Surround yourself with others who also want to practice resiliency. This is an important step with very specific parameters that many people miss. You can easily surround yourself with people who love you and want the best for you. However, they don’t practice resiliency. More plainly put, they might be people who look at the cup as half empty. Or they could be in a place where they depend too much on others and so they have nothing left to share. In business, I choose to surround myself with businesswomen who are authentic enough to share, determined to win, and have something left to give and share.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market. I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Smith, Founder & CEO of the Association of Virtual Assistants and The PVA
She is also the best-selling author of two books, Hire The Right Virtual Assistant and Become a Successful Virtual Assistant which is an integral part of the College of Western Idaho Administrative Specialist Program curriculum. Additionally, Melissa also mentors for Remote-how Academy, the first global, online education and individual certification program.
Drawing from her experience while working on five different continents Melissa truly understands how to operate a successful virtual business.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
Excited to be here, thank you! My “backstory” is that I was going about my business and life as planned. I went to school specifically to become an assistant and that is exactly what I was doing. I was married with two children, a son away in college and my daughter, a high school sophomore, still living at home. I loved my work and career and had no plans to do anything different. My mother was also a career admin and I thought I was going to eventually retire like her, as an executive assistant.
On September 26, 2012, everything changed. I was three days into a new EA role when I got the news that my husband had committed suicide. The next two years my life would change in ways I could have never imagined or planned. I moved across the country twice, become the first remote employee at my company, and would go on to start my own virtual assistant business.
In the last five years, my backstory has become even more unbelievable. I’ve written three books, created online courses and virtual summits, traveled the world, became location independent, am the premier VA matchmaker in the industry, and most recently founded the Association of Virtual Assistants.
Personally, I overcame my lifelong fear of flying, got my passport and have traveled to 29 countries in four years. I suffered from anxiety attacks for over 15 years and those are a thing of the past as well!
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The most interesting story from my career is how I became a remote employee. I had a great job and loved the work I was doing very much. My co-workers were great and instrumental in my journey of getting back to feeling like myself again after my husband died. Unfortunately, living in California, my home state, was not doing the same for my daughter. She needed to get back to herself in her home state of Georgia.
I didn’t set out to be remote. I went to my boss, holding back tears, to give my two weeks’ notice. He said, “We don’t want to lose you. How can we keep you?”. Without hesitation, I responded, “I can work virtually. I don’t have to be in the office.” He responded, “Okay, let’s do that.”
When I think back, it’s quite remarkable. Working virtually was not part of my culture or daily life. I didn’t know anyone personally who worked virtually. Only recently had I even heard the term “virtual assistant”. When I started working in the Bay Area in 2013, I quickly realized that the startup world was something I was unfamiliar with. I didn’t like the idea that there was an industry I couldn’t be hired for as an assistant. While I may not have wanted to work at a startup my competitive drive kicked in. I wanted to know I was employable at a startup, but that I chose not to work at one.
At that moment, even though it gave me anxiety, I immersed myself in networking and professional development specifically in the startup world. Had I not done so the conversation with my boss would have been very different. I don’t even want to think of how different my life would be now.
The lesson or take away is never stopped learning, implementing, and sharing what you’ve learned. Learning is an action word which means you need to put what you learn into action. Only then will you receive the benefits. Often, I can be the one to implement what I learned. Sometimes the action to what I’ve learned is sharing with someone else who can and will implement what I’ve shared. It’s a wonderful feeling when the information I learned and stored gets to finally be unlocked for someone else’s benefit. I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the receiving end as well.
My boss wanted to help me. He wanted to keep me employed with the company. I wanted to keep working for the company too. In order to find a win-win situation, I had to play an active role. Had I not taken it upon myself to make sure that no matter what I stay employable at the places I chose before it was a necessity, I could have missed a great, life-changing opportunity.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The Association of Virtual Assistants is extremely diverse and inclusive. At a time when companies spend a lot of money trying to be diverse and inclusive, this is what I am most proud of. Like attracts like. When I say that everyone is welcome in the AVA it isn’t just words, it’s the truth. We pay attention to what our messaging, branding, photos say and don’t say about us.
