Trial By Fire: An Interview with Phiandra Peck

This article first appeared in the September 2020 issue of OfficePro Magazine.
Written by John Naatz

From her very first days as an admin to leading the association in the midst of a global pandemic and uprising against oppression, 2020-2021 IAAP Board Chair Phiandra Peck hasn’t had it easy. But she’s the right leader for the job.

John: Start with how you became who you are now. Give us a little bit of background about growing up or anything that’s formative.

Phiandra: OK, let’s see. Where do I start? I’ve always lived in Indianapolis, Indiana. I was raised to be known as the oldest of four for my mother’s children, but I found out this past Christmas that she actually had a child two years before I was born that she gave up for adoption. That baby found my mother, so I met my older sister this past Christmas. I’m actually the second of five children. 

We hang out all the time. She didn’t have her adoptive family. She was the only girl, so she didn’t have sisters. She has tons of sisters now. I refer to my stepdad as my dad, and if you include my stepdad’s children, then I am number five of nine children.

[laughs] We all didn’t live under one roof at the same time. There’s a really large expanse of age range there. I normally was raised as the oldest, so it was usually me and four of us total, at least, and then five. That’s been fun. It’s been fun having a new sister, getting to know her and her history, and background.

She’s always been raised here in the city as well and not too far from where my mom lives. We could have been in the same stores at the same time and never really related. We laugh about that. She’s always heard her friends talk about their experiences hanging out with their mom and sisters on a weekend shopping, trip, or getaway, and now she’s able to do it.

That’s a little bit about me personally. As far as my background for an admin, I didn’t have any formal admin training. I basically built into the role like many others.

John: Walk us through that a little bit. Just give us a sense of where you started in the admin profession, and how you fell into it because I’m sure that’s an interesting story.

Phiandra: Growing up, my mom was an ophthalmic technician. She worked in a physician’s office. I basically sometimes would go to her job after school and would organize her office, file her paperwork because who likes to file? Right? That was something that she gave to the kid to do. I would do that. Thought it was fun. I knew everybody in the office. Basically, I grew up there.

At a point in time, I was involved in what they called DECA, Distributive Education Clubs of America, when I was in high school. That was a business focus training for me. At that time I escalated to be state secretary in that group. I’ve always had this leadership motive, I guess, in some ways that I’ve pushed to the back and then I’ve teeter-tottered with it.

I did that in high school. One of my first jobs was as a file clerk at an insurance company. Then part of DECA, your senior year of high school, you could go to school for a half a day, and then they found you a job that you worked at the rest of the day, and I got to keep the money from it. I signed up for that. I worked in the hardware department at Sears for a couple of years, actually. Then from there, I was what they considered to be a data entry person for the Indiana Department of Revenue temporarily during their busy season, so I worked for the Indiana IRS.

Fast forward to my mom’s job again, and one of those physicians had an admin out on maternity leave. They had hired a temp, but it wasn’t working out. They still had some weeks left before his admin came back. I was in between jobs, and my mom asked me if I wanted to come in and help out since I knew everybody. I was like, “OK, it can’t be that hard. I know everybody, they’ll be nice to me.” The first day was disastrous.

The doctor I was working for did cornea transplant and cataract surgeries. Long story short, I’ll try to make it as short and compressed as possible. The temp, when I went in, there was a full schedule for that week. I put the patient charts together, all the notes, and everything that they needed, and I waited. The patient arrived. I put them in the exam room and waited, and waited, and there was no doctor, and he’s really punctual. Everybody was concerned. I waited a little longer and finally, I called his house and his son answered and I was like, “Well, where’s Dr. So-and-so?” He was like, “In California.” I was like—the temp had not blocked that schedule for the week and had appointments and surgery scheduled. My first day was spent with angry patients because Indianapolis was in the center of the state and it’s the only medical center in the state, so people from all over the state travel for their appointments. It was a really uncomfortable day, but I got through it. At the end of the day, I went to my mom’s boss and said I was quitting and she wouldn’t let me.

[laughter]

I got through that. Basically, that’s how I fell into my first admin role—because his admin decided not to come back from maternity leave and I took over.

