Day 12: Wrapping Up 2021’s 12 Days of Real Careers

… and with this drumroll, I bring you the last day of the 2021 edition of my 12 Days of Real Careers tradition. 

This is both a celebration of the women and men I’ve interviewed since 2015, and a series of inspiration- and tip-packed posts you may wish to contemplate as you gear up for the next year of your career. 

Preparing these 12 posts becomes both more rewarding and more challenging each December, as there are more and more good interviews and insights from which to choose. That’s inevitable when you’ve had the good fortune of interviewing and connecting with people from 27 different countries.

As we close out this year’s 12 Days series, you have at your fingertips some highlights from 151 of the interviews I’ve conducted so far. To read the full interview from anyone featured in this series, just click on her or his name. Enjoy today’s read, and see which ideas resonate and may help you as we prepare to turn the chapter, and make our way through 2022!

Digitalization has helped us to feel much closer

Alessi, Vania - Secretary.itVania Alessi, Italy, on assistants’ careers during the COVID-19 pandemic: “We have had the chance to let our anxiety out of the room and we have learned how to collaborate and spread out new ideas … Digitalization has helped us to feel much closer. Meeting 3,000 assistants even if on Teams is something that has given a boost to the sense of community.  

We asked our members if, during this period, they’ve proposed to their companies new initiatives that have highlighted the assistants’ professional value – and 44% of respondant said yes! They made recommendations including strengthening their company’s website image, managing and purchasing protective devices for all employees, leading task forces to prepare for returns to the office, and sending or buying monitors and ergonomic chairs for colleagues working at home. Members have introduced Slack and Teams, and provided coaching or training for their colleagues. They’ve made ‘caring’ calls/videos for their teams.” 

“Having a well-established network … makes you visible and opens doors to new opportunities”

Monika Bercher-Pettersen, Norway (born in Germany), on job searches: “Think about the kind of job you are looking for and the field/area you would like to work in.

Make a list of tasks you like to do and a list of tasks you rather would like to avoid. This helps clarify the kind of job ads you should look for.

Update your Linkedin profile. Many headhunters look on Linkedin for suitable candidates. You are up against many qualified candidates. You want to be the one who stands out. Be authentic. Be creative. Be personal. ‘Be different; be better’. Try to send in a creative application, or a visual one. You can find so many excellent examples of original PowerPoint job applications on the internet. You just have to give it a try.” 

“Record and monitor your work, so that when you have your performance appraisals (360s), you can easily confirm what you do from day to day”

Bryson-Craig-London-2019Craig Bryson, England (originally from Zimbabwe): “Record and monitor your work, so that when you have your performance appraisals (360s), you can easily confirm what you do from day to day. There are a lot of free online courses that you can take to better yourself,  and this will show how you’re productive, enthusiastic and willing to give your all.”

On working with a new principal (boss): “Discuss diary management and email. Diary management is complicated if you do not discuss how the executive prefers her/his diary to work. Do they like back-to-back meetings, or should you allow 30 minutes between each meeting? Are the meetings to be 60 or 90 minutes, or will allocations vary? When you start putting these meetings in and guests start arriving, it would be too late to adjust accordingly.” 

“Be aware of the issues and developments taking place in your industry, and keep on top of current affairs and the trends in the world around you”

Cowan, Lorna - Northern IrelandLorna Cowan, Northern Ireland: “Ask questions and really listen to the answers. Never stop learning; even if it doesn’t directly relate to your day job, you never know what contacts you’ll make and how that information can be used.

Be aware of the issues and developments taking place in your industry, and keep on top of current affairs and the trends in the world around you. Be prepared for anything!”

“When I first started working as a PA, I found it difficult to say no and often felt overwhelmed with the workload. Now I’m better at prioritising, assessing what’s urgent and time sensitive, knowing when to delegate and when it’s appropriate to say no. I always ask for clear guidelines on requests and deadlines; this helps me to understand the task and manage other peoples’ expectations. It also stops me from becoming overwhelmed and allows me to deliver what is required.”

“You are the master of your own universe and you should advocate for your personal time”

Priscilia Gough of Canada; originally from South Africa: “Being able to network with fellow EAs has allowed me to build my career in such a positive way. The simplest of conversations with a person can open up multiple opportunities for you. It’s through my network that I learned about several courses I’ve taken. I have found groups and magazines that give excellent advice.

Networking has also helped me build very strong relationships with vendors (restaurants, hotels, travel providers, airlines, etc.) in my community; that positively impacts my company when I am able to negotiate better rates or assistance because of these connections. The most important benefit though of having such a large and strong network is that, if I do find myself needing advice or help in any form, I have an extensive network to reach out to for help!”