Clients are also very diverse and want to continue to hire for a diverse set of skills, abilities, and perspectives. When hiring for diversity, especially hiring a VA, most clients forget that it goes beyond race and gender. A new, fresh perspective or even an “old” perspective shared through new eyes is priceless. The AVA is not simply diverse and inclusive, industry-leading VAs share valuable perspective and insight that everyone can benefit from.
In business, there are many problems that arise. No business is without problems that will naturally arise due to growth, technology, or any other number of reasons. However, not being a diverse and inclusive company goes far beyond a problem and requires more than merely fixing.
The AVA is here to support virtual assistants and clients alike. Our members know we are listening to them. When our members tell us they have found their “home”, “place”, “people” there is no greater feeling. With over a dozen countries represented, without specifically targeting any one specific country, demographic, race, or gender, I know we are doing something right.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I couldn’t agree more. In fact, my business tagline is “Because you can’t do it all yourself…”. It’s not something I simply tell others, it is something I deeply believe in. I’m always surprised when clients are shocked at the number of virtual assistants I use in my own business. I have to remind them that I do, in fact, buy what I’m selling. I drink my own juice. If I didn’t believe in the power of a VA I would be in a different industry.
The list of people I’m grateful for is quite long. There is definitely a village supporting me. If I have to narrow it down to one person, other than my parents, I am forever grateful to Dorie Clark. She is the model of excellence and authenticity for me. What she teaches is brilliant and anyone can learn it. I’ve read all her books, taken her online course, taken courses in person too. I appreciate not only her ability to learn more, break it down into implementable actionable steps but her willingness to share and continue to go above and beyond for her students.
Dorie is also one of the most well connected self-professed introverts I’ve ever met and has an incredible online village for her Recognized Expert course. Wherever I am in the world people know and are followers of Dorie. As soon as we meet, there is a strong bond we have in common. Many of my closest friends, amazing colleagues, business partners, and collaborators are people I met as a direct result of Dorie’s Recognized Expert course. Even at a remote work conference in Guatemala Dorie was able to let me know a friend of hers was a guest speaker. Immediately I had a friend waiting for me on the other side.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I would define resilience as the ability to press on with a positive mental attitude. If you look up the definition of resilience you’ll find it described in one word as “toughness”. I disagree with this profusely. My father and my husband were some of the toughest people you could have ever known. My dad, a tall well-built man, a Vietnam Vet, and a single parent working two and three jobs was always described as tough. My husband was tough as nails and if someone were to have described him in one word it was likely to be tough. They both committed suicide.
When I first started my business, I immersed myself in books to become educated on everything I didn’t know about business and social psychology — which was a lot. I came across Shawn Achor’s books on happiness. (I highly recommend them.) He wrote something to the effect that the most resilient people were those who surrounded themselves with others who kept them accountable and positive. Shawn is a leading research expert in the fields of happiness, success, and positive psychology so I couldn’t help but pay close attention to what he discovered. Making the connection to my own past history was easy.
Both my father and husband isolated themselves instead of surrounding themselves with others who could be trusted confidants. I knew right then and there that I was going to surround myself with business colleagues and associates whom I could get real with. I was going to forget about being tough all the time. Instead, I would let me guard down in a safe space, with others committed to being resilient in order to get help when I needed it the most.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
It’s hard for me to think of a single person, although there are many. Instead, Holocaust Survivors flood my mind. I visited Sachsenhausen back in July 2017 which was the training and research camp for all the concentration camps. As you can imagine, it was an experience that left me deeply saddened and somber.
As I listened to the words being spoken about the horrible details of torture and murder, I looked down and knew it took place under my own feet. There wasn’t a step I took that wasn’t tainted with blood, torture, and murder. I remember not wanting to touch anything because to me it would have been like shaking hands with the devil. Then I learned of the electric fence.
Holocaust prisoners could have run directly into the fence and killed themselves at any time. Very few prisoners did, and those who did very rarely were Jewish. I would later truly understand that it wasn’t their toughness alone that kept the survivors going. The Nazis didn’t just want to break their bones they wanted to break their spirit and mind. The Survivor’s daily resilience is more than I can still comprehend. This doesn’t even account for after the War ended, and they had to start over with nothing. No family. No money. No home.
