Real Careers: Nora Onishi

Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Nora Onishi of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Nora Onishi, CAP, OM, PM, Notary Public is an Executive Assistant. She’s also the Board Chair of IAAP, the International Association of Administrative Professionals. Here’s a look at Nora’s world.


Up before the Hawaiian sun

How does your typical work day start? Typical? Those days are far and few between. However, I’d say it’s probably a 4:00 a.m. start with a cup of hot water and I’m ready to roll. I take a quick scan of emails that came in during the night for anything urgent that requires my immediate attention. Next on the agenda are two healthy lunches – a large vegetable salad for my hubby and a container of crudités with cheese or a hard-boiled egg for me. This is followed by a hearty breakfast (the one meal of the day that I don’t miss), a cup of hot tea and the morning paper.

Then it’s off to the races for a 25-minute drive to the office, with a detour on some days to the neighbourhood Starbucks for a venti cup of Pike coffee. I drive to the office except for the days that my husband requires a car. Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast?  I usually have the radio on to a local Hawaiian music station (FM 105.1) to catch traffic updates every 15 minutes.


At the Office

Primary Responsibilities: My executive is one of three executive vice presidents in the company; he is also the company’s Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary. I assist him in the management and coordination of all board and committee meetings as well as the annual shareholder meeting, and I liaise with our Board of Directors. I also facilitate board and officer stock trades, issue secretary certificates, arrange travel for the department, and review and process invoices and expense reports.

I serve as meeting and event planner whenever my executive or one of my colleagues is responsible for hosting a meeting for their professional organization, work with regulatory agencies on addressing corporate violations and fines and notarize documents. Additionally, I am the company’s unofficial Japanese language translator and pinch hit to cover the CEO’s assistant’s desk when the need arises.

Morning Routines:  I check my inbox for urgent items that need to be addressed immediately – emails and voice messages. I scan my executive’s inbox for urgent messages, and then check his calendar for the next three days to ensure that there are no conflicts or pending appointments.

How long is your work day? Although I am in the office 10-12 hours each day, I’d have to say that I am “on” 24/7 for any of the executive leadership team, board members and department staff. My executive does not expect me to be available 24/7. However, as his business partner, it’s a standard that I honor so that it is “business as usual” regardless of whether he is here or in another time zone.

Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? My employer promotes wellness by making ergonomic foot rests, keyboards, mice, adjustable stand desks and stability balls available to employees. The company has also sponsored a 12-week wellness program that provided workshops on nutrition, exercise, and technology tools and apps that can assist in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

What might be a typical lunch?  Vegetables and some protein from cheese or a hard-boiled egg – it’s rare for me to get away from my office for lunch.

Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role?  I belong to two Employee Resource Groups, (ERG) – Wahine (Women) in Aviation and Employees with Disabilities. These provide peer support specific to the group, address issues that employees face and provide professional development. I also belong to the Hawaiian Language Group, which offers instruction in the language and culture of Hawaii.


Challenges and opportunities

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Determining a time to leave the office is a daily challenge. There is always something that needs to get done; maybe not immediately or today, but it still needs to get done. If I don’t draw the line and set a time limit, I could probably stay all night until it’s time to start again the next day.

My foreign language education was instrumental in getting me my first job

What do you most enjoy about your career? I enjoy making things happen, adding something of value to a person’s life and anticipating the needs of others in order to make their hearts sing. It can be as simple as getting a foot stool for someone before they begin looking for one so that they can reach the top shelf.


On Saying “No”

I rarely have to say “no” to people, mostly because those that I interact with typically know what is the right thing to do and won’t ask me to bend or stretch a rule/policy. On the rare occasions that it is warranted, I can and do say “no”, followed by the reason behind the “no” so that we are on the same page.


Nora’s World

Map of worldI was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. Honolulu is the capital of the state of Hawaii and is located on the island of Oahu. I currently live in an area of Honolulu called Ala Moana, right across the street from the world-renowned Ala Moana Shopping Center. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I’m a city mouse but love visits to the country.

How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I enjoy spending time with my husband – talking, going for walks, whatever is possible at the moment.

How long have you been in this career? I began my journey in the early 90s. What was your first such role? I was secretary to the Regional Manager of Hawaii for a foreign airline company.

