Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Karin Hélène of Sweden.
Sweden’s Karin Hélène is Senior Executive Assistant to the Director General of the European Spallation Source ERIC. Here’s a look at her world.
On a typical work day my alarm is set to 6:00 a.m. I have a light breakfast with my husband, have a quick look at the calendar and emails on my phone or iPad and then drive to work. Twice a week I go to the gym before work, working out in a small group with a personal trainer. Those days, I feel extra energized.
I drive to work to a neighboring city called Lund, which is approximately 35 kilometers (22 miles) away.
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: These include assisting my manager with the weekly planning and schedule, calendar and travel bookings, etc. As well, I attend quite a few meetings with him during the week. I am a member of the management team and responsible for agendas, notes and actions from the management meetings.
Morning Routines: Upon arrival at the office and after greeting my colleagues, I get a cup of coffee and bring that to my desk. I check the calendar and email, both my own and my manager’s.
I have lived in the USA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Thailand before returning to Sweden
How long is your work day? I would say that, in general, I work additional hours in the office most days and from home during “off” hours if needed. I no longer adhere to “traditional working 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? Each employee in our office has an adjustable stand desk to alternate between standing and sitting during the day. Our company also has a health benefit with a fixed yearly sum that you can claim against for training and preventive healthcare.
What might be a typical lunch? Today, working in offices located close to our construction site, we have a dining room/canteen. We have the option to bring food or buy a daily lunch such as salads or sandwiches etc., from a vendor co-located with our offices and from vending machines.
Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role? I’m a member of the management team, and chair the office professional support network.
Digitization … feels overwhelming at times, but I know this is fully up to me and I am determined to take the challenge
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Fitting all that I need to do within each 24 hours is the biggest challenge. I also see a challenge in keeping ahead and updated on the new technology and digitization of the workplace. It feels overwhelming at times, but I know this is fully up to me and I am determined to take the challenge.
What do you most enjoy about your career? The diversity of the role, being able to meet people high and low and the fact that one day is never the same. That the role truly is what you make it.
On Saying “No”
I must admit that it is too seldom I say no and that this is something I have started to actively try to do. There is a limit to what you will have time to do in 24 hours.
At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I think I am a mix. I enjoy the city with all the convenience, but love going to the countryside. For me, a perfect house would be in the countryside by a lake but not more than 30 minutes from the city – yes, I know that would be really hard to find.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? With my friends and family. Both my children live in the United Kingdom, in London and Edinburgh, so we try to visit them when we can. I am also involved in a professional network and serve as the regional chair as well as on the national board, and this takes some of my time away from the office. To relax, I enjoy working in the garden.
How long have you been in this career? Since 1987. What was your first such role? By coincidence, I kind of “dove right into it”. My first employment and even my first contact within this profession was as assistant to the President and the Vice President of Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson in Riyadh Saudi Arabia … a long and interesting story to tell at another occasion.
How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? It was a combination of circumstances. A friend working as a headhunter heard about my international background and said I should look into my present workplace. I did, and contacted the Human Resources department and told them I was available should anything turn up. They later called me and I am still grateful to my colleague Charlotta at Human Resources who made that call.
I am a member of the management team
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? My husband and I enjoy good food and enjoy cooking; we love inviting friends over for dinner. In the season I love garden work; this is my place of mindfulness and relaxing.
Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? I love travelling! As mentioned earlier, right now a lot of our travel is of course to the UK to visit our children. For travel adventure, I have a wish list that includes Japan, Hawaii, New Zealand and … I could go on and on, I think.
Ongoing Professional Development
My international background has been a thread throughout my professional career. My first experience at Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and later at the Embassy of Sweden in Saudi Arabia have in many ways molded and trained me for what I do and am today.
Since coming back to Sweden, I have attended the “Executive Assistant Masterclass”, “To Lead Without Being A Manager” and “Project Management”, all at Företagsuniversitetet in Stockholm. I’ve attended “The Advanced Certificate for the Executive Assistant” ACEA course by BMTG (UK) Ltd in Scotland.
In 2014, I was nominated and was runner up for the Swedish Office Professionals Award.
Ask also for feedback on your work and do continuous “checks” that you are moving in the right direction
Peer and Professional Associations: International Management Assistants (IMA) Do you hold a leadership role within IMA? I am the regional Chairperson in southern Sweden (IMA Sweden South) and am a member of the national board in Sweden.
I have held the position of vice chair of Swedish Women’s Educational Association (SWEA) of Southern Sweden. SWEA is an international organisation with 7,500 members world-wide. I held the position as the treasurer in the Swedish School Association in Bangkok under the auspices of the Swedish Government. Just recently I represented Sweden at the World Administrators Summit in Frankfurt.
