Cathy van Mastrigt, who lives near Munich, Germany, is EA to a CEO. Here’s a look at her world.
Envisioning commuting by bike
A soft chime on the iPad wakes me up each work day at 6:00 a.m. so I can take care of my kids before they head out at 7:00 to catch the school bus.
After that it is a bit of a mad dash to get myself out the door if I catch the train to the main office. On other days I drive to my smaller “home away from home” office. Each week I try to get about three half-hour workouts on the cross trainer in the morning. This is a real must for me, to make sure my head does not get too clogged with details.
I take the train or drive, depending on which office I work from. By next summer I will ideally have a proper bike to bike to my office, which I am very much looking forward to!
Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? I’m an avid reader, so during my train commute I will either be reading over materials for work or a book, as I usually have one tucked away in my bag. Several friends have lately recommended some very interesting podcasts, so I plan to add these to my routine soon.
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: I handle all items related to the CEO’s calendar, meetings and calls management. I plan and organize management and board meetings, plus several large scale company events. My strong marketing and events background allows me to offer that support in addition to the EA responsibilities.
Morning Routines: I wish I had a typical day at times, but this is rarely the case! What is most important to me is to scan my emails first thing to see what came in overnight, and what I need to action first and then prioritize from there.
How long is your work day? I am extremely lucky to be able to work flex time and plan my own schedule, as long as things get done. I am on call most of the time, however, and check my emails regularly in the evenings and weekends. As well, “my” CEO knows he can call at any time. I always aim to strike a good work-life balance, and have had to learn to set healthy boundaries in order to do so.
What might be a typical lunch? My colleagues make fun of me as they think I don’t eat, but I do! Lunch is usually at my desk and I love an avocado with salad and mixed nuts.
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? Quite honestly, I have never depended on an employer to help me adopt healthy work habits. As well, since I have been self-employed for quite a while, I know that we are all ultimately responsible to do as much as we can to stay healthy. So, where I can, I take the stairs instead of elevators, walk instead of drive, and make sure I get up from my desk regularly to walk and stretch.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? It can be challenging switching from being in the corporate environment to being a mother in the afternoons and evening. Some days switching gears is super easy; other days when work has been very hectic, I plan in an extra 20 minutes or so of calm to plan the rest of my day with the kids. That makes my attention for them better and makes the day flow better, too.
I always aim to strike a good work-life balance, and have had to learn to set healthy boundaries in order to do so
What do you most enjoy about your career? I know this may sound really corny, but I like to serve others and make them successful and more efficient at what they do. I love how the attention to small details pays off in surprising ways.
On Saying “No”
I am so much better at saying no on behalf of my CEO, or advising him in certain cases to say no to calls or meeting requests that are not a priority, than I am in doing that for myself. But I am learning it more and more.
I was born in beautiful Holland but grew up in Liberia, Singapore, the United States, the UK and Belgium before settling near Munich. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I love both. I have lived in cities and now live in the countryside, and I love aspects of both.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? Most of that time is taken up by my kids, and in the evenings I like to chat with friends, read, or work on the female empowerment network I have founded, Girls with Guts (www.girlswithguts.net).
How long have you been in this career? Almost two years now; this is my first role as an assistant. I handled a few smaller projects for the CEO by chance, and was then made the offer. I thought it would be an interesting change from my marketing and events background. As it turns out, the skills I developed in that part of my career help me tremendously in this role. I’ve kind of hit the jackpot with the CEO I work for.
What might we find in your desk drawer? Chocolate is pretty much a guaranteed find, as are colorful and funny Post-it notes that I like to collect when I travel.
We are all ultimately responsible to do as much as we can to stay healthy
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A friend of mine who lives in our village is a yoga teacher, and a while ago I joined her yoga class on Friday mornings and love it. I now take that as “my” time in the week and make sure all my emails and work is done so I can enjoy it without worrying about anything work-related.
Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? I’ve been so fortunate to have already travelled to so many interesting places around the world since I was really young. Now, for me, travel or holiday priorities include down time with my kids and spending time with friends. Again, corny, I know, but the truth of where I am in my life right now.
