Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Ulla Vennervald Nielsen of Denmark.
Ulla Vennervald Nielsen is EA to the CEO of Superfos Division and to the Regional Director (RD Nordic) and CSO of Superfos Division. She’s also the HR Coordinator. Away from the office, Ulla is the chairman of International Management Assistants (IMA) Denmark. Here’s a look at her world.
Exercise to start the day
A typical workday for me starts at 8:00 a.m. and finishes at 4:00 p.m. It is very important for me to do some exercise early in the morning. I used to run five to 10 kilometers three times a week. However, I have a sore heel now, so have switched to bicycling, walking, yoga, and core training. I do around an hour of training before I hit the shower, have breakfast, and take the train.
It takes me about half an hour to get to the office. I walk to and from the train station, and it is just a 10-minutes’ train trip. I live in the Copenhagen area and close to the office, so it really makes no sense for me to have a car. It is expensive and unsustainable. And where I live, it costs a lot of money just to park your car. Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? My commute is so short, I do not listen to anything. I simply close my eyes and enjoy the silence.
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: These include travel management and weekly sales reports for the Superfos Division; Superfos is one of three divisions of Berry Global, which is based in Evansville, USA. My responsibilities also include the monthly regional Nordic sales report (Nordic is one of six business units in Superfos), pipeline/new business management, HR coordination (a new role), customer survey management, mailbox management for the RD Nordic, and calendar management for both the Nordic RD and the Superfos CEO. I plan and organize Nordic and office staff meetings and parties/teambuilding, and I’m a manager to one direct report – a service employee taking care of a lot of things in the office, including breakfast, lunch and cleaning. I am also the Working Environment Leader.
I keep a mind map for the big overview, and write a daily list of the five to six most important tasks of the day
Morning Routines: A typical workday for me begins with a look in my managers’ calendars, then I quickly skim my own emails. Does anyone need a quick reply? If not, I go through the RD Nordic’s emails. I read them, answer some, forward some, remove some, and finally archive some. Afterwards, I do my own email – or move on to my various ongoing projects. I keep a mind map for the big overview, and write a daily list of the five to six most important tasks of the day. I normally have a lot of calls and many coordinating tasks, such as documents for signature in various countries.
How long is your work day? I normally spend around eight hours in the office – with the standard office hours being 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.. However, we all have “freedom with responsibility”, thus, as long as I do what I am supposed to do, nobody comments if I am in the office less hours one day, or if I arrive at 10:00 a.m. and leave at 6:00 p.m. another day. I find this flexibility very motivating. I often used to answer my emails while commuting, when I lived farther away from the office. Now, I very seldom do so. However, I often answer emails from home after office hours, as I have many colleagues in the UK and the US.
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? As the Working Environment Leader, I have implemented 15-minute rubber band exercises for those who want to engage in them after lunch every day. Four times a year, we (those who want to) participate in “Count Your Steps”, which is arranged by the Danish Sports Confederation.
Every year, on week 42, we have a Health and Safety Week, with a focus on various subjects such as ergonomics, first aid, a fire drill, walk and talks, and a walk and clean up the local area. Environment, Health and Safety is the priority of Berry Global and thus Superfos. We all have adjustable stand desks and I have had posters hung up to remind all to stand up at least one hour, twice a day. In November, my Working Environment group and I launched a month-long campaign. Each week, we focused on one of the aspects I mentioned, as well as home office improvement.
What might be a typical lunch? I get away from my desk. I find that very important and I like to talk to my colleagues. A typical lunch for me would be some salad with chicken, tuna, or shrimp and avocado. I have been on a keto diet (not strict, though) for a couple of years, so try to eat as few carbs as possible. It works for me.
Inside the career
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? I would say prioritization in general, as I have tasks for two bosses, and “my own” projects. There’s also the fact that our new CEO is situated in Hamburg, whereas the previous one sat in the office next to me.
What do you most enjoy about your career? As of May 1st, I’ll have been with Superfos for 15 years and I have had many different tasks and developed with them. I am very happy that Superfos has supported my membership in International Management Assistants (IMA) over the seven years I have been a member. As well, Superfos has supported me with the days I have been away from work to participate in IMA’s international conferences and training days, including full council meetings.
We have “freedom with responsibility” … I find this flexibility very motivating
On Saying “No”
I have become a lot better at saying no than I was before joining IMA. I have learned from the various self-development seminars. Today, I would ask if there is a deadline and say that I will do my utmost to comply with that. I do not often have to do so, though.
