Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Rebecca Agyirba Afful of Ghana.
Rebecca Agyirba Afful is the Executive Officer to the Director for Africa at International Water Management Institute. Here’s a look at her world.
A very early start
I’m up by 4:30 a.m. I say my morning prayers and head straight to the kitchen to prepare (if I did not do so the night before) and pack the family’s lunches before taking my shower. By 5:30, I am out of the house to avoid being caught up in traffic.
I live about 22 kilometers (13.67 miles) from my office so, depending on the traffic situation and how early I leave home, the commute takes me between 45 minutes to an hour and a half. I drive sometimes, but prefer riding on the public transit known in local parlance as “trotro”.
I usually read on my commute to work if I am not driving. Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? On days that I do drive, I listen to motivational and inspirational messages or an audio book. Les Brown, Lisa Nichols, Myles Munroe, Joel Osteen, Tony Robbins, Bob Proctor and others are at the top of my playlist.
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: Some of my primary responsibilities include scheduling, organizing meetings and workshops, drafting reports, managing correspondence and making travel arrangements. I initiate, follow up on and update Project Leaders on contracts with consultants and partners.
Morning Routines: The first thing I do when I get to the office is check my emails, to determine what is urgent and enable me to plan my day. I also check in with my executive to see if his priorities have changed or if there is something new that I need to know about or attend to. I then grab a cup of tea to start my day. The days are hardly the same, as things keep changing.
I enjoy spending my commute time for my personal development, so I rarely work during my commute
How long is your work day? I am supposed to spend eight hours a day at the office, working from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. However, I usually get to the office at 7:00 a.m. Occasionally, I stay a bit longer if work demands it. I enjoy spending my commute time for my personal development, so I rarely work during my commute.
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 used to have a lot of back pain resulting from sitting for long hours. To remedy this situation, I now take five-minute breaks every hour. Another way I break the monotony of sitting is to shift, every now and then, to a relatively high table that makes it possible for me to work from a standing position. In addition, my employer is considering setting up a gym in the office; I hope this happens soon!
What might be a typical lunch? A typical lunch for me is usually waakye (rice and beans) and salad. I do my best to eat in our cafeteria; this gives me the opportunity to interact with my colleagues. But if the pressure is on, I lunch at my desk.
Inside the career
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Despite being very deliberate about staying on top of issues, I sometimes find myself in the unpleasant situation of learning about important issues or tasks (for example, an event to be organized) at the very last minute.
This is a challenge, as it means I have to get things done at very short notice. However, noting that I work in an environment where things move fast and plans sometimes change rapidly, I am flexible. I adapt quickly to new information and tasks and accomplish tasks to my best ability, whether or not these come at short notice.
What do you most enjoy about your career? I enjoy coming up with solutions to unanticipated problems; this makes it possible for me to think quickly and analytically, and deploy my creativity.
I am flexible. I adapt quickly to new information.
On Saying “No”
How readily or often do you say “no” to people? Not very often, I must I admit. I am likely to say “no” only when I’m extremely busy with equally important work. Even then, I make it a point to attend to the incoming request(s) as soon as I complete competing tasks.
I was born in and live in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? At heart, I believe I’m a country mouse but unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to live out of the city that much. During my college years, however, my parents acquired land on the outskirts of Accra, away from the hustle and bustle of city life, where they put up a beautiful home for the family.
This gave me the opportunity to experience life in the countryside, and I fell in love with the relative peace and calmness it offered. The downside was that many social amenities were lacking, as is typical of new residential areas in developing countries.
How long have you been in this career? 12 years What was your first role as an assistant? My first role as assistant was during National Service (youth service), where I was assigned to the Research Department of the Office of the Parliament of Ghana right after completing my first degree. I supported the Department’s Secretary in carrying out her duties.