I was indoctrinated the hard way. I got through it the first day and after that first day, I was like, “This is easy. I can handle anything after that.” It was a smaller company in that each subspecialty area had their own admin, but we all worked independently so there was never any group gatherings or sharing of information. It really wasn’t until I left that role and went to a larger company that I understood the power of being able to band together, work together to get results achieved, to be able to change and influence decisions and things like that, and really know how powerful the admin voice could be.

John: I bet. From what it sounds, even as a family being the oldest, obviously you’ve got a leadership lean to it. The oldest always does to a certain extent.

Phiandra: I had all the chores and the responsibilities and the babysitting. That’s probably why I don’t have my own kids because I’ve already raised my siblings.

[laughter]

John: I get that for sure. Has that influenced your journey as a leader, as an unassuming leader, as somebody that takes it just as a natural progression?

Phiandra: I think so. It’s not something that I sought after. I also have seen it role-modeled by my parents. They were both highly involved in the Mason’s organization and they each escalated to their highest achievements that they could get within our regional areas. I’ve seen them do it at work. They involved me in the junior Mason’s order when I was younger and I had roles in that group when I was younger. I think it does come easier since I am the oldest because I always had to be the one responsible for something, or I’d never hesitate to take charge on something either.

It’s funny because, like I said, I was raised the oldest of four. I’m the only one that went to public school. All the rest of my siblings went to Catholic school, but yet I wasn’t a bad kid. I tell my parents all the time, I know that I was the experiment. That’s OK. I’ve accepted it. It allowed me the opportunity just because I’d never—my youngest sibling is four and a half years younger than I am. We were never in school together like some other siblings are. They have another sibling with them at some point in time. I never had that. I’ve always been on my own, independent. If I wanted something, I just put my head to it and eventually figured out how to get it.

John: The admin role works perfect for that because God knows you got to do that on a daily basis.

Phiandra: That’s interesting, too, because moving up, I’ve been an admin, a senior admin, a senior EA, so a lot of different titles, but to see how those roles correspond too. As a senior EA, it’s, “Yes, I’m working for a higher level figure or someone in the C-suite.” But you’re on an island by yourself basically as a senior EA a lot of times because the expectation is that you know everything and they just tell you something and you take the means to get it done, versus when I first started off as an admin, yes, I had to wait to be told everything and I couldn’t figure it out. But now I’m much more proactive, I try to look ahead down the line, anticipate what the needs are, and then just get it done because I don’t want it on my desk. I try to hurry up and give it back.

John: Have you seen IAAP’s value in being able to not be in a vacuum on a day-to-day, being able to connect with people that have the same issues as you, and being able to figure things out through people that have maybe already figured it out?

Phiandra: Absolutely. If anybody starts off on the leadership journey or track within IAAP, they definitely get that. I think that messaging is clear. One of the things that drew me—well, let me back that up. What pushed me to IAAP was actually a recommendation of a supervisor. They could see that I was stagnant in my role. I was doing everything so quickly and so efficiently that I was twiddling my thumbs more than really getting true work accomplished. They didn’t really know what to give me, what all I could handle because it had always been given to someone in a higher capacity role.

She saw that and pushed me to look for what was available for admin training. That was a Google search and IAAP was the first thing that popped up. I realized that I knew people in my company that were IAAP members I had worked with on some sub-teams for different things like that at my company. I had the opportunity to have subgroups that was focused on development training, a newsletter, so I was on the training and development team for a little while. I served with some leaders on the upper team that were IAAP members.

I was pretty impressed by them. I just got to thinking, “That’s that group I saw online. Let me look into it a little further.” My supervisor was on board with paying for my membership. I was like, “OK, no harm, no foul. You want to spend money on me. Let me sign up for that.” Well, then I didn’t go to meetings. I stood on the sidelines because, here I am, I’m an introvert to the core. While it was OK to check the box and say I was a member, I realized I needed to do more but had to be pushed by my employer still.