Working during a pandemic
Tell us about your experience with remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic. I did not work that much from home during 2020, as it was no problem for me to travel alone by car to the office – while almost everybody else from the office was at home.
I work much better from my office with two big screens and an adjustable desk and chair. But from mid-December 2020 until recently, I have been in the office only once or at most twice a week, meeting with my boss/the regional director Nordic to go through his to-dos and get documents signed, etc. Now, I have begun to enjoy some of the benefits of working from home, such as being able to go for a walk after lunch, sleeping an hour more and doing my yoga exercises in the morning. As well, I can start working some time between 8:00 and 9:00 and finish late if I start later than 8:00. It does not really matter, if I do what I am paid to do and meet my deadlines.
How would you rate your productivity when working remotely? It depends on the day and the tasks. Some tasks – such as the sales reports with big Excel sheets – are more easily and quickly done at the office, where I have the good hardware. I have become used to it, though, and am now more productive at home than at the beginning of the pandemic.
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? When things settle into a new norm, I would prefer a hybrid arrangement of working both in the office and at home. I would like two days in and three days out, or vice versa. I am quite sure this could be put into place for everybody at the office.
What’s been your biggest career lesson/takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic? I have always known that it is important to be able to go with the changes. Now, with both a pandemic and a new CEO at the same time, it was really a huge change for me, but I think once again I have shown myself and my colleagues that I am open to changes and able to adjust and keep a positive attitude.
What’s been your biggest life lesson/takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic? During the pandemic, I have learned that it is good for me not to see people all the time and to spend a lot of time on my own, thinking. I even began writing a diary of gratefulness (like Oprah Winfrey), with five things each day that I am grateful for. This makes me focus on the good things in life.
How many professional development-focused webinars do you estimate you’ve attended during the COVID-19 pandemic? I think I have attended around 10 development-focused webinars during the pandemic. Being a member of IMA, you have so many opportunities and our motto is “never stop learning”. How did you feel about learning from these webinars? I REALLY look forward to meeting my peers in person as soon as it will be possible! Webinars are okay – and again, it would be good to have both (in person) seminars and webinars in the future. There are many benefits with webinars – saving time and money, to mention just a couple.
Environment, Health and Safety is the priority of Berry Global and thus Superfos
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? Being employed at Berry Superfos, a plastic packaging producer, we are very focused on reducing the carbon footprint of our products for our customers and in general.
On top of that, we have taken various environmental friendly carbon-saving initiatives such as recycling print and photocopier ink cartridges, using as little paper as possible, and using paper with old logos as note paper. Our practice of providing a company paid lunch was discontinued a couple of years ago in order to reduce food waste, and instead we bring our own lunches. We provide digital (rather than hard copy) agendas and files for all meetings. We discontinued the availability of water in plastic bottles some years ago, and instead we have a tap-connected water cooler. We don’t have any single-use plastic cutlery or cups, and even before the pandemic we reduced our travel quite a lot. Furthermore, our factories work on energy savings.
All in all, I try to incorporate sustainability into my everyday life
Please highlight some steps you take to reduce your carbon footprint in your personal life. Living in Copenhagen, I have chosen not to have a car, as I can easily get around. I walk or bicycle as much as possible instead of using public transport. When travelling further away, I use public transport, or I can rent an electric car nearby (I haven’t tried it yet, though). Going shopping, I prioritize organic and local food and recyclable and/or reusable packaging. I give my used clothes and shoes to charity or to some of the shops that take back clothes for recycling. I try to save water when taking a shower, brushing teeth and cooking. So, all in all, I try to incorporate sustainability into my everyday life.
I was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and that is where I live now – not in the same area, but still in Copenhagen. I have been living in the countryside for some years, since my children were small. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I prefer city life with cafés, museums, cinemas and theatres … cultural life. Still, I love to visit the countryside, but I am a city mouse at heart.
How long have you been in this career? I have been a management assistant for 27 years in total. What was your first such role? My first role was as secretary to a General Manager of a wine company. He wrote the letters, etc. by hand and I typed them into an old system and saved the files on floppy disks.
I sent offers to our customers via telefax, and I sent text messages via telex to the wine farmers in Southern Europe and overseas. Every year I organized the unveiling of “the Art Wine of the Year” – always at a cultural venue in the Copenhagen area, with a new artist, and a famous Danish actor/actress to do the unveiling. Afterwards we had a big party for all the retailers that owned the company and some journalists. Those were the years! I still have contact with my boss from these days. I was only in the beginning of my twenties, but he gave me responsibility and lifted me up. I will always be grateful for the 12 years we worked together!
