIM REF has gone against that.
In addition to participating in monthly calls, every year, the admin team, which includes Ninjas from across the country, attends an Administrative Excellence Conference. Those two days are packed with valuable breakout sessions and keynote speakers. It’s wonderful to work for a company that organizes this conference year after year, knowing that our knowledge is not only valuable for ourselves, but also for our company.
My team members also help me succeed with their constant encouragement. We take pride in one another’s successes. For example, when I found out that I was awarded the OfficeNinjas All-Star this year, they had an impromptu champagne toast! They enhance my working experience more than I could have ever imagined!
How do you see the admin profession evolving? What do you do to stay ahead of the curve?
I believe that admins will no longer be seen as people who are in the background getting tasks done. Instead, we will be at the forefront of our manager’s meetings and client interactions.
Patrick often says that he’s not my manager; he’s my business partner. I love that.
I’m the first to admit when I started my career as a Senior Administrative Assistant, I figured I’d strictly be booking travel and maintaining the office. I was pleasantly surprised to find I’m often the key to projects being completed. I regularly help spearhead planning events that draw in dozens of clients.
To stay ahead of the curve, I try to stay in the know with our industry. I’m always quick to jump online and research more about our clients’ companies. I will often make booklets of clients’ bios not only for my manager’s knowledge but also for my own. Doing so reminds me of how my work impacts the bigger picture.
Her ambition is limitless. She is always wanting to tackle a new project, and I know that it’s to learn, more than anything else — she is not looking for accolades. Meg constantly looks for ways to add value to her team and the organization, and she always surprises me with her proactive thinking and follow-through. – Lee
What is your greatest professional achievement?
I think it’s safe to say that winning this award has been my greatest professional achievement! As I’ve mentioned, I work with folks who never hesitate to give shout-outs when people excel, but to know they took the time to submit a nomination absolutely blows me away. To be among the four other amazing 2019 All-Stars is absolutely humbling.
If you asked me this question a few weeks ago, then my greatest professional achievement has been the work I’ve done to improve the onboarding process at my company.
The process in the past had not been very structured, and the various offices all had different procedures housed in different locations of our intranet. I thought it was important to narrow down a clean, streamlined process where admins could still make changes to the process in real time.
OneNote was the solution for that. The guesswork has now been removed from onboarding, and employees seamlessly transition into their roles without any major bumps and bruises along the way.
What are the top three traits of an OfficeNinjas All-Star?
Flexibility, positivity, and resourcefulness.
I had a teacher that used to say “Champions adjust.” And it’s true! You have to be willing to change course when a wrench gets thrown into your plan or when a task of higher importance gets put on your plate.
I think positivity is crucial because people have to feel comfortable coming to you for assistance. If you’re making people feel as if they are inconveniencing you, I can guarantee they will find someone else to help them. There’s also just something more satisfying serving people a smile with a completed project — it’s the cherry on top!
Resourcefulness is such a huge part of our job because, although people may not realize it, we won’t always have all the answers. Sometimes the most helpful thing is knowing where to direct people.
For instance, I can’t necessarily answer someone’s specific questions about what medical plan they should sign up for when open enrollment comes around. But I can give them the correct phone number and email of the person to speak with, offer a helpful handout that outlines the details of the plans, and send them a calendar reminder leading up to the deadline.
What’s one thing you’ve done that’s been the most impactful in advancing your career?
Finding a mentor.
Kathy Kubik (Executive Assistant to the President & CEO of PGIM REF) has been that role model for me since the start of my career. She has been in the administrative profession for over 25 years. I value her opinion and advice, and luckily for me, she is very forthcoming with both.
She takes it upon herself to find opportunities for me to grow and develop, all while supporting our CEO. She is actually the one who introduced me to OfficeNinjas back when I started at PGIM REF!
Additionally, she is the one who encouraged our colleagues to nominate me for this award. I owe so much of what I have learned to her! She is my sounding board and the calm force that is so needed in my life.
Kathy and I attend webinars and in-person networking events together — including the OfficeNinjas Admingling event in Chicago. Attending these types of events is SO important in order to gain more knowledge within the industry.
I’ve also learned that networking takes practice … when I first started going to these events, I felt a bit like a fish out of water. I didn’t feel I had much to contribute to conversations since I was so new to the industry. But I soon realized I had a fresh perspective that others valued. The more events I’ve attended, the more comfortable I’ve become in voicing my opinion and making connections within my field.
Meg’s biggest impact has been in being my partner and working with me to streamline processes. I value her and her ideas, and I greatly rely on Meg to help run the CEO’s office smoothly. Our CEO is in the Top 50 Most Powerful People in Commercial Real Estate Finance by Commercial Observer, and it’s important that things get done right. Meg makes ME look good. – Kathy
Office Ninjas often have tips and tricks of the trade. Any you care to share?
Write EVERYTHING down. Even if it’s something I may not end up needing, someone may come to me with a question, and I can reference those notes. I’m a big fan of OneNote because of its awesome search capabilities.