I was hearing from the chapter president, “When am I coming to a meeting?” The membership chair, “When am I coming to a meeting?” The next thing I know, my coworkers that were IAAP members were scheduling lunches with me talking about IAAP. I’m like, “OK, they’re pushy but still friendly. [chuckles] Who are all these people that want me?” I finally attended. I broke down. I was like, “What took me so long?” Because as soon as I was there, I realized everybody there knew what I was talking about and what I went through.

It was like, “You mean, there’s people outside of my camp?” I still didn’t correlate the admin profession to be as big as it is. It’s just in my little four walls that I’m in every day, not knowing that it’s worldwide. That we have all of these roles and we’re all doing these same things. That just awed me. That’s what really got me started with, “OK.” By the time I left that first meeting, I was on a committee. [chuckles] That happens a lot it seems like when you go to IAAP functions, not so much now since we changed the governance.

I was on a committee then. I helped out. Luckily, the committee chair was someone I worked with. That made it easy. She basically groomed me to take over for her that next year as the chair. I did that and then dibbled and dabbled in different things, just bits and pieces that I heard during the meetings, that I heard other members talk about. This made me more interested.

John: We’re going to go back now. You touched on this in the last response, but what are your feelings about the administrative profession as a whole? What do you see the role as now, when you started, and how it’s looking in the future? Can you describe that for us?

Phiandra: I think that when I started, even though that was 28 years ago, there’s been many changes, a lot technological-wise, of course, but I think a lot has changed in regards to the mentality of being an admin. We have all recognized that we have a larger voice and some of our employers have been willing to hear. We are realizing our value and true worth, especially during the pandemic era. We are realizing that, while we are not in the office, necessarily, we are a huge part of the team that keeps the workplace afloat, no matter what. I don’t know if I would have recognized that when I first started all those years ago. 

Now, I think, and toward the feature, the admin is going to play an even larger role in supporting our executives, and we’re still going to continue to take on additional roles and responsibilities as (Artificial Intelligence) comes into place. It’s going to get pushed forward a lot faster, I think, with a pandemic, and it’s all being at home as we have to pivot and adapt to this changing world, but I think that the admin and the different skills that we learn, that we try to stay on top of, we’re going to have an influence.

I think employers are going to recognize that. My own employer—until the pandemic—as an admin, you were offered 12 work from home days a year, and you had to track them and you had to justify why you were at home. I’ve been on a work-from-home status since March 9, and I’m not expected to return to work anytime before January. coronavirus cases are going up locally, so it’s probably going to be longer than that. Google just announced that they’re not returning their employees until June.

To go from that shift in mentality of, “You’re an admin, you’re only allowed 12 days,” whereas anyone else in the company could take whatever day they wanted to work from home, and now seeing the production hasn’t changed, nothing’s changed. If nothing else we’re working even harder and more hours. Now there’s just no talk of it. Now, we’re encouraged to focus on our wellness and mental being, and we’re encouraged to still take vacation days and time off from work, even if it’s hours at a time just to destress and get breaks. Recognizing our value and seeing the company pivot has been amazing.

John: Would it be safe to say that the pandemic has been some positive results and maybe a bit of a leveling of the playing field as far as how the perception of the profession has been?

Phiandra: I think so. There are still issues that I see during the pandemic where those admins that are in the area where they still need to be told everything to do are struggling. That’s normal. You’re not sitting outside of that office door right now, but that’s the time where you have to be proactive and take your own steps to be that leader. Step up outside of your comfort zone and put 15 minutes on your executive’s calendar every week, and don’t let them change that. Use those 15 minutes as your check-in time, where you can still discuss the things that you were discussing in person, and just find out what’s important to them right now because things are pivoting and changing for them as well, hourly in some cases.

As those things are coming down, asking them to just keep you looped in, there’s no harm in that at all. As long as you keep it confidential, that’s what it merits, I think that they will appreciate that. For those of us that have always been, “Just give it to me and I can take charge of it,” it really hasn’t been an issue. I think the biggest issue is even an introvert like me, I am now starting to miss people and wouldn’t actually mind a hug every now and then, even though I’m a real protector of my personal space.

