Kaley Hurst, Executive Business Partner and Deborah Kirkham, CEO sharing processes at Pole to Win International. Photo Jean-Philippe Defaut ©2019

In Conversation with Deborah Kirkham and Kaley Hurst, Pole To Win International

Jean-Philippe Defaut

At Carpenter Consulting Partners, Inc.(CCP), our vision is to elevate executives by evolving the executive assistant role. It is very rewarding work. An added bonus is being able to hear stories of others working towards similar goals, so when Kaley Hurst, Executive Business Partner to the CEO at Pole to Win International (PTW) reached out to us, we were touched and intrigued to hear their story.

I liked the content of the CCP article on evolving the assistant. It was truly instrumental in helping me articulate who I wanted to be in this company. The content Maïa is publishing is really important. — Kaley Hurst


One of the many patterns CCP has recently noticed is the proximity of the support personnel to the Executives: Executive Assistants, Executive Business Partners, Executive Operations Directors and Chiefs of Staff have increasingly become part of their Executive’s lives beyond the working environment. This isn’t an unfortunate blurring of professional boundaries, but rather the evolution of the working relationship. Support personnel are increasingly valued for their elevation of leadership capabilities and becoming leaders themselves. Thanks to technology, working remotely has become more commonplace and can help support a more inclusive workplace. Additionally, we have noticed a shift in attitudes that address the long-overlooked notion that companies generally don’t address the personal and challenging tasks faced by working parents. At PTW, both Kaley Hurst and Deborah Kirkham operate on a very different and unique paradigm: they are both mothers. More specifically, they are the primary parent and they understand each other on a deeper level. Sometimes, this requires sensitivity and understanding to the person as a whole, professionally and personally. Kaley concurs: “It’s a partnership, I just wish I could read her mind!”

Kaley Hurst, Executive Business Partner

“This is my first Executive Assistant role and I’ve been working with Deborah for four years. The selling point for me was understanding how decisions are made at the highest level in a global company. I came from the fashion industry where there is a real sense of urgency. You’re working a year ahead of public release and this really prepared me well for PTW. If Deborah asks me for something, I know it’s already late! I need to think of it before she does. Fashion taught me the basics of working in a big corporation, taught me to be extremely efficient and to be constantly thinking ahead. For example, understanding how to plan your own travel as you work taught me how to be prepared for supporting Deborah. When she asks me for something, I ask why in my head so I can figure out how the business is run and think of the most effective solution.”

Location, Location, Location

“Being a remote EA can be challenging: it’s hard reading someone on a personal and intuitive level when you work remotely. If you start in person and move to remote that’s one thing, but starting remote is harder. In the beginning, we worked remotely and it was great, but as Deborah’s role grew, we realized that we could work significantly better in the same space together. You have five-minute phone calls here and there and it’s really transactional. You can’t ‘whiteboard’ on a phone call. That changed our relationship for the better, significantly. When I started, Deborah was COO for the U.S. and 2 other countries. Her travel schedule was so demanding that the role was primarily logistics; calendaring and travel. In her new role as CEO, it involves 10 countries and her leadership has evolved. Her role is less about travel or other logistics; it’s about being a thought leader and the strategic driver of the business. Since the scope of her work has changed so much, my role has also significantly changed. I’m now more than ever her business partner. As the company moves forward, a big shift is PTW becoming a household name and part of that is that our CEO becomes a thought leader. I have to work closely with Deborah to plan and execute PR, media training and speaking events.”

What does it take to support her as a thought leader? It’s a collaboration as it’s ultimately her voice. — Kaley Hurst

“My strategic tasks are calendaring, logistics and above all, the context of everything. We plan and contextualize weekly meetings ahead of time. All the information she needs is on the calendar, for her entire life — everything! It’s how we communicate. You can automate so many things on a task level, but you can’t automate a thought partner.

Every Monday, I walk Deborah through her week. At the beginning of our working relationship, she would tell me what she required and I would create a list without questioning it. Once left to my own devices, I would figure out how to get it done. An executive’s time is so valuable that you don't always get the full picture. You’re better off figuring out the context by yourself. As Deborah’s time is so limited, I can’t always ask for the full details. Over time, I learn more that way and fulfill my primary objective: to maximize Deborah’s time and increase her productivity.”


“A year ago I might have said I don’t care about my title. But I am really excited about my current title “Executive Business Partner” and the difference it’s made externally: I have a different voice. When I attend an event and I say I’m an EA — the response is Why are you here? Whereas when you say I’m an Executive Business Partner, it’s a different conversation and people are now asking about you. Whatever the title, my role is to enable the CEO to dedicate their time to thought and their attention to work. Sometimes that means getting involved in the personal. To me, that’s just as much part of the role. I’m not looking at her from one perspective, I’m looking at her entirety and enabling her to do her job. I ask why all the time.”

