Real Careers: Alicia Álvarez

Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Alicia Álvarez of Zizur Mayor, Spain

Alicia Álvarez is an Executive Assistant at Berry Superfos. Here’s a look at her world.

Silence and freshly squeezed orange juice

I get up at 6:00, with a quiet start in order to avoid disturbing my husband. At 06:50, I wake up my younger son, who is in his last year in high school. With a soft kiss, I tell him what time it is, and lift the roller blind of his window. I go to the kitchen and turn on my essential oil dispenser, with mint, lavender or another oil. I prepare breakfasts of freshly squeezed orange juice, freshly cut fruit , tea, and toast with butter and jam. At that sweet moment, in silence I read a daily digital newspaper (Kloshletter) on my cell phone.

I drive to my job, as there is no public transport to the area in which the factory is located. It takes around 15-20 minutes.  Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? I listen to National Radio for daily news and book recommendations.

At the Office

Morning Routines: I begin by checking if there are any urgent emails, and then check calendars – mine and my boss’ – to decide how I will organize my routine tasks and determine if I will have time for some e-learning. I check the agenda for site visits and appointments, and I’m responsible for reviewing daily sheets reflecting the evolution of sales rates.

Life changes and surprises us everyday, and we must keep a clear mind

How long is your work day? I spend eight to nine hours in the office, and normally I do not work during my off hours.

Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? We have a Safety Week each year, and offer different activities involving health and safety. For instance, we have courses on how to maintain good posture at the desk. There are also posters offering advice on good ergonomics habits and healthy food.

This year, at a group level, the company has begun offering mindfulness sessions by Zoom.

What might be a typical lunch?  We have a canteen in the factory, and everybody brings their own food. I usually take the first and second course and dessert, and always have vegetables, legumes and yoghurt.

Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role? Yes. In 2020, we established the Equality Plan in our factory. This is mandatory in Spain, and I am part of the Equality Committee.

Inside the career

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Keeping a healthy atmosphere with my colleagues can often be complicated due to some of the stressful situations we can face.

What do you most enjoy about your career? I enjoy the possibility of solving problems, and the good feeling that follows when I’ve had a new idea to improve a process or situation.

We need to be open-minded and ready to learn

On Saying “No”

I don’t say “no” very often, but I am realistic with the time. If I do not have time to do something that is not specifically related to my role and focus, I simply say I cannot do it.

Working during a pandemic

Tell us about your experience with working during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been very lucky, and have been working in the office during the pandemic. When the Alarm State began, we were considered essential because we produce packaging for the food sector, among others. Our offices are big, and we can maintain our distance from each other.

What’s been your biggest career lesson/takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic? We must always be aware of and informed when it comes to new technologies. We must not have fear of changes, and we need to be open-minded and ready to learn.

What’s been your biggest life lesson/takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic? Human beings are fragile. Life changes and surprises us everyday, and we must keep a clear mind to be able to get out of difficult situations.

I’m a member of IMA, International Management Assistants, and am the Treasurer of IMA Spain

How has the pandemic impacted your approach to professional development? Have you been attending webinars, and/or what other approach have you taken to professional growth at this point in time? Increases in online learning have given me the opportunity to take courses which were previously available only in big cities far from mine. I have completed a communication training with Teresa Baró, who has an academy of verbal and no verbal communication, and many other short webinars from people such as Joan Burge, Jeremy Burrows and others for administrative matters.

Environmental sustainability

Individuals and employers are increasingly aware of the importance of taking steps to reduce our carbon footprintsWhat steps are underway within your workplace to reduce carbon footprints? We recycle e-waste, follow energy consumption reduction practices and other approaches.

Please highlight some steps you take to reduce your carbon footprint in your personal life. I have acquired solar panels that will be installed on my roof. I always buy local and seasonal products, and I subscribe to a local ecological producer, Bio Trailla. Each week, they deliver a box with 10 kilos of fresh vegetables and fruit.

Alicia’s world

Map of worldI was born in Pamplona, in the north of Spain, and I live in Zizur Mayor, a small town/suburb close to Pamplona.  At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I used to be much more of a city mouse but, over the years, it has become 50/50 for me.

How long have you been in this career? I have been an assistant since 1997, and my first role was in the company where I currently work. How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? I worked in Logistics, and the General Director promoted me to work with him as an assistant.

How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I like yoga and practice it every week.

I like cinema and reading, and spending time with my family. My husband fishes and hunts, and I like to accompany him like an “assistant”.

How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? With a cold beer and some olives, reading the newspaper on my own

Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? We had planned a trip to Vancouver, Canada, with fishing and visits to the Yukon (Whitehorse) and Whistler to ski, as my son was studying in Coquitlam last year. Everything was cancelled due to the pandemic. Therefore, this remains as our ideal holiday for the future.

I have a computing degree and English and French languages certificates

Education and professional development 

I have a computing degree and English and French languages certificates. Languages have benefitted me because, when I started, there were not many people keen on this. The company where I work had just been acquired by a Danish company at that time, and languages were important.

Peer and Professional Associations: I’m a member of IMA, International Management Assistants, and am the Treasurer of IMA Spain.

How has this leadership role within IMA helped you? It has helped me improve my communication skills and to be more open-minded. It has also increased my curiosity, as I have never worked in Finance, and so this role has been one more way of learning.

