Laura Schwartz knew how to get noticed for all the right reasons at work – which is no mean feat when you are working for the most powerful man in the world.
Over the course of six years, the American worked her way up from being a student volunteer at the White House to becoming the director of events. Her president, Bill Clinton, referred to her as “Sarge” for her ability to give him orders.
“I was not a ‘yes man’, and was never intimidated by the president. I would agree or disagree, but if ever I disagreed I would always say why,” says Ms Schwartz. “I’ve always said, ‘Don’t be afraid if you don’t know the answer. Be afraid if you don’t know how to find it in just one call’.”
Nowadays Ms Schwartz, 41, is a best-selling author, television commentator and professional speaker who will be presenting at the Executive Secretary Live gathering in Dubai – an international two-day conference from the global training magazine Executive Secretary. The event starts on November 12, featuring eight of the world's top trainers for assistants.
But back in 1993, when she was a 19 year-old college student from Wisconsin, she had no idea what path her life would take.
Ms Schwartz started volunteering at the White House the day after Mr Clinton’s inauguration – answering phones, making coffee and photo-copying, along with five other press office volunteers.
“The first time I walked into the White House, it took my breath away. There was not one day I didn’t feel like I was part of something larger than myself,” she recalls.
Because Ms Schwartz had no political experience, she knew she had to learn fast. "I read the Washington Post and the Washington Times every day, in the days before we had online news, reading more than just the entertainment sections. And I listened to conversations around me.
“At that time staff members were getting their bearings, so they didn’t have time to sit down with us volunteers. One day I answered the phone to someone who said she was Maggie Williams. I said, ‘Oh Miss Williams, who are you with?’ She said, ‘I’m the first lady’s chief of staff.’ That was the point I knew I had to figure out who was who. So I took the president’s executive office phone book and read it to and from work on the bus and the subway. I memorised who was in what position so I did not make that mistake again.”
These are the sorts of gems Ms Schwartz will pass onto the hundreds of administrative workers attending next week’s Executive Secretary Live.
Even a seemingly monotonous task such as photo-copying can be a chance to learn new skills, says Ms Schwartz.
“I always made sure that I made a copy of everything I copied for myself. One day, one of the busy press secretaries walked in and said, ‘Gosh, does anyone out here know how to write a press release? And I said ‘I do.’ I’d never written one before in my life, but I took out an old press release I’d copied and created a new one.
“People got to know my name because I was always ready to do any task. There was one other girl who had volunteered right alongside me – but she worked nine-to-five. I thought I was only going to be there a short time, so I wanted to make the most of it.”
At the end of the term, Ms Schwartz was asked to stay on as a volunteer to help train up new interns. She lived with four other girls in a one-bedroom apartment, often working from 6.30am until 10pm seven days a week. She was subsequently rewarded for her diligence by being made Mid-West press secretary, then in 1995 director of television, and two years later she moved across the building to become the director of events. At the tender age of 24, she was the youngest-ever female presidential appointee.
“If you were producing results and you were on it, your age was never something that was questioned. You can’t mess it up on the world stage – there’s no room for error. Preparation was key, because then you could be confidant and you could execute.”
By 2001 Miss Schwartz was responsible for more than 1,000 events she oversaw in the 18 acres – the White House itself and the grounds. Her time as director of events included bill signings, press conferences and state dinners.
But she says her schedule was sometimes set off-key by Mr Clinton’s infamously tardy nature.
“The president was always late – in fact, we called it ‘CST’ for ‘Clinton Standard Time’. But he wasn’t late because he was lazy, he was late because he was a multitasker and had a lot going on. So even though all the guests, the press and the marine band were in place to start an event, the president might not be there because he was getting briefed on national security. So you know what? You deal with it.”
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