Debbie Gross and the Road to Chief Executive Assistant – Blog | Admin Awards

For 26 years, Debbie Gross made it her business to know all the things about John Chambers.

As the Cisco CEO’s chief government assistant (CEA), Gross was rather more than Chambers’ “right-hand woman” or “girl Friday” or any of the different cutesy clichés that fail to seize the immeasurable value of administrative professionals who ensure their company’s seemingly effortless efficiency. Over the years, Gross had proven herself wholly indispensable, serving as the liaison between the hard-working head honcho and his skilled circle.

So it was no surprise Gross was in the room as Chambers dictated her nomination for the Admin Awards’ coveted Colleen Barrett Award for Administrative Excellence, describing her as “an example of what administrator excellence is all about both internally and externally, in the valley and all over the world.”

What was shocking, a minimum of for Gross, is that Chambers had come to know her accomplishments just in addition to she knew his. In the midst of that realization, the tears began to circulate.

“We worked so hard and fast together every day,” Gross says. “One of the things that he said was how productive and effective I was at making him productive and effective.”

Of their time together, which came to an finish in 2017 following both of their retirements, Chambers couldn’t say enough about Gross’ talent, routinely proclaiming that “I couldn’t run Cisco without her.”

His heartfelt phrases and description of her cutting-edge work in the CEA position – including her improvement of Cisco’s administrative coaching, mentorship and rewards packages – led to Gross’ win at the 2016 Silicon Valley Admin Awards, where her revolutionary work shone a light-weight on CEAs and the unimaginable feats they accomplish every single day in workplaces around the globe.

Because whereas it’s true that Gross didn’t invent the title of CEA, she did exemplify it, embracing the position’s most necessary qualities: advocacy, drive, vulnerability, teamwork.

“When I won, I said ‘This is mine to earn,’” Gross says. “I just really came to a major awareness that I have changed the way people look at this job, the ways administrative professionals focus and work at Cisco. Outside of Cisco, I was teaching and speaking and sharing the vision of how we can be so much more than we think we can be. So to me, that award is everything. It’s a little shrine in my office.”

The street to CEA

When Gross showed up to interview for the government assistant position at Cisco in 1991, she was considered one of 17 candidates. She had seen the job posting in The San Jose Mercury Information, and decided to take a chance – in any case, she had previously worked as an government assistant for a PC board supplier and in office administration at a tech firm.

At the time, Chambers had only just lately joined Cisco himself, as senior vice chairman of worldwide operations. The tech company was nonetheless comparatively small, about 560 individuals, but the work load was sizable. Chambers wanted an assistant who might assist him keep his work/life stability, and Gross stood out from the pack.

“He knew right away, within the first 30 minutes, that I was the kind of person he was looking for,” Gross says. “There’s a lot of average out there, and I never thought of myself as average.”

In 1995, Chambers was promoted to president and CEO of Cisco. Gross felt a title change was in order for her as nicely – not solely had the company expanded significantly in the previous four years, however so had her day-to-day duties. In addition to making certain Chambers’ day by day productivity, she additionally had turn into the chief of Cisco’s international administrative group.

Following a dialog with fellow members of the Silicon Valley Catalyst Affiliation, who have been all working at the CEO degree, she began to query her title.

“We all thought, ‘We should be calling ourselves chief executive assistants,’” Gross says. “I thought, ‘I am working for the CEO, I am at a senior level and I am doing things that EAs in our company are not doing.’”

So she went to Chambers with a simple request: Change my title from government assistant to chief government assistant.

“He had a big smile on his face, and said he loved it,” Gross laughs, “but it didn’t come with a raise. He did recognize that it would distinguish me from the crowd.”

Defining the CEA position

Regardless that Gross’ title change was initially spurred by the incontrovertible fact that she was an EA to a CEO, she says there are much more necessary elements to the job than who your boss is.

“I gave John the reasoning behind why I earned that title — and it takes a specific type of person to earn it,” Gross says. “You have to build excellence in your skillset, have a mind for business, be strategic. As a result, we become valued and indispensable, and our executives see us as business partners.”

A part of the method Gross established herself as indispensable to Chambers in the CEA position was to anticipate his skilled wants, whether or not that meant getting ready him for occasions or making certain that scheduled telephone calls or face-to-face conferences have been all the time merited. In her 20 years as a CEA, Gross turned almost as legendary as her boss. Different CEOs took word of her trailblazing work – how she meticulously ready Chambers for every briefing, conference, sporting event and sales pitch, gathering particulars on everybody in the room or on the golf course.

