Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Truus van den Brink Havinga of The Netherlands.
Truus van den Brink Havinga is an Office Manager at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) in Dwingeloo. ASTRON is situated in the National Park Dwingelderveld in the north-east of the Netherlands. Here’s a look at her world.
Commuting by bike except in winter
Usually I rise earlier in summer than in winter. I hate the darkness in the morning that we have during the cold season! Before I leave home I take a light breakfast, orange juice and yogurt with cereals. Usually I arrive at the office between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m.
I commuted to this job for 16 years while living in Hoogeveen. That was a 20 minute ride by car, the type of transport I usually chose in winter. From March till November I preferred to go by bike, which took me 40-50 minutes one way, depending on the direction of the wind.
I love to cycle in silence and enjoy the lovely countryside and nature. When I am in my car, I listen to the radio for news and music.
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: I support the managing director, a number of managers and the Dutch branch of a radio scientific organization. I am also responsible for the receptionists and their duties.
The institute is in a remote area, and there is no public transport. Therefore we operate a shuttle bus service (only if we have bookings) from Hoogeveen railway station, one in the morning and one late in the afternoon. We have a lot of visiting scientists from all over the world and usually they travel to us by train. The coordination of the shuttle bus and taxis is among the receptionists’ duties. We also operate a guest house and have company cars. Issuing and collecting keys is also done by the receptionists, who also have the other usual duties company receptionists have.
Truus’ non-winter commute: I love to cycle in silence and enjoy the lovely countryside and nature
Morning Routines: As soon as I reach my desk, I switch on the computer and go to the coffee machine to get a cup of coffee. The daily routine practices will sound familiar to my colleagues worldwide: checking email and diaries, answering the telephone and emails. In fact,there is no typical day.
What the day is like depends on so many things. My managers travel a lot, so I book a lot of flights and hotels. There are many events, like company visits, workshops, conferences, meetings and so on. Managing the organization of these events takes a lot of time. As soon as a decision regarding an event is taken, many different things need to be arranged: deciding on the organizing committee and venue, agenda, time scale and creating an information web page and registration tool for potential (or invited) participants. When the event is nearing, all kinds of details and answering questions from participants require a lot of attention.
I am also responsible for the meetings of the Management Team. Setting meeting dates, putting together the draft agendas, chasing colleagues to secure their input and taking minutes of the meetings are some of my monthly practices.
Recognize people for what they do for you
How long is your work day? Usually I spend eight and a half to nine hours in the office. We do not have a traditional close of business, though at 6:00 p.m. there are usually just a few people left in the building. I hardly ever work from home during “off” hours, though my managers know they can call me at any time if any urgent matter comes up. As well, my role as a member of the organizing committee sometimes means travelling abroad.
I also like to walk through the building when I have questions for colleagues. By doing so, we are visible in the organization and I avoid sitting all day.
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? Though some colleagues have adjustable desks, I do not have anything like that. I prefer to not conduct every communication by telephone or email; I also like to walk through the building when I have questions for colleagues. By doing so, we are visible in the organization and I avoid sitting all day.
What might be a typical lunch? My lunch usually consists of sandwiches and a cup of tea. When extremely busy, I tend to have lunch in my office. However, being in a National Park means that we like to go outside for a walk. It is quite a gift to work there, in a location others visit on their holidays.
Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role? Occasionally I sing in a choir with colleagues. We perform, for example, at the institute’s Christmas celebration and at other occasions. It is wonderful to make music with colleagues. I also coordinate ASTRON’s occasional running team that takes part in a yearly run.
Inside the career
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? In my role, I work for and with quite a number of people. Many different things may take place at the same time, so there is a huge workload. In those situations it is important to stay calm, prioritize and keep the overview/big picture in mind.
What do you most enjoy about your career? The role! As assistants, we are involved in so many interesting things. That means that I meet lots of people from all over the world. I also like to take initiatives and embark on something new. Being generalists, we can work in any company or organization.
Work overload? Stay calm, prioritize and keep the overview/big picture in mind
On Saying “No”
I never say no to people I support, and hardly ever say no to others. In case of an overload of work, I try to delegate some tasks that do not need much explanation.
Truus ‘ world
I was born in nearby Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, and now live in Groningen, a city in the north. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I like both the city and country life. However, we have recently moved to the city to have more facilities at hand. We love the country life to decompress and for holidays.
How long have you been in this career? I have been an assistant for more than 40 years. What was your first such role? I was secretary to the director and sales managers at a carpet manufacturer. I worked for the export division, which was responsible for worldwide sales in countries where the company did not have an office. It was quite international; our director was Portuguese and some of the team were located in the UK.
How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? I started at ASTRON as assistant to the R&D Director. When he retired, the vacancy for my present role came up and so mine was an internal application.
I am a proud member of IMA, the International Management Assistants network
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I really like to travel, to read books, to cook and to enjoy music.
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? The best thing to do is to cycle home! In the season when I do not cycle, I like to hang out on the couch, light some candles and watch a movie or documentary film.
Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? My husband and I love hiking. Any destination with nice hiking opportunities and a favourable climate is great. We like camping, but staying at a B&B, hotel or apartment can also be fun. We recently discovered cruising, and we love it!
On colleagues: Establish good business relationships … also be clear what you expect from them and about deadlines
Education and professional development
After high school, I went to an institute that is renowned in the Netherlands for training secretaries in one year. I did the executive secretary course and the European Secretary Academy, which took another year. Having these credentials certainly meant a boost to the start of my career. I also hold a Bachelor’s degree in French.
Peer and Professional Associations: I am a proud member of IMA, the International Management Assistants network. Do you hold (or have you held) a leadership role within IMA? I was on the organizing team of the IMA 2017 conference in The Hague. In 2018, I represented the Netherlands at the World Administrators’ summit in Frankfurt, Germany.
How has being part of the IMA network helped you? I’ve learned a lot by simply watching the leaders in the association and by attending international conferences, national and international training days, and others events. Meeting your peers is also a great aspect of the network.
What are the primary means of communication for members of your network(s)/professional association(s)? In the Netherlands we use WhatsApp and email. IMA Global also sends announcements and newsletters by email, and the IMA website is another means of communication.
Being aware of what you want, both in business as well as in your private life, is essential. That is also goal setting for a good life.
Networking, inspiration and achievements
Let’s talk about the positive benefits your networking has had on your career, and/or for your employer. Meeting peers from other companies, as well as from countries other than your own, is really interesting. You learn from each other and gain a better insight into cultural differences.
Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. I initiated the candidacy of my principal for a Dutch Royal Decoration. You cannot undertake this procedure on your own behalf; others need to submit supportive letters explaining the candidacy. I felt so proud to be successful and to see him decorated as an Officer of the Order of Oranje Nassau.
Inspirational reads? Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? Being able to have a helicopter view, office management competencies in general and the so-called soft competences. Being able to coach others to make the best out of themselves and being proactive.
Role models or mentors? I do not have a specific role model. I’ve learned from many managers and peers during my career.
Have you received any awards or recognition within this career? No, I have not. However, I’ve been privileged to have managers during my career who expressed their recognition for my work and accomplishments.
The digital age: I think that the most important thing is to be aware and to be a member of a network
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I just dive into it, though it makes me quite nervous!
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? As the world changes so quickly, I want to keep up with developments and given my age I would like to work on my digital skills. I am aware that these are not as good as those of my younger colleagues.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I would like to start a new career as volunteer in a couple of organizations.
The Digital Age
What are your preferred forms of social media? For my career, LinkedIn is my favourite. I also use Facebook, both for business and private matters.
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? I use WhatsApp to communicate with my managers, and we use Indico for meetings and conferences.
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? I do not have an employer-provided smartphone. However, I do use my professional notebook to work from home or at a meeting venue. This enhances my quality of life. My employer does not expect 24:7 availability from me, though they know they can contact me any time if needed.
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital, or paper-based? We try to make meetings primarily paperless by making documents available through Indico. We also have an intranet for all sorts of resources and documents.
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 that many routines will be less time consuming due to either AI and/or IOT. It may make our jobs more interesting. I fear, however, that for quite a number of people it may mean the end of their jobs or maybe they will not be able to keep up with the pace of change.
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 find this a difficult one, as it may depend on your role. My job is primarily that of an office manager and I think that, for instance, the role of personal assistant is really different. Therefore I think that the most important thing is to be aware and to be a member of a network. A network can help you to keep up with developments.
Travel or travel planning recommendations? I try to make people aware that planning their business travel in advance is both cost saving and helpful for the assistant. If colleagues travel to conferences with a lot of participants and they inform their assistant of their wishes only near the last minute, then flights are more expensive, the best hotels are usually fully booked and the registration fee is higher.
What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and expense tracking? We work with a travel agency that has a an online booking tool and an app for the traveller. For most bookings we use the booking tool, and complicated trips are dealt with by the agency. We also use websites like Skyscanner to compare prices.
I have been an assistant for more than 40 years
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Be prepared! Know what the company is about and prepare questions about the job.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? People learn some aspects, especially soft skills, when they get older and have more experience.
Being generalists, we can work in any company or organization
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? Establish good business relationships, especially with colleagues you need. However, also be clear what you expect from them and about deadlines. In the long run, people appreciate that. Recognize people for what they do for you. Be visible in the organization and ask anything you want to know.
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Ask about personal preferences on how to cooperate and work together, and give your own views as well.
Interviews: Know what the company is about and prepare questions about the job
Your thoughts on goal setting? Goal setting is important. However, I think being aware of what you want, both in business as well as in your private life, is essential. That is also goal setting for a good life. Search for the balance.
For those interested in promotion: Life long learning is important, check what you need to get where you want. This may mean returning to college, but it may also mean just a three-day course. Whatever it is, do it.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Truus mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- Dutch Royal Decoration
- IMA – International Management Assistants
- Covey, Stephen R. – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
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.
Interested in knowing more about some of the professional associations and networks specifically for assistants? Click here to see the list Shelagh’s developed based on your peers’ recommendations.
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.