Gina Cotner of Athena Executive Services
Gina Cotner is the founder and CEO of Athena Executive Services, a firm that pairs virtual Executive Assistants around the United States with busy business owners, entrepreneurs and executives. Her team of high-caliber Executive Assistants work part-time, from home, taking many administrative tasks and projects off the plate of successful people, leaving them free to spend their time where they are needed most.
She, herself, has worked remotely for over 10 years on national and international teams. For the last 5 years she has been focusing on the work-life balance, wellness and satisfaction of busy professionals.
She is masterful at living from her calendar and coaching others in how to have their calendar be the canvas on which they paint their life. Her coaching on time management (and how we relate to “time” altogether) leaves people as the author of their day and their week, rather than having to be heroic and simply survive what’s coming at them.
She was born and raised in the Seattle area. After earning her dual degree in Human Resources and Public Relations, she went on to have her career center around training and personal development. She has led seminars for one of the world’s leading Personal Development organizations. Currently she spends 75% of her year living and working out near Alki Beach in Seattle, and 25% of her year living and working in Pismo Beach, CA.
How can someone be a CEO and lead a company, yet have no employees?
Do you know how a leader can increase the level of team accountability, even though they are contractors?
My answer to these questions is found in this podcast.
My guest, Gina Cotner, of Athena Executive Services, a firm that pairs virtual Executive Assistants with busy business owners, entrepreneurs, and executives. Gina shares how you can build a fast-growing organization entirely with independent contractors and in a virtual environment.
Gina is a daring risk-taker who uses her outspoken honesty to help her team of executive assistants grow their skills and become leaders in the process. Her team calls her “a great business coach,” and view her as a mentor, instead of a boss.
She is discerning when selecting high-caliber Executive Assistants who work part-time, from home, taking many administrative tasks and projects off the plate of successful people, leaving them free to spend their time where they are needed most.
Why does this work?
Gina’s motivation and intelligence. This influencer’s commitment to successful outcomes is why she has the time for a full life.
Want proof? Gina spends 100 % of her year living and working near two beaches – one in Seattle and the other north of Santa Barbara.
I am envious!
And now, time to meet a High Road Leader.
Ron: Welcome to the High Road Leader podcast, Gina.
Gina: Thanks, Ron. Thanks for having me.
Ron: I appreciate it. I know a little bit about your background. I’m excited to learn more about your journey into leadership.
Ron: What are you doing now? What is your primary role within Athena?
Gina: Well, I am the founder and the CEO of Athena Executive Services, and an interesting question, right, what’s my primary role. I’ve been kind of relooking at that lately. What am I really doing as the CEO, other than all your standard CEO things? I really think my primary role right now is tending to the partnerships that I have formed between a client, who is a business executive or business owner, and their executive assistant. They’ve gotten a part-time virtual executive assistant from my firm, and the main thing I wake up and have my attention on is really how are those partnerships going.
Gina: Some have been around for a couple of years, some have been around for two weeks. I have a team of 11 executive assistants that work virtually all around the United States, and they serve one or two or three clients of ours. We have 16 clients today. I’m in the midst of signing yet another CEO of a startup, and that’s really my primary role, is making sure that not only the clients are delighted, but they’re delighted because of their partnership and relationship with their EA, which is all distinct from really the EA doing a good job, let’s put it that way. That’s kind of what I think at a high level.
Ron: You’re in the partnership business.
Gina: I am. I don’t think I would have said that a year or two ago, but I’m waking up to that’s what I’m really in the business of.
Ron: Of course for your EAs, you’re doing your best to establish a partnership with them so they not only provide great service, they also make recommendations for you and also are available if other projects come up.
Gina: For sure. I mean, my partnership with the EAs … they are all contractors of mine … is critical, because they really are my product. I don’t have a book, I don’t have a chair or a table to sell. It’s really the services of these very unique, special human beings. My job is to make sure what they’re delivering week in and week out continues to be excellent, unique, special, high-caliber, and it doesn’t just devolve down to, well, somebody made your travel arrangements for you, that’s nice, somebody posted your social media for you, that’s nice, but something more special than that, yeah.
Ron: That makes sense, because leadership is really about relationships.
Gina: Yeah. True, true, true.
Question 2 Dream Job
Ron: Now I’m going to ask you a provocative question. Of course, that’s my nature, and after your response, we’ll leave it alone and then I’ll come back to it at the end. What did you want to be when you were a child? What was your dream job?
