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 Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa and the USA, and now make our way to New York City to visit with Bianca Constance.
Bianca M. Constance, CAP, is an Executive Assistant. Here’s a look at her world.
Biking, Reading and a Formidable Commute
My Jawbone UP wakes me up each weekday morning at 5:00 a.m. so that I can head down to spend 30 minutes on the bicycle. The bike riding also gives me the opportunity to catch up on some reading; National Geographic magazines are a favourite of mine. The articles are all from outside my workday realm so it helps to expand my mind. After my ride, I feed my menagerie of cats and then head back upstairs to take my shower and get ready for the workday. My breakfast generally consists of a soft boiled egg, a piece of toast with peanut butter and a small glass of chocolate milk along with a quick read of the local paper. I can’t start my work day without reading the sports section (I follow New York Mets baseball and New Jersey Devils hockey) and the comics.
I live in northern New Jersey and work in Lower Manhattan. That means I have quite a commute each day, each way. I drive to the bus stop and wait for the next bus heading into The City – that alone can be a short as 45 minutes or as long as 90 minutes. Once in Manhattan, I take the subway downtown (another 20+ minutes) to my office, which is located around the corner from the World Trade Center site. On a good day, the full morning commute takes about 70-90 minutes. But heaven forbid if there are any traffic issues on the highway. Then the commute can easily stretch out to two and even three hours.
What’s on your commuting playlist? Lately I’ve enjoyed listening to podcasts. My favorites include replays of “Ask Me Another,” “Freakonomics Radio”, and any of the TEDTalk podcasts. “Ask Me Another” is highly entertaining and I have to keep myself from laughing out loud on the bus. “Freakonomics Radio” covers all sorts of topics. My favourite, really, is any of the TEDTalk podcast and I highly recommend them; most of them are what I consider mind-stretching and give me a very different perspective on the world around me.
What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? I am a paid soloist at a local Episcopal church and during the week, I will end up singing whatever solo I have coming up the next weekend! If the radio is on and the local rock station is blazing away, I will sing along with whatever rock song I happen to know that is on the air.
At the Office
Morning Routines: I try to get into the office before my manager. Once there, I get my first, and generally only, cup of coffee for the day and check my emails. After that, I check my manager’s calendar for the day to remind me how the day will stack up. Lastly, I check my own calendar to see what additional duties may be lurking – for instance, once a week I cover the front desk during lunch hour.
Primary Responsibilities: My primary responsibility is to make sure that my manager has everything she needs for the day. She works with the Board of Directors and, by extension, so do I. I’m responsible for scheduling the quarterly board meetings and committee conference calls, prepping the various agenda and then taking minutes for all the calls and meetings. I’m also available to assist the other staff members with their projects, which run the gamut from fixing errant spreadsheets and fundraiser mass mailings to tracking all outgoing expenses and incoming payments.
What does a typical day, if there is such a thing, look like? I wish there was such a thing as a typical day. Sad to say, that creature does not live in my world. During the weeks when I have the quarterly committee calls and board meetings, it is all-hands-on-deck to complete the briefing materials and distribute electronically or via FedEx. The months leading up to our yearly Symposium are very busy because we are planning the agenda and preparing the materials for the attendees. The months leading up to our major fundraising event are particularly busy, as everyone is working with board members and getting company sponsorships for the event. I prefer to approach my work as being cyclical, depending on the major event for which we are in prep mode.
How long is your work day? My work day begins at 8:00 a.m. and ends at 5:00 p.m., unless there is an early morning or late afternoon/early evening event, in which case my work hours would shift accordingly. What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? I do exactly what experts tell you not to do – I eat at my desk – and have fresh fruit in season, almonds, yogurt and sometimes leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. I hate spending money for lunch in New York City, where a simple salad can cost you upwards of $10 and a sandwich, chips and soda can put you back $15.
That said, many restaurants in New York City participate in Restaurant Week – approximately twice a year for about two to three weeks – offering a price fixe lunch and/or dinner. During these events, I seek out those restaurants which would normally be out of my budget. For $25 for lunch or $35 for dinner (at least that is the pricing right now), I can enjoy a meal at an upscale restaurant – which is a nice occasional treat.
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? In my current position, I am encouraged to NOT work from home and likewise not work during my commute. I do, however, monitor emails on my iPhone during my commute and when I’m at home. In fact, on Sunday evenings, I go through my emails to make sure that there are no surprises awaiting me the next morning.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Setting aside a project in mid-stream to pick up a new priority is probably my biggest challenge. My instinct is to finish what I’m doing and then pick up the next project. The business world does not work that way, and so I take a Zen moment and move on.