On IAAP: I joined … and was presented with unlimited opportunities for professional development

What might we find in your desk drawer? In addition to the usual office supply items of paper clips and Post-it notes, etc., there are green tea bags, cough lozenges, a sewing kit, a tape rule and a roll of stamps.

How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? I was “unofficially” recruited by a former IAAP member while attending an Interline Secretaries luncheon meeting. We were sitting at different tables that day and she overheard me saying that I would be leaving my present position due to corporate changes that were mandated by the headquarters office.

How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I love a steaming hot cup of tea – jasmine or Japanese genmai are two of my favorites. When time permits, I also enjoy having a deep-tissue massage.

Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? I would love to go to Iceland or one of the Scandinavian countries to see the northern lights while staying in a glass igloo.


Education and Professional Development

Education: My educational background is in the humanities. I graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Hawaii, Manoa with a B.A. with Honors in German and Japanese and a minor in Mathematics. I am a member of the Academic Honor Societies of Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi, and I am a licensed Notary Public in the State of Hawaii.

My foreign language education was instrumental in getting me my first job, as well as my first administrative support position with a foreign airline company. As with many companies, training for administrative staff was next to nil. Other “line” positions, those in sales, reservations, ticketing, maintenance, operations, and customer service, all had initial and recurring professional development. The only professional development I received from the company as a member of the administrative support staff was in budget and finance when the company changed its accounting and budget computer software.

Fortunately, about the time that the company selected me to become the secretary to the Regional Manager of Hawaii, an article in the local newspaper appeared about a woman who was named International Secretary of the Year (ISOTY) by an organization called Professional Secretaries International (PSI) – IAAP’s former name. She worked in the same building where I worked, so I reached out to her for guidance and information about the role and responsibilities of a secretary. The rest is history. I joined PSI (currently IAAP) and was presented with unlimited opportunities for professional development which I soaked up like a sponge soaking up water.

I am a firm believer and practitioner of life-long learning. What you gain through the process of learning, the experience and the end product of an education are treasures that are yours for life, that no one can ever take from you. Additionally, these are treasures that you can share and utilize to add value to the life of another person.

I am a firm believer and practitioner of life-long learning

Peer and Professional Associations: International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Hawaii Business Education Association (HBEA).

How have your professional associations helped you? The IAAP, SHRM and HBEA networks have provided me with resources to enhance my performance on the job and literally made me appear as a “miracle worker” at times. This invaluable network is in addition to the personal and professional development, leadership training, education, support system and friendships that I have gained over the years.

Tell us how your employer benefits from your networking. Cost savings in the securing of meeting space and accommodations at hotels, locating and securing contact information for industry experts, facilitating of gift deliveries to cities outside of the state, and my ability to confirm air tickets when they are not available online are just a few of the positive benefits that my employer has appreciated because of my networking.

Have you earned any certifications earned through these associations? Through IAAP, I have earned the Certified Administrative Professional (CAP) designation with Office Management (OM) and Project Management (PM) specialties.

Tell us about your leadership roles within professional associations. I have been privileged to serve in numerous leadership roles in the past and, in the 2018-2019 IAAP year, I am honored to serve as the association’s President and Chair.

IAAP has helped me to not only to find, but to also use my voice in effectively contributing to the success of my executive, colleagues and company

How have your leadership roles within IAAP impacted your career? My executive considers me to be one of his business partners. He values the knowledge and resources that I have acquired through IAAP and readily supports and encourages my participation in the association. IAAP has helped me to not only to find, but to also use my voice in effectively contributing to the success of my executive, colleagues and company.

What are the primary means of communication for members of your network(s)/professional association(s)? The primary means of communication today is digital, be it email, messaging, texting, or various forms of social media.

Inspirational reads? There are too many – both books and writers – that have been helpful and inspiring. Just to name a few of the recent ones, “Lean In” and “Option B” by Sheryl Sandberg, “Not Just an Admin” by Peggy Vasquez, “Start with Why” and “Together is Better” by Simon Sinek, “Awakening Your Ikigai” by Ken Mogi, “Be the Ultimate Assistant” by Bonnie Low-Kramen, almost anything by John Maxwell and Seth Godin … and the list goes on. I enjoy reading and wish there were more hours in the day to do this.