Take advantage of learning opportunities, invest in your own career development and know your job well
How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? I learned about it through my husband; a friend of his shared the advert with him. He in turn forwarded it to me, knowing that I wanted to change roles at the time, having obtained my Master of Business Administration (MBA). Interestingly, the advert got to me on the last day for submissions. I quickly applied and here I am.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I like to spend this time with family, and sometimes with friends in my network. I have plans to enroll in a Toastmasters program and sometimes join in on their meetings.
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I take a long warm shower, sip on a chilled Malta Guinness and go to bed.
Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? My ideal holiday will be to visit the Caribbean with my family and my travel adventure will be to tour Europe.
Education and professional development
Education: I hold a Bachelor’s degree in French and Linguistics and quite recently earned an MBA in Finance. My ability to speak French has really helped in securing jobs with international organizations, as Ghana is surrounded by French speaking countries.
Earning her MBA helped Rebecca develop strategic thinking and leadership skills
I pursued an MBA a few years ago, to not also seek a management-level position but to also add specific business skills such as leadership and strategic thinking to my toolkit.
Peer and professional associations: I am a member of the American Society of Administrative Professionals (ASAP), whose activities I follow remotely.
Because of my desire to foster relationship with my peers, I founded a quarterly event called “Resilient and Effective Administrative Professionals (REACH)”, where Admins from different organizations meet to network, share and learn from each other. Out of this event, we have now decided to form a support group called the Resilient and Effective Administrative Professionals (REAP).
I have also joined the following Administrative Professionals support groups on LinkedIn and Facebook.
- Executive Secretary Magazine(LinkedIn and Facebook)
- The Assistant Hub (Facebook)
- Executive Assistants to CEOs (LinkedIn)
- Administrative Assistant (LinkedIn)
- Admin Pros (LinkedIn)
How have these networks or associations helped you? Participating in these groups has enhanced my networking skills. More than ever, I understand that the challenges I face at work are not specific to me; others in my profession face similar challenges. These networks thus constitute an important resource into which I can always tap for support and advice to help me surmount challenges and advance my career.
Setting up and growing the REAP community has honed Rebecca’s marketing, organizational, relationship and team building skills
Do you hold (or have you held) a leadership role within one of your professional associations? I am currently the Coordinating Chairperson for of REAP and I work with a team of Committee Heads. How has taking on leadership roles impacted you and your career? Setting up and growing the REAP community has honed my marketing skills, my relationship and team building skills as well as my organizational skills. Developing and nurturing these skills has also had a positive impact on my performance at work. I now have a rich network of people I can call on anytime for support on work related issues.
What are the primary means of communication for members of your professional associations? We communicate mainly via WhatsApp group chats, LinkedIn and Facebook.
Networking, inspiration and achievements
Let’s talk about the positive benefits your networking has had on your career, and/or for your employer. I once needed to book an appointment for my executive to meet with a director of one of our governmental bodies at short notice. We did not have any contact person in our contact database at that time but, with the help of a member in our group, I was able to secure the appointment for my executive.
I felt the fear but I accepted the challenge and aced it
Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. At the top of my list is being selected as a 2019 PA of the year Africa finalist by Executive PA Media, Australia. Second on my list is taking up the challenge to speak at the maiden edition of the PA Conference organized by fivesixfive this year. This was a major public speaking engagement for me. I felt the fear but I accepted the challenge and aced it.
Inspirational reads? Leader Who Had No Title, by Robin Sharma
Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? The most relevant competencies that have contributed to success in my current position are the abilities to solve problems and get results. These competencies are very vital to success in an EA role.
Role models or mentors? Lucy Brazier and Joan Burge have been my role models and mentors from afar since I discovered them some few years back. They never cease to amaze me. I love their passion and enthusiasm for our profession. They are doing all they can to give this profession the recognition that it deserves.
Have you received any awards or recognition within this career? Executive PA Media selected me as a finalist for the 2019 PA of the year Africa.
When opportunities for growth/promotion present themselves, take full advantage of them
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I keep an open mind and take on new learnings.