When it first started, I thought, “Oh, this will be a couple of weeks,” and then it’s just gone on and on and on. I can count on more than one hand the number of places I have moved to use as an office in my house. We’re all in the same boat. Some of my executives are standing up at an ironing board in a spare room. It just depends, but basically just knowing that we’re all in this together, no matter what, and it’s universal. It’s not just North America. It is everywhere, so we are all struggling with this at the same time. While some of us look more polished than others, we all have our moments.

John: Yes, well put. That logically brings us to how IAAP can help the people that maybe—a task-oriented admin we’ll call them, how that IAAP community can help and how it can help with things like the stir-craziness, with the lack of connection on a daily basis?

Phiandra: Well, one of the things I can say, I’m going to loop Virtual Summit in here, so if anybody participated in Virtual Summit, they had an opportunity to take part in the wellness, well-being sessions, which were phenomenal. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw it on the schedule. Then when I logged in and participated I was just like, “Wow, it was so needed.” Even at my own company, our Diversity and Inclusion group has been scheduling weekly seminars just for 30 minutes at a time. Living alone in the pandemic, raising kids at home during the pandemic, working at home with everybody else, because usually, you’re home alone when you’re working, right?

It’s just a focus on being able to take 15 minutes to 30 minutes at a time and just whoosah. As far as those that need to be told what to do, I think engagement within our association is going to be so important. It’s going to be important for those people that are in need to reach out and let us know they’re in need because without that ask we don’t know. We can’t assume. That’s a big part of why we got the Count On Me campaign going on right now for those that are in need and still want to maintain their membership. It’s all about embracing each other, including each other, listening to each other, and hearing each other. It’s about reaching out beyond your normal circles. Maybe you’ve only affiliated with people at your Branch or Region level, and it’s about expanding your circle. That’s why there are no borders to what Branch or Region can belong to.

If you see a topic listed for an event that you’re interested in, and it’s not your area, who cares? Sign up for it and participate, and get to know others outside of the ones that you would normally see. That would be the same thing I would encourage people to do even if they attended an in-person event. Why hang out with the same folks from your area that entire time? You’re there to meet people and expand your connections and network. It’s OK to hang out with your group maybe for dinner or one day during a session but any other time walk into a room and purposely go to a table where you don’t know people, and sit down to ask them if you can join, and sit down and introduce yourself, and pass along your business card.

I think that IAAP has done a great job of pivoting our events to virtual. We didn’t have any choice. We could have just folded and we haven’t. We’re still standing and we’re still trudging through it, and still adapting to things as they come along. There is nothing set in stone right now. I know that we are going to look to continue to make those same virtual offerings. It was wonderful that the IAAP Foundation supported us in our ask for them to help us make our event be virtual this year. I appreciate them for that.

From a member standpoint, outside of going beyond your circle, it is reaching out to someone that you haven’t reached out to. Maybe you see a comment they’ve made on SocialLink, something that someone has posted that maybe you want to know a little bit more information about. You don’t have to post it out there for everyone to see if you are uncomfortable in that way, but feel free to reach out and make that direct connection so that someone is more than willing to help you expand your skills, or teach you a skill, or point you in the right direction for what you may need.

Then others I say use SocialLink to ask questions and not be afraid or intimidated because there’s probably someone else out there wondering the same thing and just hasn’t had the courage to ask yet. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the responses that you get because everyone out there is very receptive.

John: Absolutely. I had the liberty of reading your speech. You talked a little bit about the importance of a personal representative, somebody you can identify with that was in a leadership position at IAAP. Can you speak a little bit about that and how the DNI work that is being pushed to the forefront now is the importance of it?

Phiandra: Well, I mentioned before that I joined IAAP and then didn’t participate. I always got the OfficePro magazine, and there was always the chairman issue. That issue would come and it was always this little old white lady staring back at me every year. That was one of the reasons why—I already saw that at my employer, so I was like, “OK, that’s all there are out there.” I’m thinking I’m this huge minority and then I find out later that I’m not. Fast forward once I did start participating, and then when I attended my first summit in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I encountered someone that went on to become Chair of the Board of Directors of IAAP that was an African American. That was Toni Smith, Antoinette Smith. I did not introduce myself to Toni that first time, but I noted, “Oh, there’s a Black person on the stage.” That just piqued my interest because, other than that, there was a sea of white women with the exception of one white male who was Sam Gill, that was Great Lakes District Director at the time.