“There are not enough words to describe just how important the lessons from my mum have been to me throughout my career, and the powerful influence she continues to be”

Debbie Grimshaw, England: “Grimshaw, Debbie - EnglandMy first role model in life was my lovely Mum, whom sadly I lost to breast cancer when she was 43. As she climbed the career ladder, she taught me values and self-worth. I watched her progress, studying hard in every spare moment while working shifts and taking care of three young daughters and our family home. She was never afraid to roll up her sleeves and muck in with the team when they were short staffed.

She said I should always listen, be a caring friend and someone to depend on. She always looked for the good in people and was there to lend a hand to someone in need. I learnt from her that you should never give up; that you should believe in yourself and accept that mistakes are just part of the learning process … There are not enough words to describe just how important the lessons from my mum have been to me throughout my career, and the powerful influence she continues to be even though she isn’t around.”

Never take your networks for granted or abuse them; make sure you give them the attention required

Stacey King, AusKing, Stacey - Australiatralia: “Getting out of your comfort zone can be frightening, and this is where having a mentor who will have an honest conversation with you will help you recognise when it’s time to move beyond your comfort zone. When I have identified an area I need to address, I reach out to specific people in my network; this is initially a request to catch up over coffee. I have found that my connections are more than happy to share their expertise, make recommendations and offer ongoing encouragement.

I am quite reserved and will do my best to not draw attention to myself in a social setting. I shared this little secret of mine with Stephanie Paulissen and Maria Wallace, Australian Institute of Office Professionals (AIOP) ACT Committee members, when I joined the Committee. They both have been very supportive and encourage me to speak publicly every month; this is something I will continue to do ….”

“If your company won’t invest in you, then invest in yourself”

McAulay, Kelly - ScotlandKelly McAulayScotland: “Make time for training and learning – ask for the opportunities and, if your company won’t invest in you, then invest in yourself.

Just as importantly, network like your life depends on it!

By networking, you build contacts and relationships, and are able to keep up to date with the industry – there are often many free learning opportunities to support your professional development.”

On mentors: “… approach someone you respect, and with whom you have some common ground.”

“Be curious, be brave and be authentic”

Marco Macente, Italy, on career lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic: “Be curious, be brave and be authentic. I would sum up my takeaway with these words. This because I have seen so much ambiguity and uncertainty that we, as EAs and PAs, have been asked to manage. We have set up processes or new ways of operating in order to bring to the table the certainty that managers and leaders were looking for. So authenticity definitely helps, and staying true to yourself and to your role, you can communicate and manage the ambiguity around you well.

Curiosity plays an important role. I remember looking for new information, new dynamics, new corporate procedures to be able to implement the right ones within my working environment. Finally, courage: this means acting as a business partner, a specialist who is committed to performing in the role as best as we can.” 

“Don’t limit yourself to a job description”

Paula Moio, England (“I am from Luanda, Angola. I grew up in Portugal and now live in London”): “… Work hard as if it really matters. Find your purpose and ignite your passion because you care. Be prepared to make compromises and sacrifice what’s not relevant. Have clear boundaries, but be adaptable and open minded. Listen and empathise.

Go above and beyond in everything you do and don’t limit yourself to a job description. Your professional growth and value are a reflection of your performance and the barriers you break within yourself.”

“You need to be thoughtful around networking and building relationships”

Heather Moore, USA: “I have been working from home for around six years. I have no worries about my productivity. In fact, I have been told to stop working because it is easy to get sucked into doing ‘one more thing’. Finding balance in both work and home life is key when working remotely.

I will continue to work from home after the pandemic. I am in the Midwest and my team is spread along the East Coast. Being knowledgeable and comfortable with technology is a huge part of successfully working from home. You also need to be thoughtful around networking and building relationships.”

“Review your career annually: Where do you want to be, and how do you get there?”

Olsen, Anita - NorwayAnita Olsen, Norway, on goal setting: “I try to think about what I can learn when I leave my comfort zone. Usually, I get a bit nervous and insecure. If I have the time I will try to educate myself about the task ahead. Over the years, I have become better at moving outside my comfort zone – learning and experiencing new things and meeting new people.

… I still strive to get all my goals, both professional and private, in place. Some, like reaching deadlines at work, are easy. It’s harder to establish goals for the year when you’re still learning the job. Personal goals or dreams are hard to put to paper. I try every day when I work in my Mynd Map (journal). But at least I am aware of this, and I challenge myself to dream.”

“Dream, dare and do it”

Jannie Oosterhoff, The Netherlands: “Be yourself and believe in yourself. 

Be clear about your ambitions and your added value. You are the director of your own career.

Be a member of a network for personal development, sharing experiences and expanding your network.  

I also regularly attend network meetings that are unrelated to my profession. Networking is very important for a management assistant.”

