Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Azahara Garcia of Spain.
Azahara Garcia is an Executive Assistant in Spain. Here’s a look at her world.
I typically wake up at 6:15 a.m. I pack a coffee and a sandwich for my breakfast and head out by 6:45 a.m. I prepare my work clothes before going to bed in the evening and have all my phones, keys and all important items ready in my handbag.
I live in the countryside, 50 kilometers away from central Madrid. My commute is about an hour and twenty minutes long, and quite comfortable. I take a coach to Moncloa, which is one of the main transport stations in Madrid, and then take the tube to work. Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? It’s eclectic, a mixture of everything including progressive rock, reggae, pop, Flamenco and Afrobeat. Since the pandemic, though, I use my early morning commute to meditate and work on positive affirmations to make sure I am fresh, focused and in the right mindset when I arrive in the office.
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: I look after the CEO, manage his time (calendar) and facilitate support where required to make sure he stays focused on his key strategic business goals. On the same note, I coordinate with the broader team in order to make sure that everything runs smoothly and that team members’ efforts stay aligned with the CEO’s vision and the company’s mission.
Morning Routines: The first thing I do after I switch on my computer is check my CEO’s calendar for the day and the week ahead. I then spend a good hour checking emails and updating my plan for the day to include any progress and new actionables. I work at a scale-up company so there are no typical days. I pivot according to the business’ needs and priorities, which can change at the last minute. Creating a loose plan for the next day before I wrap up the current one, as well as reviewing the plan the next morning, helps but flexibility is essential.
Plan loosely, pivot readily, focus on the now
How long is your work day? I spend about eight hours a day in the office and have a very bad habit of working through my lunch hour. I love my job and find it hard to switch off, so I am also guilty of answering emails or scheduling meetings after hours. I used to stay in the office past close of business but, since becoming a mother, I have learned to maximise my productivity and leave the office on time to be able to stay present for my family.
Inside the career
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? In general, the biggest challenge is establishing firm but flexible boundaries for both myself and my executive. We both have to be approachable enough without compromising our productivity. Our team started small and is scaling up quickly, which is invariably changing the culture. Our job is to protect the close-knit nature of the team whilst delegating smartly as we grow.
What do you most enjoy about your career? I love being able to take part in helping people and businesses grow and become better versions of themselves. I love being the glue that keeps everything together and running smoothly. I love being able to work in any industry and never stop learning and, most of all, I relish being part of a wonderful global community of incredibly talented and kind assistants.
I love being able to take part in helping people and businesses grow and become better versions of themselves
On Saying “No”
Saying “no” can be a challenge sometimes because I want to be helpful to everyone, which is not always possible. When a new request comes in, I make sure I understand how it fits within the priorities for that day or week and schedule it accordingly. If it can be actioned within the day, I make sure it is done. If I know it will take longer, I set a deadline including enough contingency time to avoid overpromising and underdelivering. If it is really a “no”, then I find polite yet firm formulas to get the message across. It is trickier when there are several executives involved, and less so with other colleagues.
Working during a pandemic
Tell us about your experience with remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic. What are some of the challenges and benefits of working from home? I have worked from home for part of the pandemic period, and the biggest challenge I have encountered is the fact that working remotely is not as widely adopted in Spain as in the UK. When the pandemic hit, we didn’t have any established policies or practices around working from home, which did create a lot of fuss. As for benefits, it has been great to skip the commute and have more time to balance work and personal life – as has been working without the noise and distractions of an open office, which has increased my productivity.
What would be your ideal work scenario once we settle in to new norms? Would you prefer to be back in the office, at home, or proceed with a hybrid approach? Remote working and distributed teams have been rising trends for a few years now. I would like to think hybrid arrangements will become the norm, with better planning and legislation to follow.
Joining IMA Spain has been a game-changing choice
What’s been your biggest career lesson/takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic? I would convey to company leaders the value of relying on your assistants more than ever in times of crisis. The unique combination of generalist skills, resoluteness and resilience, along with the ability to pivot and leadership potential, will help you lead smarter and focus on what really matters to keep your business going.
What’s been your biggest life lesson/takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic? Plan loosely, pivot readily, focus on the now.
How many professional development-focused webinars do you estimate you’ve attended during the COVID-19 pandemic? I have lost count now, but to name a couple I very much enjoyed Exec Sec Tech from Lucy Brazier’s Executive Secretary, and BASE Empower 2020 Summit. How do you feel about learning via webinars? I am a keen remote learner and the pandemic has allowed me to attend online events which I would not have been able to access in person. That said, I do miss in-person events, chatting to new people and the freebies of course!