Gina: Oh, boy. You know, I don’t remember as a kid being really attached to something, like, “I’m going to be a doctor.” I do remember saying different things that I think were there to impress my parents or something, but I do remember when I was a teenager, I really did think I wanted to be a graphic designer. As a kid and as a teenager for sure, I would buy magazines like Vogue and I would cut out the advertisements and I’d put them up in my wall, because I thought they were visually so beautiful, so cool. I wasn’t so much dreaming about the shoes in the advertisement or the watches or whatever, but the overall beauty and design of the advertisement I loved.
Gina: In fact, one summer when I think I was around 17, one of those summers in high school, I got accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design high school program. Rhode Island School of Design is often referred to as RISD, so I got to go to RISD for six weeks one summer and it was thrilling. I mean, I was on the whole other side of the country with all these high schoolers, and I got to do this little graphic design school for six weeks.
Gina: As I approached college, I really started buying into all the stories that I was hearing around me, that I wouldn’t be able to make a living doing anything artistic. I went to college thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll get a degree in advertising and marketing, and that’ll be kind of close enough to graphic design.” Then once I got into college I pivoted a bit more and I ended up getting a dual degree in human resources and public relations, and that ended up serving me very, very, very well. Long answer to what did I want to be when I grew up.
Ron: Both very creative pursuits.
Ron: Since you started the discussion,
Ron: what was your path to becoming a leader and an influencer?
Gina: You know, when you’re on your career path, you think, “Am I going in the right direction?” Then you get to a certain point and I think you look back and, at least for me, I was like, “Wow, those were all the perfect crazy things to have done to get me where I am today.” My career path, as winding and sordid as it was, I think really has served me, and all the prior bosses that I’ve had, all the companies I’ve worked for … big ones like IBM and little ones nobody’s ever heard of … and the business partners that I’ve had, I think all of that was a key part of my path.
Gina: I have a mom who was a leader in her career, in the agency that she worked for and in her field, so I just naturally was watching her as a girl and as a teenager, and I saw her wrestle with the challenges of being a manager and a leader, and I also saw her reap the rewards of that. She herself was also a public speaker, and I remember watching her. You know, she’d write out parts of her speech or her presentation on little three-by-five cards, and they’d be all over the dining room table and she’d be rearranging them and reordering them. Then she’d go into the bathroom, right, and deliver into the mirror, which I never … 30 years later I learned that technique, go deliver into the mirror, but there was my mom, talking downstairs in the bathroom into the mirror because she had some speech coming up.
Gina: In hindsight I’m like, “Well, that’s extremely cool, that I got to kind of watch that in my own house.” No accident that I went on to become a public speaker, and no accident that I was one of those kids in first and second grade who would actually raise their hand and be like, “Yeah, I’ll read. Yeah, I’ll go to the front of the room.” I just was fearless about that. You know, what was my path to leadership or how did I become a leader or an influencer I think was your question.
Gina: One place that I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 25 years that I really think was my primary path to leadership was through an organization called Landmark Worldwide. They offer a curriculum of courses and seminars in most major cities around the world, the content of which gives people really practical tools for living life effectively, powerfully, and living a life they love. I got developed by them, really taking their leadership courses, not only to be a leader but also to be able to lead others into leadership.
Gina: I’m pretty grateful for everything I’ve gotten there in terms of who I’ve gotten to become, not only somebody who can go to the front of the room in some big conference room and deliver something to 200 people, but also really developing leaders. My current role with them is solely an international role that I do from home, where I’m developing different leaders in that organization around the world.
Ron: You mentioned that a sorority played a role in your leadership development.
Gina: I know. I kind of forget about that. I did go off to college and, I don’t know, my sophomore year of college I decide, “Okay, I’m going to rush a sorority,” and I do have it like, “Oh, well, lo and behold, I became president of my sorority.” Between my freshman and sophomore years when I did Landmark’s very first course called the Forum, so I did the Forum, and I realized I had a lot of hangups about girls. I mean, I was only 18, 19 years old at the time, but I had this sort of epiphany like, “Well, Gina, if you’re going to be annoyed with or have hangups about women, that is half the population of the planet, and I don’t think that’s going to bode so well for your future.”
Gina: You know, I was a coxswain on a crew team, and I was a coxswain on mens’ crew teams. I didn’t like girls. I didn’t want to be around girls, but I had this epiphany in the landmark forum like, “Well, why don’t you get over yourself and figure out how to go relate to girls and women, since they are half the population?” I went back to my sophomore year of college at Syracuse University and I decided, “All right, well, go rush a sorority. That’ll have you sort something out about your relationship with girls and women.” Then two years later, I went on to become the president and really loved, loved, becoming a young woman.