I rarely have to say “no” … mostly because those I interact with typically know what is the right thing to do and won’t ask me to bend or stretch a rule/policy

Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? Here are few competencies that I bring to the role and always work at strengthening:

  • Developing people through empowerment and delegation so that they can rise to their potential
  • Embrace and champion change when it is for good – for improvement and progress
  • Possess a high quotient for interpersonal relations that fosters and builds collaboration
  • Have a mindset/approach that is forward thinking, strategic and conceptual, and creates and nurtures innovation
  • Communication that is clear and intentional while being sensitive to the audience


Important to Nora: Developing people through empowerment and delegation so that they can rise to their potential

Role models or mentors? I have been blessed with numerous role models and mentors in my professional life. What has served me well are words of wisdom from my parents; here are a few:

  • Always do what is right and not just what is easy
  • Be true to yourself and be the best that you can be
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
  • Think ahead and anticipate the needs of others
  • Be kind and perform random acts of kindness (RAK) freely

Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? Yes, I have received a performance award from my employer. However, like many administrative professionals, just knowing that I am appreciated and valued by my peers, colleagues and executives is what makes my heart sing.

Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. Obtaining IAAP’s Certified Administrative Professional (CAP) designation and a Notary Public license are accomplishments that I am proud of, mainly because these are not within the realm of my formal college education.

Always do what is right and not just what is easy

What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I take a deep breath and tell myself, “You can do this – it’s another opportunity to learn and to grow”, and move forward.

What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I will learn to effectively manage the website for the Employees with Disabilities group once the site is launched this year.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? After my service as President and Chair of IAAP, I would like to pay it forward and make a difference in peoples’ lives by providing educational opportunities to those in need. If those in need happen to be pursuing a career as an administrative professional, all the better. Administrative professionals are critical to the success of a business and are the gatekeepers to the office of the future. I will always be an advocate for the administrative profession.


The Digital Age

What positive impact(s) do you think AI, Digital Assistants and IOT  will have on the assistants of 2025?  As AI becomes more prominent in the workplace, taking care of tasks and repetitive work, it will redefine and elevate the role of the administrative professional.

Computer algorithms do not give AI our human capacity for pattern recognition, creativity, judgment or personal touch. Businesses will look to and rely on admins to not only “teach”, manage and implement AI but will also expect assistants to apply their business experience and acumen in exercising judgment for critical business decisions, to utilize soft skills for effective people development and to be innovative in contributing to strategic planning.

Do you publish to, and/or monitor a website as part of your professional responsibilities? Yes. Do you monitor or publish to social media as part of your career? No. What are your preferred forms of social media? I enjoy Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora and Pinterest and am strictly a lurker on Instagram.

What apps do you make use of in your professional life? Concur, TripCheck and Waze

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? My dream app would be something similar to the Star Trek transporter.

Describe any impacts social media has had on the role you hold within your organisation. It keeps us informed on how customers perceive the services that we provide.

Have you used technology to digitize processes or materials in your workplace? Personnel-related items are all digitized – job postings, employment applications, leave requests, time sheets, pay stubs, annual reviews, company policies and organizational charts, etc. Purchasing and procurement, as well expense reimbursements, are all handled electronically. This allows for real-time processing whether colleagues are in the office or travelling.

Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? No, but I am eligible to have one. Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability via technology may have had on your quality of life. Being available 24:7 is an integral part of my life, just as breathing is.

Does your organisation make use of a portal for any of its bodies/committees? We do use a portal for board and committee meetings, which are primarily digital. Meeting material is uploaded to the portal and is available for participants to download to their laptops or tablets. Everyone loves the access and convenience and the fact that we are saving a lot of trees.

Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint or other web portals?We have a corporate intranet; SharePoint is used by departments, divisions and ERGs and we have a web portal for board and committee meetings.


Digital Innovation; Its Impact on the Career

Let’s talk about the pace of digital change in the admin. world. Change is fairly fast and furious, with planned and logical implementation; there are always online tutorials and help is also available post-implementation.

