All-Star Ninja Snapshot
Title & Company
Director of Sales Operations, MongoDB in Palo Alto, CA
# Years as an Office Ninja
Before stepping into the role of Office Ninja, Hilary trained to be a police officer!
Editor’s Note: We’re thrilled to spotlight the tremendous impact admin professionals have on the workforce and global business community. While coronavirus threw us for a loop this year, our 2020 All-Stars rose to the challenge with great collaboration, flexibility, and fun personal photos!
If you’ve ever wanted to grow within your role or level-up your Ninja skills, grab a cup of coffee and settle in — 2020 OfficeNinjas All-Star Hilary Phillips is about to give you a thorough tutorial.
Hilary doesn’t shy away from complicated challenges. She charges toward them. From creating her own job descriptions to launching an admin team pilot program, Hilary has used her experience, pragmatism, and powers of persuasion to continuously develop her career AND improve the lives of her fellow admins. She’s a real Ninja’s Ninja.
But you only have to read a few of her All-Star nominations to see the company-wide impact of her tireless efforts. Her colleagues see the time and money she’s saving the sales team and they recognize her as an invaluable partner in their business operations.
So, HOW does Hilary do it? Read our interview with this 2020 OfficeNinjas All-Star to find out!
Hilary working from home during COVID-19 shelter-in-place. (Photo courtesy of her husband, with whom she now shares a desk.)
Your background is in law enforcement. How did you become an administrative professional?
People assume law enforcement is very different, but you are working with people all day. I still spend a large portion of my day telling people what they need to do. Law enforcement’s goal is to get people to do what they need to do without forcing them to do it (but, at the end of the day, you might need to force them).
I say I spend my day getting people to do what I need them to do without them feeling like I am making them do it. Our CEO actually told my husband that I am great at telling people “no” and making them feel good about it.
What are your favorite parts of being an Office Ninja?
- People. I love working with people and making connections. Winning over particularly challenging personalities and changing their perception within the company is something I enjoy.
- Making things easier. I like knowing I am making other peoples’ lives easier. They have a problem that they think only they are experiencing or it is a tedious process to do ad hoc, and I can help. I usually have a system or process that works smarter rather than harder.
- Knowing things. I find being able to provide context and historical information helps people understand the why and I enjoy demystifying things for my team and coworkers. They could figure out the answer on their own, but usually I can provide context and an answer faster. Having people say, “I have no idea. Ask Hilary, she will know,” is a reminder that deep institutional knowledge is an asset. People coming to me with questions allows me to stay in the loop, continue to make connections, and keep current with what else is going on in the business.
Tell us about the craziest day you’ve ever experienced as an Office Ninja.
I worked as a house manager for a family, and my boss was having a particularly bad day. She had started to cook lamb and determined it wasn’t good and that it needed to be returned.
I walked into Whole Foods with $65 worth of cooked lamb wrapped in tin foil, asking who the best person was to discuss an odd request. The person I ended up speaking to was very surprised by the request and said there wouldn’t be a way to do it. I asked what details he needed to process a return — and, piece by piece, I was able to meet all of the requirements. Once the transaction was complete, he came out from behind the desk to do a little bow and shake my hand.
This was a great example of staying balanced (versus saying, “This is a silly request”), keeping my cool (I might have been told I HAD to make this happen), and being willing to work with anyone and create a team environment.
Hilary’s X factor is her versatility — she can manage people, innovate on programs, and execute on a wide variety of tasks. – Meghan Gill, VP Sales Operations
What do you do when you’re stressed or upset at work?
I get calm and focused on what needs to happen next. The task feels less daunting if it is broken down into manageable next steps. If I’m working with others, I keep it light-hearted. Laughing through a tough situation makes it so much easier.
I tend to plan for all worst-case scenarios; something will go wrong, it is just a matter of what. I don’t like surprises. My motto is, “We will get it sorted out.”
Marketing, SalesOps, and Sales Enablement support each other (and Hilary, quite literally) while preparing for MongoDB’s Sales Kick Off 2019.
How does your team help you succeed?
They allow me the freedom to work to my strengths and ability to identify and solve a problem or issue. I have been able to grow my career. They don’t provide a road map, but they don’t say “no.” My manager has been an outstanding role model and I am quick to involve her or go to her with my concerns and mistakes. I am grateful to have someone I can model my behavior after and there have been times where I have needed to channel her when tackling an issue.
How do you see the admin profession evolving? What do you do to stay ahead of the curve?
I am striving to ensure that all of our Sales Executive Assistants be seen as partners. I develop and invest in the team — I want everyone to understand that these EAs provide critical services that lots of other people can’t do.
So many good admins have a can-do attitude and are great at getting things done quickly, within policy, and without ruffling feathers. Those are actual skills and they should be identified, given common language, shared, and fine-tuned.
Companies must have a career path for their admins. And I encourage admins to map out their own desired path, so they can present it to their company.
I advocate for my team. I’ve raised issues around unfair and unbalanced support ratios. I’ve said “no” and pushed back on unrealistic expectations from executives who are unfamiliar with what is the best use of the admin resource.
