Title, Company, and Location
Executive Assistant Team Specialist, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Detroit, MI
# Years as an Admin+ professional
When Donna says she felt born for the profession, she means it! As a child, she’d set up her mother’s desk in their living room with a typewriter, pens in a cup, and a file folder holder. She’d even pretend to have meetings with her cat, Mittens, and would create documents that required her mother’s signature!
Editor’s Note: OfficeNinjas All-Star Awards is part of Admin+ Month (April 4–29, 2022), a fully virtual celebration of captivating learning, global recognition, and joyful connection.
Sure, you can accept the career you’ve got. Or, you can “choose your own adventure” by continually seeking out new opportunities that fulfill your personal and professional passions. That’s exactly what Donna Parsons has spent her 33+ years as an Admin+ professional doing. It’s also what’s helped her become a standout in her field, an inspiration to everyone around her, and a 2022 OfficeNinjas All-Star!
While Donna may have been destined for her career as an Executive Assistant, she’s navigated her own path forward with a remarkable combination of purpose and perseverance. Driven by a desire to help people, a love of learning, and openness to personal transformation, Donna is relentless in her pursuit of being the best she can be. In doing so, she makes everyone around her better, too.
And what about the stumbles and setbacks that happen along the way? Donna’s growth mindset and ownership over her mistakes have earned her the trust and respect of her colleagues — and the courage and confidence that come with knowing that stepping outside of your comfort zone is essential to growth, even when things don’t go your way.
Perhaps her colleague Neveen Awad, Manager Director & Partner at BCG, put it best when speaking to Donna’s impact. “Donna is an excellent role model — not only for many Administrative professionals, but for all employees — to be the best they can be and to take ownership for their own career growth and performance. Donna is the quintessential role model of a high-performing employee who shows passion and the desire to make a lasting impact.”
Donna Parsons’ nominations resoundingly showcase the many ways she makes her workplace better while simultaneously prioritizing her own interests and fulfillment. These are the qualities embodied by the best and brightest Admin+ profs — and by OfficeNinjas All-Stars. We’re delighted to share Donna’s inspiring and uplifting story with you.
How long have you worked as an Admin+ professional? What path led you to this career, and what makes it a good fit for you?
I’ve been an Admin+ professional in one form or another for over 33 years. I feel like this career was in the stars for me. From a very young age, I had a genuine desire to help people, loved learning, and had a keen eye for detail. I was good at noticing small but important things that other people might have overlooked.
When I was 18 years old, someone offered me a position as a receptionist for a company that had a hair salon on one side and an interior design company on the other, and I thrived in that role. The EA job is like solving a different giant puzzle each and every day. No two days look the same. I think that’s what I love most about the job.
Where does your drive come from? What keeps you motivated?
It’s important to me that my work is meaningful and that my skills are being used to the fullest. I push myself to learn and embrace new things, and I’m always reaching for a higher level of personal best. I get satisfaction out of helping people get what they need out of an experience. The EA role is part satisfying your job description and part creating your own unique role. I look for projects that feed both my personal and professional passions.
In my personal life, I find creativity is my path to peace, happiness, and mindfulness. When I’m flexing my creative muscles, I lose myself in the moment, and I feel all stress and anxiety leave my body. One of the things that captured my attention early in my career was event planning. Most companies have committees or individuals that are assigned to plan events as part of their roles, so I volunteer to assist or take on the assignment. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your creative vision come to life and witnessing firsthand how attendees react to certain event elements.
You may be passionate about health and fitness. So offer to start a committee to negotiate programs for weight loss or gym memberships, healthy cooking classes, group yoga, etc. I try to remain open to seeing how the work I do and the things I’m passionate about overlap.
“Donna is always looking to innovate the support model. She is quick to identify issues and always comes with a proposed solution to those challenges. Throughout the past 2 years, she has led the Executive Assistant team in identifying new ways to provide world class support, as well as identifying new opportunities to extend support across the business.” — Courtney Zalik, Principal, Boston Consulting Group
What are you most proud of outside of work?
I worked alongside my son, Jacob, while he was opening his first restaurant. He was only 21 at the time, and had no startup money. I learned so much working with him. Because he needed all the free help he could get, I was his cashier, prep cook, marketing manager, website designer, graphic designer, etc. How often does a parent get the opportunity to help their child achieve their dream? Jacob’s passion and ambition are so inspiring to me. I couldn’t be a prouder parent.