Education and Professional Development
Education: I have an International Baccalaureate (IB) and that, combined with having lived abroad so much, taught me compassion, empathy, discipline and a very strong work ethic. More than my university degree or anything else, that is the foundation that I always fall back on.
Peer and Professional Associations: Just the one I started myself, Girls With Guts, and very recently, IMA (International Management Assistants).
Do you hold (or have you held) a leadership role in such an organisation? For Girls with Guts I work on everything myself, and it has given me a lot of renewed self-confidence and the opportunity to meet some really spectacular professional and entrepreneurial women. We communicate by email and in person at the monthly meet-ups.
Having lived abroad so much taught me compassion, empathy, discipline and a very strong work ethic
Inspirational reads? Brené Brown – all of her research and ideas have helped me both personally and professionally. She also has a refreshingly humorous tone in her writing, which I really enjoy.
Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? What I am often told is that what you see is what you get with me. I am respectful of others, people-focused, discrete and loyal to a fault. And, yes, I smile a lot!
Role models or mentors? I’ve been so lucky to have some great female mentors and role models – some for longer periods of time, and some for a conversation or two. These have been women who have freely shared their experiences and wisdom without expecting anything in return.
Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. I started a business and it failed horribly and cost me a friendship. But I learned so much and am putting those lessons learned into practice with a new business idea. More and more, I look for the silver linings when disappointments cross my path.
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I think about all the people and things I am grateful for. That grounds me and makes me realize that, really, I have nothing to lose as I have a strong basis. Then, I move forward.
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? The number one target, for sure, is setting and keeping healthy boundaries.
The Digital Age
What are your preferred forms of social media? I try to keep my social media interaction as limited as possible, and I use Facebook and Instagram.
Do you publish to, and/or monitor social media or a website as part of your professional responsibilities? No.
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? I use WhatsApp for communication, Scan Apps to scan documents on the fly, and the Lufthansa app for travelling.
Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? That would be one to help me schedule calls across multiple time zones.
I “kiss the frog” each morning – I get done what I really don’t want to do or am not good at first thing, and then it’s out of the way!
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Yes. Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability may have had on your quality of life. There was a time when I noticed that I was showing addiction-like symptoms to having to check my phone. At that point I let the CEO and management team know that, if they needed to get hold of me urgently, they should just call and not email or text.
This helped me to significantly reduce the times I looked at my phone to check if anything had come in. And they have actually yet to call me … so, looking back, it was purely psychological but it helped me set a boundary.
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital, or paper-based? They’re digital.
What forms of professional development would you recommend to assistants who want to ensure their roles remain relevant and rewarding in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI)? I believe it’s important to understand what AI is, how and how fast it is developing, and to anticipate the expanding role it plays in our lives. But on the other hand, I do not believe it will or can replace the added value of interpersonal, empathetic skills.
What positive impact(s) do you think AI (artificial intelligence), Digital Assistants and IOT (the Internet of Things) will have on the admin. professional of 2025? I think a lot of scheduling and communication may become easier and faster so that some double and even triple checking becomes obsolete, and that perhaps even ways of prioritizing certain tasks may become easier as AI “learns” how you work.
You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend. Always write out your added-value in as much detail as you can. Then set it aside and look at it again in a few days’ time. You’ll surprise yourself.
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews.Know what skills and added value you bring to the table, not only in your day-to-day work but also you as a person and colleague. And realize that you are also interviewing them to see if they are a fit with your expectations.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? I would have told others what I think a lot more. I have been much too polite, kind and nice for far too long.
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? You know that series, Mad Men? I always visualize that office space with the assistants typing away outside the office doors, and what always comes to my mind is: always friendly, but always firm.
Your most effective time management strategy? I focus on priorities and I “kiss the frog” each morning – I get done what I really don’t want to do or am not good at first thing, and then it’s out of the way!
We also spent time on how to best communicate as briefly as possible by email on any given topic
Advice for a new parent returning to the workplace? Don’t think you can catch up with everything within one week; things have changed and so have you.
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? I found it really useful to understand how my CEO prioritized and how we could communicate that between the two of us. We also spent time on how to best communicate as briefly as possible by email on any given topic; my emails are still too polite and wordy …
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Cathy mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
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