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Michelle Obama’s former Special Assistant, Chynna Clayton helps organisations nurture PA/EA talent


Michelle Obama’s former Special Assistant and Director of Travel during the Obama Presidency, Chynna Clayton, is now the Founder and Consultant at Matriarch Made Development.  Chynna helps organisations nurture their Executive and Personal Assistants’ talents. 

We spoke to Chynna about her experiences at the White House, her new chapter as a consultant and her upcoming UK workshops for assistants and administrative professionals.

What prompted you to start your own consultancy?

Originally, I intended to start an event management company. But while my background is heavily related to events, it was actually Mrs. Obama who planted the seed for me to start a consulting company instead. 

She noticed how many assistants and their principals were reaching out to me to pick my brain about how to navigate situations or ask about my methods. 

With that, Matriarch Made Development was born and through Matriarch, I’m now not only able to offer support to assistants and their employers, but consult on event logistics too.

The company is named in honour of three women, my great grandmother, grandmother and mother, who have paved the way for me to become the woman I am today. The MMD acronym represents their first name initials, Margaret, Mildred and Doris. 

Assistants’ roles can often be undervalued. Why do you think that is?

 All too often, assistants’ roles go unappreciated.

Our roles are so much more elastic than the word ‘assistant’ connotes. We are problem solvers, critical thinkers, crisis managers, counsellors and confidants. 

We have to stop seeing ourselves as ‘just assistants’, because we are so much more than that. If we do our jobs well, then the people we support perform their best – that’s the value we bring to our roles.

My hope with Matriarch Made Development is to change the narrative not only about how we as assistants and administrative staff view ourselves, but also how the outside world views us.

Why, in your opinion, do businesses need well-trained assistants?

It’s shocking to me that in so many organisations, Assistant is still an entry level position. There is rarely real training or schooling dedicated towards our line of work.

But investing in an assistant’s development will always pay high returns. When an assistant can operate efficiently in their roles, their employers get peace of mind that tasks will be executed near flawlessly. 

Plus, there’s no greater morale booster than when an employee feels valued. The opportunity for growth translates into productivity almost every time.

What are the non-negotiable qualities that assistants should possess?

A quality that I find most high-performing professionals have is composure.

I always tell people in this field that when you’re in an environment where pressure is high, the best thing you can do is keep a level head. That energy is contagious. If you remain composed and confident, you can instil a situation with calmness. Fight the feeling to react to external pressure and you’ll be much better able to find the right solution.

Another quality that the best assistants have is the desire to put their work into context. I’ve always felt that if you understand why you’re performing a task, it will shine through in the quality of your work. For example, the more you dial into who your executive is, how they process information and how they make decisions, you’ll be much more likely to offer them better support. 

Foresight and anticipation are also core qualities that assistants should possess. It can be the key to fostering a great working relationship with your employer. The person that you support needs to know that they can depend on you, that you take initiative and that you care about success.  

At the White House, I accomplished this by thinking ahead. I’d go through a mental list when Mrs. Obama was speaking at or attending an event – attire, number of attendees, programme format, parking, who is seated at the table, what will the weather be like…? If you have the answer to your employer’s question ready before they even ask it, you know you’re on the right track.

Michelle Obama’s former Special Assistant get praise for resilience

In the past, you’ve talked about the importance of cultivating a sense of resilience at work. What did you learn about resilience from your work with Michelle Obama? 

Resilience is a value that I hold dear. Mrs. Obama even acknowledges my resilience in her latest book, “The Light We Carry.” Growing up in a single parent household with a father who was imprisoned throughout my adolescence meant I learnt resilience from an early age.

Throughout my professional life, I’ve been told “no” or “you aren’t good enough”, and have had many doors of opportunity closed to me. You’ll likely hear ‘no’ quite a few times before you hear your first yes, but to get there, you have to find it within yourself to keep pressing on. 

Working with the first African American administration to enter the White House made resilience a necessity. It was an unspoken reality that there was no margin for error because eyes were on us in a way that they had never been before. If there was ever going to be another Black person in the highest office of the country, the Obamas had to get the presidency as close to perfect as possible.

So, striving for perfection became my norm. Being Black, we’re always taught we have to be twice as good, so working in the White House pushed me to work as hard as I possibly could. There was this added pressure because every step mattered, not only for the sake of the country, but also for my culture. 

How can others replicate your success and be ‘ready for anything’?

I’ve been blessed to do some really amazing things in my life, and that’s largely because I have a ‘ready for anything’ mindset. In my career, I have dared to explore what was on the other side of my comfort zone. 

We tend to avoid things that we haven’t been exposed to. I am a firm believer that exposure is key because with it comes new experiences, and when we gain more experience, fewer things can surprise us.

Oftentimes we let anxiety get in the way of exploring. Your mindset will determine your achievements. By moving away from the familiar, you’ll begin to uncover who you are and what your purpose is.

You’ll soon be speaking at a series of UK workshops. What are you most looking forward to about the events?

I’m excited to engage with other assistants and share my experiences. My hope is that my stories will resonate, and that they will help fellow assistants to progress in their careers.

Most importantly, I’m looking forward to helping others grow their confidence – being an assistant, whether that’s a PA or an EA, is an essential role that isn’t suited to everyone. I want the assistants and administrators that attend the workshops to deepen the pride they have in their work.

Finally, what are some core insights you gained from your experience with the former FLOTUS?

If I had to summarise the most powerful insights I gained from Mrs Obama, I’d say: There’s power in preparedness. Always maintain composure. Lead with kindness and think the highest thought.


You can catch Chynna at a series of EA/PA Excellence Workshops hosted by Own Your Success on Jun 27, Sep 20 and Nov 16. 


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