Lessons from an EA to the President of the United States of America

Our editor sits down for an in-depth talk with Peggy Grande, who served as EA to Ronald Reagan, to discuss her experience with the beloved President & what she learned along the way. Watch our exclusive video interview with Peggy here.

Peggy describes herself as ‘that nerdy kid’ growing up, with a love of politics, presidents and all things government. Following her passion, Peggy was studying communications in LA in 1989 when Ronald Reagan moved back to the city after finishing his tenure as President. Known as ‘The Great Communicator’, she took a chance and wrote a letter to the President asking for a job.

“I was shocked when I was invited into the office to interview for a role as an intern,” Peggy recalls, “I was hired pretty much on the spot.”

After finishing her degree, Peggy was hired as a full-time EA to Raegan’s Chief of Staff, and two years later found herself sitting outside the President’s office as his EA. Over the next ten years Peggy was taken on a career journey unlike any other. Alongside one of the most revered US presidents in history she experienced incredible events, met powerful figures and developed a special relationship with the man behind the Presidency—while also getting married and having three of her four children.

As Peggy and I began our conversation I came to realise just how valuable her experience was, not just for me as a storyteller, but for EAs looking for ways to overcome their daily challenges.

Keep it secret, keep him safe

The first thing I wanted to understand when I was planning my talk with Peggy was how working for a President related to the corporate world. I wanted to know what some of the more unique challenges were that made working for a head of state different to working for the head of a company. Straight off the bat, Peggy brings up security.

“Working for a beloved figure with such a high-profile added an extra layer of complexity to the job. You couldn’t just walk in or out the door, you couldn’t plan an impromptu stop. Everything had to be perfectly choreographed with a lot of different partners and players.”

But the President’s personal safety wasn’t the only security concern that Peggy had to manage as working for someone with top-level security clearance required extreme discretion. To help her manage, Peggy lived by a quote that Nancy Reagan shared with her.

“Whenever I had to tell Ms Reagan something confidential, she would always say ‘I’m a well, not a fountain for information.’ I would think about that imagery all the time.”

Watch our exclusive video Q&A with Peggy

Rubbing shoulders with world leaders

Peggy laughs as she tells me, “I don’t want to sound like a name-dropper, but I’ve had the incredible opportunity to interact with people like Maragret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mother Theresa and world leaders from across the globe. These were the people that I got to interact with on a daily basis and that was a great honour.”

Spending time with these world leaders is a very rare experience and I wanted to know what strategies she had for dealing with people whose names are spoken about in both living rooms and newsrooms across the globe.

Peggy’s approach to high-profile meetings involves not just facilitating the event, but an acute understanding of the ‘who’ and the ‘why’.

“When people would come to visit, I would figure out why they were historically relevant and what their history with President Raegan had been. It puts you in the proper mindset.”

Visiting Reagan was an experience that Peggy truly valued. Her daily experience with the President didn’t get in the way of understanding what seeing Reagan in the flesh meant to people.

“How could I help create and foster that memorable moment for somebody who had never had a chance to interact with him before? I was always mindful that—even though this was my everyday—for most people this was a once in a lifetime experience. So, how do you make that special, meaningful and memorable?”

The President’s ambassador

President Raegan was known as ‘The Great Communicator’ for good reason. His messages were diplomatic, his intentions were clear and delivered with endless charm. But, in today’s political world things are less diplomatic and more personal. Peggy’s experience representing Raegan as his EA has given her insights into how one of the world’s greatest communicators kept the personal separate from the political, and how EAs can help reflect that in their role.

Peggy and Ronald Reagan

“Ronald Reagan was a beautiful blend, someone that we saw was strong and successful, but also had an element of kindness, civility, warmth and charm. He was a man of principle and strength, but he also had a graciousness about him. I knew that 99 out of 100 people that called the office or wanted to talk to him, spoke to me. What did they think of him because of their interaction with me? Did they feel like they had been treated with the same graciousness that he would have treated them with? I always had to be mindful of protecting and preserving the legacy he had built over a lifetime of kindness and diplomacy.”

By reflecting his personality and communication style, Peggy developed her own definition of the EA role.

“I never saw my job as a ‘gatekeeper’. I never really liked that term. Instead I’ve always seen my role as a ‘gateway’. I wanted people to know that the best and most efficient way to get anything done was through me, not around me.”

Knowing what Raegen’s priorities were and what required his attention, Peggy’s ‘gateway’ strategy highlights a mode of working that is fast becoming the norm for EAs in the corporate world. But the ‘gateway’ model isn’t the only strategy that Peggy’s experience working with the President has produced.

Stepping into the spotlight

After writing her memoir, The President Will See You Now, Peggy began to step out from her behind-the-scenes EA life and into the spotlight. Ever the student of politics and taking after Reagan, Peggy began working with several organisations and initiatives that placed her in a much more forward-facing role.

“World for Brexit was one of those opportunities that came up. Ronald Reagan had a very special relationship with Margaret Thatcher and with the UK. The Brexit vote happened in 2016—we’re not going to get political—but whether you were on the remain or leave side, in the largest national referendum the people of the UK voted to leave the EU. Three years later we were seeing that the will of the people had still not been listened to. If this happened in Cuba or Zimbabwe or other places in the world there would be global outrage. ‘Why aren’t we adhering to the will of the people?’”

Peggy and a group of others decided that they needed to shine a light on the issue, and started the advocacy organisation World for Brexit, promoting the need for the UK government to respect the result of the referendum.

At first glance, planning and executing a strategy to persuade a government in a foreign country seems like a totally different ballpark to the one that EAs traditionally play in. But, after some thought I wondered, does Peggy’s experience in both the EA role and as a political advocate share similarities? Peggy’s unique blend of advocate and EA has lessons for those looking to gain more influence in their workplace. According to Peggy, EAs shouldn’t take a direct leadership role, after all, the boss is still the boss.

“You’re in partnership with your executive, but the boss at the end of the day bears the responsibility and the risk. It’s important to feel a sense of ownership, and approach issues with a leadership mindset. I feel like EAs should always act empowered and should not act on an emotional level, you’ve got a mindset, you’ve got things to accomplish and you’re going to get those done.”

Peggy (Middle), Ronald Reagan (right) and Michael Gorbachov (left) at the Berlin Wall

Work-life presence, not balance

As our conversation drew to a close, I ask Peggy if there’s something she’d like to leave with our readers, a message to end our conversation on. Peggy leaves me with her strategy for having a healthy career and a happy family life.

“There’s this misnomer about work-life balance. In our role, especially if you’re doing travel, working for a high-profile individual or if you’re on call 24/7, you will never have balance. Rather than feeling out of balance all the time, or feeling guilty, I’ve started subscribing to the mental idea of work-life presence.”

“I asked myself, ‘Was I fully present at my job?’ In the hours that I was there, in the time that I have devoted to it. When I went home I put on a different mindset, ‘Could I be fully invested and connected to the people that I love and I care for?’”

Instead of trying to strike a balance, Peggy’s idea of presence seems like a much more achievable goal. Being present at home and at the workplace is the best any of us can do, and considering Peggy’s success, it’s a formula that has proven to work.

Peggy was EA to President Ronald Reagan from 1989 to 1999 and is the author of The President Will See You Now. She is Chair of World for Brexit and serves on the National Board of the Royal Commonwealth Society of the USA. Peggy is an international keynote speaker, media commentator and opinion writer. peggygrande.com