Professional development can bring you out of your shell, raise your visibility, and reflect well on your executive
What do you most enjoy about your career? What I enjoy most about my career is its ever-changing nature. One day I can be a meeting planner, the day after that I am a financial analyst and the day after that I am a super sleuth looking for a particular piece of information online. I love the fact that I excel at all these things. I think I would be bored if I did the same thing, day in and day out; variety is the spice of life!
On Saying “No”
While I hardly ever say no to anyone in the office, I will say “not now” and I have never had anyone push back. I find that, many times, the urgency is only in finding someone to do the task rather than completing the task immediately.
I was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and moved to Richmond, Virginia when I was six years old. I received my Bachelor’s degree in Music Performance in Richmond, Virginia and then moved to Hartford, Connecticut to pursue graduate studies in opera and voice. A non-musical job offer brought me to New York City in 1996 and I have been in the New York metropolitan area ever since.
While I am comfortable in the big city and love the excitement of the big city, I look forward to the day when I can move to a smaller town – perhaps a college town – where I stand a better chance of actually getting to know my neighbors and living a less stressed life.
When I am not attending IAAP-related events, I prefer to spend my time travelling through the countryside and enjoying the great outdoors.
How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A nice glass of white zinfandel will always help me to unwind after a particularly gruesome day.
A dream holiday or travel adventure? Back in 2010, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Johannesburg, South Africa, and be part of an admin training program. The full program was repeated in Nairobi, Kenya, six months later. Due to the constraints of my being an instructor and not a tourist, I was unable to see any of the sights in either South Africa or Kenya. So my dream adventure is to go back to South Africa and Kenya and go on safari.
Education and Professional Development
Education: All of my academic degrees were in music – opera and voice, to be specific. My only business-related class was a typing class that I took when I was a freshman in high school. I stumbled into the world of the administrative professional because I could answer the phone, type very fast and was a quick study. There was no such thing as professional development when I started.
After I joined IAAP (the International Association of Administrative Professionals), I realised that professional development was very important. It completely changed my outlook on my job and my work, making me realize that this really was my career. I had always taken great pride in my work, but now it was different. It brought me out of my shell at work. I started reading all the trade papers and periodicals that my executives read and kept up-to-date on happenings in my industry, freely sharing my observations with my executive – much to her delight, I might add. She, in turn, would share my insights with her colleagues, the company’s management committee, which increased my visibility within the company.
Dress for the next level up; reality follows perception
Peer and Professional Associations: A number of years ago, the executive I worked with encouraged me to join a professional association. She told me to do research on all organisations that would meet my professional development needs and come back to her with an action plan. I did the research and signed up with the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) in 2002, joining the local chapter.
Within a year, I became actively involved in the leadership of the local chapter, ultimately serving as its president for a year. The next step in my leadership journey took me to the division level where I ultimately served as president of the division and then moved on to the national level, serving as Northeast District Director for two years on the International board.
A year later, I was appointed to serve a two-year term on the board of directors for The Foundation of IAAP, the charitable arm of IAAP. Being an active member of IAAP has allowed me to go places that I would otherwise never have gone. I have a network of friends and colleagues that spans the globe – Canada, South Africa, Uganda and the United Kingdom, to name but a few.
Preferred form(s) of social media? I re-post work-related articles and professional development information on LinkedIn and frequently also tweet them on Twitter. I do have a Facebook account that allows me to keep in touch with friends I have lost touch with over the years, and a Pinterest account to which I periodically add items.
Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? There are some days when I wish that someone would please invent an app that would allow me to send a hologram of myself to the office so that I could work from home.
Awards and Recognition
In 2006, I received the Distinguished Chapter President award from IAAP. This award was presented to chapter presidents who increased membership in their chapters.
Style and Substance
What is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? My go-to outfit is my favorite – a long-sleeved, belted, black shirtwaist dress. It is very professional and I feel in-control wearing it. I add a simple gold choker, gold hoop earrings, basic black pumps and I’m ready to rock ‘n roll with the board members or whomever else happens to be around.
What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? I never travel anywhere without at least one lip balm and my favourite lipstick.
Heels or flats in the office? I keep several pairs of heels in the office – brown, blue, black, copper. Wearing heels makes me look and feel more professional than wearing flats. That said, however, on days when I have to do a great deal of running around, I will wear a pair of basic black flats. For your commute? I wear tennis shoes/running shoes for my daily commute. There are still plenty of sidewalks in New York City that are cobblestone and those absolutely destroy heels.
Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? While I have always liked Nine West shoes, I haven’t actually bought a pair in more years than I care to remember. My favourite brand of shoe is the one that is comfortable to walk around in.
Preferred scent: My preferred perfume is Chanel N° 5 but I very seldom wear it because so many offices are now scent-free.
What might we find in your desk drawer? In addition to the usual assortment of coloured highlighter pens, white-out, pencils, extra tape and staples, I also keep a bright red foam clown’s nose in my desk because you just never know when you need to lighten the mood in the office. I’ve been known to wear it at my desk and see if anyone walking by notices. The looks are priceless!
Travel: keep a short list of your executive’s preferences, and turn to concierges for advice
Travel or travel planning advice? My current manager does all her own travel planning, both business and personal. However, previous managers have relied heavily on me for their travel planning. My best advice is to know exactly what your manager wants with respect to travel – seat location on the plane, size of hotel bed, favourite and least favourite airlines, cab vs. limo, and type of rental car. This is an extremely short list but at least it gives you a direction for your inquiries. The second best piece of advice that I can offer is to say that hotel concierges will answer questions even if you are not staying at their hotel.
Inspirational reads? There is no single book or author that has inspired me or moved me. That said, here are some books that I found very helpful in my career, including Be The Ultimate Assistant by Bonnie Low-Kramen; Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook by Sue France and Become an Inner Circle Assistant by Joan Burge.
Outside the administrative professional realm, I found these books to be very eye-opening with respect to the dealing with humans in general: Rude Awakenings: Overcoming the Civility Crisis in the Workplace by Giovinella Gonthier; The 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player by John Maxwell, as well as his book Becoming a Person of Influence.
Carry yourself with grace and dignity, and watch and learn from those you respect
Role models or mentors? My mentors/role models have all been the silent variety. I have never had a bona fide mentoring relationship with anyone but I certainly did do a great deal of observing. The executive for whom I worked encouraged me to join a professional organisation, and was a great one to watch in action. She carried herself in the ruthless, male-dominated business world with such grace and dignity. When her peers treated her with disrespect, she never sank down to their level and was always a class act in all her dealings. I regret never having a formal mentoring relationship with her. I believe I could have learned so much more from her.
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I am very proud of the fact that I received my Certified Administrative Professional in May of 2013. The exam is comprehensive and deceptively difficult, especially if you do not “test” well. Unfortunately, not every employer understands that being an administrative professional is a career, not a stepping stone to something else, and so they have little appreciation for the CAP credential.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? One goal is to become a Microsoft Office Specialist in Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. This is a certification that is more widely recognized than CAP and thus has more cache.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Ask questions – lots of questions – because there is no such thing as a dumb question. Read everything you can get your hands on with respect to your industry. I have pleasantly surprised many executives by being up-to-date on industry happenings. This also reflects very favourably on my manager when I know what’s going on.
Ask questions, and read everything you can with respect to your industry
Your most effective time management strategy? My most effective time management strategy is having my manager out of the office. I can get things done like you would not believe. All kidding aside, my best time management strategy is posting everything to my Outlook calendar with plenty of lead time. I use it for reminders for me and for reminders for everyone in my department.
Assistants are business partners; discuss both parties’ expectations
Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: I would encourage a new executive to take his/her assistant out for coffee and conversation – find out the assistant’s strengths, encourage him/her to join a professional association in order to engage in meaningful professional development, tell the assistant what your expectations are and find out what your assistant’s expectations are. If the new executive understands that the assistant is his/her business partner, then the relationship has a far better chance of moving in the right direction and being beneficial to both individuals.
For those interested in promotion: The best advice I ever received with regard to career growth/promotion was this: Dress for the next job level up. You will be perceived as promotion-worthy and reality does follow perception.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Bianca referenced may be interested in checking the following links. To explore a range of resources recommended by our readers, click here for Exceptional EA’s Resources Page.
- IAAP – International Association of Administrative Professionals
- The Foundation of IAAP
- Burge, Joan – Become an Inner Circle Assistant
- France, Sue – The Definitive Executive Assistant and Managerial Handbook: A Professional Guide to Leadership for all PAs, Senior Secretaries, Office Managers and Executive Assistants
- Gonthier, Giovinella – Rude Awakenings: Overcoming the Civility Crisis in the Workplace
- Low-Kramen, Bonnie – Be the Ultimate Assistant – a celebrity assistant’s secrets to working with any high-powered employer
- Maxwell, John – The 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player; Becoming a Person of Influence