Everyone has to start somewhere, and I was fortunate that my early forays into the real world involved being an assistant.
It was October 2003 when a strange job ad on an erstwhile Yahoo Group landed in my inbox. “Looking for a speechwriter,” the subject line said. I knew such a job existed but never knew anyone who had that job.
By this time, I had already been doing some freelance writing work. I had written several pieces for a rock magazine. I had helped develop the marketing campaign for a resort development project. I had a decent tangible portfolio with sample brochures and published work ready for flaunting.
I had never written a speech before, but how hard could it be? Speechwriting is still writing, and I got the last part covered. I better give this a shot, I thought, so I did.
The pre-interview went something like this:
“Do you know who the boss is?”
“Do you know who the other Cabinet Secretaries are?”
“Do you read the news?”
The last negative answer to the last fundamental question was the final straw. The staff who was interviewing me became visibly worried. She urged me to start browsing the periodicals to gain a bare-bones understanding of the work they do. I was a top candidate apparently, though disappointingly unprepared. I needed that warning.
While waiting for the actual interview, I quickly scanned the room. It was the office of the Secretary of Social Welfare and Development, mandated to help address issues of the impoverished and downtrodden, which are many in the Philippines (around 90 million at the time). It was massive and decently appointed for a government office. The receiving area where I had my first meeting faced a row of cubicles where close-in staff did their work. Next to it was a lounge area nicely decorated with gifts from dignitaries encased in glass armoires. I would later learn that confidential meetings were held here. Two gatekeepers were guarding the Secretary’s private office, manning by the door the phones that kept on ringing. An aide pops out of nowhere, her shoulder cradling the phone while frantically jotting down instructions. It was a nucleus of hyperactivity that felt so new to me.
I finally had my interview with the second-in-command, the Secretary’s Chief of Staff. I was being offered the speechwriter job, on the condition that I would tag along the Secretary for a while until I get to know her enough to write for her. The office was a mere five minutes away from my home and the pay was higher than my previous job. Hours are flexible and the work is output-based. Music to my ears, so I said yes.
In no time, I realized that I just said yes to the mess.
The Secretary, much like in the US and other democratic governments, is the alter ego of the President. She represents and briefs the head of state in all matters related to poverty alleviation and vulnerable groups such as abused women and children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and indigenous peoples in the country. It’s a tall order. She also wears other hats: member of the Cabinet Social Protection cluster, member of the National Anti-Poverty Commission, member of the Disaster Risk Reduction office, and so on.
To do her job well, she has certain preferences. When traveling, she must be seated in any of the first four rows of an aircraft, aisle seat. If we must stay somewhere overnight, we book one room with two beds. These are not frivolities. The preferred airplane seat enables her to deplane first and proceed quickly to her meeting, and a single room is ideal for working on last-minute edits at midnight. It saves a lot of taxpayer’s money since she travels quite often.
As one might expect, an assistant to the Cabinet Secretary, or in other cases a CEO or a Senator, will have to adjust her lifestyle to that of the boss, and that entails a lot of sacrifices. For example, when staying overnight off-site, I must wake up at least an hour before my boss does so I can still clean up after myself and order breakfast for both of us. The briefing papers for the day’s engagements should be spread out neatly and in chronological order. The AM radio hosts will start calling at around 615–630, so the phones must be fully charged.
On average, the Secretary can accommodate five engagements in a day, especially when hopping from one island to another in the least touristy way. This would be a combination of meetings, speaking engagements, and media interviews. She prefers to fit everything in and make her rare visits worth her while. The feasibility of such a packed schedule depends on the proximity of one meeting venue to another. It was my job to schedule meetings with very few venue changes as much as possible.
Note that the average does not include unscheduled but important side meetings while she is walking.
No time is wasted. When in transit, I brief her on messages missed while she was delivering a speech or was in a closed-door meeting. She gives her instructions, then I write them all down and start calling people back. Meanwhile, some of our colleagues on the ground hitch a ride with us and use that time to raise their grievances privately. I record everything by hand and prepare the notes later, or relay to the Chief of Staff by text those that need urgent attention. I also start calling the point person at our next appointment, so that when we reach our destination, the person we are supposed to meet will be right there waiting for us. When we get there, I run and situate myself beside my boss and hand her the briefing folder, the contents of which I will describe in detail.