I thought, “OK, I see a Black woman and I see a white guy. They’re working toward it.” That made me more interested. Plus if you’ve ever met Toni, you just know she has this character and grace about her. It was something I hadn’t seen before. I’ve seen it in others but not in someone that looked like me. It just piqued my interest. It’s something like—I don’t know how to describe. As a Black woman, it makes me feel comfortable when I see others that I can relate to. Not that I couldn’t relate to the little old white lady because I know we’re in the same profession, but it’s just different because I feel like that person that looks like me can relate to my circumstances and situations more easily.

Like I said, I didn’t introduce myself to Toni then but I noticed that. Then there was also what they had was the Past International Presidents introductions and Eleanor Hickman was there that year. She was Black and I was like, “Oh, well, I’ve never seen them in the magazine.” That just made me more interested. I did introduce myself to Eleanor and then later on, fast forward when I was on the Indiana Division Board, we had the opportunity to get Board of Directors members to come and represent at your division annual meetings.

Well, the year I was treasurer, Toni Smith was my representative. The weekend of the Indiana Division Meeting that year, I just really got to know Toni. She piqued my interest. I went on to become the Division President, and at the incoming Division Presidents’ conference, there was assigned seating and somehow I was at Toni’s table. Then we were able to make another connection. I think she fell to me. I basically got on my Division Board because it was the next logical step after the Chapter President, but then I thought about stalling from there because what was next, and Toni was able to coach me and mentor me and show me what next steps were, the things I needed to work on, things I needed to do if that’s what I was seriously considering.

She thought I should seriously consider it. I didn’t think I should. She had to convince me. Later on, I got roles. I was one of the first co-chairs of the Governance and Leadership Working Group before it became a committee. Then she was on the Board of Directors then, so we had to submit reports to the Board. She saw the work that was completed and I think it was probably a lot of her influence that allowed me to get put on the radar to be on the Board of Directors because how I ended up there was I was appointed. I wasn’t elected my first term on the Board. Not to say that I didn’t try to do it. I did run at Anaheim and it didn’t turn out so well. It was a painful defeat but I got over it. 

John: You talked about OfficePro and how it featured a lot of old white ladies, as you put it. Truth be told in the past, for sure that was the theme. Obviously, we’ve slowly but surely started to integrate a more diverse representation of the profession.

Phiandra: Absolutely.

John: It’s such a diverse profession. How far do you think we still have to go? Talk a little bit about where you see us playing in the future, in that space.

Phiandra: Well, I’ll mention that even when I did start attending IAAP events at my local Chapter, I was often the only Black person in the room. Then when there would be another Black person who would come, I would latch onto them. “Hey, how you doing? This is fantastic. Don’t you want to come hang out with us? Come join me. I don’t want to be the only one.” Didn’t work. That was locally. At the Division level, it was the same. There may be one or two of us in the room for an entire weekend and then to get to the international level see more of us in the room and not only people that look like me, but I saw Hispanics, I saw Asians. It was like, “This is really a vast network that can get you anywhere.” Then to watch the Parade of Nations and know that we have all of these members and all of these different countries and it’s like, “We are huge, and we have a huge influence and have all of this different diversity within us, and we’ve been including these folks. Not just taking their money, but trying to include them.”

Coming to present time, I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, with me in this role as a Black person, I cannot not mention diversity and inclusion this year as one of my goals. It’s not just about making the field look more representative, but focusing on including everyone as well. People may say, “Oh, we’re all IAAP members, so we’re all on the same ship.” Generally, that is true, but at the same time, especially with what’s going on, I realized that we haven’t necessarily listened to what the needs are of all of our members.