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? For the coming year, I would like to sharpen my people and leadership skills. I need to develop these skills not only for my current role, but to also to help me run the REAP community.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I am currently a student member of the Governance Institute formerly known as the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators. So, for the next five years, I would like to see myself completing all the required examination to become a Charted Governance Professional. I am also planning to write the Microsoft office certification examinations.
Accomplishments: At the top of my list is being selected as a 2019 PA of the year Africa finalist
The Digital Age
What are your preferred forms of social media? LinkedIn, WhatsApp and Facebook
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? Doodle polls help me with my meeting scheduling and, quite recently, I tried Otter voice. It helps me with my minute taking at meetings. Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? An improved version of Otter that can take minutes without errors and might not require internet availability
Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint or other web portals? My organization makes use of the intranet and OneDrive to share information and seek input from staff on certain strategic issues. Our meetings are primarily paperless. We are a research organization that provides evidence-based solutions to environmental challenges, with a special focus on water and its related problems. We are therefore conscious about the impact of our work on the environment.
We are therefore conscious about the impact of our work on the environment
What impacts doing you see digital assistants and AI having on the career? I believe digital assistants have made me more effective in my role. Now I have assistants that can help me manage routine work like scheduling, in order for me to concentrate on the tasks that require me to put on my thinking cap.
Ai and digital assistants will free up the time and efforts assistants spend on repetitive tasks so they can take up more leadership and strategic responsibilities as they support their executives.
What forms of professional development would you recommend to assistants who want to ensure their roles remain relevant and rewarding in this digital age? They will need to seek leadership and communication development in order to remain relevant in their roles.
Travel or travel planning recommendations? If possible, plan ahead because tickets are always less expensive when you buy them in advance. For security reasons, it is always good to have a contact person at your destination.
You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend. Be specific about the kind of job you want. Don’t settle for anything less because you need a job; otherwise you will be miserable and may not be effective. Get your CV done professionally and practice on some common interview questions.
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Dress for the interview, know the job requirements and know your value proposition.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? The importance of having a career mentor or a coach and the benefits of attending professional networking events
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? Know your coworkers by their names and take particular interest in them. By that, I do not mean getting into their personal lives, but make them know you care about them. Be helpful to them and they will come to your aid when you need their help.
Your most effective time management strategy? Putting my “to do list” in my calendar. This not only helps me to allocate appropriate time for my tasks; it also helps my executive to know what I am working on at each moment. This way, if his priority changes, I am informed in time.
Advice for a new parent returning to the workplace? Be sure you leave your baby in the right hands, so you can be present at work once you are there. If you have a supportive partner, do well to get his help in taking care of the baby at night in order for you to have adequate rest and not go to work tired. The role that we play at work requires us to be alert at all times and, from experience, it is not that easy when you are a new parent. If you are lucky to have a nursery at your workplace, make use of it.
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? The assistant first needs to know their own personality type and that of their executive. The early conversation should be centered on the expectations of the executive and how the assistant can help increase the productivity of his or her executive.
Writing down your goals keeps on your toes and energizes you
Your thoughts on goal setting? It is always important to write your goals down on paper and make them S.M.A.R.T. I tried that this year and I am amazed at what I have been able to accomplish. Writing down your goals keeps on your toes and energizes you.
For those interested in promotion: Take advantage of learning opportunities, invest in your own career development and know your job well. When opportunities for growth/promotion present themselves, take full advantage of them.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Rebecca mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- Sharma, Robin – The Leader Who Had No Title: A Modern Fable on Real Success in Business and in Life
- Administrative Assistant (LinkedIn)
- Admin Pros (LinkedIn)
- The American Society of Administrative Professionals (ASAP)
- The Assistant Hub (Facebook)
- Executive Assistants to CEOs (LinkedIn)
- Executive Secretary Magazine and Lucy Brazier (LinkedIn and Facebook)
- Joan Burge – Office Dynamics
To explore a range of resources that are relevant to your career, click here to explore what you can find under Exceptional EA’s Real Careers tab.
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 24 countries to date:
Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Ghana, 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