I spend more time figuring out the context by myself to get the task done. — Kaley Hurst

“When I interview EAs for the company, I always ask what’s the difference between a good EA and a great EA. While there are a lot of answers to that question, the answer I’m looking for is: a good EA can get it all done, they are on top of the calendar and the hero of the office. A great EA is a partner: a thinking partner who is equally invested in the success of the business. That’s what you need to figure out this job.”

Kaley Hurst, Executive Business Partner and Deborah Kirkham, CEO sharing processes at Pole to Win International
Kaley is part of the executive team and has a seat at the table. — Deborah Kirkham

“PTW is a global company. Originally from Japan, it started in 1994 as an independent quality assurance testing company. US operations began in 2009 and it has quickly evolved into an international company serving testing, localization, translation, audio, engineering and customer support operations for gaming and e-learning companies. Only 2% of Japanese companies in this revenue range are run by women, although based on the recent company offsite attendance, it feels much more like a global company. For a Japanese company that is now thriving on a global scale, to go from a male to a female CEO is a huge step forward.”

Deborah Kirkham, CEO, PTW

“At PTW, we are not hierarchical. We need titles so that people can understand not only what their role is, but so that others can understand what they do. At the end of the day, I really don’t care what people call themselves. Our company culture is very much like a family. We look to get support for our executives wherever possible. Our counterparts are all over the world, so you need to be flexible with time zones and often you’re working outside of conventional office hours. The company has grown exponentially and there’s no way I could do my job without Kaley. When I joined we were in 3 countries and turning over $4M a year. Now we’re in 10 countries and up to $65M a year. So many locations make it very complex: there is no way I could do this alone! AI is developing and you can automate many tasks. But you can’t automate a thought partner. Working together in the same room made a huge difference. Kaley started as a remote EA, sometimes making it difficult to apply intuitive thinking. If you start in-person and move to remote that’s one thing, but starting remote, it’s really hard to build up. Tools are tools. Automation will just help Kaley dedicate more time to work closer and more effectively with me. Additionally, we are developing a strategic initiative to transform the company. A change of title really makes a difference, mine included. On a recent offsite, it was evident that Kaley is not just a notetaker and organizer, but an outright thinking partner. While Kaley was working on details of the event, we waited to start the meeting until she was done. In the past, we would have just run the meeting.”

“I would love to hire more women and I’m committed to hiring the best people for the company.” — Deborah Kirkham

The Hire

“My first Executive Assistant hire was in 2010. I only interviewed one! I interviewed and hired her before I started the job so that we could both hit the deck running. She was a preschool teacher that had been recommended by my boss. After 5 years, we transitioned her to a different role. She had also been working remotely. Kaley is my second EA. There are two types of EAs: The career EA — those who can do the calendaring in their sleep, who are good at their job and who will keep that job for their whole career. Then there is the partner EA — If you want to become Chief of Staff, you have to be a partner.

How many executives say please and thank you to their EA’s? A few years ago, I made it a resolution that I would commit to it. At first, I was at 10%, but I made the effort to get to 80% (Confirmed by Kaley!). We work under a lot of pressure, very, very fast and very hard. Sometimes too hard! We’re busy. She knows my mind inside and out. In fact, she knows me better than I know myself. She also has a different perspective which enables me to bring her in and help to solve problems. It’s changed her role from being an assistant to a partner. They are different. She takes care of my calendar, she coordinates my travel arrangements, organizes my life, helps me keep it together and she is part of the executive team. It’s not just logistics, but also content. She is not just a gatekeeper, she decides who gets on the calendar and when. She also finds time in my calendar to get me to do things I need to do, even if it’s just thinking time, exercise and time with my family. I don’t tell Kaley what to do. She knows my priorities and the business well enough. I don’t plan on leaving this company, I absolutely love this company. If I were to leave, I would want Kaley to come with me. It’s a partnership. She makes sure I have time to think, time to exercise and time with my family.”

I would not be CEO without Kaley. And when I say I also wouldn’t be alive, I mean it. The two of us are stronger together, and I hope that other leaders and companies find that same magic.” — Deborah Kirkham

In Summary

The notion of partnership and family is very present at PTW. It goes beyond just working mothers. On a recent relocation of a male executive from another city, once the plan was made that he would move without his family, Deborah took the decision that they would have to wait until the whole family could move. She knows only too well the importance of parenting and family. It’s not so urgent that they can’t wait for him to join once the whole family has relocated. When Kaley became pregnant within her first year at PTW, Deborah also didn’t bat an eyelid: she hired a temp during Kaley’s maternity leave and was eager to have her back as soon as she was ready. It’s clear they have figured out the human element of supporting employees through life’s transitions. At PTW, they value people and understand the outcome: if the operations team feels valued, it makes everyone successful, including the company.

If you are a Founder, C-Suite Executive or other leader who has a great working relationship with your support personnel, an Executive Operations Director, Executive Assistant, Executive Business Partner or Chief of Staff, we’d love to feature you in our interview series. Connect with us: hello@ccpartners.co

Jean-Philippe Defaut

Storyteller, Hybrid Creative & Photographer

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