“Perseverance” is a word that comes up a lot in your nominations. To what do you attribute your ability to persevere, and what advice might you share with others looking to persevere better in their own roles?
One of my favorite quotes is by Helen Keller: “A bend in the road is not the end of the road unless you fail to make the turn.”
After many years of thinking I had to be a perfectionist and feeling defeated when something went wrong, I decided to change how I defined failure and began looking at it as more of a lesson learned.
Using uncomfortable conversations to correct your course is an important step in becoming a better employee and person. Earlier in my career, I had a colleague with whom I was struggling to maintain a healthy working relationship. I was at the receiving end of some hurtful gossip, and they’d gone to my manager with misinformation that could have been very damaging to my career. I’ve always been of the mindset that you should speak with someone directly if you have concerns or are upset by something they said or did. I tried to have a conversation with them, but it did not go well. Although I thought I had positive intentions in solving the issues, my delivery came across like a sledgehammer. I knew I had to change my approach or the relationship would continue to be contentious. I had to ask myself if I was really being honest with my intentions. I followed the advice of a great book I picked up called, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, which shares seven principles:
- Start with the heart (i.e., empathy and positive intent)
- Stay in dialogue
- Make it safe
- Don’t get hooked by emotion (or hook someone else)
- Agree on a mutual purpose
- Separate facts from story
- Agree to a clear action plan
I followed these seven principles, and they were truly a blessing in changing our working relationship and creating a more positive interaction. Practicing this method has helped me to have more constructive conversations with much better outcomes as a result.
I try to maintain a growth mindset at all times. While I’m not always successful, I always look for how I could have done something differently to make it better next time. My advice is to take on the projects, roles, or tasks that you think are beyond your expertise. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and embrace the mistakes you make along the way.
“I feel strongly that Donna’s X-Factor is her tenacious attitude and grace under pressure. In her job, many executives rely on Donna to get them where they need to be. The level of trust that executives place in Donna reflects her ability to handle anything that comes her way. She does not quit until she has completed her task to her very high standards. She is always graceful, even in the face of occupational fires.” — Margo Jenkins, Office Manager, AAA Life Insurance Company
One of your nominators referenced the fact that you “continuously transform [yourself]” by taking on new challenges. Another hailed you as “a true sponge” for professional development. How do you make time for going above-and-beyond? And how do you advocate for yourself to claim opportunities that might be seen as outside the boundaries of your role?
It’s important for me to make time in my day for personal or professional development. It may be something as simple as watching 30 minutes of motivational TikToks, or something longer-term, like participating in a program or course. (I’m currently enrolled in the upcoming OfficeNinjas and UC Berkeley Administrative Leadership & Communication Program!) Some days, professional development gets pushed back to after-hours, but I really make an effort to treat it as a priority.
When it comes to advocating for myself, I believe everyone can redefine their roles in the right environment. We all have job descriptions, but we can ask ourselves:
- What am I passionate about?
- What could it look like to incorporate that passion into my role?
- How might it fit into my company goals and values?
I’ve never thought of my role as having boundaries. The EA role has always been defined differently in every company and by every person I have worked with. My motto has always been, “You never know until you ask, and if the answer is no — ask why, and what do I need to do to change the answer?”
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“Ownership” was another common theme that emerged in your nominations. Can you tell us a bit more about your sense of ownership? Where does it come from? How has it helped you succeed in your role?
I try to hold myself accountable for my work regardless of the outcome, and to demonstrate a genuine interest in contributing to my executive’s success. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve reframed my relationship with failure. I’ve put a lot of practice into becoming comfortable in owning my mistakes and learning from them because there is always room for growth. I’ve found when you’re honest about your work, you gain people’s trust and respect.
When one of the executives I support points out a mistake I’ve made, I try to assume positive, productive intent. I’m not saying I think they’re always right, but I believe they want me to succeed at my job and know I am open to honest feedback. I’m fortunate enough to work for two amazing people that view me as a thought partner — not simply just a member of their support team.
Tell us about the craziest day you’ve ever experienced in your role.
One of the craziest days I experienced was several years ago. It’s a moment I will never forget. The executive I worked for conducted product training for large corporate groups on a regular basis. After developing the agenda and content together, I would create the material for the presentation. I also assisted with AV, passing out materials, registration, and more. My exec was usually on time for everything, so I knew something was wrong when she hadn’t arrived yet and my phone rang. She told me she was stuck in traffic and didn’t know how long she would be. Then, she asked me to proceed with the presentation until she arrived. Her exact words were, “You wrote the darn material. You probably know it better than me.”
