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From Office Temp to Manager: An Interview with Sandra James, Former AMA Innovation Award Winner

You’d have to search the world far and wide to find someone as fascinating as Sandra James, winner of the AMA 2000 Innovation Award for Administrative Professionals. Armed with a degree in theater and $50, she left her native Missouri over 30 years ago to seek fame and fortune in New York City. Although she appeared on soap operas and performed in dinner theaters, Sandra remained, in her own words, “a largely out-of-work actress.” She then parlayed a one-day stint as a temp file clerk into an exciting and satisfying career at Schlumberger Technology Corporation in Houston, Texas.

Sandra was kind enough to take time out from her very busy job at Schlumberger (current title: Radiation & Explosives Compliance Coordinator) to talk to us about her career and to reflect about her Innovation Award.

We hope you’ll find Sandra as vibrant and inspirational as we do! We also hope that you’ll consider your own accomplishments over the past year. If there’s something that fills you with pride, don’t hide your light under a bushel. Do what Sandra did—tell us about it by applying for the AMA Innovation Award.

AMA: AMA’s Innovation Award celebrates outstanding examples of creative problem solving and innovation in administrative support. You received the award in 2000—the second annual award—for establishing a Web-based document distribution system at Schlumberger. Can you tell us a bit about how that innovation came about and how it benefited the organization?

Sandra James: I realized how frequently regulatory and licensing issues changed and that it was imperative that our people in the field be made aware of these changes. The system started out as a relatively small project, but over the years it has evolved so that now Schlumberger personnel can subscribe to both a radiation alert newsletter and an explosives alert newsletter. Any changes to licenses, policies, or regulations are communicated through these newsletters. It is ironic that 9/11 occurred the year following the introduction of our first newsletters. Since that time, the world of radiation and explosives has changed significantly and it is more important than ever that we alert our field locations about any new information.

AMA: Did the AMA Innovation Award change your work life in any way?

SJ: I definitely believe it changed the way that Schlumberger perceived me and my work. It made them consider, “Hmm, maybe she can do more than just file…” Now I present about 10 courses a year, all around the world, including explosives and radiation training. I also do a class where I train people at the state level about what we do. The training takes place in the classroom, but I have another piece of the pie where I do actually put on coveralls and steel-toed boots and crawl through an explosives bunker or a radiation pit. That’s the glamorous part of my job!

AMA: Your background is just fascinating. You’ve been an actress, singer, radio host, and Jeopardy contestant. You even met your husband when he was the orchestra leader on a cruise ship that you were booked on as a performer. The logical question is: How in the world did you end up dealing with radiation and explosives?

SJ: Completely by chance! Have you ever heard the old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans?” Well, my plan was to be a successful actress/singer. I never gave a thought to radiation and explosives, that’s for sure! But through a stroke of luck (some would call it fate), I landed at Schlumberger working for a woman who, after one day, asked if I could take on a project that would last three months. I found out later that it was an annual project which had previously been outsourced at a cost of thousands of dollars. And I agreed to do it for $6 an hour! The project was a success and I was permanently hired as soon as a job opened up. After three years as a driver safety administrator, the radiation safety admin position came about and the radiation manager requested me for the position. I didn’t know what I was getting into! Then that manager retired less than three months later and my current manager took the job. He is absolutely the BEST. I know my life would have been very different had he not taken that position. His mantra is always, “Show me where you want to go and I’ll help you get there.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Schlumberger has sent me to school to learn radiation and explosives and has allowed me to step into other roles, such as producing radiation and explosives training films, one of which recently received an award at the New York Film Festival.

AMA: Talk a bit about your time as an administrative professional. What did you learn in that position that has helped you as you’ve moved up the ladder?

SJ: The most important concept to latch onto as an administrator is that of “partnering with your boss.” In fact, I took the AMA seminar of that name and I think all admins ought to take that class. If you always ask yourself, “What can I do to make my manager’s job easier?” then soon you find that you take on more and more projects for yourself. This frees your manager to handle other matters, while at the same time expanding your own abilities. Of course, the key is to be unafraid of challenge and change. I also took an excellent AMA seminar on presentations. In fact, I attribute part of the reason I got a promotion to that AMA class.

AMA: Did your experience as an administrative professional inform how you manage people today?

SJ: I try to emulate my manager in the way that I manage the two people who work for me. It certainly helps that I have “walked in their shoes,” which is not the case with many managers. I also hope that I’ve played a small mentoring role and that the admins that I have worked with have been able to benefit from my insight.

AMA: What advice would you give to a young woman just starting out in the business world?

SJ: That’s easy: Don’t limit yourself by steadfastly sticking with your “plan.” You never know what’s behind door No. 3. Sometimes a great adventure awaits!

AMA: Finally, I have to ask: Do you miss the glamour of show biz?

SJ: For many years I thought of myself as a singer first and then as a Schlumberger employee. Now it’s really the other way around. I do miss the social part of performing—getting dressed up and going out with theater people, putting on those eyelashes every night!  My husband is still a professional entertainer and I perform with him once in awhile.  So I haven't completely left show business behind.

Enter the 2007 AMA Innovation Award for Administrative Professionals.

About the Author(s)

Shari Lifland is Editorial Communications Manager for American Management Association.  She is editor of the eNewsletters "Moving Ahead," "Management Update," and "Administrative Excellence," and manages content for the Members-only section of AMA's Website.