“John wanted details, he always asked a ton of questions. I learned very quickly that I had to have a lot of answers for him,” Gross says. “I developed templates that had specific areas of information that I knew John wanted, whether it was customers’ existing revenue, biographies, how a person pronounces their name. John was stickler for how he interfaced with people. Sales people hated me because I wouldn’t let them get near John unless they had great information to share. As a CEA, you have to develop templates and processes that allow you to be effective when people are asking for your exec’s time. You don’t want them spinning their wheels when they could be doing something else.”

Effective CEAs also should have a wholesome sense of curiosity, Gross says, not simply providing answers but in addition asking questions to higher understand their boss, their firm — and by extension, their own position.

“John would be very open in educating me on his thought process,” Gross says. “As a result, it allowed me to not only make good decisions for him, but allow me to communicate for him as him. I had to be John or act on his behalf. Knowing how John thought was invaluable for me in bridging that gap. Healthy curiosity is important. Always think about the ‘why.’”

Moreover, Gross says, an incredible CEA does extra than just help their CEO — they establish themselves as leaders within their firm.

“I truly cared in a bigger-picture way about the administrative community,” Gross says. “I actually can’t say that I signed up to be a leader; leadership became part of my DNA. I was an advocate for the administrative community. I wanted fairness in terms of promotion, pay, contractor vs. full-time employee. I built teams that provided awards and recognition and mentoring when new people came in. Changing the profession, and others’ worldview of it, became a mission for me.”

So what to do in the event you assume you’re ready for the transition to CEA? First off, Gross says, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask.

“If you don’t have the courage to ask, you’re not ready for the title,” Gross says. “If anyone wants to rise to that level, they have to come prepared to ask for it. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Tell them why you deserve it. It’s like you’re training to fly a fighter jet — a lot of people won’t make it. But those who do will fly that jet and become the elite of the elite.”

Sharpening your expertise

After almost three many years in the enterprise, Gross is practically a celebrity among EAs. She sits on the Advisory Council for administrative packages at UCSC Extension and hosts in-person periods and webinars for Workplace Dynamics. She also just launched her own web site,, which gives workshops on subjects starting from creating profitable enterprise partnerships to communicating with confidence.

“I’m a trainer for administrative professionals,” Gross says. “I want to see them up-level their skills. I’m all about building exceptional business administrators. If you teach administrative professionals how valuable they are, and once they can recognize and add that value, they become true business partners.”

Gross advises EAs and aspiring and present CEAs to all the time look for avenues to higher themselves, whether or not via conferences, in-person workshops or webinars. Some of her favourite assets embrace Workplace Dynamics and the American Society for Administrative Professionals (ASAP).

“Office Dynamics offers free webinars, online training, and in-room training, and ASAP has free webinars and online training. Both of those organizations are two of my top picks, and they hold annual conferences,” Gross says. “Make it part of your plan to go to a conference. Get over the cube wall and see what’s going on in the big picture. You come back with so many new ideas and so much motivation — these conferences are so energizing.”

She also advises staying up-to-date on developments inside the business, and to concentrate on your personal strengths and weaknesses.

“Get a mentor or coach, read inspirational books, go online, go to in-room classes,” Gross says. “Do an assessment — develop a plan to address your weaknesses. Work on building excellent communication skills. There are tons of resources out there. And know what’s going on in the world. That’s what’s going to affect you. What your exec is interested in is what’s going on in the world. It’s a much bigger-picture role.”

And while Gross is a wealth of data when it comes to the CEA position, her fundamental piece of recommendation for surviving and thriving as an government assistant is to domesticate the expertise that make you stand out from the pack.

“There’s going to be a time when AI will come into play and replace the tasks that some administrative professional are doing today. But admins who are doing the strategic thinking and building relationships are not going to be replaced,” Gross says. “It’s up to all of us to change the perception of how we’re viewed, who we are and how we operate.”

Prime 5 qualities of a CEA, according to Debbie Gross

  1. Driven – “What you’re doing should make you relevant and valued.”
  2. Staff-oriented – “Don’t ask your assistants to do anything you wouldn’t – or aren’t – doing.”
  3. Advocacy – “I had a lot of administrative professionals in my community, and I wanted to be an advocate for my community.”
  4. Curious – “I had to ask questions. I wasn’t good at that in the beginning, but over time, I realized I had to not just have the answers, but ask the questions, too.”
  5. Great communicator – “How you communicate, whether personally or professionally – you have to take that to a higher level.”


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