That exec is one of the most dynamic speakers I have ever heard, and I was convinced I was going to make a fool out of myself. But I could feel the crowd getting impatient so I stepped to the stage. With the most awful trembling voice, I gave the presentation. I have no doubt to this day that they could tell I was terrified, but they stood on their feet and applauded me afterwards. I later found out that my exec was in the back of the room watching me for half the presentation!
That was a career-changing moment for me. It gave me the courage and confidence to step outside my comfort zone. Public speaking is still my least favorite thing to do, but that experience helped me recognize that it’s okay to do something I know I won’t be instantly great at.
“Donna is ALWAYS calm, no matter how crazy things get. She is a ‘rock’ for the whole team because we know she will never let anything slip through the cracks, and she is often reminding us to complete tasks we would otherwise have forgotten. I am in awe of her composure and creativity in how she navigates complicated situations.” — Erin Boyland, Partner, Boston Consulting Group
How do your employer and team members help you succeed?
BCG fosters a culture of professional and personal development. They provide me with the tools, resources, and information I need to support my growth, as well as opportunities to transfer my skills across many different potential paths.
Currently, I’m taking a course to be certified as a Project Manager, and BCG is sponsoring my participation in the June 2022 program of the OfficeNinjas and UC Berkeley Administrative Leadership & Communication Program.
I’m part of a small but mighty group at BCG. They are truly the most talented people I have ever worked alongside. The thing I love most about this group is their willingness to step in when you need them — and even when you don’t think you need them. We recognize that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that we can learn something from everyone regardless of experience, education, or background. We share the mindset that we grow by growing others at BCG.
Tell us about a specific time you found success in failure. What factors influenced your ability to bounce back and be resilient?
When I left Merrill Lynch after 12 years, I decided to become a realtor for a large broker. I passed the real estate exam, started reaching out to friends and family, and thought I was on my way to making millions. I thought it was going to be a breeze, and assumed my large network would refer me to everyone they knew. Unfortunately, the reality was different. I had only a single house listing and a handful of shoppers instead of buyers. I struggled for a year to make my first sale.
I’d thought the business would just come to me, so I put little effort into it, which showed in the results. I was ready to give it up because it was just too hard, and I had a lot of excuses as to why I wasn’t successful. I was convinced none of it had to do with me. I wasn’t honest with myself until I started talking to one of our top agents about how he built up his book of business. I realized I had completely skipped over all the hard work it takes to gain trust, build relationships, and create a brand.
Now, I approach each of my goals with this knowledge. Whether it’s short-term or long-term, I take the time to research and determine the steps I need to take, and I’m diligent about correcting course when necessary.
What’s one thing you’ve done that’s been the most impactful in advancing your career? Did you know at the time the significance of that move? Were there any risks involved?
One of the most impactful things I’ve done in my career was leaving my position with the non-profit company I worked for prior to BCG. I was with them for seven years, had amazing colleagues, and knew my job inside and out. I was comfortable but not challenged, and I didn’t have much room for growth. My son was just graduating high school and on his way to college. As a single parent, stability took priority over my career ambitions.
It would have been easy to stay for a few more years until my son was settled at school and things were less hectic at home. Instead, I made the leap to an entirely different culture with a much younger demographic. I was starting from the ground up again. However, if I hadn’t taken that leap, I would have missed an opportunity for major potential growth.
What’s the one thing that’s ALWAYS on your desk?
On my home office desk, I have a picture of me and my son. Jacob is one of my biggest motivations to keep pushing forward and improving myself. It’s always been important for me to be a good role model for my son to the best of my ability. When Jacob looks at me, I want him to see a woman who stands on her own two feet and remains strong no matter what life throws at her. I want him to know that we aren’t defined in life according to gender. He is an amazing boss with a large staff of women. My hope is that I have helped him to understand and respect women, to not put limitations on them. I beam with pride every time I walk into his restaurant and staff members tell me how incredibly patient and supportive he is. He is my heart.
“My mother has been a single parent my entire life. She’s provided support for me and my grandmother on one income for over 23 years. In order to help me reduce our costs, she taught herself how to build a restaurant website, design a menu, create a logo, create a marketing plan, and work with social media to help build our presence in the area. She does this while working 50+ hours a week at BCG, working at the restaurant on the weekends, and currently completing a Project Management certification.” — Jacob Sessions, Chef/Owner, Dave & Amy’s Restaurant
What’s a unique system, habit, or framework you’ve followed that has accelerated your career goals?
