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To read this interview in Executive Support Magazine visit:


Sunny Nunan is the CEO and Founder of the Admin Awards in the USA, created in honor of her mother, a life-long administrative professional

Can we start with a little background information? Where are you from and what is your background?

I’m from a small town in New Jersey, Phillipsburg. The daughter of an electrician and a secretary, I’m the youngest of five kids. Grandparents all came over on the boat from Italy. I’m a proud first-generation college graduate and my background is in sales and marketing with a BA from the University of North Texas. I started my career at the database marketing company Epsilon, then went to work in sales for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines before going to D Magazine to help launch DCEO Magazine, which is where I realized my passion for business and entrepreneurship that eventually led to the Admin Awards. Long story short, they wouldn’t let me launch the concept there, so I left and did it myself.

You are the CEO and Founder of the Admin Awards in the USA. What inspired you to start running the Admin Awards?

My mother, Jeannette Castellano, inspired the creation of the Admin Awards, which began back in 2012 in Dallas, Texas. During the height of her career, my mom was an Executive Secretary to Presidents and CEOs of small companies, but where I think she made her greatest contribution was in her role as corporate receptionist, where she was regarded as “the matriarch” of her company and beloved by her leaders and co-workers. She was the first person to greet nervous applicants with her infectious smile and calming spirit, the last person to say goodbye to co-workers who were leaving the company, and all the moments in between. Promotions, births, deaths, divorces – all of life’s moments were shared with my mother, whose desk was rarely not occupied by co-workers hanging out in reception. My mom is the kind of person that treated the courier with as much respect (perhaps more!) as the CEO, and people just absolutely adored her.

When my mom retired just shy of her 80th birthday from the profession, she was given a scrapbook that was packed with pages of pictures, letters and writings about what she meant to her co-workers and organization. Interestingly, my mother never felt undervalued or under-appreciated during her career – rather the exact opposite, which is what inspired our program. I knew how beloved my mother was and suspected that she was not unique – that people understood the spirit and significance of administrative professionals who were more appreciated, valued and cherished than they could ever know. So, I created the Admin Awards to make sure they know!

What have you learned about the administrative profession from running the awards?

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about the administrative profession is that administrative professionals are a rare combination of so many unique attributes that you don’t often see all in the same person. They’re what I call the unicorns of the organization. They have confidence yet humility, they’re courageous yet cautious, intuitive and logical, optimistic yet realistic, they’re capable of leading, yet have no problem following. They’re capable of managing incredibly complex tasks and projects while not complaining when they must stop in the middle of something important to do something mundane because their leader needs it done and right away. They will do whatever it takes, whenever, to get the job done – and with no resentment or ego. And when they leave the office and go home? They’re also often the people that their families are relying on in tremendous ways – so it often never stops. Yet they wake up, do it all over again, and still somehow make you feel like you’re the only person in the world that matters.

Tell us about the Colleen Barrett Award for Administrative Excellence.

Our program’s most prestigious award, the Colleen Barrett Award for Administrative Excellence, highlights the extraordinary impact an administrative professional can have on not only an organization but an entire industry, as reflected in Colleen Barrett.

Colleen is the legendary Legal Secretary to the late Herb Kelleher, the Founder of Southwest Airlines. During her five-decade career at Southwest, she rose to President and COO of one of the world’s most iconic companies. At a time when the movie “9 to 5” was the modern-day depiction of a secretary, Colleen was rising through the ranks at Southwest. Long before having a “strategic partner” in your admin was a thing, Herb knew what he had in Colleen as early as the ’70s, and leveraged her gifts for management, strategy, leadership, and interpersonal savvy to significantly impact Southwest, help it grow, and build its legendary “people” culture.

At Southwest, it is understood that Herb was the brains behind the operation, and Colleen was its heart. Colleen’s award criteria highlight success in areas including high proficiency, reflecting the core values of the organization, commitment to the organization’s cause or purpose, providing legendary customer service, internally and externally, and having a heart for employee advocacy. We are immensely grateful for the early example that Colleen and Herb set for administrative excellence and advancement that would pave the way for a program like ours.

What are the main changes you have seen in the time you have been working with Assistants?

Since we began the Admin Awards 12 years ago, I think the biggest and most exciting change I’ve seen is today’s administrative professionals have found their voice. They know their worth and they’re no longer settling, and it’s awesome. I just don’t hear “I’m just an admin” anymore, and that’s a really good thing.

Tell us about some of the things that have stood out for you from the entries you have received.

I think one thing that really stands out in our nominations is how executives appreciate not only the big things their administrative partners do for them day in day out, but the little things as well – and in a big way.