I know my team, what drives them personally, and what drives them professionally. I make sure their wins are highlighted and protect them when they make mistakes.
Hilary and team members celebrate in Times Square on the day that her company MongoDB IPO-ed.
Can you describe what a successful executive partnership looks like to you?
Partnership is key. The admin/exec relationship isn’t one of prescriptive order taking. Sometimes execs who haven’t had support (or haven’t had outstanding support) think their job is to tell the admin what to do (book this flight, move this meeting, etc.). It’s best when an exec and admin work together toward a common goal.
The admin needs to know what is going wrong, what keeps the exec up at night, and what they are focusing on. This understanding will allow the admin to make decisions and adjust rather than wait for the exec to flag something.
To help with this, I have the admins and EAs on my team do an Exec Preference Intake sheet when they start supporting an exec. It includes over 35 questions on topics that are important for the admin to know, including the basic info that is required to book travel and register for an event. But it also includes questions like:
- How should I alert you to urgent matters?
- Should our weekly/daily sync be in person or over phone/zoom/email?
- How do we denote priority?
- How do we update the list of priorities?
- From whom should I always accept meetings?
- Should everything go through the EA, or should some items be handled directly?
- Is your default meeting 30 or 60 minutes?
- Do you need buffer time?
This is helpful to get clear upfront, as it is critical information that an admin needs for their job. But it’s also a great opportunity for the admin to provide suggestions or recommendations right off the bat, highlighting that they are the expert and very likely know the best way to do all of these things or at least optimize areas that are weaknesses for the exec.
This helps to reduce frustration on both sides because things are discussed and agreed on together from the beginning. It also provides a written record of the agreement in case there is a miscommunication or something isn’t working well. It’s easier for the admin to say, “Based on our meeting on X date, we had decided XYZ, but that doesn’t seem to be working well, so I suggest we update it.”
Bad news travels down quickly and up slowly, meaning by the time most execs are hearing bad news, the reality is worse than what they are hearing and everyone else knows about it. Admins are a great resource to execs in these situations because a great admin will have relationships with individual contributors, managers, and leaders from their team as well as others. People speak more freely to them (especially about frustrations) than they would an exec. So, the admin can check in with many different people to determine what is going on and can flag it for an exec sooner.
She is an absolute rock-star, in general. Most recently, she has helped me organize another round of virtual Quarterly Business Reviews, which don’t only save time and money, but also the plant’s resources. – Roman Gruhn, Chief of Staff
Hilary and some of her team members pose for a group photo during a team event where they built copper lamps!
Tell us about your experience piloting your company’s admin team program.
Before the pilot program, the Sales EAs reported to an exec (or multiple execs) with no standards on who was eligible for support, what the ratios of support are, the scope of work, etc. Now, they report to me.
I established clear standards that are being adopted by other teams. Compensation, job titles, and work ratios are now all standard as well. And there is much more oversight, feedback, and development for the EAs.
When I interview EA/admin candidates, sometimes they are a little hesitant about the idea of reporting to me rather than an exec.
If an EA is doing their job really well, an exec shouldn’t know what they do. They should just know that their days run smoothly. This means most execs have no idea how to develop an admin.
So, I explain to candidates that I don’t involve myself in the day-to-day working relationship with their exec. I recognize that they need to be very familiar and intimate with the exec and I don’t monitor what they are doing on a daily basis.
I do, however, conduct weekly 1:1s with admin team members, provide feedback, offer mentorship, hold team meetings, and maintain standards within the business. These are all things that most admins don’t get from the execs.
During our 1:1s, we check in to make sure we are working toward the admin’s growth goals. The admin drives the agenda and completes a template that includes:
- A quick status update I can review in advance
- Issues to discuss, problems to be solved, challenges to be debriefed, lessons learned, and coaching needs
- Their list of growth goals
For example, I have an EA who has a goal of going deeper in their exec’s business, but they keep saying “yes” to any and every request they get. Using this template, I can help them determine the areas to best spend their time to achieve that goal. Rather than telling them to not do the extra requests that are outside of their scope, I can ask them how each task is getting them closer to their goal.
I have had another who feels like they need to be more comfortable pushing back, so I ask them to list out each time they say “no” to someone so we can talk about it (and celebrate it).
My job is to ensure the admin team is always stretching and growing, moving on a clear career path. So, success in my organization can be a couple of things. For those wanting to be life-long EAs, moving into an admin leadership role and managing a team of admins is one path.
Another path is sharpening their transferable skills, determining what they really enjoy, and finding a role or team within the organization where they can grow. This allows us to retain outstanding talent that already knows our business and can provide value to other departments.
In every role, Hilary has helped everyone be successful and do their own jobs better. She has created an incredible work product and is an amazing cultural heartbeat for the company at every step of our growth from less than 100 to over 2,000 employees. – Nick Gilly, Strategic Account Executive
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As a mom of twins, how have you set and maintained healthy work/life boundaries?
Before I had my babies, I was “on” and available 24/7. But I was sick every day of my pregnancy, and that helped prepare me for being okay not working all of the time.
I leave my house before my kids get up in the morning and I only get two hours in the evening with them. That is a very special time. I leave my phone in the other room so I can be engaged with the babies during dinner, bath, and bedtime. I come back online and check in later.