Ron: Sometimes when someone says that they prefer one type of leadership style over the other, it’s really not about a male/female thing, it’s about the energy we’re attracted to, the yin and the yang types of energy. You were drawn towards the more masculine style energy, and yet now you’ve learned to accept and adopt and use the female style energy.
Gina: Yes. Whatever you just said, that makes it sound awesome. No, I do agree. I had to learn. Parts of it were natural and parts of it were learned, and yes, helping me to become more and more well rounded as a leader for sure.
Ron: What does Athena do best?
Gina: Ah, Athena. My company’s Athena Executive Services, and I talk about her like she really is this other human being, like how’s Athena doing today? What does Athena do best? Athena Executive Services, well, we do what we say we are, so we say we provide part-time, high-caliber executive assistant services for busy people.
Gina: We do do that, but I think really what sets us apart and what has us be a really unique player in the virtual assistant industry … so there’s the exploding virtual assistant industry … but what I think makes us unique and what’s behind, kind of like what’s in the background for us while we’re doing the work or doing the doing that any EA would do … managing somebody’s calendar, managing their inbox, their travel plans, their expense reporting … but what makes us unique is that what’s running in the background is that we’re really there to have people’s lives work.
Gina: At the onset, somebody hires us to deal with their inbox and their calendar and taking things off their plate that aren’t the best use of them, but what they find pretty quickly is they end up with a partner who really wants their life to work and have a life that they’re delighted with, one where they’re actually tending to their fitness, one where their finances are really working, one where they come home from work and they’re actually a joy to be with.
Gina: We manage all that we manage for a busy executive, all the while watching out for is this really working for them. We’re able to do that because my team is old enough. I don’t say that in any derogatory way, but they really are wise enough, old enough, professional and polished enough to be able to push back when needed graciously with an executive, and say, “Hey, when are you going to buckle down and actually finish that thing that we keep moving around on your calendar,” for example. Go ahead.
Ron: I was going to say, there’s that partnership thing again.
Gina: Exactly. It’s all about partnership. You know, it’s not in the brochure, right? The brochure is, “Hey, get all this stuff off your plate that’s not the highest and best use of you,” but what people really are buying is somebody who’s got their back.
Ron: Since you observed a good leader, your mother, and you also have worked for other leaders in your capacity, how would you define good leadership, based on your experiences?
Gina: Leaders give people futures. Leaders give people futures they didn’t have otherwise, that are consistent with the concerns or the interests of that person, what that person would want, sometimes whether they know it or not. If someone is leading me, they’re about me having the kind of future that I want, me fulfilling, getting, having the future I want. They’re interested in it. They’re a champion for that. They might present challenges to me that could support me in having that future realized. They may fight with me for the future that I see is possible.
Gina: They might be a stand and a champion for something when I don’t feel like it anymore, when I want to give up on that future I created. They may be the one who reminds me how great I am, so that I can go author and fulfill whatever it is I’m up to. That’s all part of how I think of great leadership, and I think good leaders themselves are a walking, living, breathing demonstration of whatever it is that they stand for. It’s not something they just turn on when they go into the meeting, or when I’m going to go do my leadership thing. They’re living whatever it is that they already stand for.
Ron: Excellent insight.
Ron: My next question will go from something you talked about earlier in terms of what you’re doing with your team, your EAs, helping them to partner and be a resource for their clients and your clients. Well, I would believe that you need them to be leaders, because the only way to get someone to change their behaviors, their habits, their routine, it takes leadership, so what are you doing to develop your EAs into capable leaders?
Gina: I love this question, partly because it’s something that’s really new and fresh for me. I’m often inquiring about and discovering new things about, well, how do you develop great leaders. I think the people that I currently coach or I mentor know this about me. I’m not afraid of what I would call a breakdown. I’m not afraid of a problem, so I’m not out to have breakdowns happen, but I definitely do not swoop in to save the day for anybody. I believe this allows for others’ leadership to grow and arise.
Gina: If I swoop in and save the day for somebody, that robs that person of seeing and experiencing the outcome of their actions, the actions they took that may have led to the actual problem or the breakdown. It thwarts them from being able to experience what they’ve produced. When people get to experience the outcome of their performance or the outcome of their actions, then they can quickly see or discover or determine for themselves how to course-correct, rather than me telling them.
Gina: You know, right now they’re fishing rather than being handed a fish, as everybody likes to say. If I swoop in and save the day for them, then that becomes how to actually produce a result or how to produce an outcome. Somebody takes an action, then there’s a problem, then I save the day, then the result gets produced, and I don’t want to be a part of that equation. When I’m developing leaders, I can’t be, I don’t want to be, part of their long-term solution.