There was a winner in one of our cities whose leader was the Chief Medical Officer for a global pharmaceutical company. In her written nomination, this nominee was described as the department’s “de facto Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer occupying one of the most important seats at the table in their leadership team meetings.” Her skills, technical capabilities, accomplishments, and responsibilities took up a page and a half in her nomination packet, which would have made her eligible for just about every award category in our program. But in the end, she was nominated for the Spirit Award.

On countless occasions this leader would find sticky notes of encouragement in her briefcase and would wake up to text messages like:

“Morning!!!{sun emoji} {sunflower emoji} At 2:42 am you were invited to an 8 am meeting. Just wanted you to be aware. Also take a look at 1 pm. Which is the priority?”

Her leader explains, “What this text implies is that she made me her priority at the crack of dawn. Welcome to Robin. Dependable. Efficient. Anticipatory. Positive.”

Her leader then goes on to say:

“Robin’s combination of skills, work ethic, and accomplishments are extraordinary and rare – so awesome that she would make an excellent nominee for any number of awards: Leadership, Loyalty, Administrative Excellence in Healthcare. Instead I am nominating her for the Spirit Award, because what makes her truly special is that she does all that I have described above while radiating positivity as an energy source. Like human sunshine, she is always happy, willing, and smiling. What are some of her other traits as an unfailingly positive person? Able to provide unsolicited support: look up, look to the future, be positive, ‘chin up’? Check. Deep integrity? Check. Generosity of spirit? Check. Someone who enjoys giving more than they expect to get in return. Helping is Robin’s passion.”

That’s just one example of what we see in so many nominations. Exceptional administrative professionals understand the needs of the business for sure, but they also understand and cater to the human condition, which is equally as important.

Putting on multiple events of the caliber that you do is a mission. What are the biggest lessons you have learned from this?

We start with the way we want to make people feel and work backwards from there.

I never wanted to be an event planner and I had no real event planning experience when I started the Admin Awards, which I think helped us from the very beginning because I had no idea how things were typically done.

But I did know two things: 1) we had an amazing mission and 2) I knew exactly how I wanted to make people feel at the Admin Awards: joyful, excited, inspired, invigorated, and most importantly, like they are seen and like they never want to leave.

And what I’ve learned is those things don’t take complicated staging, expensive event décor, laser light shows that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, etc. Don’t get me wrong – we’re relentless about the look and feel of our program, but there’s a simplicity to it also that I think allows our soul to shine – and the soul of our program is the people we honor, the unsung corporate heroes and heroines of their organizations who, until now, have never received public recognition. When you’re starting with a powerful mission like that and you bring that mission to life in unique and creative ways that you likely haven’t experienced at other events or award galas, it really resonates with people. You don’t need a million-dollar production budget to give something soul, and the Admin Awards definitely has soul.

What inspires and motivates you?

First, the community we serve, administrative professionals, truly. What we do is not easy, and if we didn’t have clear and powerful inspiration and a ridiculous amount of love for the community we serve, we would have given up a long time ago.

Additionally, I’m inspired by quotes. I have been for as long as I can remember. What better way to learn than through the wisdom and experiences of those that have gone before me? I’m really inspired by the stories of entrepreneurs who have overcome massive challenges but stayed focused and committed. I listen to podcasts, read books and listen to books on Audible, especially autobiographies. My favorite is Shoe Dog, the story of Phil Knight, the Founder of NIKE, which I’ve read and listened to over and over again. It’s a powerful reminder that you keep going even when – and especially when – the odds seem insurmountable. It definitely got me through the pandemic!

What advice would you give someone just starting out as an Assistant and who aspires to become an award-winning administrative professional?

Pay attention to those that have come before you and seek mentorship from the administrative professionals with decades of tenure, that began their careers at a time when this profession faced serious challenges but are the people that are still standing. Seek their advice, guidance and leadership – they have much to share and are eager to. They also really understand and embrace the concept of servant leadership, which continues to be a critical success factor for modern-day award-winning admins and is what Colleen Barrett attributes her success to at Southwest.

So, what’s next for Sunny Nunan? Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

In 22 markets, recognizing as many administrative professionals as humanly possible!

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The Backbone Blog is all about the modern Admin. Created by the Admin Awards, Backbone is all about leveling up and inspiring Admins to do their very best work. It’s also about overcoming outdated stereo-types about the profession and those that serve in it. We work hard to tell the stories of innovators, change agents, thought leaders and pioneers who area making a phenomenal impact to their organizations and profession and inspire others in the process. We believe the best ideas and insights come from Administrative Professionals themselves, so that’s what you’ll find here.