“Opportunity knocks only for those who are prepared”

Barbara J. (BJ) Parrish, USA: ” Be a continParrish, Barbara J. -USAuous learner who is always seeking self-improvement, including the soft skills areas such as communication, teamwork, and emotional intelligence.

Opportunity knocks only for those who are prepared; be prepared when it knocks for you. Don’t wait for things to happen; make things happen.

Take on projects to learn a new skill or engage with people with whom you don’t normally work. Keep your eyes and your options open. Be fearless!”

“Saying yes to everyone means you’re spread too thin; learn to negotiate”

Pinchin, Christabell - CanadaChristabell Pinchin, Canada: “‘No’ was not in my vocabulary early in my career. The past few years I have learned to say ‘no’. I want to help and be accommodating, but by saying yes to everybody, you are spread too thin and you can’t do your best work. My advice for others is to start small.  Learn to say ‘No, but …’ For example: ‘No, I do not have the time to help write that report, but I would be able to find a bit of time to do a final proof for you if that would be helpful.’

… Don’t be afraid to step up. Take on opportunities when presented, but don’t sit back and wait for them … put yourself out there. Be brave and share your ideas and opinions, and remember to be supportive even when your idea isn’t taken.”

” Take responsibility and never put the blame on anyone; we are 100% responsible for everything that happen to us”

Rizikianou, Eleni - GreeceEleni Rizikianou, Greece: “Never stop learning, never stop developing, never stop being a better person. Take responsibility and never put the blame on anyone; we are 100% responsible for everything that happen to us. Always keep in mind that you can’t change anyone, but you can change how you are dealing with everyone. So: change, adapt, grow up, move, lead by your example and be the kind of person who is valuable for the whole team.

… Every person has to set their own boundaries and has to find the way to do it. We owe it to ourselves in every aspect of our lives. There is no magic tip; it is constant personal development; it is knowing who I am and where I want to go. There is no such thing as an easygoing life. Every one of us has to find our own path and walk it in our unique way.”

Contribute to your profession – don’t stand on the sidelines. Take risks – often.”  

“Being aware of what you want, both in business and in private life, is essential”

RC-Netherands-Truus van den Brink-HavingaTruus van den Brink-Havinga, The Netherlands: “Goal setting is important, however, I think being aware of what you want, both in business as in private life is essential. That also involves goal setting for a good life. Search for the balance.

… Establish good business relationships, especially with colleagues you need; however, also be clear  about what you expect from them and on deadlines. In the long run, people appreciate that. Recognize people for what they do for you. Be visible in the organization and ask anything you want to know.”

 I would recommend that assistants (including myself) develop their analytical and critical thinking and their emotional intelligence”

Ulla Vennervald Nielsen, Norway: ” In my early career I did not do any goal setting  – professionally or privately. This is something I have learned from present manager, and through various speeches at IMA events. I have learned how important it is to set your own goals if you want to obtain something. Goal setting makes it easier to focus and get what you want.”

On working during a pandemic: “I have always known that it is important to be able to go with the changes. Now, with both a pandemic and a new CEO at the same time, it was really a huge change for me, but I think once again I have shown myself and my colleagues that I am open to changes and able to adjust and keep a positive attitude. During the pandemic, I have learned that it is good for me not to see people all the time and to spend a lot of time on my own, thinking. I even began writing a diary of gratefulness … with five things each day that I am grateful for. This makes me focus on the good things in life.”

“Take charge of your own career; ask for extra training as and when required”

Louise Whitehead, England: “There arWhitehead-Louise-Englande so many PAs whose advice and friendship I value deeply – it can be an isolating role, and I am grateful for the support and friendship we offer each other.

I do have a degree but I remain unconvinced as to the necessity of it for a PA. I do, however, believe strongly in the importance of professional development, and I look for training and development opportunities wherever possible. I regularly attend networking and developmental events in my own time, and I also attend conferences … a fantastic way to learn new skills and meet fellow PAs to share knowledge, skills and support.”

“Don’t be afraid to ask, don’t be afraid people may not like you, and don’t try to save the world”

Williamson, Catherine - England

Catherine Williamson, England: “Research development, training and networking opportunities. Never to be afraid to ask (the worst answer can be no). Not to be afraid that people might not like you, and not to try and save the world.

… (In 2013) I co-founded a network of PAs in Westminster (Network PA SW1) with a friend, Gill Quirk, who works in Whitehall, where our government departments are predominantly based. It’s gone from strength to strength and I’m incredibly proud of that. The highlight was when a group of PAs decided to set up an internal PA network following one of our meetings.”


Click any name below for my full interview with any of the Real Careers alumni featured in 2021’s 12 Days of Real Careers

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