Lulu Caravette couldn’t help but be intrigued by the story of the statues at Easter Island. For centuries, most had taken the towering stone figures at face value, assuming they were simply monolithic heads embedded in the ground. But then anthropologists — convinced there was more to the statues than met the eye — were inspired to dig deeper, unearthing a far more complex narrative: for years, sediment and rocks had concealed the figures’ enormous bodies.
It’s no surprise Caravette would be taken by a tale of amazing discoveries that lie beneath the surface. After all, the lauded executive assistant has dedicated her career to delving deeper, whether through professional projects that require a keen eye for detail or in workplace relationships that are nourished by a helping hand and an open heart.
“There’s always more to the picture, always something new to discover,” says Caravette, who for the past 11 years has worked as an EA to R.J. O’Brien CEO Gerry Corcoran. “My whole career has been about being creative and making things bigger and better than they were first envisioned. And I always want to spread happiness and love. You never know what crosses people have to bear — when they share what’s going on in their lives, I listen to them and care about them.”
Her extraordinary talent for helping make the R.J. O’Brien office a truly phenomenal place to work has gone far from unnoticed. In fact, she has established herself as such an essential figure at the Chicago hub that Corcoran, in turn, recently established something for her: “Lulu Day.”
“After many years of seeing Lulu take on more and more responsibility for employee events like Christmas, quarterly breakfasts, special lunches, etc., I wanted the whole company to express their thanks for her inspirational efforts in one concerted effort,” Corcoran says. “We were able to keep it under wraps by limiting the team that did the planning — I think there was only four of us.”
The first official Lulu Day took place on Jan. 31 of this year, and though the Midwest was steeped in a polar vortex, the R.J. O’Brien office emanated nothing but warmth as colleagues gathered for a “Lulu Luau” to honor the woman who consistently makes their work lives easier and more enjoyable. On Facebook, R.J. O’Brien posted pictures of the surprise event, and co-workers chimed in with kind words. “We love Lulu,” posted Mary Ellen Siemens. “Lulu is a mighty woman,” wrote Brendan Hanley. “Much deserved for this awesome woman,” said Makenzie Billings Quinn, punctuating her message with a heart emoji.
“It was such a surprise, and so sweet and overwhelming,” says Caravette, who in the wake of Lulu Day was left to consider what it was that inspired Corcoran and the rest of her colleagues to rally together in her honor. “I’m a naturally happy person, and I think people respond to that. And they’re confident in what I do — I’m always open to having interesting and fun things to work on, and they trust that I will get those things done. But the happiness thing — I think that’s the biggest part of it.”
A circuitous path to EA infamy
Caravette’s positive, can-do personality benefitted her in the early years of her career as well, long before she ever set foot at R.J. O’Brien. At a young age, her mom suggested she apply for a receptionist position in downtown Chicago, even — unbeknownst to Caravette — pretending to be her daughter on the phone to land her an interview.
Of course, as a mother to 14 kids, Caravette’s mom knew a thing or two about being an admin — “She set up catering, ran family meetings, created family projects; most mothers and fathers are admins in some form,” Caravette says. So she trusted her mom’s instinct, and landed the receptionist position at a PR firm. The Chicago native moved on to work as an EA at an advertising firm, next shifting to work as a radio sales rep. After taking a hiatus to raise her son, she went back to work as a librarian at St. Francis Borgia School, where her knack for creativity and caring immediately shone through, particularly as she created programming for children.
“I’ve always loved reading and the beauty of books. It’s an adventure coming to the library,” Caravette says. “The kids and teachers would tell me how much they enjoyed the programs I created. It was one of my favorite jobs.”
But after her then-husband lost his job, Caravette had to find work with a heftier paycheck. She took a position as an EA for Norridge School District #80 before transitioning into an EA role four years later at the Amalgamated Bank of Chicago.
Though she missed being a librarian, Caravette happily adjusted to life as an EA, finding opportunities to imbue each environment with her trademark sunniness and imagination.
“Being a librarian was such a creative outlet, and I wasn’t sure I would get that back again,” she says. “But all the places I’ve worked have allowed me to get people excited and interested and engaged. They’ve let me just run with it.”
By 2007, Caravette was looking for her next challenge. She interviewed with Corcoran at R.J. O’Brien, where she told him one of the most important things she looked for in a job was being kept busy.
“He said, ‘I guarantee you will be busy.’ In those early years, he would always say, “Lu, are you busy? Busy enough for you?’ she laughs. “He’s a great boss — easy to get along with, family-oriented and driven, cares about his employees.”
And lucky for the employees at R.J. O’Brien, Corcoran also had a healthy dose of faith in his EA and her talent for making work enjoyable, particularly as he had seen her expertly handle challenging tasks over the years.
“I am definitely not your ‘textbook CEO’ — I operate in my own unique style, which is a bit laid back and entrepreneurial,” Corcoran says. “However, I am stickler for expense controls, accountability and loyalty. Lu knows when I am edgy and knows when I am focused on specific issues. With that knowledge in hand, she helps me manage my direct reports way more effectively.”
A balance of serious and fun
At first, it was Corcoran who floated ideas for workplace activities, and Caravette who would execute them. There were golf outings benefiting Misericordia Home, family picnics, bowling tournaments — you name it — and each event went off without a hitch thanks to her expert-level planning and organization.
And then Caravette began pitching her own ideas. Corcoran, impressed, gave her the green light. Now R.J. O’Brien has been home to shuffleboard, ping pong and interoffice golf tournaments, Mario Kart and Wii Bowling competitions, holiday decorating contests and pizza parties, among other fun-filled activities.
“We do a lot of great things for the employees — we want them to enjoy spending time here,” Caravette says. “We work hard, and we play hard, too.”
As Caravette continued her work at R.J. O’Brien — where she not only plans activities but skillfully serves as a gatekeeper for Corcoran, ensuring only relevant meetings and inquiries require his attention — she also decided it was time to return to school. She enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University, where she majored in anthropology and interdisciplinary studies, earning her bachelor’s degree in 2012. The experience proved her mastery in juggling difficult tasks, but for Caravette, the journey was about much more than time management. For a woman who had always been adept at creating connections and digging deeper, the experience only heightened her sense that she was meant to make a difference at work and in the larger world.
“I could feel the squeaky wheels in my brain waking up to different aspects of life,” says Caravette, who also makes it her mission to travel to new places every year, even recently embarking on trips to the Iditarod in Alaska and to Pamplona to run with the bulls. “Studying all these different things helped me to become more involved in day-to-day life — everything just seemed so fresh and new and exciting. It helped me remember that this is an amazing world. It’s all about understanding people and where we come from and where we’re going. There are so many things left for us to discover.”
In a life that’s been chock full of lessons, Caravette says it’s the simplest one that resonates the loudest. It’s a mantra she’s carried with her, one that has made her such a lifeforce at R.J. O’Brien and in all of her various workplaces. And it’s something every EA should remember, she says.
“You will encounter a lot of people who are going through a lot of different things, and you may not even know that they are,” she says. “So you have to remember: always be kind.”