Day 11: 2020’s 12 Days of Real Careers

December is flying by, and here we are with the second last day of the 2020 edition of my Days of Real Careers tradition.  

At this time of year, I look back on the many Real Careers interviews I’ve conducted with impressive assistants from 25 countries since 2015. Then, it’s a matter of selecting snippets of the many inspiring insights to share with you this month. 

Enjoy today’s read, and see which ideas resonate and may help you as you wind down 2020 and prepare for the new year ahead. Some people featured in this series have changed careers and, this year, I’m also including excerpts from association leaders on pandemic experiences. To read the full interview from any of these individuals, just click on her or his name.

“Don’t take things personally”

Joanna Campbell, Canada (originally from New Zealand): “The only typical thing about by my day is that I can’t predict what will land on my desk. I have a to-do list, but have to be ready to switch between changing priorities at a moment’s notice.

I am proud of the relationships I have built and maintained. I think they are important to ensure I can do a good job, but they are also important to me personally.”

… on insights that would have been helpful early in Joanna’s career: “Stay organised. Don’t take things personally. Stand up for yourself in a polite, firm way.”

“Knowledge I have built as an EA allowed me to have confidence to speak out, take the lead and assert myself independently”

Katie Driver, England: “Corporate policy really interests me, as does project management. 

I have to say, I used to struggle with the career choice I made. I used to underplay what I do in comparison to my friends’ careers. However, EPAA (the UK’s Executive & Peronal Assistants Association) has taught me to shout it from the rooftops. I just feel like it was the boost I needed and was searching so hard for. EPAA has allowed me to be excited.”

… on seeking promotion/career advancement: “Grab every opportunity, network as much as you can, and speak to your employer. Opportunities are there; they just need to be found.”

“One doesn’t have to be friends with every person in the company”

Kemetia Foley, USA: “Be professFoley, Kemetia - USAional. Dress professionally. Ask questions. Understand the corporate culture and mission of your employer/company. Invest in a headshot photo and make certain you have a relevant LinkedIn profile. Engage with other administrative professionals and leaders in the office support domain. My quote: ‘Administrative professionals are only as good as their resource network.’

I belong to IAAP, the International Association of Administrative Professionals, and have earned its certification, Certified Administrative Professional with a speciality in Organisational Management. I have held many leadership roles with IAAP, and am just finishing up my term as Local Area Network Director for Washington, DC. I also have memberships in The American Society of Administrative Professionals and National Business Education Association.”

“I like change; to me, change equals growth”

Gallop, Joanne - New ZealandJoanne Gallop, New Zealand, on seeking promotion/career advancement: ” Read as much as you can, put together a proposal if you are interested in attending training/conferences, etc. Make sure you include the benefits for the organisation. Join an appropriate association – there are great rewards for very little cost!

On a personal note, my husband and I sit down with a drink every New Year’s evening and review what we have achieved over the year and what we want to achieve the following year. I use this for my work life, as well. I plan my personal and professional development and career progression. Don’t forget to review what you have achieved – you’d be surprised how much you’ve done!”

“Take ownership of your own development”

Ruth Hargreaves, England: “My first Line Manager, Lottie (a Senior Personal Assistant), was incredibly influential during my first role as a Personal Assistant. Lottie opened many doors of opportunity for me, and listened and invested in my development as if it was her own. I often reflect back on where I am now, and know I have her to thank for providing me with the foundations of my career.

 Keep on top of the latest industry news associated with your company and CEO, ask for feedback on your performance, and take ownership of your own development. Finally, get yourself out and about to share best practices with other likeminded PAs/EAs/Office Managers. You’ll gain confidence at the same time as making new friends.”

“No matter what challenges you face, you need to maintain a clear vision, update your goals, review how you will reach them, and most importantly then – get cracking on implementation!”

Fiona Kelly - Corporate 2 (1)Fiona Kelly, Ireland, on the career in pandemic times: “I think security risk is a big issue for a lot of organisations and in particular matters around GDPR  and people accessing sensitive information from home. However, the majority of employers have put systems in place so that their staff could continue their work. It’s amazing how quickly people have adapted to new working environments – as humans, we are inherently adaptable and resourceful.

people are changing how they do business, how they shop, live, learn and grow – we’ve enabled our courses and the 2020 Executive PA Forum to be accessible online. I’ve realized that no matter what challenges you face, you need to maintain a clear vision, update your goals, review how you will reach them, and most importantly then – get cracking on implementation!”

“Education has always been very important to me”

Jacqueline (Jackie) M. Leib, USA, on job interviews: “Be honest, bring a portfolio of your work and follow up with a hand written ‘thank you for your time’ note. Both Julie Perrine and Sandy Geroux have excellent ideas on how to build a portfolio and what to put in it.” 

