Real Careers: Maria Cirillo

Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Maria Cirillo of Sweden.

Foto Jonas Bilberg

Maria Cirillo is the Executive Assistant to the CEO at Swedish Forest Industries Federation. She’s also the chairman of International Management Assistants (IMA) Sweden. Here’s a look at Maria’s world.

Wonderful cappuccino

I wake up around 5:00 o´clock to a big, wonderful cup of cappuccino. Then I check the newspaper and some social media. I always prepare my clothes for the office day in the evening before I go to bed; I do not like to think about that in the morning.

Around 6:00, I leave home. My office is located about 110 km from home. In the mornings I usually car pool with my fiancé. Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? Mostly I listen to books or podcasts – when I listen to podcasts it is about lifestyle, fashion, politics or my profession.

At the Office

Primary Responsibilities: I support the CEO with calendar management and email. I prepare the management meetings and facilitate the board meetings. I also handle the travel arrangements for the CEO and the management team members. I’m responsible for the administration associated with all the groups the CEO is involved in. I manage the office – not the daily routines, but rather the little details that make life in the office a bit more fun. Finally, I handle some of the financial routines at the office.

Morning Routines: Every morning when I arrive at work I fire up my computer and then I go and get my second cup of coffee. Then it’s a  brief look at my emails and the agendas for the day – my own and my manager’s agenda – before I list my most important tasks for the day.

How long is your work day? My scheduled working hours are between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.,  but I usually work around 10 to 11 hours a day. As well, I always keep an eye on my inbox.

Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? I have an adjustable desk, and we have access to an employer-sponsored fitness program. The employer also provides health insurance.

What might be a typical lunch?  We have a restaurant in the building and many more in the surrounding area. Four days out of five, though, I bring my own lunch and eat with friends in our office kitchen.

Inside the career

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? That is keeping up with all the news within the forest industry in Sweden and in Europe. As well, of course, we need to always update our skills in our new, digital world. You need to be on top of things and you need to stay on top of the developments.

What do you most enjoy about your career? I enjoy being close to management, and helping the business grow by removing the obstacles for my CEO and management. I am devoted to service and I love the variation. I always feel I’m able to  create my own future, in a way.

I always feel I’m able to create my own future

On Saying “No”

This is hard and I am really lousy in saying “no” to people.

Maria’s world

Map of worldI was born in Ramsberg, a small village outside Örebro in Sweden. Now I live in Hallstahammar, a small community near the industrial city Västerås. It’s just 100 km outside the capital Stockholm where I work.

At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I enjoy the big city. I may not live there yet, but I always prefer the city.

How long have you been in this career? More or less for 30 years.  What was your first such role? That was within a political organization where I worked half time as a Manager Assistant and the other half as a Political Administrator. I also had many political assignments.

 Being a part of professional associations is crucial for my work life

How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? A friend in my IMA (International Management Assistants) network told me the role was vacant, and I applied for it.

How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I like to spend time with my family and friends. I enjoy having friends over for a nice dinner or going out with friends to the theatre or a nice restaurant. On weekdays, I like to exercise – mainly Zumba dance and power walks.

How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? After a tough week I like to join a friend over a glass of wine at some bar in the city, or I go home and have a candle light dinner with my fiancé. Sometimes we play cards together with our daughters, which is something I really enjoy.

Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? My passion is to travel to big cities. London is one of my favourites. Spending time in Italy make me feel relaxed and at home, although I am away – and so I go to Italy almost every year. Travelling is my cardio and thankfully my fiancé also loves to travel.

My CEO and I began working together recently,  and my goal is to develop a really great relationship

Education and professional development 

I have been studying sociology, administration and communication at the University of Karlstad, Sweden. That education has helped me to feel secure and to take on advanced tasks. Later in life I have attended marketing and legal courses. An Executive Assistant Master Class was my latest education.

Peer and Professional Associations: I am a member of IMA, IMA International Management Assistants. I’m also a member of Västerås Sekreterarförening, a local association for assistants in my hometown.