IMA Sweden: I am the regional Chairperson in southern Sweden (IMA Sweden South) and am a member of the national board
How has IMA helped you? It has helped me develop within my profession and given me a fantastic network of peers that I can turn to with any questions. What positive impacts has your IMA leadership had on you and your career? I have learnt how to work hands-on with a board, and have also been able to apply this at my workplace – working within management and with the board and international council.
It has helped me enhance my leadership skills in many areas, and to be more confident as a public speaker.
My leadership experience also empowered me to start the internal support network in my workplace, and gave me the network to go to when needing advice.
Have you earned any certifications earned through such associations? The association does not issue certifications but, through my association, I have got in contact with Företagsuniversitetet, BMTG (UK) Ltd. and Executive Secretary Magazine where I have enrolled in courses and training.
What are the primary means of communication for members of your network(s)/professional association(s)? Email, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; these are all dedicated accounts of the network with members-only access.
Inspirational reads? A book I ready many years ago sparked my curiosity for professional advisory books. It is a book written over 20 years ago by Jeffrey J. Mayer: “If you haven’t got the time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over?” I found this among my husband’s many books of and it was inspiring.
There are no stupid questions
Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? I would think my international experience has been central, in terms of having worked with and being comfortable working on a higher level with government and embassy representatives, etc.
Role models or mentors? From the very beginning of my career I have received support, encouragement and coaching from my husband. My managers throughout have also been inspiring and I have learnt a lot from them.
Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. Getting that first job when I was young and inexperienced and then making it work is one.
In 2015, I started up an internal network for assistants in my workplace. It is still active, with one meeting per month. It has expanded to include more support staff, which led to us changing our name this year to Professional Support Network. I make the agenda and anchor with the management and I am proud that I have persisted and fought to keep this in place.
Tell us about the positive benefits your various networking has had on your career, and/or for your employer. It is a true win-win for me and for my employer. The support I get through my professional network has helped me in many ways, as we also share best practices and contacts high and low; it is priceless to have this at your fingertips. Through my network, I also keep updated in new technologies and we participate in training and information sessions throughout the year.
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I try to take a step back and look at the issue I need to move beyond. Staying calm and focused is important. I also think it is essential to realize that you can do more than you think you can.
It is essential to realize that you can do more than you think you can
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? My target for the coming year is to continue to develop and to advance in the digitization of our environment. My first goal now is to learn OneNote. After accomplishing this I will set a new goal, and then another … one small step at a time.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? This year I am starting to think of how I can develop from here. What would my future look like. and where do I want to go from here?
The Digital Age
Do you publish to, and/or monitor social media as part of your professional responsibilities? This is the responsibility of our Communications division.
What are your preferred forms of social media? I use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I also have WhatsApp groups with f.ex., IMA Sweden’s board.
Do you maintain, monitor and/or publish to a website as part of your professional responsibilities? This is also the responsibility of our Communications division. However, I monitor social media to keep myself updated.
For my work, I occasionally publish on Twitter and I also take photos for my manager to publish. For my role in IMA, this is part of my responsibility.
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? Travel apps (airlines, trains, lounges, taxi and hotels), maps, Dropbox, scanning apps, including one for business cards, tele-prompter, italk to record, vidyo meeting app, telephone messaging app and social media apps.
Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? Having one app to use for planning your professional development would be a dream. Just tick off moving forward in your training, and receive suggestions tailor made for you.
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Yes. For me, it is only positive. I like to keep updated in order to plan and to be able to take quick action if needed.
I love garden work; this is my place of mindfulness and relaxing
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital or paper-based? We are trying to go digital and have developed a very good internal portal to use for different groups to write notes, store documents and share information. The portal can have both confidential/private and public sections. I use these mainly for management and for the professional support network. I do still have to print some agendas for the people who still favour this way of working, but my aim is to move away from that.
Does your organisation make use of a portal for any of its bodies/committees? In addition to the above portals we also use portals for our international committees; they are easily accessible worldwide. We mainly share agendas and documents.
Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint? Yes, we have a well-functioning intranet to share information within the organisation.
Digital Innovation and Disruption
Let’s talk about the pace of change in the admin. world in general. Being a greenfield* organisation, we have had to change at a fast pace and put processes in place. We are a changing organisation with still more changes to come, but this is a well-known fact by all who work here and so I can’t say that it has been a big issue. Issues that have occurred has been addressed.