I’m slightly paranoid when it comes to canceling travel reservations and getting a refund. I never rely on someone saying it will happen. I take down the person’s name I spoke with, the time of the conversation, and any other useful info. Whenever possible, I ask them to send me an email confirming something has been canceled and refunded. This has saved me plenty of times! You’ll never regret having too much information.
Most importantly, choose to smile even on days when screaming feels like the easier option. You were hired because you are capable of handling all the job can throw your way. You have the skill set. Now, you can find ways to make this role your own. Put your own spin on it. For me, that often means weaving humor into what I do. Yes, it is important to keep an office running smoothly and efficiently, but you can do it in a fun way!
Onboarding new employees is one of your specialties. Do you have any tips for structuring the onboarding process?
This is truly my favorite part of my job at PGIM REF. Yes, ensuring that everything gets done on time can be a bit stressful, especially when onboarding several people on the same day. But I LOVE being that first introduction a new employee has to the company. I see it as a wonderful opportunity to set a standard for the level of service they should expect from the administrative staff at our company.
Those first few days are stressful no matter what — systems somehow never work properly and I swear the computer can detect your fear! I reinforce that the new hire should keep in direct contact when things aren’t working properly. I then keep a list of those issues they’ve shared and follow up every few days until everything is in working order.
I also have a customized email template that I send out on a new hire’s first day. It references things like how to quickly access systems, what upcoming trainings they will need to complete, and helpful tips and tricks.
I always remind myself of how daunting it is when starting at a company. You’re being thrown SO much information on the first day and are trying to jot down notes like a crazy person. That’s why this “First-day info” email is so necessary. I tell the new hire there’s no need to take notes since I’ll be sending a detailed email over anyway. That allows them to try and actually take in the information instead of nervously writing down everything in hopes that they can read it later!
Meg will speak up if she sees a better, more efficient way to do something, whether it be a process, a meeting, travel, etc. She is focused, and if she is assisting you with a project, you can be certain that that project will be done in the best way possible, because that’s how Meg does things. – Colin
Exercise is a big part of your life. How does staying fit impact your professional life?
Exercise keeps me sane on days that feel out of my control. It’s an hour or so of my time where I can disconnect and re-energize. I truly think that I am a better employee, friend, and human on the days when I set aside that valuable time for myself. I love spin classes, strength-training classes (if you live in Chicago, you must check out FlyFit at FlyWheel Sports!), and, most recently, running! I’ll be training for a half-marathon starting next month.
I have never been a runner. But, because of my competitive nature, I wanted to be able to say that I have done it. I don’t like having the mindset of “I can’t do that.” I firmly believe that your mindset determines so much of your success. I carry that over from my personal life into my professional life.
My coworkers and I have now added post-work workout classes to the mix. Most recently, we went to a high-intensity Pilates class. There’s nothing better than going to an insanely tough workout class and having friends to commiserate with as we struggle through the moves.
What are some of your go-to resources, tools, and strategies for managing travel and dealing with last-minute issues?
Any time I’m booking someone internationally, I make it a point to get to know the plane. I research the configuration of the seats, which can sometimes be tricky to find. I follow a blog called The Points Guy (TPG). This has been invaluable for me. For instance, I was booking travel to Europe for one of my Principals, and I wanted to ensure he had the most comfortable seat in the section. I was in luck, as TPG had written a post with photos, videos, and a detailed review.
I’ve learned that, when dealing with last-minute issues, you have to be ready to jump on the phone and speak to someone directly and right away. Maintaining a positive attitude always. pays. off. People are much more willing to help you if you are nice. It’s key to remind yourself that the travel agent is not the reason there is bad weather in North Carolina.
What are some of the ways you’ve been able to expand your role over the years? What tips do you have for other Ninjas who want to take on new responsibilities?
Always be open to new opportunities, no matter how daunting they may seem at first. If you’re not being challenged, you aren’t growing. When there are changes happening at your company — especially with things like technology — take advantage of that opportunity to be ahead of the curve.
When my company switched over to Outlook from Lotus Notes, I attended every internal training and sought out other available webinars. You know your colleagues are going to come to you with questions, so you might as well arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible.
Identify the areas that you enjoy most. If that’s marketing, establish a better relationship with your marketing team and offer up your help as projects develop.
Really foster your relationship with your manager. I know that Patrick is one of my biggest cheerleaders, and he keeps his eyes open to opportunities that are in line with my goals. Open communication is crucial here. If your manager doesn’t have a clear vision of your goals, they won’t be able to support you to the fullest extent.
Great advice, Meghan! We have a feeling your words will inspire other Ninjas to take charge of their careers and grow their roles.
As part of her prize package, Meghan got to shop $1,000 worth of Keurig products courtesy of Keurig Commercial, a proud Admin Week 2019 partner!
View the complete photo album from our photo shoot at PGIM Real Estate Finance with Meghan!
Today’s All-Star is brought to you by Keurig Commercial
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