As I mentioned, I try very hard to carve out time in my day for personal development, which includes lots of LinkedIn Learning labs and reading. (This is how I initially discovered OfficeNinjas!)
I also snipped this from a meme and keep it on my desktop as a reminder to always be curious:
Here are 10 great habits of curious people you can adapt and adopt for yourself:
- Listen without judgment. Don’t size people up and make assumptions. Curious people are focused on exploring options rather than shaming or blaming.
- Ask questions relentlessly. Curiosity begs us to ask what, why, who, when, where, and how to get at the deeper secrets. Questions don’t scare curious people.
- Reject boredom. When you’re curious, you’re always looking into something new. Curious people can always find something interesting to explore.
- Be willing to be wrong. Cultivate a sense of being open to others’ insights and opinions rather than being right. Live to solve problems, instead of being right.
- Practice empathy. Empathy lets you connect with your customers and prospects in a natural and authentic way. Empathy helps to open doors to new relationships.
- Stay in the moment. If you’re focused completely and solely on the present moment, you’ll be able to take in everything that’s happening.
- Say “I don’t know.” It’s more important for a curious person to learn something than to look smart. They’re always seeking knowledge by engaging in conversation.
- Make time for curiosity. Curious people make time to be intentionally curious. Take one day a month to think forward three years to question your goals and assumptions. Are you doing things you shouldn’t be doing?
- Prioritize self-motivation. When you’re consistently interested in new things, you make sure to put in the time and effort to learn about them. You do this because you want to, not because something told you to.
- Live to learn. Curious people are avid learners. Read diverse kinds of books, blogs, whitepapers and anything else you can get your hands on. Take instructive classes and courses.
Never stop learning.
Share something that you used to believe about the Admin+ profession but you no longer believe.
When I first became an Executive Assistant, I thought it was simply elevated Administrative support. You were hired to do A,B,C and then go home. I didn’t think anyone could make a career out of it and was convinced by other people’s opinions that we are easily replaced.
However, I’ve learned through the many mentors I’ve had along the way that the job is what you make of it. While you may hold a specific title, that doesn’t define the role — or you. I’ve had some amazing adventures while working as an EA, and I will continue to find more as I go!
“It’s so inspiring to see a person have a purpose. Donna embodies the work she does, and it shows to all of us. She is a tremendously important part of BCG.
Many of us seek to emulate her ability to navigate through challenging situations in organizing high-profile events and appointments for the executives she primarily works for, and she makes it look easy. She works with humility and always goes the extra mile for those around her. The work she does ensures her executives are successful and can devote their time where their clients need it the most, and her active participation here ensures they can depend on her to be able to optimize time management and planning of many disparate activities that require their attention.
The entire office appreciates Donna, her positive attitude, work ethic, and consistent contributions. I strongly feel she should be recognized as a leader in her field. She is a TRUE ALL-STAR!” — Brian Teskey, Expert Consultant, Boston Consulting Group
What’s the best actionable career advice you’ve ever received? Who shared it with you, and how have you used it in your career?
In my former job, I used to work with very high-profile individuals. I always felt small, intimidated, and insignificant when I was around them. The CEO I worked with at the time told me, “Don’t ever let anyone determine your worth.” He advised me to always shake hands firmly, look people in the eye, and never look down. He taught me the importance of teaching people how to treat you right from the moment you meet them.
That may not sound like actionable career advice, but I’ve found it has greatly helped me approach people with confidence and feel more comfortable in who I am.
What’s your greatest professional achievement?
Becoming an OfficeNinjas All-Star would have to be one of my greatest professional achievements. I’m so honored to have been selected, and humbled by the amount of support I’ve received. I feel very blessed to have these wonderful people in my life and am thankful for this opportunity.
In proactively seeking out opportunities to push out the boundaries of her role to enjoy more professional and personal fulfillment, Donna Parsons is a beacon of inspiration for all Administrative professionals — and a shining 2022 OfficeNinjas All-Star!
Onyx generously gifted each All-Star winner with a luxury gift package.
We want to hear from YOU!
Take a few minutes to congratulate 2022 All-Star Donna Parsons, and share what her stories and perspective mean to you. If you have a question for Donna, ask away! Include it with your comment.