Gina: Another thing that I’ll add is that I interact with the people that I’m coaching or I’m mentoring as highly capable people, so I am already aware that they are highly capable. I’m not waiting for them to prove that to me. I’m actually waiting for them to prove that to themselves sometimes. I usually think that they are way more capable than they think they are, so I often give people a longer leash, you might say, than they deserve or may have earned, and I do that consciously and conscientiously, knowing they may go find themselves in trouble soon because they’ve got such a long leash.
Gina: I hold myself accountable for that on my watch, they’re going to win, so I’m not off the hook. At the very least, they’ll at least really get to develop themselves under my wing. I might actually know there’s a train wreck coming, and I’m ready for that and I’m going to be their partner in getting over the next hurdle, but I will not carry them over that hurdle. I won’t hand them a fish. I won’t hand them a solution to the problem, because that would rob them of doing their own critical thinking and bringing forth their own creativity in solving the problem that they may not have before them.
Gina: Oh, Ron, I could go on and on, but thank you. I’m like, “Okay, Gina, stop,” because I just get really passionate because it’s fresh for me right now. It’s something I’m actually kind of delving into. I don’t know if any or all that’s the truth, but it’s what I’m swimming in these days.
Ron: That’s why I chose you for this interview.
Gina: Great. Love it.
Ron: By the way, when this is done, you might want to listen to that piece, because there are so many speech titles and potential book titles that you can use in that, from don’t fear the breakdown to give them a leash.
Gina: Yeah, good. Okay, great. I will.
Ron: What is a leadership book that you would recommend?
Gina: Gosh. I have a few on my bookshelf. I mean, there’s always the modern ones that are hot right now and listening to those, but one that has stayed on my time for a long time is called The Three Laws of Performance. It’s The Three Laws of Performance. It’s by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan, and the tagline is … let me just look at it … “Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life,” so it’s a lot about, yeah, the future of your organization and the future of your life, and is literally about three laws of performance, so that’s one of my favorites.
Ron: Excellent. Now, Corene had warned me that you would be excited about a particular book. I wasn’t sure if that was the one. She said you were very passionate about a book.
Gina: Yeah, that’s a good one. It’s a good one because it really is about business, but it’s about not just here’s three tips for this or five tips for that or ten ways to go do this, but actually transforming your business.
Ron: Which if you think about it, that’s what you’re trying to help some of your clients do, is to transform their business.
Ron: To rely on their EA.
Gina: Yeah, and it’s a lot about performance. It’s the three laws of performance, and I’ll just tell you the first law because I’ll just share the first one. The first law is that how people perform is correlated to how situations occur for them. I’m always interested in how my EAs perform, how people perform, but I know that how I perform, how people perform, the actions that we take, are directly correlate to how a situation occurs for them.
Gina: If it occurs threatening, you take certain actions. If it occurs like going to Hawaii, then you’re going to take certain actions. Then I can go to work with people that I’m developing on how situations occur for them, which will naturally lead to them taking different actions, versus me telling them what actions to go take. Anyway.
Ron: Let that train wreck happen.
Gina: Yeah, quite.
Ron: What does the term “high road” mean to you?
Gina: Oh, that’s so great, your company, High Road Institute. Well, it means something about the greater good, I think. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. If I just kind of map it onto my own life, if I take the high road, quote/unquote, it might be harder. It might be slower. It may not be as, say, instantly gratifying, but it could be the road with more integrity. Perhaps it’s more ethical, perhaps it’s more thoughtful or insightful. The high road might be the road or the path where I have to eat crow or I have to fall on my sword or I have to take one for the team.
Gina: It somehow, for me, all equates to the greater good. You know, like when I have an issue with a client or a contractor, I think, “Okay, the high road is how do I have this be a win for everybody.” I might have to just set my ego aside and my own comfort zone, when I just want to get angry or tell somebody off. That would definitely not be the high road.
Ron: Yeah, the greater good is definitely in my definition.
Ron: Tell me how people could learn more about you and about Athena.
Gina: Well, me, myself, I can be found out on LinkedIn. I’m Gina Cotner, C-O-T-N-E-R, and you’ll see on there that I’m the CEO of Athena Executive Services. We have a great website with lots of great information, and it is just simply athenaexecutiveservices.com. It gives you just a real sense of our world. We do blog really regularly, so our blog is fresh, and sometimes it’s videos of a speech that I’ve done recently or sometimes it’s on topics about delegation, peace of mind, designing a life that you love, working with an assistant, things like that.
