Engaging with the Gatekeeper

There are lots of ways to build the profile of your business, your academic expertise, your passion.  Joyce talked about networking groups the other week, and I’ve attended many networking opportunities, including exhibitions and conferences.  It is when we go to follow up these initial links that many of us fail. We forget to follow up, or find it awkward and therefore avoid it.  Often we become so intent on building rapport with a CEO or other figurehead, we forget to build rapport with the de facto key person: The Gatekeeper.

Who is the Gatekeeper?

Even in the 21st century, in this world of online meetings and directors managing their own emails, there is still a large percentage of gatekeepers and they are mainly female!  I am of course talking about the army of mainly women who hold the title of PA, receptionist, occasionally Private Secretary, Chief Administrator and so forth.  There are some really good blokes doing this role and I am sure some would identify as non-binary and trans, but that is not my rabbit hole for today.  I’m talking about relationships, power, and how we can wield it with integrity.

Photo by Laura Davidson on Unsplash

In 1952 Betty Marsden debuted the Joyce Grenfell sketch ‘Private Secretary’ which, in addition to revealing a secret, explores many of the contradictions of these roles.  By their nature, they are often unseen and undervalued, yet they hold the key to information, action and attention.  Rather than asking ‘Who watches the watchman?’, perhaps we should be asking ‘Who gatekeeps the gatekeeper?’. I’ve met some shocking ones in my life, including the school secretary who on the first occasion I ever asked to speak to the head exclaimed “Why do you keep bothering him, you’re useless to him?’.  As I was offering training and support for parents and staff, that school lost out.  Embarrassing!

Gatekeeping with integrity

There are two gatekeepers I’ve encountered in my life however, who have operated with integrity, kindness, communication and skill, both professionally and personally.  It is to these two women I’d like to pay tribute today, now that they are both exiting my life.  Sheila Wraight, one of the Graduate College Administrators at CCCU retires at the end of this week.  It’s jokingly said that one of the other Administrators ushers you into the Grad College and Sheila looks after you through the last 6 months and ushers you out.  This is so true.  Sheila has been the focus of many a frustrated email from students over issues that are nothing to do with her. Every time, she has steered us with calm, clarity and kindness to the right answer, person or process.  It was a real moment of sadness for me when we went digital because of COVID and I could not therefore place my three bound copies into Sheila’s devoted hands.

The other is my Godmother Gloria (Goy) Fuller.  Rather like the Private Secretary in the sketch, Goy professed no real ambition, but ended up in a range of rather senior positions in the Civilian support staff for Kent Police. These included gatekeeping for a Chief Inspector who was notoriously almost never at his desk.  She was Assistant Secretary and Treasurer to the Police Social Club, a role which probably led to more decision making and action taking than the actual treasurer, and she continued this post long after her retirement from her day job. Goy died this month, and I did not realise how much I would hear her voice in my head. Though neither of us knew it at the time, from an early age Goy taught me about a different kind of ambition – an ambition to have integrity, build relationship at work and outside work, to enable the young ones even when they are infuriating (I was a very gabby child), and to simply be kind.  The rising through the ranks to a position of trust often comes quite accidentally from there.

So, what are my concluding thoughts today?  Whenever you want to make a lead, make a friend first, or at least a friendly acquaintance.  Don’t just ask to speak to the boss.  Make sure you know the name of the person who picks up the phone and who checks their emails for them. Ask after them, pass a few friendly comments.  At worst, these are the gatekeepers, who can shut the gate in your face as well as open it. At best, they will be people who will enable that business relationship, so make sure you genuinely appreciate them.  They are your de facto key person.

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