Real Careers: Sudipa Sarkar

Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Sudipa Sarkar. Born in India, Sudipa lives in Canada.

Sudipa Sarkar CCAP, PACE, is Executive Assistant to the senior vice president of her organisation. Here’s a look at her world.

A flexible schedule

I usually get up at 7:00 a.m. (I didn’t change this with the pandemic) and my morning routine is very simple; it must start with a coffee. I get my daughter ready for school, switching between in-person and home schooling depending upon government orders. Pre-pandemic, with a flexible schedule, I tried to be in the office by 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. at the latest. However, I have arrived at the office as early as 7:30 a.m. for board meetings and other critical leadership meetings. 

My commute time door-to-door is 90 minutes each way. I use a combination of walking and public transit (bus and train). That said, I spent almost three hours in commuting – which is a lot of time.

Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? During the morning commute, I usually listen to some Zumba songs. Coming from an Indian background, I am fond of Bollywood songs, so I have my own list of songs. During the evening commute, I prefer to close my eyes to regain my energy as I must be ready for my evening chores: prepping dinner, the evening routine for our daughter, lunch and more for the next day.

At the Office

Primary Responsibilities: I work for Sonnet Insurance Company,  located in downtown Toronto. I support the Senior Vice President and his cross-functional leadership team of 12 members, including Vice Presidents, Assistant Vice Presidents and Directors, and approximately 60 employees. My primary responsibilities comprise of scheduling meetings, coordinating multi-locational travel, managing expenses, planning and executing town halls/events, and last but not the least, coordinating with accounts, human resources, departmental administrative assistants, and vendors to ensure the smooth functioning of our office.

Now I think more strategically

Morning Routines:  First thing, I check all the meeting rooms and systems, making sure the wires are connected and everything is in working condition. I also brew coffee as needed.  I check my voicemail and emails and start responding to them in the order of their priority.  A typical day of work can be categorized into three segments: executive support, operational support and office management.  

How long is your work day? Being in an executive assistant role, it is very difficult to define a typical work day. Some days are light and some are busy.  But on an average, I usually spend eight to nine hours at work. As necessary, I log in from home to complete my work. I never work during my commute; that is exclusively me time.

Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? We have adjustable desks, and I take walking breaks and also participate in health and safety education. I am a member of our Health and Safety Committee. I did have an exercise routine that I followed during my working hours. There is a gym in the same building, and I used to go there three days a week to get my cardio and strength training with a personal trainer. While it’s not company sponsored, many employees are members. 

What might be a typical lunch?  I don’t have a lunch partner, so my typical lunch is at my desk. But, after lunch, I go out for a walk.  The days that I go to the gym, I make up the time during lunch hour.

Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role? I am a member of our Employee Wellness Program, the Sonnet Social Committee and the Health and Safety Committee.  I joined the Women in Innovation (WiN) Committee, which intends to invite women leaders in our company to talk about their experiences.  

Inside the career

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? The most challenging aspect of this is to get all the executive leaders onboard for time sensitive meetings. This requires a lot of coordination with the other executive assistants, aligning them and getting things done.  

What do you most enjoy about your career?  I enjoy every aspect of my role. I was not an admin support professional until I immigrated to Canada in 2012. This country has given me tremendous opportunities for growth. People have the notion that admins are just needed for general support and coordinating activities, but they don’t understand the criticality of this role unless they step into the shoes of an admin. I also enjoy playing an active role in the overall success of the business versus explicitly focusing on just administrative tasks. For me, supporting my leaders and my department isn’t just about supporting, it’s about taking care of the business as a strategic partner.

This role is personally very satisfying because people come to me with a hope that I am able to help them, solve their problems, and have answers to their questions. So, I proudly say I am a problem solver and a solution provider. My profession has given me the opportunity to learn about businesses, people dynamics, how to handle conflict, and how to work with a variety of people with different mindsets.

Join professional associations

On Saying “No”

I seldom said “no” to people, but I try to do so now.  I have attended many webinars that talk about how to say no . I have tried them; sometimes they work and sometimes they do not. I think it’s more important to understand the tone and the way one communicates. As admins, we cannot be blunt. We are compassionate and love helping people. Sometimes, this quality backfires.

Working during a pandemic

Tell us about your experience with remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic. I  have been working from home and I am blessed to be with an organization that cares so much for all of their employees. We did not have a single layoff in our company, and our leaders were very quick and prompt in implementing working from home for everyone. Even before the pandemic, we had the flexibility to work from home as and when needed.

The most important benefit of working from home was I got back the three hours I spent on my commute. It was fully productive. Of course, there were many challenges: while my work started at 8:30 a.m., there was no fixed end time. There were distractions because of my daughter and her demands. She started pre-school in 2020 and attended barely a week before everything was shut down. The other benefit I got from this was being able to start my day with an excellent morning routine that included exercise and my own wellbeing. 