Ron: I’ve noticed even on I think it was your LinkedIn page that you referred to an article by a mutual friend of ours, Anna Liotta.
Gina: Oh, yes.
Ron: She’s great people.
Gina: Her work on multi-generations and her knowledge about generations. That always rings so true for me, being somebody who’s right smack in the middle of Generation X.
Ron: The latchkey generation.
Gina: Yes, completely.
Question 10: The Ask
Ron: I’d like to give you the opportunity to do an ask, so pose something to my audience. Maybe you’re looking for more clients, maybe you have a cause, maybe you’re looking for more EAs.
Gina: Great. Well, we do have space right now for a few more clients. We just grew astronomically in the first half of this year, but we are looking to take on a few more clients, so great clients for Athena Executive Services are executives or business owners or a leadership team who are what I would call successful and swamped, so people that are in a real growth phase could really be well served by us. These are people that are starting to realize that booking their own travel is a poor use of their time, fining the right photos to go into their newsletter or their blog is a poor use of their time, doing the shuffling of the calendar when people need to reschedule is a real pain.
Gina: People are starting to realize how precious their time is. That is a good time for them to consider giving us a call, or they can just go to our website and get an appointment with me right on the website, because we really can provide people like that with a high-caliber resource, but for just a couple hours a day.
Ron: There’s your tagline, “Successful and swamped.”
Gina: That’s right.
Dream Job, part 2
Ron: Great. I posed a question regarding your dream, your dream job, and so I ask this because I believe that we usually end up living that dream, even though we don’t realize it. Maybe not the specific job that you had in mind, but we always get that experience that your young brain wanted. I’ll give you my take on your dream job. The designer, the person who posted pictures on the wall, it wasn’t really about design per se. It was the relationship in the picture. People with that eye can put together colors and different articles, and so your young mind was starting to piece together, “Wow, look at how when things go well, an amazing outcome happens.”
Ron: Then you went to college and you got into human resources. Again, the theme of relationship comes into that, partnership. Your job on the crew, you were also making sure that the team worked together so that the boat was successful, you were successful on the race. Then of course, as a student of leadership, you sat at the right hand of some very successful people and learned and studied about that, about what leadership was, and seeing when they were effective and when they weren’t, and did your best to help them be successful.
Ron: Now you’ve got a job, your dream job, which is you’re putting all those elements together. You’re putting together the pieces … the clients, the EAs, the relationships … and so then you can have this picture on this wall of your client and they’re very successful. They’re not so swamped, they’re enjoying their life, they’re enjoying their business, and you have designed it. How does that fit?
Gina: That’s awesome. That’s completely true. Yep, it really is. I am in my dream job. It is for sure. Love that.
Ron: You’re welcome. It’s one of my gifts. I’ve discovered that I usually can do that with most people. When they tell me what their dream was, we eventually figure out that they’re actually living it, though our young brain had no clue as to what that job would be.
Ron: Do you have any other comments or ideas regarding leadership, since you are not only a great leader in your own right, you also help develop leaders and you work with other leaders?
Gina: Let me think. I think I really gave you the heart of what I’m wrestling with and discovering right now, and there’s something about, well, developing leaders also having the hunger to be developed, which the more of a leader I become and the more confident and successful I become, the more I can have a strange thought called, “Well, I don’t know if I need somebody to lead me anymore.” Then maybe I go to a conference or I get in a partnership with somebody or I interview somebody. I interviewed a client recently about our business. You know, where should we go next, what should I do next, or how does this all turn out.
Gina: I guess my point is the importance of allowing yourself to be led and allowing yourself to be in situations and partnerships and relationships that create a gap between where you are and what’s possible, so that there’s a bigger future you can see also. I forget sometimes how important that is and nurturing that is, even if it maybe feels uncomfortable or vulnerable.
Ron: There’s also an intersection of your two passions, self-development and leadership. Both of those are … the best leaders know that they don’t have all the answers, that they can always be better, and if they take the time to look at themselves in the mirror and see what they are doing, not doing, what they can do better, they become a better leader. That’s why I say that you are a great leader, because those two areas of your expertise come together and help you to be that.
Gina: Right. Right, right, right. I agree.
Close of Interview
Ron: Thank you for making a difference, Gina. You are a person of influence, and my audience can now see that you are helping to increase the number of great leaders. I appreciate the time you spent with me today, and I’m grateful for the insights into the high road leader that you are.
Gina: Thanks so much, Ron.