My first read of Larry Summers’s quote in a New Yorker article that profiled Sheryl Sandberg, “When Sheryl hosted an economics-association reception, every nametag was right, the food was right, the schedule was right” sounded a bit like a pat on the head. (Summers was referencing Sandberg’s college years at Harvard where she co-founded a Women in Economics and Government group.) I was reminded of my own past experiences when, as the only woman amongst colleagues of men, I’ve been asked to take care of the organizational details traditionally relegated to women such as ordering sandwiches. How difficult is it really to organize a reception? Difficult enough that Summers was also quoted as saying, “When most students start to organize things, things fall between the cracks.” Sandberg may have had a meteoric rise, but before Google and Facebook it wasn’t just her intelligence she was being noticed for. She was being noticed for her diligence to details.
The ability to manage and navigate details matters. Unless you’re at the top of the organizational hierarchy, you’re scheduling your own meetings and typing your own communications regardless of the number of degrees you hold. And if you’ve just begun your career it’s not unlikely that you’ll be asked to manage details a secretarial pool once handled. For the job that consists entirely of administrative responsibilities modern times have dressed up the title for the college educated, what was once a secretary is now an Executive Assistant, as if the word executive makes a difference. Perhaps the word executive makes both the assistant and the assisted feel more important.
Regardless of linguistic stratagems, buying coffee is still buying coffee, taking meeting notes is still taking meeting notes, and booking travel is still booking travel. Though such tasks can quickly become mundane, if you allow boredom to distract you from accuracy don’t be surprised if those who could aid in your rise determine you’re not ready for more responsibility. Innovation is executed with organization.