On being a member of IMA: Personally, I have gained more self confidence
How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? I had not heard of any opportunity at Superfos, but I lived close by and thought that I would like to work in that company one day. I wanted to work again with a big company after a couple of years in small companies. Actually, I applied three times – unsolicited. The first time, I simply sent the application to the Personnel Manager; it was rejected. The second time, I found out and used her name; this application was also rejected. The third time, I went over there and talked to the receptionist who – it turned out – I knew,. She told me, “I know exactly who to give your application to.” Later that same evening, the General Manager of that Superfos factory called me and said, if I was ready for it, they needed a substitute for a Market Support function. The incumbent was on maternity leave. I considered this overnight and decided to take the chance. After one month, I was offered a position as Management Assistant to the CSO.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I like to be with my children, my sisters and brother and the rest of my family. I also enjoy very much being with my many friends and network peers. I enjoy exercising, as mentioned before, and I am very cultural – love to go to the cinema, museums, theatre, concerts, etc. I also love to travel, and am becoming more and more fond of cooking. This may be a result of being home a lot. I have had the time to find new recipes that I simply have to try.
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I have a lie down, flat on the floor with my hands open, in a yoga pose called “shavasana” or “corpse pose”. I do this for 10 minutes. After that, I have more energy during the evening.
Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? My ideal holiday is going abroad, exploring new places – especially places with nice weather, beautiful exotic beaches, and/or mountains.
As a chairman of IMA Denmark, I am learning to cut through and take decisions
Education and professional development
I hold English/French bachelor’s degrees from Copenhagen Business School; both were supported by my first employer, where I used both languages. Since then, I have not really spoken that much French, which is a pity of course. Apart from these bachelor’s degrees, I completed the ACEA (Advanced Certificate for the Executive Assistant) in June 2019 and I have taken a lot of different IT, communication and self-development courses that have supported my career development.
Peer and Professional Associations: I am a member of IMA Denmark (IMA International), and have been the chairman of IMA Denmark since 2017. You mentioned earlier that your membership in IMA has helped you. Would you like to expand on this? By being a member of IMA, I have developed myself quite a lot in many aspects. Personally, I have gained more self confidence. Professionally, I try to keep myself up to date on IT tools, as it is very important for EAs to be tech savvy. As a chairman of IMA Denmark, I am learning to cut through and take decisions. I remember the first couple of months after I became chairman, how I felt everybody was suddenly looking my way for a decision on various things. After a couple of years, this has helped me make decisions, both privately and professionally, more easily.
I’m proactive, independent and tech savvy, and I’m a good coordinator with good communication skills
What are the primary means of communication for IMA Denmark members? In IMA Denmark, our primary means of communication include our Facebook Members’ Forum (a closed group only for members of IMA Denmark), emails, and LinkedIn.
How has your role chairing IMA Denmark helped you? I feel I have developed a lot with the role of chairman. I feel I have become more independent, and able to cut through and take more decisions. I remember to motivate, engage, and inspire my peers on the IMA board and my direct report at work. As I have recently learned from Adam Fidler’s webinar, I am now using more power markers than pleasing markers. I’m still working to be better at it, though.
Networking, inspiration and achievements
Let’s talk about the positive benefits your networking has had on your career, and/or for your employer. The most positive benefit that being a member of IMA has had on my career – and for Superfos – was that I became aware of the event management system Lyyti through IMA. With this knowledge, I was able to take the annual international management conference in 2017 into a new era with an event app and online registration, instead of relying on numerous emails and Excel sheets. This event involved 320 people. My boss and the top CEO from the UK were both very happy about the event, which took place in Dubrovnik from a Monday to Saturday and included various meetings and dinners, a two-day conference, teambuilding, and a gala dinner.
Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. In addition to the international management conference I just mentioned, I can mention an annual sales conference in Badalona, Spain (near Barcelona). This conference for approximately 65 people included teambuilding and wine tasting. As well, we recently re-launched our customer survey system, for which I took over responsibility for in October 2020.
Inspirational reads? I have read many books that have inspired me in my career, but I would say that subscribing to the Executive Secretary Magazine for a couple of years back in 2014-2016 was very helpful for my career. I read articles by many different authors on topics such as time management, leadership development, and change management.
Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? I’m proactive, independent and tech savvy, and I’m a good coordinator with good communication skills.
