This article first appeared in the October 1994 issue of The Secretary Magazine.
Written by Tracy Fellin Savidge
A key component in career success, says Elnor G. Hickman CPS, 1994-95 PSI® International President, is to fall in love. And where the secretarial profession and her position as secretary to the executive director of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago are concerned, she has done just that. “I care an awful lot about the association and the secretarial profession,” Hickman says, emphatically.
“The second key,” Hickman continues, “is to have a sense of urgency-to say, ‘Now is the time.'” And she intends to instill a sense of urgency into accomplishing the tasks she’s laid out in her presidential platform, including establishing a “corporate culture” within Professional Secretaries International®, emphasizing diversity in association programs, and heavily marketing the association.
Taking the first step
Like many of her professional contemporaries, Hickman was a fan of Della Street, the dutiful, intuitive, and exceedingly efficient secretary of the 1960s T.V. lawyer Perry Mason. But Hickman didn’t realize her talent—and love for—a secretarial career until years later.
A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Hickman moved in the 1950s to Chicago, where her only sibling, a brother, still lives. A widow with two daughters and a son, she was working as a long-distance operator with Illinois Bell when she learned about a secretarial-education program available through the federal government’s Manpower Development Training Act. Hickman applied immediately because, she says, “Although it had never been financially possible to get the training before, I knew I would be a good secretary.”
She admits to some very anxious moments when she resigned her job to go to secretarial school. However, Hickman says, “within the first week I knew I’d made the right decision. I just excelled at everything. In fact, when the teachers went out of the room, they left me in charge.”
After completing the one-year training program, Hickman landed a legal secretary job with her current employer, the Legal Assistance Foundation, which provides free legal assistance in civil cases for groups and individuals who cannot afford to pay for counsel. It was then that Hickman developed an interest in the field of law.
“I worked in a neighborhood office in the West Side of Chicago with a wonderful group of people,” she says. “And we all had a dream back in the ‘60s about changing the world.”
A turn on the career path
Hickman attended a job-sponsored workshop in the late ‘60s where she learned about the Certified Professional Secretary (CPS) Examination, and she immediately set her heart upon attaining the CPS rating. Realizing the need for additional preparation, she enrolled at Loop (now Harold Washington) Junior College in Chicago, where she earned an associate’s degree in law.
When she passed the CPS Examination in 1977 she was invited to a meeting of the Chicago Lake Shore Chapter of PSI to receive her certificate.
“At one time I had thought of completing my college education and going to law school. But after joining PSI, I made a little turn on the career path and became firmly entrenched in the secretarial profession,” she explains. “That’s why I always say ‘I’m a secretary by choice and not by chance.’”
A PSI member since 1978, Hickman says she has “gravitated toward leadership roles.” Those roles have included serving two terms as Chicago Lake Shore Chapter president and five years on the Illinois Division Board of Directors, one term as the division president. She has been on the PSI International Board of Directors since 1988 and holds the distinction of being the first African-American to hold the association’s top leadership post.
Upbeat and on the move
Whether she’s outlining her goals for PSI or talking about her career, Hickman maintains
a positive demeanor; she is not, it seems, one who dwells on the negative. In fact, she has but one regret of her 27 years as a secretary—that she didn’t start working for a large organization, such as a corporation or the federal government, which would have offered a variety of opportunities for advancement.
Hickman acknowledges that secretarial stereotypes still exist, but says she hasn’t experienced “any of that ‘just a secretary’ business” in her career. Likewise, she doesn’t feel that she’s faced any real career setbacks as an African-American woman in the business world. “I like to think that if you have excellent skills—both technical and interpersonal-you’re going to make it,” she says.
“Perhaps I’ve lived a charmed life in the business world—being in the right place at the right time to meet the right people. But I have made every effort to be prepared when opportunity knocked,” she concludes.
On the job, Hickman feels blessed by a diversity of tasks to keep each day exciting. “It’s a constantly changing panorama, depending on the projects we are working on,” she notes.
For example, as secretary of Sheldon Roodman, executive director of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, Hickman says one of her most important—and challenging—functions is “knowing where everything is.”
“I’ve really been looking forward to the paperless office,” she says, with a laugh.
In terms of other tasks, Hickman is responsible for preparing and distributing a variety of correspondence, reports, and proposals for her executive, as well as scheduling appointments, and working with the organization’s 30-member board—including preparing hefty meeting notes, arranging meetings, and taking minutes. She also handles travel arrangements for her executive and client board members, is secretary to the hiring committee, and on occasion has been given the task of interviewing candidates for secretarial positions.
“I’ve also gotten the reputation as a problem-solver,” she notes. “The switchboard routinely refers ‘problem calls’ to me.”
“I enjoy being in the center of action,” Hickman adds. “There are always new growth experiences, no two days are the same—and that’s my personal prescription for maintaining this ‘love affair’ with my chosen profession.”
Name: Elnor G. Hickman, CPS
Job Title: Executive secretary to the executive director of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago.
Born and Raised: Jackson, Mississippi
About My Family: Wonderfully supportive, especially my husband, Caloway.
What I Like Best About My Job: The level of responsibility, variety, and challenges.
What I Like Least: Filing.
Most Significant Changes Witnessed in the Secretarial Profession: Personal computers and copiers. (I remember carbon paper.)
Biggest Challenges Met During Career: The five years I attended evening school while working and single-parenting full time.
Professional Goals: To be an outstanding PSI president and to be a mentor and role model for aspiring secretaries.
Most Memorable Professional Experience: 1. Becoming PSI International President; 2. Passing the CPS Examination
My Role Models Are: Too numerous to list.
What I Do To Relax: Go shopping.
My Hope for Future Secretaries: That they will prepare for the profession, join PSI, and achieve “Degrees or Excellence.”
Last Book Read: You Can’t Afford the Luxury of Negative Thought by John Roger and McWilliams
Favorite Movie: “The Fugitive”
Favorite Food/Restaurant: Salmon at Nick’s Fishmarket
Favorite Music/Performer: Ballads/Nancy Wilson and Tony Bennett
Nobody Knows That I … Enjoy reading mystery stories in my “spare time.”
My Dream Vacation Destination: Bali (again)
Prediction for the Future: PSI membership of 100,000 in the year 2000