By the board making a statement during our community forum about supporting Black Lives Matter, it’s not about supporting that organization, but it is recognizing the fact that if we don’t recognize that Black Lives Matter, then all lives and all opinions don’t matter. I told someone the other day, the black delegation didn’t go out two weeks after George Floyd’s murder and come up with a black national anthem, kneeling protests, even all these other things that are coming to light. These are things that Blacks as a community created a long time ago because it was necessary in order for us to have some type of feeling of inclusion amongst ourselves because while the constitution was being written, “All men are created equal,” the thought was, all men weren’t created equal because those same people were slaveholders.

It’s one where we put on this face for years and now it’s time to face the reality and face the truth. It’s a hard truth. It’s a difficult truth. It’s an uncomfortable truth. We all have biases, even I do as a Black female. I cannot say that I don’t. That would be an absolute lie. We all have biases and a lot of times we don’t know that we have those biases. I’ve been ignorant in many aspects myself, and things have come to light in the last few months personally for me. 

I think as far as the inclusion of members and what it is members want, what it is members need, but I also say that in order for us to focus on inclusion, we have to have members that are engaged. Of late we have struggled with engagement from a leadership standpoint. There are six Regional Director opportunities that are open right now. People haven’t stepped up to the plate. We can’t get people engaged in those areas. We had an engagement survey that IAAP had opened for much longer than we ever anticipated this year and still didn’t really reach our quota as to what we wanted to receive response-wise. It’s learning and listening and finding out why we can’t get the answers when we’re asking the questions.

Then also when it comes to our governance and voting in our leadership elections, we’ve been told by our members that it’s important to them, but yet, we don’t have that same level of engagement that we had prior. It’s working through those issues and trying to understand them and trying to figure out what it’s going to take to get that engagement, to get our inclusions so that we can still stay around for an additional 78 years of existence.

John: Absolutely. It seems to me that engagement is really your core goal. Even with the D&I work and things like that, engagement is really your core goal as board chair for this year. From the very first admin job, from the very first day, the trial by fire has been your shtick. Is there anything, considering how challenging this next year is going to be, that you would really like to see from IAAP and you personally?

Phiandra: D&I, engagement, and I think it would be valuable if we reevaluated our partnerships or collaboration partnerships that we have. Yes, we signed those agreements but then we didn’t really do much with them this first year. I think evaluating that process and how both organizations, how we can assist each other, it’s going to be—like I said, we’re all in the same boat right now. Rather than look at people as competitors, it’s important to embrace them and include them as well and each other so we can help one another. While we may cover different markets and areas, the challenge is the same and the ultimate goal is the same for our members overall as well.

John: Let’s see. We’ve hit pretty much everything, which is great. Do you have any other, we’ll call them parting thoughts, but anything that you would like to share, add, let the readers, the membership, anybody know?

Phiandra: I’m looking forward to this year. Even though I’ve been on the board five years now and I have transcended up and been faced with just about everything, each year is its own unique set of circumstances that comes into play. I don’t know what’s down the pike this year, but I believe that the board that has been elected is already set and determined and willing to take on whatever challenge comes our way.

We’ve got a great group. I actually did orientation with them yesterday and then we did a pre-orientation the night before. Even though that was a weekend, we’re not afraid to work extra hours, put in the time. One thing that is going to be important for us is cohesion. I know there are challenges. We are not always expected to have the same answer and the same thought, nor should we. Part of the great dialogue is having those conflicting conversations and discussions. This group, we’ve already had some of those and we’ve worked out just fine. We are unafraid.

I know that, while certain statements have been made, I guess in the community forum that not all members agree with, the board believes that it is important enough we are all standing together on it. We’re willing to have conversations with people that don’t agree with us. That’s OK as well. I just want to say to our membership that their opinion matters. If there are issues, they can reach out to any member of the board of directors or any IAAP staff. All the contact information is on the website. I just look forward to how we all can work together in this coming year to get through this.

One thought on “Trial By Fire: An Interview with Phiandra Peck

  1. Hi Phiandra! What do you mean by “partnerships or collaboration partnerships” that you mention in the third paragraph from the last paragraph in your article? Really good to hear your thoughts now – Your Indianapolis 500 Chapter friend, Corrie (nee Kontak) Scott

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