Role models or mentors? I do not have a particular role model or mentor, but many of my IMA peers have inspired me in many ways during the years. This has been very helpful along the way in my career.
Many of my IMA peers have inspired me in many ways during the years
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I use mindfulness and focus training – 10 minutes concentrating only on my breath, breathing all the way down to my stomach, and breathing out. If I do not have 10 minutes, I take just a couple of minutes for myself. Still focusing on my breath, I just stand with my both feet firmly on the ground (“the tree pose” from yoga).
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? For 2021, I would like to gain further knowledge of all aspects of Office 365, Power BI (Microsoft’s business analytics service), Teams and Zoom. I would also like to investigate the possibilities of electronic signatures. Also, as I have just been asked to be the HR Coordinator for Superfos, I will also further develop my HR skills. Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? HR and project management
I would recommend that assistants (including myself) develop their analytical and critical thinking and their emotional intelligence
The Digital Age
What are your preferred forms of social media? My preferred forms of social media are Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. I have a Twitter account but never use it. I also use SnapChat, but mostly with my daughter.
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? I use Teams, Zoom, Xe currency converter, myCWT travel app, Booking.com, Heathrow Express, easyJet, Taxi app, O365, Kahoot, YouTube and various airlines apps.
Let’s think about the pros and cons of having an employer-provided smartphone: I have had one ever since the smartphone came on to the market, but I have learned to remove the “flags” for new emails, etc. The benefit, of course, is that you do not need to have two phones, and you can read your emails anytime you want. That, of course, can also be a disadvantage if you are not able to control it and end up working too many hours and are not present with your family outside working hours.
How digitized is your role? We will begin using SharePoint this Spring. I believe we’ve become increasingly paperless during the pandemic. However, we still need to send Annual Reports for signatures in the old fashioned way – only now we both need a scanned version and the original document for signatures.
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 believe that AI and digital assistants will take over the repetitive tasks.
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 would recommend that assistants (including myself) develop their analytical and critical thinking and their emotional intelligence, and move their leadership markers from pleasing to power.
Travel or travel planning recommendations? On travel planning for business purposes, I recommend entering into an agreement with a business travel agency that has an online booking portal where you can book all the easy trips yourself and register frequent flyer profiles yourself. In that way, you save a lot of time rather than calling the agency.
What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and expense tracking? We use the myCWT app. In this app, I can keep track of my own trips as well as the trips that I have planned for others.
You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend. It’s been quite a while since I have sent an application myself, but I’d recommend that my peer energize her/his network, prepare a job search profile on LinkedIn and other job search companies, and update her/his LinkedIn profile.
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Be yourself and be prepared. At an IMA network meeting, we learned to give an “elevator speech” – i.e., to say the most important things about yourself in just 30 seconds. I would recommend being ready to give your personal elevator speech during a job interview.
I applied three times – unsolicited
What advice might you offer a new parent returning to the workplace? Remember to prioritize your children. They grow up so fast. Talk to your manager and agree from the beginning upon the framework of your work.
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? Participate in all kinds of team building, engage in talks by the coffee machine, and have lunch in the canteen with the others. Be curious to get to know your new colleagues.
Your most effective time management strategy? Block off time in your calendar for the big tasks. Then, close the door, mute your phone, and stay focused on the task for the hour or so that you have in the calendar. If anybody knocks on your door, you say, “I’m just in the middle of a big task, can I please get back to you later?”
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? I would recommend that the assistant ask the executive how he or she would like things done, and ask questions about his/her expectations.
I would recommend being ready to give your personal elevator speech during a job interview
Your thoughts on goal setting? In my early career I did not do any goal setting – professionally or privately. This is something I have learned from present manager, and through various speeches at IMA events. I have learned how important it is to set your own goals if you want to obtain something. Goal setting makes it easier to focus and get what you want.
For those interested in promotion: If you are interested in career growth/promotion, I would suggest that you prepare yourself for a talk with your manager. Write down your professional success stories and examine the educational opportunities within the field in which you would like to develop yourself.
About Shelagh and her Real Careers interviews
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 diverse audiences of assistants who want to perform at a high level.
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 date, assistants in 27 countries to date have generously shared the benefit of their experience with Shelagh. Shelagh has also assembled international Real Careers panels to explore perspectives on career dynamics, issues and opportunities. To explore any of Shelagh’s Real Careers interviews, follow drop-down menus on this page as follows: Real Careers/Interviews.