My biggest takeaway? No one expected me to be “on” 24/7 in the first place.
Hilary admits having twins isn’t always this picture perfect, but going with the flow and keeping a smile makes it easier.
What would you say are the top 3 traits of an OfficeNinjas All-Star?
- I was described as “relentless” by our former CFO. I take that as a compliment and think that is one of my traits.
- Understanding the big picture (or at least being able to ask “why?”)
- Even-keeled. It is critical that you are able to stay calm under pressure. People will look to get your reaction. The more balanced you are, the more information people will share.
What’s one thing you’ve done that’s been the most impactful in advancing your career?
I have had 15 managers, and some were more invested in me and my career than others.
Some of those folks could have been roadblocks, but I made sure that I understood what they needed to do to help me and I made it easy for them to do that. I created my role of Chief of Staff to the CRO by discussing with a number of key people, making a plan and job description, and listing potential objections and solutions prior to addressing it with the CRO.
In another case, I was able to pull forward a budget for adding two additional EA heads in Sales by showing how much money is saved when admins perform the administrative work rather than sales leaders. (We’re also working on a proposal to allow a group of sales leaders who aren’t currently eligible for support, to get team admin support to assist with their travel and expenses. This junior group of admins will be managed and mentored by our senior EAs.)
I have worked hard to understand what is important to other people and have tried to help them at every turn. The relationships I’ve created, the favors I’ve done, and the unsolicited help that I’ve offered have all come back to me in countless ways.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
This is sort of an odd one. I was doing a performance review and I had to give myself a grade. I said I was a “B,” on track but with room to grow.
My manager at the time was a no BS kind of guy, and he told me that you always mark yourself as an “A.” You leave money on the table if you don’t. If you aren’t at that level, it forces the person reviewing to explain to you why you aren’t.
Office Ninjas often have tips/tricks of the trade. Any you care to share?
I have a ton of tips and tricks, but I think the real key is asking questions. The trick is getting people to tell you which problem they’re trying to solve. Often, people will tell you what outcome they think they need or a very specific problem they are trying to solve. I always want to know why or what the bigger picture is, in case I can understand and make suggestions that might be faster, cheaper, or a better use of time. The ability to ask good questions helps me understand their restrictions or parameters.
Hilary poses with MongoDB’s West Sales Team, showing off the custom socks they had made with their CEO’s face on them.
You were the 100th employee at your company. What factors impacted your growth?
I have been at my company for the past seven years. We have grown and changed a ton. I tell people it’s like I have worked for three or four companies while I have been here.
I’ve always been able to point out areas that needed improvement and act upon them. In the very beginning, it was small things related to maintaining the actual building and changing how we ordered company meals and snacks.
I also spent time understanding what the execs in the office were focused on. Initially, I reported to the VP of Finance (we were so small we didn’t have a CFO). I just jumped in and asked people, “How can I help?” I started helping with collections, billing hours for our support team, and reviewing expense reports. The more I did, the more I understood how things were connected and who was doing what. I was building serious institutional knowledge; and as a result, I became a resource for others and one of the first few people new leaders or execs met with. I built my credibility with them and created lasting relationships.
I make it easy for people to say “yes” to me. That means I come with an issue, a plan to correct it, a proposal, and a clear ask. I have suggested all of my title changes/job descriptions and have never had anyone push back on me.
Today, I have a very different perspective of the business and understand the many trade-offs that must be considered when making a decision. But I still think my willingness to jump in, offer help, and be flexible has allowed me to grow and change with the business.
Hilary grabs every learning opportunity available and is not shy in taking on new things to help progress herself. Whilst improving her own skillset, she is always available to guide her team and help them. – Jodie Rawlinson, EA to GVP & Sales Ops
Hilary told her exec what to wear for Halloween. He had no idea who Gru or the Minions were, which makes this group costume even better.
You’ve supported a countless number of executives remotely. Can you share with us any advice on fostering a remote relationship with an executive?
I love understanding how people work. I find that I am successful in remote support because I am invested in figuring out what works best for the exec, which usually gives insight into what type of person they are. That allows me to put myself in their shoes and understand how they will react or respond to something.
I make sure I am connecting with the exec when they can focus. For my busiest execs, I do a “For the Plane” email and I list out all the outstanding questions or ongoing issues. I send it to them while they are on their way to the airport and resend once they are airborne. It allows me to catch them when no one else is trying to grab a few minutes of their time. Those emails also provide a bit of context and my recommendations on what to do. The goal is for the exec to provide an “OK” rather than come up with the solution to every issue.
It’s better to connect for 3-5 minutes every day via text, phone, or Slack than to wait for the perfect time to have an hour together.
I also ask my execs when I can make a decision if I am unable to get a hold of them. It helps remind them that there are lots of things I can do on their behalf and allows them to focus their time on the things only they can do.
A rising tide lifts all ships… and a true All-Star elevates every Ninja! How will Hillary’s story inspire you to not only find new opportunities at work but also buoy the careers of your fellow admins?
We commissioned an artist to hand letter and digitize a powerful mantra from today’s All-Star interview.
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