My friend Marty was CEO of his company, but he often told me he wasn’t its most important employee. For 22 years, Marty liked to say his most important employee was Agnes.
Marty’s company was running out of a garage when he hired Agnes. With Agnes at his right hand, the firm grew and prospered. They hired a few people, then dozens, then hundreds more. Move followed move, until they arrived at their current headquarters on the 17th floor of Stamford, Connecticut’s best downtown building. Through it all, Agnes remained at Marty’s side – loyal, smart, dedicated, the most competent administrative assistant a boss could wish for.
Too competent, perhaps. With Agnes taking care of business, I’m afraid, my friend Marty lulled himself into a false sense of security.
The day Agnes died, Marty’s company nearly died too.
From Day One, Agnes was in charge of “putting stuff away” – paper files at first, then a records-administration system she created, then a subsystem for medical records, then another for résumés, all supported by a sophisticated computer backup system that Agnes oversaw. Marty’s firm kept growing but there was no reason to change the system. When they couldn’t find something, they’d just ask Agnes.
One day, though, Marty requested some files even Agnes couldn’t locate. After someone else finally dug them up, Marty got a little uneasy. He mentioned to Agnes that maybe it was time to look into a more formal system. She smiled and said she’d get right on it.
The next day, Agnes collapsed at her desk.
Marty himself called 911 – and watched helplessly as Ellen from down the hall administered CPR and they waited for the ambulance. But Marty knew it wouldn’t do Agnes any good.
Deep in sadness over the loss of his sidekick, it never occurred to my friend that, within 24 hours, the you-know-what would hit the fan.
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First it was the phones. A software failure, Marty surmised. Heck, he didn’t know – he’s a CEO, not an engineer. With a phone system that served 350 employees on three floors, the problem could lie anywhere.
His tech guys were on the case … for 10 minutes … until they discovered they couldn’t locate the installation manuals. No one knew where they were filed. And Agnes wasn’t around to ask.
His people were using their cell phones when who should walk in but … the state OSHA examiner to schedule an audit. Looking disdainfully at the chaos around him, he informed Marty that the company would need to produce all employment and personnel records going back three years, plus reports of any accidents and related legal actions going back five years.
Marty didn’t know where this stuff was kept. Nor, apparently, did his staff. Dozens of files still were missing at the end of the week. Agnes could have found them in 10 minutes.
Life became h*ll for months. Everyone worked 80-hour weeks, Marty included. Paper files were only the beginning. Marty named a three-person task force to search every hard drive and backup for key files. The worst moment? When the letter arrived from the IRS asking for five years of records to support prior tax deductions. That’s when he began thinking about selling the company.
Then one fateful day, Marty’s new administrative assistant, Sandra, saw him moping at his desk and handed him a little book. “Here,” she said, “take a look at this. It might cheer you up.”
The book was called Taming the Paper Monster: Records Management, Compliance and File Security.
Marty picked it up – and didn’t put it down until 11 o’clock that night, after he’d read every word and sketched out a plan of action. At 8:30 next morning, things at his firm started to turn around.
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- Record-keeping requirements of all the important federal laws
- A records retention guide — 5 pages of tables that identify hundreds of types of records and documents, and tell you how long each one must be retained.
- An appendix listing contact information for government offices, regulatory agencies, associations and other organizations that offer further resources.
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After Marty’s company “tamed the paper monster,” it went on to great things. By his retirement day, they’d tripled revenues and its stock was listed on the NASDAQ. I attended the retirement gala along with hundreds of other well-wishers.
We were recalling old times when Sandra joined us. Marty clinked her glass and gave her a hug.
“You’ve been great,” he beamed.
She beamed back. With a twinkle, she said, “But not as great as Agnes, right?”
“There’ll never be another Agnes,” Marty said solemnly. “But it was you who started things back on track."
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