Celebrating Calendar Jenga Champions and Swiss Army Knife Skills on Administrative Professionals Day

On April 24, recognize Duke’s roughly 1,000 administrative professionals who keep everything running smoothly

A collage of six administrative professionals at Duke
Program Assistant Mindy Guzman stands with the tiny horse she helped wrangle for pet therapy
Program Assistant Mindy Guzman stands next to the tiny horse she helped direct to pet therapy at Duke Medical Center Library last fall. Photo courtesy of Victor Gordon

In the case of the tiny therapy horses, Guzman cordoned off a spot for the trailer to park and marched the horses up the elevator one at a time, where “it was like Taylor Swift walking off the elevator when each one walked off,” Gordon said.

“Even though she hadn't done anything like this before, you wouldn't be able to tell,” Gordon said. “She's really cool as a cucumber when it comes to pulling stuff like that off.”

Wrangling tiny horses and organizing details for a recent workshop are only about 10% of Guzman’s job as one of roughly 1,000 administrative professionals at Duke. She also does more mundane, everyday tasks like make PowerPoint slides for staff meetings, help new hires get identification, answer questions about benefits, and, most importantly, Gordon said, “make everyone smile.”

“She's just a real positive presence in the library,” Gordon said. “I can't say that enough.”

In honor of Administrative Professionals Day on April 24, here are a handful of other standouts in the profession at Duke who find solutions, no matter what the problem.

Winning at Calendar Jenga

Cindy Hinson has a term for how she delicately maneuvers multiple schedules in search of one open slot that might allow for 30 uninterrupted minutes: Calendar Jenga.

Neera Skurky, Cindy Hinson and Anne Fox pose for a group photo when the Office of Counsel colleagues realized they were all wearing shirts with birds.
Associate General Counsel Neera Skurky, Legal Coordinator Cindy Hinson and Associate General Counsel Anne Fox pose for a photo when the Office of Counsel colleagues realized they were all wearing shirts with birds. Photo courtesy of Neera Skurky

As in, it’s like playing a game where unsteady wooden blocks are stacked atop one another and a single false move might make the whole thing tumble to the ground in ruin.

“I do feel like it accurately conveys what she has to deal with,” said Neera Skurky, Associate General Counsel in Duke’s Office of Counsel. “I think people take for granted how easy it might sound to have to schedule a meeting – just call up those people and find a common time. But the truth is, it's really hard.”

Hinson, a Legal Coordinator, often thinks creatively, Skurky said, when finding schedule solutions, and her friendly relationships with other administrative professionals usually helps her win favors. She keeps a constant supply of sweets and mints at her desk, along with a sign where she regularly rotates inspirational quotes. The latest read, “The phrase ‘Don’t take this the wrong way’ has a 99% chance of failure.”

“Sometimes she'll have something up there that cracks me up and just entertains me,” Skurky said. “And sometimes she'll put something on that board that makes me think, ‘Whoa. That's wisdom.’

“She’s just so good about building relationships with people within our office and across our institution.”

Going Above and Beyond

This might sound small, but it has gotten to the point where Robin Famiglietti doesn’t even need to proofread the minutes Brooke Lafko takes during high-level executive meetings. At the Duke Cancer Institute, where complex medical procedures are the norm, it’s a big deal.

Brooke Lafko, third from left in green, poses with Duke Cancer Institute colleagues at Sarah P. Duke Gardens.
Executive Assistant Brooke Lafko, third from left in green, visited Sarah P. Duke Gardens with her Duke Cancer Institute colleagues to see the cherry blossoms. Photo courtesy of Robin Famiglietti

“I’ve been here now almost five years, and she's been the only administrative assistant that could keep up with me,” said Robin Famiglietti, Assistant Vice President for Oncology & Chief Administrator for DCI. “She really tries to be autonomous to help me in whatever way she can.”

Lafko, Executive Assistant to Famiglietti and Jennifer Kennedy Stovall, Director for Access Operations and Patient Experience, has also fostered a sense of community by coordinating DCI’s Get Moving Challenge team and setting up a special Microsoft Teams channel where employees interact.

Her initiative to take on tasks beyond what’s in her job description is what makes her special, Famiglietti said. She joined the Patient Experience Committee organized by Stovall, where she’s “an active participant in the meetings, giving her thoughts on ways we can improve,” Stovall said.