*We use the term “greenfield” in two ways. First, in the sense that we actually started building on a field which had not previously been built on. We held a groundbreaking ceremony in the summer of 2014. We also use the term in the sense that our organization has been built up from 2007, starting with a small team of five people at the Lund University. When I started in 2011, I was the 79th staff member to be employed. Today, we have 472 employees from 48 countries plus consultants and more than 100 collaborating institutions. During my time, we have started up all functions, divisions and processes for Finance, HR, Legal, Procurement and countless technical and scientific divisions and groups. It’s all very challenging but also inspirational and exciting to be part of.
What about the impact of Digital Assistants/AI (Artificial Intelligence) resources such as Siri and OK Google and more? I’m not sure yet how this will look, but I hope that we will develop and be in the forefront of this. VR equipment is being used in the organisation today, mainly for design and engineering.
Your experience and thoughts on cyber security/data security practices? We have an Information Security Officer addressing these issues.
What forms of professional development would you recommend to assistants who want to ensure their roles remain relevant and rewarding in this digital age? I would recommend keeping up with developments within the organisation and getting involved in the strategic work for the future. AI will not have the social competence that a human being has. We can still provide the Emotional intelligence (EI) as we are able to interact and handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.
My advice is to simply learn how the AI can help you make an even better job by using the AI for your time-consuming day-to-day tasks.
“If you haven’t got the time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over?”
What positive impact(s) do you think AI, digital assistants and IOT will have on the admin. professional of 2025? I hope that the positive impact on my work will be that I can delegate more work, free up more time and to make tasks easier. I also hope to be able to free up more time to take part in meetings and conferences as well as taking an even more active role in different projects to develop the organisation for the future.
Travel or travel planning recommendations? I guess we all have our ways of working with this. I have a travel agency to support me, but I do help with getting the accounts and apps my manager needs with regard to airlines, priority airport lounges and hotels, etc. We decided to go all digital and so we print very few documents, maybe some maps to find the way should the wi fi network not be available at the destination.
What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and expense tracking? For expenses, we have portals that have been developed internally within our organisation. For travel, we download apps as mentioned earlier for the different airlines, trains, lounges and hotels, etc. I would love to receive suggestions and be inspired by new ideas.
You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend. I would recommend they talk to a headhunting (recruiting) company to test and get input on their CV and LinkedIn profile as well as see what is available in the market. I would also advise posting in the IMA network member pages that the person is available.
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. My strategy has been to first of all be myself, empower myself before going into the room so I can feel confident and present. I know this can sometimes be hard, but techniques are available.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? I think, for me, perhaps “good enough” is one thing, but also not to be afraid to ask, ask and ask – there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.
Learn how the AI can help you make an even better job by using the AI for your time-consuming day-to-day tasks
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? Firstly, invite them to the meeting for your internal support network and introduce them to that network; this is a good start. At my workplace, we have induction days for new staff members and I would recommend not missing those. Such days give a good overall knowledge of the organisation. And of course keep an open door for any questions.
Your most effective time management strategy? Number one is my weekly meeting with my manager to set priorities for the week and coming months. This helps me keep my checklist and priorities coordinated with my manager’s needs. Keep that to-do list updated with tasks. We sit in an open landscape office at the moment, so if I need to do concentrated work I will book a private meeting room to eliminate distractions.
Advice for a new parent returning to the workplace? Start one day at a time, schedule meetings with your manager and your colleagues to get updates on what has happened in the workplace, new processes and tools etc. while you were away. When you have a clear picture, schedule training in matters that are new to you.
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Ask to schedule a one-on-one meeting with your new manager. Ask how he/she would like the support provided, and ask that you schedule a weekly update meeting to go through the calendar and your manager’s priorities. Ask also for feedback on your work and do continuous “checks” that you are moving in the right direction. This will help you develop a sustainable partnership for the future.
The role truly is what you make it
Let’s talk about goal setting. I have always had a long-term goal for my career path and short-term goals for development and training. In the digitized age it is important to not get overwhelmed but to take things one step at a time and try out the new tools available. If you do not like one tool, try another. Right now I am thinking thoroughly over what my next long-term career goal should be.
For those interested in promotion: Become a member in a professional network; this will give you access to colleagues within your profession and you can get advice on how to further develop within your role. Talk to your manager and talk to Human Resources about what your career path could look like within your workplace. Ask for training and ask to attend seminars to keep in the forefront in all aspects.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Karinmentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- IMA (International Management Assistants) Sweden
- IMA International
- Swedish Women’s Educational Association (SWEA) of Southern Sweden
- World Administrators Summit
- Executive Secretary Magazine
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