What about the impact of Digital Assistants/AI (Artificial Intelligence) resources such as Siri and OK Google and more? We utilize digital assistants in our commercial area to respond to customer emails, online chats, etc., and foresee the use of “bots” increasing in the future.

Your experience and thoughts on cyber security/data security practices? As an airline, we have stringent and robust policies and procedures in place to address the issue of data security breaches and to protect our consumer and company information. We have also implemented quarterly cybersecurity training for our employees.

Develop and sharpen not only your emotional intelligence, but your cultural and social intelligence as well

It’s not unusual to read that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will increasingly impact employment prospects across a range of occupations. What forms of professional development would you recommend to assistants who want to ensure their roles remain relevant and rewarding in this digital age? It’s imperative to keep learning and to be current and/or ahead of technological developments. Develop and sharpen not only your emotional intelligence, but your cultural and social intelligence as well. AI will augment the performance and value of the administrative professional by taking care of tasks and routine work through automation.

As AI becomes more prominent in the workplace, it will enable admins to focus on data analysis and interpretation for strategy development. It will also allow them to apply business experience and expertise that contribute to critical business decisions which only humans can make, and it will increase collaboration and social networking as a means to raise the standard on people development.


Travel Planning

Travel or travel planning recommendations? Since I work for an airline, I function as the “travel agent” for my department and all tickets for air travel are not purchased but are industry tickets which can be either stand-by status or positive space. We also have preferred hotel and rental car agencies that we typically book based on the agreement that the company has with the specific vendor.

For others, not in the airline industry, I would recommend that they work with and establish a good working relationship with a reputable travel agent. They are current on travel promotions, can recommend the best routing for your travel needs and are invaluable in making changes should an emergency arise or an unforeseen incident or natural disaster occur.

What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and expense tracking? We use Concur and IntelliLink Spend Management for travel and expenses.

AI will augment the performance and value of the administrative professional

Lessons Learned

You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend. Be sure that your resume is current, research the organization and its professionals, and reach out to someone at the organization before you apply and express your interest and desire to work there. You might ask what they like about the organization, what they find challenging and if they can provide any advice or tips.

Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Arrive 10-15 minutes ahead of your scheduled time to allow yourself to get settled and to observe the dynamics of the workplace.

Be polite and warm to everyone you meet, be prepared to answer common interview questions concisely, be authentic, be focused, be confident, ask insightful questions and remember the importance of your body language.

Always work at expanding your knowledge and skill sets

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career?  Find out who the key players are in the various departments and what their roles are; take the time to establish relationships with them.

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 humble and willing to lend a helping hand. Listen, observe, take notes, welcome feedback and suggestions, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Your most effective time management strategy?  The Outlook calendar is the tool that I use to keep on track and on schedule.

Advice for a new parent returning to the workplace?  Have a solid child care plan with multiple back-up options.

What have you learned about setting and achieving goals?  “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible” is a quote by Tony Robbins that I have found to be true. If you don’t articulate what you’d like to accomplish or where you’d like to go, you’ll find yourself exerting a lot of energy without getting anything done or getting anywhere. You’re like a ship that has lost its rudder and is adrift in the ocean.

It’s a good practice to set SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) goals. Write them down to make them real and not just a dream. If the goal is large, break it down into smaller ones and set a deadline to keep from wandering off course. The deadline will also force you review and modify your goals to reflect any changes going on in your life.

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal?  Have a conversation about expectations – calendar and meeting scheduling preferences, management of emails, travel preferences, response times outside normal work hours, etc. Discuss important projects and priorities and what you can do to support. The goal is to establish a relationship of trust through open and honest communication.

Proactively engage your executive in your career development and volunteer for challenging projects and assignments

For those interested in promotion:  Always work at expanding your knowledge and skill sets. Proactively engage your executive in your career development and volunteer for challenging projects and assignments.


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Nora mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.

To explore a range of resources recommended by readers, click here for Exceptional EA’s Resources Page or click here to see all professional associations and networks recommended by peers.

Exceptional EA showcases Real Careers, in which administrators from around the globe generously share the benefit of their experience. We’ve made virtual trips to 23 countries to date: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mauritius, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates , the United States of America and Wales.

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