In my lifetime, no matter what I’ve experienced it has never come close to experiencing such evil hatred and torture. I was able to read the story of one woman, Sabina van der Linden-Wolanski, Destined to Live, and her life, her childhood, her survival, and her resilience is more than extraordinary. Again, I can’t relate to her life as a Holocaust Survivor, but there are stories of her life in the book where she spoke of her life after the War as a woman business owner. I find her to be not only resilient but truly remarkable.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? The Association of Virtual Assistants is the latest. I’ve been laughed at numerous times. I’ve been overlooked more times than I can count. I was even told, “You’re the most forgettable person I’ve ever met”. Not to mention the number of times I was told someone had already done what I wanted to do and I should just go work for him. It’s laughable to think of a single time because there are so many. Being told I was the most forgettable person someone had ever met is a story I’ve shared often. It’s certainly memorable, but more extraordinary I was not hurt or upset by his comment at all. I can’t tell you his name, what he does, nor would I be able to recognize him with certainty if I saw him again.
What I know now that I didn’t know then, at least not the psychology and mindset behind it because I was so new in business, was the reason I didn’t even need to practice resiliency was that I knew he wasn’t anyone to take advice from. At least not for me.
There were many people who were fans of what I was doing and poking holes, and rightfully so, in my business plans. Even though I knew with absolute certainty they wanted nothing more than to see me succeed I needed to practice resiliency in a great way. I had to separate the idea from mind and heart and see it on paper. The “it’s business not personal” ideology is true but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. It’s also not as cold as it sounds.
Know and do your best to understand not only the person but the perspective of the person who is telling you something isn’t impossible. Ask questions back. Don’t just stand there and be a victim to someone shutting your big idea down, learn why. It won’t be the last time someone shuts you down and you can be more prepared. Also, understand the difference between someone who says they love your idea versus the person who loves your idea but won’t invest in it. You’ll get more useful information out of the latter.
Use resiliency in the moment and create an opportunity to have the person believe what you are trying to create is possible. Ask questions about risk, investment, anticipated hurdles, barriers to entry. The person has something specific in mind when they tell you “it’s impossible”. That is the information you need to know so you can address it before you hear your next “no”. If you can’t become resilient to rejection the person becomes right. It will be impossible for you to do not just something, but anything.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
It would have to be after my husband passed away. I could never have imagined that my life would be what it is today. Back then I was afraid of flying and had anxiety attacks. Those two things alone kept me from doing about 90% of not only what I do now, but what I enjoy.
After I became a widow, suddenly I was introduced to other widows and several of my friends lost their husbands too. That wasn’t all. Over the course of the next year both my mother-in-law’s passed away, my daughter’s friend was killed in a car accident, and another one badly burned. Even my dog died. It got to a point where I was afraid to answer my phone and each time it rang I jumped.
There is no right or wrong way to express grief. What I didn’t want is to stay in that state of grief forever. The thing that no one ever tells you is that it isn’t just time that heals our wounds, it’s time and action. Even now I could sit around and be sad if I chose to. I choose not to.
There is definitely a time to mourn but there is also a definite time to begin anew. For me, that meant just about everything was anew. I was never going to allow myself to be a victim of circumstance. Even now I’m very cautious whom I share with. I don’t want pity. Everyone has a story. Determined not to have pity on myself either, I began reading the stories of others. Remarkable individuals who were determined to rise through resilience.
Doing the hard work for me would have been enough. However, I needed to model resilient behavior for my children. Now, if I can share my story to help, encourage, or possibly inspire others I happily do so.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Both my parents came from large, poor families. My dad was ten of fourteen children. My mother the youngest of six. Both my parents lost parents in their early teens as well. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if not for them. They could have used any number of excuses and made different choices in life. My parents could have played victim roles. Neither of them did.
What they did instead was always say how fortunate they were to have had loving parents and siblings. Instead of hearing stories of what they didn’t have I grew up listening to stories of grandparents I never knew and feeling so closely connected to them as if I did know them. I was blessed with great memories because both my parents chose to put the pain aside and celebrate the lives of their parents.
I can remember turning 13 and knowing how fortunate I was to have a mother who was alive and well. By this time in my dad’s life, he was watching his very ill mother pass away. When I turned 17 it was another milestone, my dad was not only alive but a major part of my daily life raising me. Both my parents lost their fathers at age 16. Not to mention the number of friends and schoolmates I had that had never known their fathers or didn’t see or feel loved by them daily.