How would you rate your productivity when working remotely? The productivity has certainly increased, but it also depends on the day. From September of 2020, my daughter started in-person schooling and during the day I was more focused and able to complete my work by 4.30 p.m. Occasionally, I logged in again after bringing her back home, but only if there was high priority work.

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?  I would love to go the office two days a week and would be more than happy to spend nine to 10 hours in the office in order to get the maximum work done. I also plan to get back to the gym, so 10 hours makes sense – no guilty feeling.

What’s been your biggest career lesson/takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic? The biggest lesson is to be flexible and be open to change. As well, be open to accept responsibilities that could be out of comfort zone.

Be flexible and open to change

What’s been your biggest life lesson/takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic? The biggest lesson is to be thankful for what I have, find happiness in little things and enjoy the small pleasures of life. I am grateful that I did not have to go through the hardships many people went through. Be kind to everyone and build strong relationships. The relationships that I built over the years with my coworkers and peers help me a lot during these difficult times.

How has the pandemic impacted your approach to professional development? Have you been attending webinars, and/or what other approach have you taken to professional growth at this point in time? I fully leveraged working from home and participated in many webinars that furthered my knowledge – and I was able to apply those learnings into my role. I completed my CCAP and PACE certifications in 2020, and both the programs required a lot dedication and effective time management skills. Along with these courses, I also participated in webinars hosted by the Association of Administrative Professionals (AAP) and the American Society of Administrative Professionals (ASAP). 

Environmental sustainability

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?  Our employees are environmentally conscious and all of us work collaboratively towards this initiative. As a part of our welcome package, our employees are given company branded water bottles and coffee mugs, so no paper cups. We have reusable cutlery for our employees. Our building offer bins for recycling, waste and compost.

Our company has an effective recycling process. Our laptops and mobile phones are leased for a particular period of time and are sent back to our head office for recycling, and we use recycled photocopier ink cartridges and recycled paper stock.

Our building has excellent energy saving processes. Lights are automatically turned off during evening hours, heating/cooling are reduced during off hours and telephone systems are also shut down. Our executive leadership team members are able to access their meeting agendas and documents on their tablets or laptops. They seldom get printed copies.

Before moving to this country, I worked as a technical writer

Please highlight some steps you take to reduce your carbon footprint in your personal life. I have always been an advocate of going paperless unless it is really needed. I started using online banking 12 years ago for statements, bills and transferring money. It’s funny to say, but I still have my first cheque book (unused) from my first Toronto bank account. I use public transit and, for small distances, I prefer walking.  

Sudipa’s world

Map of worldI was born in Patna, he second largest city in eastern India and the capital of the State of Bihar. I immigrated to Canada in 2012 after getting married, and have been living in Brampton, Ontario since then. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I prefer a combination of city and suburban life. Since I take public transit for my work, I would like to stay near the train station or bus terminal.

How long have you been in this career? This is my 11th year as an assistant. What was your first such role? I was an Administrative Assistant and Receptionist at a mortgage brokerage. How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? I learned about it through LinkedIn.

How do you like to spend your time away from the office? There are many things I love to do when I am not working. I spend time listening to Zumba music, colouring, watching food and travel channels, and dance reality shows. During summer, I go out for nice long walks and I just love spending time with nature. Of course, spending time with my daughter gives me immense pleasure.

I am a problem solver and a solution provider

How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I sleep or watch comedy movies to decompress.  Often, I forget to take rest and think about myself. So, when I have a tough week, I sometimes leave things as is and go with the flow.

Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? Ever since I became a Canadian citizen, I have many places to visit  – Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Vancouver, Switzerland, Chicago, Paris and London, and wherever my Canadian passport can take me.

Education and professional development 

I am a science graduate with Botany and Chemistry as my final year subjects. After graduation, I completed two diploma programs in Computer Studies. I never had a formal education that could have led me to an administrative assistant role. Being an administrative professional was accidental. Education has been an important aspect of my life. I love studying and educating myself.

Peer and Professional Associations: I am a proud member of both the Association of Administrative Professionals (AAP), Toronto Charter Branch as well as the American Society of Administrative Professionals (ASAP). I have invested heavily in my career and professional development. I obtained my Canadian Certified Administrative Professional (CCAP) credential through the AAP, and the Professional Administrative Certification of Excellence (PACE) through ASAP.

How has your participation in a professional association impacted you? I am a member of the AAP Toronto Charter Branch’s Executive Team and volunteer as the Membership Chair. This role has given me the opportunity to interact with different members, and it has improved my communication, coordination and facilitation skills.

I am a proud member of both the Association of Administrative Professionals (AAP) … and the American Society of Administrative Professionals (ASAP)

Describe any positive benefits your networking has had on your career, and/or for your employer. Since I never had a formal education related to business or administration, my affiliation with professional associations has tremendously benefitted me and my career as a whole. My viewpoint about my own role has entirely changed. There was a time when I used to think that, as an admin, my job was just supporting my managers. But, now I think more strategically. I am mastering the art of collaboration to best communicate, problem-solve, organize and plan, and navigate through confidential matters that require discretion.