Do you hold (or have you held) a leadership role in such an organisation? I am the current chairman of IMA Sweden, I used to be the chairman for Västerås sekreterarförening for five years and I was the founder and chairman of the Association for Assistants at my former workplace, Mälarenergi AB. How have these leadership roles impacted you? When you have the role as a chairman, you learn a lot about leadership. You also develop your skills in project planning and negotiation. It is a terrific opportunity to develop yourself, when you take a role on the board of these kind of associations.

Take a step out from the shadow and speak up for yourself

How has participation in these professional associations helped you? Being a part of professional associations is crucial for my work life. I always have someone to turn to when I run into a problem. Through IMA, there are a lot of opportunities to participate in conferences all over the world – high quality conferences.

What are the primary means of communication for members of your network(s)/professional association(s)? We communicate on our website and by email. Today, within IMA Sweden, most communication takes place in our Facebook group and on LinkedIn.

I enjoy being close to management, and helping the business grow by removing the obstacles for my CEO and management

Networking, inspiration and achievements

Let’s talk about the positive benefits your networking has had on your career, and/or for your employer. Through my networking, I have become more secure in my role as an EA. I know what I bring to my company in my role and, when I am more secure, I do a better job. On many different occasions, I’ve secured a better arrangement for business travels or conferences because of my network contacts. I mention my company’s name every time I attend an event, which is a kind of commercial for them.

Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud.  During my years in the political world, I was given a lot of opportunities. People believed in me and I went outside my comfort zone many times – as a leader, as a speaker, an educator, and of course as a politician. I am also proud of myself for starting an association for assistants at my previous workplace, and ended up as the association’s chairman for eight years.

On many different occasions, I’ve secured a better arrangement for business travels or conferences because of my network contacts

Inspirational reads? I read a lot of articles, mainly on LinkedIn but also on other platforms. This is where I find my inspiration.

Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? In my current position, it is my understanding of the political world in Sweden that is crucial. Of course, my high standards with regard to service and administration are also important.

Role models or mentors? First of all, the fantastic members of IMA are my mentors. Then there is my mother’s cousin, Siv Stävlid, who was a Management Assistant at Billerud for many years. She was very devoted to her profession and when we had family meetings she often talked about her work in a positive way – and she always made a professional impact. Today, she is 93 years old but still going strong.

Role model Siv Stävlid  …  was very devoted to her profession and when we had family meetings she often talked about her work in a positive way – and she always made a professional impact

What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I figure out who can give me help and inspiration, and talk to them, or I read about people I admire.

What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? My CEO and I began working together recently, in September, and my goal is to develop a really great relationship. I want to help her to be a rock star CEO. As well, of course, I will work on my digital competence.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I plan to be the best EA I can possibly be, to be an Executive Assistant of today. I also have a dream of starting a business of my own in the future. I want to be a part time internal EA and part time speaker for our profession, a writer or a consultant who helps new EAs to counter different kind of obstacles. Maybe it will come true when I retire.

The Digital Age

What are your preferred forms of social media? Instagram and LinkedIn  Do you monitor and/or publish to a website as part of your professional responsibilities?  No, not directly. I collect information for the website sometimes but I do not publish anything;  I hand it over to other colleagues who do that work.

What apps do you make use of in your professional life? I do not use so many apps for my professional life. I do use Cam Card for business cards, and Doodle to decide the best dates for meetings. Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? I work a lot with different kind of projects, so a project app would be really useful.

Describe any impacts social media has had on the role you hold within your organisation. We always put news on our web page and on social media.

Have you used technology to digitize processes or materials in your workplace? I use SharePoint, and I use shortcuts to make my work easier. Since March, I have transferred all my management team’s documents and information to another platform. We just need to have it there when we are working from home because of the pandemic. This makes it easy to share meeting documents remotely.

Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Yes. Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability may have had on your quality of life. For me it is mostly positive to be available 24:7,  because it makes me feel free. Everyone can reach me through my smartphone. But of course you have to be observant of signs of stress; you must have the possibility to be away without thinking about work. I do not take calls during the weekends if it’s not really important.

Embrace the opportunity to form your role, take on new tasks and develop your soft skills and your intercultural understanding

Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital (relying on portals and/or PDFs of meeting materials), or paper-based? They are digital. We use a portal for the board meetings.

Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint or other web portals? At my former workplace, I held a significant role in implementing SharePoint. At the beginning, there were a lot of problems; people found it difficult to find what they were looking for. Now, with COVID-19, we all work from home so we use Teams for meetings. Thanks to the digitalization, I do not feel uncomfortable when working from home.

When it comes to digital innovation and disruption, how would you categorise the pace of change in your environment? Right now, I work in an environment which is very digital so it is a part of every day life for us. We all have to be digital superstars because of COVID-19, but the others rely on me a lot. They expect me to take the lead.

How do you see the workplace evolving with respect to cybersecurity practices, AI and digital assistants? AI could definitely be a resource when it comes to replacing tasks such as certifying invoices. We have high standards when it comes to data security.

What positive impact(s) do you think AI, digital assistants and IOT (the Internet of Things) will have on the assistant of 2025? I think the admin. professional will be more of a specialized professional and more of a business partner to the executive and to the management group. We will have the role of the emotional glue in the workplace. I think we will have a great future as an EA if we take the chance to develop our skills and our role to be more of a partner. But we need to be on top of the digital development, and at the same time develop our other skills as a real business partner.

Maria’s current job: A friend in my IMA network told me the role was vacant, and I applied for it

What forms of professional development would you recommend to assistants who want to ensure their roles remain relevant and rewarding in this digital age? Learn as much as you can about digitalization, and learn by doing. Then, embrace the opportunity to form your role, take on new tasks and develop your soft skills and your intercultural understanding. That will be crucial in the future for a high level assistant. The future is ours.

Travel or travel planning recommendations? In my company we use a travel agency, and that is the only way to work with travel planning.

Lessons Learned

You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend. Be positive, show interest in the business and do not be afraid of talking about your best skills and what you can bring to the business.

Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Prepare yourself by reading a lot about the company so you can show knowledge. Most of all, show your goodwill and interest in the company and the opportunity.

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Being a business partner to your CEO, not just a servant, is a way to be successful.

Time management: Insert time (in your schedule) between meetings for reflection

What advice might you offer a new parent returning to the workplace? Take a step out from the shadow and speak up for yourself.

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 a team player and be generous with your knowledge.

Your most effective time management strategy?  Use different colours for topics, to indicate order of imprtance. As well, insert time between meetings for reflection.

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? You should always show an interest in the person you are going to work with. Ask about interests, family and so on. Then, take the initiative and ask what the executive expects from you. Be eager to learn and be open minded – not just to the executive, but to all your friends at the new workplace.

I mention my company’s name every time I attend an event, which is a kind of commercial for them

Your thoughts on goal setting? Do not be afraid to ask for development; ask for the course you would like to attend. Speak up for yourself. Once I dreamed about taking a bigger part in the company´s marketing. I asked my CEO for a course in marketing, and explained I would like to be more useful to that part of the business. I attended the course and, after that, I got responsibilty for all the Marketing department documents. I also had the opportunity to attend and work at two major fairs every year – and I did so with good results.

For those interested in promotion: Show that you want to be a part of the management team. Speak up for yourself and take on bigger and bigger responsibilities. Do not be afraid; say yes, and learn what to do. Be ambitious.


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Here are some links to ideas, people and/or resources mentioned above.

Shelagh showcases Real Careers, in which assistants from around the globe generously share the benefit of their experience.

We’ve made virtual trips to 25 countries to date: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Finland, Germany,  Ghana, Greece, Italy, Mauritius, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, the United States of America and Wales.

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