Establishing boundaries: Our job is to protect the close-knit nature of the team whilst delegating smartly as we grow
Let’s think about environmental sustainability, both at home and in the workplace. The term “carbon footprint” is used to describe the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) we generate through our actions. These emissions, arising dominantly from our transportation, food and housing practices, trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere and generate global warming.
Globally, the average carbon footprint per person is estimated to be in the range of four tons. The average in the country with the highest emissions is estimated at 16 tons per person. Individuals and employers are increasingly aware of the importance of taking steps to reduce our carbon footprints.
What steps are underway within your workplace to reduce carbon footprints? We are currently working on sustainability policies to crystallize and develop best practices across the company as we grow. We are virtually a paper-free company, using software and a portal for most communications and operations typically requiring printing; this includes board paper distribution, document signing and filing. We recycle plastic, paper and cardboard products, as well as hardware including printer cartridges. We turn off the lights and air conditioning at the end of the day
Most employees use public transportation, and our company cars are 100% electric. We do most of our business remotely, travelling only when essential. We bring our lunches from home and reuse containers where possible, and have our own coffee station in order to reduce waste from takeaways.
Work on your digital skills as well as on your business acumen and interpersonal abilities
Please highlight some steps you take to reduce your carbon footprint in your personal life. I use public transportation for my daily commute. Before leaving for work, I make my own breakfast and lunch at home, and use a thermos flask and a Brita water bottle.
At home, we recycle everything we can, including organic waste, which we compost for our garden. We believe in reusing and often buy clothes and other items secondhand. We use homemade waste-free cosmetics that my mother makes; these include our shampoo, lotion, hand gel and dishwashing tablets.
We buy fresh produce from local grocers, and our produce comes in boxes that go back for the next order. We have reduced our meat and fish intake and buy only local. When we shop, we take reusable bags or a shopping trolley to the supermarket. We use the car only when absolutely essential.
I am originally from Madrid. I spent the past 15 years in London and moved back to Madrid in 2020.
At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I was a city mouse until the pandemic hit. I am now much happier living in a forest-based suburban neighbourhood, as the air is clean and we can use our garden if we ever get locked down again.
How long have you been in this career? I have been an assistant since 2014. What was your first such role? My first assistant role was at a company called My Family Care in London. I started as a team support assistant and was promoted to EA and Office Manager within a year. It was vibrant, challenging, fun. I have very fond memories of the team.
I relish being part of a wonderful global community of incredibly talented and kind assistants
How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? I found out about my current job on LinkedIn. I had alerts set up to keep an eye on the latest EA roles in my city, and submitted my application as soon as I saw it. I received a screening call shortly after, and was interviewed and hired within the week.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I enjoy spending as much time as possible with my family and my baby daughter. We love going for a stroll in the country, eating out and visiting nearby towns and their monuments.
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? Nowadays it is playing with my daughter, but in the old days it used to be a leisurely brunch on the weekend, reading or a long yoga and meditation session.
Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? My plan since I moved back to Spain is to explore it one city at a time, starting from the north as there is too much to see, eat and do. I love the sea, and also the city, so a beach based city break would do it for me.
Flexibility is essential
Education and professional development
I hold a BA in English and Comparative Literature from Goldsmiths in London. It is a creative and multidisciplinary programme, which has equipped me with most of the skills required to succeed as an assistant. To highlight a few: it has elevated my communication skills in English, made me a keen and effective researcher, and prepared me to work under pressure producing work of the highest standard whilst meeting competing deadlines. Studying at Goldsmiths also prepared me to work in international environments, building rapport with people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Peer and Professional Associations: I am a member of IMA Spain, which is part of International Management Assistants (IMA), and I am loving the sense of community I get from participating in their events and Slack channel. I will also join IMA’s PR department this year to provide support with events, which is beyond exciting.
Joining IMA Spain has been a game-changing choice. Since joining, I have been able to enjoy access to a network of exceptional assistants to turn to for support, ideas and continuous learning and development opportunities. Together we aim to elevate the assistant role in Spain in a similar way to our Anglo-speaking colleagues, which is no mean feat!
I set a deadline including enough contingency time to avoid overpromising and underdelivering
Networking, inspiration and achievements
Let’s talk about the positive benefits your networking has had on your career, and/or for your employer. My networking keeps me motivated and updated with the latest technology and know-how. It inspires me, makes me feel proud of my profession and encourages me to excel at it. This benefits both myself and my employer.
Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? I’m bilingual, tech savvy, and emotionally intelligent.
What book or writer have you found helpful or inspiring with respect to your career? It is too hard to choose only a few names from the many amazing key EA influencers I follow. To name just a few, I greatly enjoy reading Jeremy Burroughs, Nicky Christmas and Phoenix Normand.
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I push myself to just do it; there is no way around it. In the run up to taking the leap, there might be a lot of internal pep talking, or I will process my concerns with my mentor, a coach or a trusted confidante and create a plan of action.
We are working towards consolidating my knowledge and building up new skills, including greater awareness of business finance, governance and HR processes.
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I am currently working with a mentor to create a plan of action for 2021 and onwards. We are working towards consolidating my knowledge and building up new skills, including greater awareness of business finance, governance and HR processes.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I plan to start studying for an MBA, to grow into my role as Chief of Staff and to become a key driver in the international expansion of the company where I work.
The Digital Age
What are your preferred forms of social media? LinkedIn, Instagram
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? Google Workspace (G Suite) apps together with Notion, Slack and WhatsApp
What positive impact(s) do you think artificial intelligence (AI), digital assistants and the internet of things (IOT) will have on the assistant of 2025? Automisation and AI will take care of the repetitive menial tasks, whilst we will be able to focus on more strategic work helping our businesses thrive more efficiently. I also think this will take less people to take care of the administration, which will invariably cut jobs.
What forms of professional development would you recommend to assistants who want to ensure their roles remain relevant and rewarding in this digital age? Work on your digital skills as well as on your business acumen and interpersonal abilities. Machines will not be able to replicate the PR potential of assistants to represent their bosses and brands, and our role is key in building and maintaining strategic relationships both internally and externally to propel the business forward.
Show initiative and resolve problems before they reach your boss
Travel or travel planning recommendations? Keep track of everything in an easy to identify folder you can share with your executive online, and print out hard copies for the business itinerary wallet to take away. Make sure to include a scanned copy of your executive’s passport. I also recommend making an itinerary checklist with the plan for each day clearly laid out. Include important phone numbers including relevant business contacts, the consulate and emergency numbers including the police, insurance, bank and credit card numbers and their corresponding customer service lines.
What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and expense tracking? Soldo is an amazing expense tracking system as it is backed by Mastercard and can be used worldwide. It has a mobile app, which prompts the user to take a picture of receipts upon purchase, producing real-time reports on the go. It also enables the administrator to take full control of the card funds, allocating and retrieving them as well as being able to cancel the card on the spot in case of loss or robbery.
You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend. Define your goals and profile. Job searching gets easier if you are able to narrow your search and target the roles that interest you. Work on your elevator pitch and make sure it rings true to your personal brand. Don’t be afraid of networking; professional associations can point you in the right direction.
Work on your elevator pitch and make sure it rings true to your personal brand
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Be natural, and answer questions concisely. Pause before you speak and don’t be afraid of asking questions about the role, the team, their expectations and their company culture.
Don’t be afraid of networking; professional associations can point you in the right direction
What advice might you offer a new parent returning to the workplace? Don’t be afraid of asking for flexibility from your employer, and make use of your parental entitlements. It will get overwhelming at times, so get all the help you can. Join parent groups in your local area for support, and check in with your GP if you feel down for over two weeks. Remind yourself that you are not superman/woman, and reward yourself with self-care whenever possible.
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 helpful but don’t be afraid of setting boundaries or giving constructive feedback; it will build relationships based on trust and respect. Observe the office politics and listen to the odd rant, but remain neutral and detached and never, ever gossip! Above all, be sociable with your colleagues but remain professional in every interaction.
Take control of your learning and development
Your most effective time management strategy? Write down five key priorities for the day, and aim to tackle at least three of them. I finish what I start and avoiding multitasking. I set notifications and am proactive about when I check emails/WhatsApp.
For those interested in promotion: Network and join assistant associations in your area; they offer great opportunities for training and job openings. Take control of your learning and development. Don’t expect your boss to offer training; develop your own plan. Be a driver, show initiative and resolve problems before they reach your boss; volunteer to take over tasks and responsibilities before you are asked. With all this, build a brag sheet with your achievements and print it our for your yearly review to give your boss a factual account of the value of your contributions.
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 date, assistants in 27 countries to date have generously shared the benefit of their experience with Shelagh. Shelagh has also assembled international Real Careers panels to explore perspectives on career dynamics, issues and opportunities. To explore any of Shelagh’s Real Careers interviews, follow drop-down menus on this page as follows: Real Careers/Interviews.