Networking, inspiration and achievements

Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. I think my biggest career accomplishment is the steep career growth that I have been able to achieve within 10 years. Immigrating to a new country with no administrative and management experience, and then embarking upon a journey with a passion to excel, is a success that I will always be proud of. Completing my certification programs and becoming CCAP and PACE certified in 18 months is also something I am really proud of.

Inspirational reads and role models? When I started my career as an admin, I never followed any writer or a book. But, in the last three years, I have become very active with respect to my career. I follow Joan Burge from Office Dynamics, Chrissy Scivicque from Eat Your Career, Bonnie Low-Kramen from Be the Ultimate Assistant, and Rhonda Scharf from On the Right Track. 

Have you received or been nominated for any performance awards, through either your employer or a professional association? I was nominated for the Canadian Administrative Professional of the Year for 2021, and I was one of the five finalists.

I was nominated for the Canadian Administrative Professional of the Year for 2021

What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I do my own SWOT analysis when I find myself in a comfort zone. 

What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I want to enhance my project management and leadership skills so that I can take over more strategic responsibilities. Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I am targeting  pursuing the World Class Assistant program by Office Dynamics, and Microsoft certifications, in the next five years.

The Digital Age

What are your preferred forms of social media? I am on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter, but I prefer LinkedIn for professional networking. 

How digitized is your role? Digital assistants and artificial intelligence have not impacted my work much, but I foresee digital assistants taking  some of the many routine tasks.

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?  I think administrative professionals have to be more agile and open to leverage the best of the Internet of Things. The mundane tasks can be done by digital assistants and we can add value through subject matter expertise on business processes, administrative procedures and technical applications.

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 learned MS-Project few years back, but I found Asana and Trello much better and easy to use for my own projects and tasks. I would also recommend admins to remain abreast with cloud technologies. I believe, the future will be “work from anywhere”. 

Lessons Learned

You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend.  I would first recommend having a strong resume as well as an updated LinkedIn profile. Ideally, one should identify the companies that are actively hiring, make connections with recruiters and tailor the resume for that particular position. I think being a resume writer helped me in preparing myself. We do not bring in revenue for the organization, but we do a lot of process optimization, negotiation with vendors, contract management and so on. That said, wherever, one can show the benefits in dollar value, hiring leaders/recruiters would understand what we bring to the table.

Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Preparation is the key. At the interview, we are judged mostly on behavioural and situational questions. I always keep a portfolio of my achievements.   

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career?  Before moving to this country, I worked as a technical writer in a software services company. When I immigrated to Canada,  I was timid and docile, and willing to accept any role. I demonstrated perseverance, patience, a positive approach and the flexibility to learn. I’d also like to add, one should never forget their past – from where you have come.   

I am mastering the art of collaboration

What advice might you offer a new parent returning to the workplace? A very relevant point and close to my heart as I have been through this. I would say to be calm and patient because, as a new parent, you are adjusting to your new schedule of managing an infant along with your work.  I would say, take the first few months a little easy, find out your comfort level and how much you can deliver, and then gain momentum.

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? Make yourself visible to all the stakeholders, perhaps have an introduction meeting with each department leader to demonstrate your capabilities and how you can support them. Thereafter, reassure them that you are there to help. Also, make sure that your direct leader is aware of all the support that you are providing to other leaders. This becomes a great point of discussion at the year-end appraisal.

Your most effective time management strategy? The most effective one is to keep a log of my tasks and assign a priority number to them. It is of paramount importance that I manage my time smartly without getting overwhelmed.

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? A lot of things depend on the executive’s personality. Some leaders are very focused towards work and methodical, some are flexible. When an assistant starts supporting a new executive, he/she must understand the leader’s style of working – what makes him/her happy, does he/she require the assistant to babysit with every little thing, or does he/she wants the assistant to provide value that is more strategic in nature?

Make yourself visible to all the stakeholders

Your thoughts on goal setting? At work, most of my objectives are aligned with the core organizational values. On a personal level, I set realistic goals when I decided to join AAP in 2018 and to pursue the Canadian Certified Administrative Professional (CCAP) program. One must set goals and work towards them consistently.

For those interested in promotion: Join professional associations as there are tons of benefits. They provide tremendous opportunities to learn and grow through education and community building. When you interact with like-minded people, you get inspired, motivated, and you are able to advance your skills further.

Also, pursuing a program that certifies you as an exceptional professional is also something an assistant should aim for. It demonstrates that you are making conscious efforts to make yourself stand out among the competition, build a solid reputation and become a trusted advisor for your leaders and coworkers. And last but not the least, as we know knowledge is power, so you are able to have a personal influence on people with whom you work closely.

 About Shelagh and her Real Careers interviews

About Shelagh: 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 assistants in a number of countries.

About Shelagh’s Real Career interviews: 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 explore any of Shelagh’s interviews with assistants in 28 countries to date, follow the Interviews/Real Careers drop-down menus on this page – and enjoy!

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