What are the primary means of communication for network members? We communicate by Slack and email, and in forum sessions.

Networking has enabled me to know more about coaching, Microsoft, new apps and training opportunities 

Describe any positive benefits your networking has had on your career, and/or for your employer. My networking has enabled me to know more about coaching, Microsoft, new apps and training opportunities, and all this information can be used in my job. For instance, we contacted a Microsoft certified specialist for training in my company.

Networking, inspiration and achievements

Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. We built a new, modern and well designed factory and moved out from the old one to the current one in 2001. I participated in the different meetings and visits, as well as in the decision making.

In 2011, having recently been acquired by RPC, the Group decided to celebrate its Annual Management Conference in Pamplona and I prepared the event for 180 people. It was a big success.

Do not take anything for granted

Inspirational reads? The Office Rockstar Playbook by Debbie Gross, and Executive Support magazine by Lucy Brazier

Recruitment is often competency-based, with competencies reflecting both behavioural (“soft” skills) and technical (“hard” skills) competencies. Please identify two behavioural competencies and two technical competencies you possess that are most relevant to success in your current position. I’m assertive and stress resistant. When it comes to technical competencies, I’m a good and quick writer, and have good knowledge of our customer relationship management (CRM) system.  

Intuition and emotions are important in our working daily life 

Role models or mentors? Susanne Askow, who was the Executive Assistant to the CEO when I started, and Ulla Vennervald Nielsen who is the current Executive Assistant to our CEO. Susanne is now retired, and we keep in contact. She is an exemplary woman who has trusted me and supported me. Ulla has introduced IMA to me, and has taught me to be more open minded.

What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I am very tough with myself, and therefore I choose carefully the goals as I do not allow myself to not meet them.

What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I want to improve my skills in Excel and Word. Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I want to obtain some certificate related to my profession.

Increases in online learning have given me the opportunity to take courses which were previously available only in big cities far from mine

The Digital Age

What are your preferred forms of social media? LinkedIn and Instagram

What apps do you make use of in your professional life? OneNote, MS Teams, MS Visio and Google Maps 

How have how digital assistants and artificial intelligence (AI) impacted your role?  This new way of understanding and working with data and information about all of us has reaffirmed  how intuition and emotions are important in our working daily life.

What positive impact(s) do you think AI (artificial intelligence), digital assistants and IOT (the Internet of Things) will have on the assistant of 2025? They will ease life in many information searching tasks, and will give us more time to think strategically.

What forms of professional development would you recommend to assistants who want to ensure their roles remain relevant and rewarding in this digital age? Be up to date with all the technologies that are suddenly appearing, and develop all of your soft skills.

Travel Planning

Travel or travel planning recommendations? Gather all the information on times, flight numbers, hotel names and telephones, and restaurants, etc. on one page, and have a hard copy. If something happens and your mobile has no battery, you will still be able to manage the situation.

What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and expense tracking? We use FlightAware for information about flights, airports and flight status. For tracking expenses, we use a travel agency that helps us obtain the best prices.

Lessons Learned

You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend. Be active on LinkedIn, and with your network. Communicate as much as possible that you are searching for a job, and contact headhunter offices to be in their database. Be insistent and visible.

Be insistent and visible

Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Arrive at the right time, not too soon, or late. The first impression is very important. Rest calmly and take care of your body language. Find all the information you can about the company before the interview.

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Do not participate nor listen to toxic comments from colleagues who are only looking to harmfully criticize you or someone else.

Do not take anything for granted. When you have a task, confirm personally that it is finished and well done.

What advice might you offer a new parent returning to the workplace? Concentrate on work and be aware that life has many other aspects apart from your family. 

What are a couple of suggestions you’d offer that new assistant on the block, in terms of how to build effective business relationships within the office? Be kind to everybody, do not make differences, and be humble.

Be up to date with all the technologies that are suddenly appearing, and develop all of your soft skills

Your most effective time management strategy? Clearly understand the priorities, and always start with the most important. I do not panic if many tasks must be done at the same time.

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Explain that you want to help and work together as a team, and convey to them that you want to be a reliable partner.

Your thoughts on goal setting? Have your own goals identified and ready even if you have not been asked for them. It will help you develop your routines and your commitment to your work. It is useful for yourself and sometimes can be useful in a difficult situation.

For those interested in promotion: Be sincere, work hard and always be learning. Be updated and ready to be the best.

 About Shelagh and her Real Careers interviews

At the age of 21, Shelagh was a direct report to a COO. Within the same corporation, she became an editor and then a corporate trainer before a relocation and a return to what became an almost 30-year assistant career. Wrapping up that career in 2018 after a decade in governance, Shelagh’s been a direct report to four CEOs and accountable to four board chairs. Now, she delivers quality training internationally. She speaks at conferences, works with corporate clients, facilitates retreats, and delivers webinars to diverse audiences of assistants who want to perform at a high level.

Shelagh launched her Real Careers series in 2015. She interviews assistants around the globe in order to showcase individuals and the career itself. This series and the questions Shelagh poses continue to evolve. In addition to providing interesting reads and diverse perspectives, these interviews can constitute a form of professional development, as readers can explore different approaches assistants take to building and maintaining successful careers. To explore any of Shelagh’s interviews with assistants in 27 countries to date, follow the Real Careers/Interviews drop-down menus on this page – and enjoy!

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