Lafko juggles it all with being a mother to a young daughter and studying for a master’s in Business Administration.

“We've had a conversation to say, ‘Hey, do things that aren’t in your job description that you can put on your CV that shows that you've taken initiative,’ and she took that and ran with it,” Famiglietti said.

Helping with a Wealth of Experience

Paige Burton started in the Office of the Provost as Associate Vice Provost for Finance and Administration in late 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t the easiest way to integrate to a new job, but Tracy McNeil was there to help.

Administrative Operational Manager Tracy McNeil poses wearing some of the stylish clothes he's always complimented for wearing.
Administrative Operational Manager Tracy McNeil poses wearing some of the stylish clothes he's always complimented for wearing. Photo courtesy of Paige Burton

“The transition was just seamless,” Burton said. “He knows who to contact, he knows the right individuals within the group to do the behind-the-scenes work.”

McNeil, an Administrative Operational Manager in the Office of the Provost, has been at Duke since 1993. He’s worked at the Office of Accounting Services, the Talent Identification Program, the Office of Student Activities and Facilities and the Office of Research Administration.

He’s seen it all and simply knows how to get things done.

“Anyone who is good in that kind of administrative job, they need to know the systems, and he’s got that down cold,” said Kimberley Harris, Associate Vice Provost and Director of Academic HR Services. “Then on top of that, he's calm, he's organized. I think he does a great job of building relationships – interacting with people both professionally with respect to whatever the subject is, but then building friendships and knowing a little bit about the person.”

McNeil manages two administrative assistants, as well, and always interacts with everyone with a smile and a stylish flair – often sporting a bow tie and vest or a blazer.

“He’s a snappy dresser,” Harris said. “Even the more casual looks always have nice colors and are matching.”

Quick to Use ‘And’ Instead of ‘But’

When more than one person in the Department of Sociology made a mistake with a new system of submitting expenses recently, Brenetta Tate recognized there was something she could do to help. As the Departmental Business Manager, Tate took the initiative to walk faculty members through the mobile app process of submitting receipts – alleviating a lot of stress and frustration in the process.

Brenetta Tate works with new faculty member Tony Cheng during an onboarding session.
Departmental Business Manager Brenetta Tate works with new faculty member Tony Cheng during an onboarding session. Photo courtesy of Jen'nan Read

Jen’nan Read, Chair of Sociology, noticed.

“On more than one occasion, I have seen her turn potential conflicts into positive outcomes,” Read said. “She is quick to use ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ to navigate and manage difficult situations.”

Tate “keeps her finger on the pulse” of the department, Read said, not only making sure staff feel appreciated, but also finding creative solutions to budgeting problems.

“She does a great job managing our budget and is always looking for ways to maximize expenditures in ways that improve the department – and I don't think you can put a price tag on that,” Read said. “I have truly found working with Brenetta to be one of the most rewarding and productive administrative relationships I’ve experienced in my career.”

The Utility of a Swiss Army Knife

A Swiss Army Knife is the original multi-tasker. It’s a compact tool that has different instruments to fix any problem that arises.

That’s what Janice Roberts is to the Duke School of Medicine Office of Clinical Research in her job as an Administrative Assistant.

Denise Snyder and Janice Roberts
Denise Snyder, Associate Dean for Research at the School of Medicine, poses for a photo with Administrative Assistant Janice Roberts. Photo courtesy of Denise Snyder

Whether it’s juggling calendars of the entire executive team, sending meeting reminders or answering questions for 120-plus staff members, Roberts finds a way to balance items that are urgent with those that need coordinated attention.

“She really embodies the versatility in a wide variety of tasks that she undertakes for us and the environments that she works in, so she can navigate the challenges of our day-to-day operations,” said Denise Snyder, Associate Dean for Clinical Research at the School of Medicine. “And she does it all while smiling and doing it with such a great finesse.”

And as the staff has become more dispersed since the pandemic with about 70% of non-patient facing positions working remotely, Roberts has somehow flourished.

“She's just really come out of her shell and shown us in the last several years just how much we depend on her,” Snyder said.

If there’s any kind of issue that needs to be corrected, she turns into the Swiss Army Knife.

“She whips out the tool, she takes care of it, and she goes on to the next thing,” Snyder said.

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