“Education has always been very important to me. I have an appetite for knowledge in multiple forms and avenues. I obtained my Associate Degree in Office Management and Administration in my early twenties. I went back to school and earned my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Management two years ago. This past April, I received my CAP designation (Certified Administrative Professional). Each month I sign up for webinars and take courses …”

“You are an extension of your boss; let that guide your actions”

Michela Luoni, Italy: “After attending Executive Secretary LIVEin 2013, I was keen to stay in touch with professionals of such value and afterwards I joined EUMA (now IMA; International Management Assistants) …  So, I’ve been building an international and high quality network. I warmly encourage everyone to join a professional association where available, in order to keep learning, remain up to date on the latest trends and evolve with the role.”

Try to be always one step ahead of your boss, give him/her solutions and not problems, and speak up for yourself when necessary.”

“Always saying ‘yes’ to everything? You run the risk of being overloaded”

Tholo Motaung, South Africa, on conversation topics to initiate with a new executive: “ Communicate expectations and deal breakers in the work relationship, and define the work style required to be able to build a good working relationship.”

… and ideas for those seeking career growth/promotion: “Take initiative, be dynamic and willing to learn from the job, colleagues and formal education. Maintaining professional conduct is of utmost importance.”

“No isn’t a word that naturally occurs in the vocabulary of admin. support, but it is one we need to learn to tactfully use”

Helen Parker, England: “‘No’ isn’t a word that naturally occurs in the vocabulary of admin. support, but it is one we need to learn to tactfully use in order to avoid being completely overwhelmed.” 

… on working with a new executive: “Opening up frequent dialogue early on is key to understanding each other’s style of work and to gain an insight into your executive’s priorities and methods of working. As the assistant, you need to adapt to their wants and needs, but don’t be afraid to offer your own ideas and suggestions.”


“Listen to those with experience, make connections and undertake training”

Julia Robertson-Avenell, England: “I like the variation that an administrative and PA role has to offer. I’ve been able to attend some incredible PA events, attend great training courses and have met some amazing people along the way – people who have provided support/training and mentoring when I’ve needed it. 

Listen to people who have done the job; how did they get their roles? What training could you commence right away? Begin to make your connections now.”


“I’ve learned the hard way that it is okay to say no”

Debbi Shaffer, USA: “When I begin supporting a new executive, I schedule an interview with him/her. This is very different from the interview you had to get the position. During the appointment I ask questions on a wide variety of topics: family, favourite foods, allergies, medical conditions I need to be aware of, preferred methods of communication, travel preferences, memberships, expectations, and specifics I can do to add value to the partnership. From that initial conversation, I begin to build an executive dossier. This is a binder, kept under lock and key, that has all the particulars on my executives. I am constantly adding to these dossiers.

One important piece of advice: should you part ways with an executive, be sure to turn the dossier over to your executive, not to HR or your replacement. The dossiers I’ve created have contained a lot of personal information and only my executives should decide who receives that information. I’ve spent years building extensive dossiers and know my executives would definitely not want that level of detail passed on to a new assistant until they have built a relationship of trust with that individual.”

“Being a mentor … gives you the opportunity to reflect on your own approaches and practices, and learn new ways of working”

Lorraine Stallard, England: “I have been very fortunate in that the people I have supported have been forward thinkers and have high professional integrity. As such, they have encouraged me to be the best I can be. Reta Vyse, the Executive Assistant to four Vice Chancellors, has mentored me for the last 10 years. It has been invaluable to have a senior Executive Assistant share her knowledge and experience. She has instilled a need for high standards and professionalism in the role.

I have also benefitted immensely from being a mentor myself. It gives you the opportunity to reflect on your own approaches and practices, and learn new ways of working.”

… for those seeking advancement: “To be an Executive Assistant, you have to up your game. You have to have a greater understanding of the bigger picture and be passionate about the role. Read everything you can and develop networks within the organisation, the sector and your profession.  There is always something new to learn.”

“Having lived abroad so much taught me compassion, empathy, discipline and a very strong work ethic”

van Mastrigt, CathyCathy van Mastrigt, Germany (“born in beautiful Holland but grew up in Liberia, Singapore, the United States, the UK and Belgium”): “I have an International Baccalaureate (IB) and that, combined with having lived abroad so much, taught me compassion, empathy, discipline and a very strong work ethic. More than my university degree or anything else, that is the foundation that I always fall back on.

… I am so much better at saying no on behalf of my CEO, or advising him in certain cases to say no to calls or meeting requests that are not a priority, than I am in doing that for myself. But I am learning it more and more.”

“Your attitude will determine your altitude”

Teri Wells, South Africa:”I know it is an old cliché, but your attitude will determine your altitude.”

“I work hard to ensure that I am seen as a key member of the Executive Team and that I can be part of the strategic decisions and discussions that are taking place. I try to ensure I always have a seat at the boardroom table so that I know what is happening. This helps me anticipate issues that might arise and helps me be proactive in the work that I do.”

Click any of the names below for my full interviews with the Real Careers alumni featured in 2020’s 12 Days of Real Careers.

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