The briefing folder has to have a plastic cover so the Secretary can view right away the table of contents. It has to contain:
- A cover page, with a header stating the 4Ws in big bold letters, and the table of contents below it
- The letter of invitation with the purpose of the meeting highlighted in green (yellow highlighters tend to be too bright, green is just right)
- The event profile sheet that completely answers the following questions:
- What’s the theme of the event?
- What is the agenda?
- What is the Secretary’s role?
- Who are the VIPs?
- What is the attire?
- Is there media coverage?
4. The speech / talk points / interview questions
5. Profiles of the VIPs with pictures
6. Other background materials on the event that would help the Secretary do her job well
Each item is organized in that order of importance and should be tabbed with big letters from A to F or G or H. We do not use plastic tabs as those are expensive and wasteful. We do have staff back at the office who does the archiving but who also prepares for us little tabs with letters printed on scratch paper.
I prepare every single item in this folder, the speech being the hardest one to finalize, especially when you are just starting. It is truly an art form that I will have to discuss in a separate post.
So imagine the chaos in preparing five briefing folders for five meetings happening in one day. I have help, sure, but I still oversee everything that goes into those folders. I read them all before I endorse them to the Secretary, who will browse through them the night before.
On D-Day (which was every day for a while), who walks with the Secretary or confers with her in a closed vehicle is managed by the assistant. Everyone wants a piece of her, but not everyone deserves her time. The assistant must be quick to detect who gets to make contact and be just as quick to use a big workbag to block those who don’t.
This workbag has seen better days but has saved my life countless times. It contains:
- A notebook
- Black pen (my preference)
- Purple pen (my boss’ preference) — a standout color will help us find signed documents easily
- A pack of A4 size bond paper
- Calling cards (mine and the boss’)
- Cellphones (mine and a work phone)
- Portable chargers
- An office supplies kit (mini stapler, staple wires, USB, adaptors, etc)
- An umbrella
- Baby wipes
- Vanity kit (I still need to look decent, especially when my boss is being interviewed on TV and I am right behind her)
- Sewing kit
The laptop is a separate bag. (I once carried a portable printer too when I traveled to the US and China, but then I was staffing for the President — another story.)
I carried everything but the kitchen sink.
I was 22 when I got this gig, a great age to be a slave. I was single. I was living with my parents. I had nothing to worry about but myself. I had no life, but I had no inkling that I was missing out on socials or family events. If anything, it felt like I was really living because I was doing something important.
That went on for eight months, until I tried my hand in the private sector for a while, missed working for the government, and resumed the insanity three years later for a Senator-elect who would become our country’s 15th President.
By now you must be wondering what the trade-offs are in this high-octane work situation. The good news is, there are many.
A weekend I did not spend listening to my uncle’s horrible karaoke singing at a birthday lunch was spent instead on the field inspecting an irrigation system that was constructed using our community development model.
Days I would have spent reading books was replaced by traveling to remote areas and interacting with indigenous peoples.
The hours I would have spent watching a movie or listening to music I dedicated instead to absorbing the wisdom of my boss every time she speaks.
In all these scenarios, I could feel myself learning and getting better every day.
It was a privileged education not many 22-year-olds today seem to want to withstand because there are now many options. Why succumb to authority and lose control over how you spend your days? Why not turn to social media to make an income? Why work for the government or someone else when you can work for yourself?
Because overcoming the fear of constant discomfort, whether in talking to a VIP or meeting the President, was helpful in my new adventure as a budding entrepreneur.
Because observing and modeling my mentor influenced my choice of language, in speech and in my writing.
Because the discipline of waking up early and being on time has enabled me to accomplish more things and to earn the respect of my peers.
Because the familiarity with the plight of people from all walks of life broadened my horizons and encouraged me to support projects with a social bent.
Because working with some of the smartest people on this planet fast-tracked my growth and opened many doors for me later in my career.
These experiences are priceless, and they provide the best content when it is time to write about the stripes you have earned.
“You’ve got to go through hell before you get to heaven.” — Steve Miller Band
If you are still thinking about your next professional steps, think of people you would be honored to work for, ideally someone you truly admire. Reach out to her and see if you can work for her in whatever capacity. Money should be the last thing on your mind, especially if you are young and single. I assure you, it will come later. But the opportunity to work for a genius, one who can and will patiently teach you things you will never learn in any school, knocks only once. Okay, maybe twice, but that is it. If you find it, take it, and let this person guide you and help you realize your fullest potential.