As an adult, I can appreciate how “rich” my parents made us feel even though we were not. I knew I had to work at a young age and instead always viewed work as an opportunity, not a burden. I thank my parents for using their resilience so in life, during these times, it wasn’t a muscle I had to flex.
The fact is, no matter what wrong has or will happen in my life I have these powerful pillars to stand on and provide resilience in any situation.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Acknowledge the pain and hurt. Really try to understand why it is painful and/or hurtful. If you were a boxer you’d want to know who you were fighting against so you weren’t going in blind. This is the same concept. I remember getting my feelings hurt a lot from a young age. I was a sensitive child. I never learned to work through the hurt so by the time I became a teenager I was angry. Yet I didn’t even know why I was angry. It took time to peel back the layers of the onion and get to the core of the pain and hurt. Don’t simply allow yourself to be sad or angry, although both can be good for you. Be purposeful in acknowledging it so you can name it then fight to overcome it.
- Journal. Your memory isn’t as good as you think. It is far too easy to remember things both better and worse than what they were. I’ve been journaling for years and there are days where I read how frustrated I was. How rejected I felt. Then the next day I was completely overjoyed because I had no idea what was coming. Turning the pages on your life is a surreal experience. Especially the moment where you’ve grown so much you no longer identify with what your former self wrote. Additionally, it’s a great practice to see what areas of your life you have become more resilient in and what areas you can improve upon.
- Surround yourself with others who also want to practice resiliency. This is an important step with very specific parameters that many people miss. You can easily surround yourself with people who love you and want the best for you. However, they don’t practice resiliency. More plainly put, they might be people who look at the cup as half empty. Or they could be in a place where they depend too much on others and so they have nothing left to share. In business, I choose to surround myself with businesswomen who are authentic enough to share, determined to win, and have something left to give and share.
- Create daily practices to serve. This is different than gratitude. If you ever get to a point where you feel like the world is against you and you are just too weak to fight. Don’t fight. Serve. Serving someone else is the best way to get out of that mindset. Back when I was building up my resiliency muscles a lot, I used to say I was “cursed”. What more could go wrong? Serving someone, no matter how small the act will make you think twice about your situation. Never underestimate the power of sharing a home-cooked meal.
- Know what you’re choosing. Many of us are used to making decisions. Sometimes making decisions feels like you don’t really have a choice. You always have a choice. Even if that choice is to do nothing. You are choosing to do nothing. Instead of simply knowing what you are choosing, know what you are not choosing. This is a great way to remind yourself you have the power of choice. If you want the opportunity to make more decisions you like, a resilient person’s mind can accomplish this. One day, the choices won’t be “the lesser of two evils” they’ll be so great you’ll decide to have your cake and eat it too!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Everybody is somebody. I think of the times when I was not the best version of myself for any number of reasons. Then I remember each time someone was compassionate enough to know there was a better version of me underneath the anger, sadness, or hurt. That is the person I try to be every day.
Almost a year ago I was in a restaurant in Buckhead, GA and one of the servers was hugging everyone. Not just somebody but everybody. I was fortunate to receive a hug. It’s one of the best hugs I’ve ever received. In my daily life, I’m great, genuinely happy with everything I have and don’t have. I work for everything I still want. The woman could have looked at me and chose not to hug me because I didn’t look or act a certain way. She didn’t. She knew her hugs were for everybody. Thank goodness because no matter how good or how bad things are in life everybody needs the kind of hug she was giving out. It made such a positive impact I’m sharing it with you here.
In my professional work, I think about this a lot. I work with a lot of leaders, influential leaders, and entrepreneurial icons and they need an assistant badly. They are overwhelmed, pulled in many directions, and the spotlight is on if they make a mistake. Being able to provide peace of mind to a client is what I do best. At the moment they contact me they don’t want to be the famous person or the person who has to pay more, they want to be treated like everybody else. Likewise, those who are doing great things for themselves, their business, their families, their communities want to be treated like they are somebody special because they are!
Everybody is somebody. No matter what you do or who you are, you are somebody and you have the opportunity to make someone else feel the same.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)
The CEO of Robert Half, Harold M. Messmer, Jr. I respect the work of Robert Half and what they’ve done to acknowledge the vital role of the executive and administrative assistants of all kinds. It is my mission to do the same for virtual assistants.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!