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, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Turkey, the USA and Wales, and now make our way to Milan, Italy to visit with Carla Stefanut.
An Informed Start to the Day
I wake up every morning at 7:00 and have my breakfast while watching the news. I watch the news because it is my opinion that an EA, no matter her/his role or position, should be constantly informed – and not only about one’s industry, but also on what happens around the world. In a global economy, nothing exists in isolation any more.
I commute daily in my car. It’s not a long drive; only 20 minutes, depending on the traffic. Sometimes I catch the subway if I have meetings or errands to run downtown, where it’s quite difficult to find a suitable parking space.
At the Office
Morning Routines: First things first, my espresso at the company cafeteria: It’s also an opportunity to meet colleagues and, through informal chats, arrange pending calls or resolve issues. Then I prioritise my emails. Having been an EA to CEOs, and having a smartphone, I still have the habit of constantly monitoring them and in the morning I just prioritise them. Then I check the company media clippings to be updated on our industry news, and reorganise my to do lists that I usually wrote the day before. Then my day starts.
Primary Responsibilities: I am the Travel Assistant for a group of managers and take care of their travel arrangements, nationally and around the world. My company has offices in seven countries that managers have to visit, and they participate in trade fair exhibitions abroad. My task is to find the best travel solution that is both efficient and convenient at the same time. Among my duties, I have to find new travel opportunities – and therefore I am always monitoring the world of business travel, either airlines or hotels. As far as hotels are concerned, I usually arrange meetings and site inspections to check the quality of the offers.
What might be a typical lunch? In my company there is a lunch room for employees. It’s open from 12:00 to 2:00 and I usually have my lunch there with colleagues. It’s not inside the building, but only a five minute walk and it is also a nice get away from the office.
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? Not typically, but if there are managers travelling abroad I always check email to make sure that there are no emergencies. From my past experience with CEOs, due to emergencies, I have often worked from home on a weekend, national holidays or even from the beauty parlour! An exceptional EA role is 24/7, just to quote the incredible Laura Schwartz – and I think it’s part of the job.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? To be flexible and creative. A day in an EA’s life can be well organised and scheduled, but unexpected situations may arise any minute and turn the whole day upside down. EAs have to always be ready to make changes and to find innovative solutions.
EAs have to always be ready to make changes and to find innovative solutions
What do you most enjoy about your career? In my career as an EA to top management, I had plenty of high level responsibilities, but the executives gave me the opportunity to have a wider outlook on the company. I was also able to enjoy the excitement of great achievements and great successes.
On Saying “No”
EAs are accustomed to accomplishing “mission impossible”. It’s very hard to say “no” even if sometimes it is necessary to set boundaries when requests are exaggerated. Evaluate the pros and cons of a negative answer. Prepare in advance the answer with your reasons, and choose your words carefully so you do not appear disrespectful. Be very nice but firm at the same time.
Evaluate the pros and cons of a negative answer
Away from the office, I regularly practice Acquagym two or three times a week. Besides being very good for my physical health, it’s a great stress relief. I am not a sports fanatic, but I am truly convinced that some physical activity is helpful for your wellbeing. I was a moviegoer but now, with so many cable channels and Netiflix, I’d rather stay at home and enjoy a movie quietly on my couch. Art exhibitions and cultural events are my favourite activities along with ballets and operas. I am very lucky, because Milano is so active and full of events and it’s the location of one of the most wonderful opera houses in the world, La Scala – where I go for operas and ballets.
How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I always enjoy a dinner with good food and wines, and a group of girl friends to chat and gossip with. But I also enjoy a quiet evening at home with a good movie, good food and wines, too … well, I am Italian!
A dream holiday or travel adventure? I am a very active person, but I get very lazy on holidays. My ideal place for a holiday is a sunny beach with clear sea water, palm trees, a deck chair and a good book to read. I also love to visit countries where I can visit historic places and relics of ancient civilizations.
Education and Professional Development
Education: I studied foreign languages (English French and German) in college, and majored in English interpreting and translation. My intention was to work in an international organisation such as the European Community or the UN, as an interpreter translator. But when I had the opportunity to work with an international company, I focused my subsequent education on business subjects. I have proficiency in business English and took up Spanish language studies.
I believe in self-improvement and part of my knowledge comes from reading books from the most respected experts, such as Philip Kotler for marketing. Now, my interest is focused on social media. SECRETARY.it , my EA Community, offers training classes and I am always eager to attend them. For example, I have just completed a two-day course – MALP, Manager Assistant Leadership Program – on leadership and empowerment for Assistants.
Do not passively wait to be told something
Peer and Professional Associations: I belong to the SECRETARY.it. It’s the Italian EA/PA community that gathers over 9,000 associates nationally. I am an International Ambassador and Lombardy Regional Ambassador (Lombardy is the region in which I live). As an International Ambassador, I cooperate with the International section of our online magazine with news from foreign EA groups. I also keep in touch with foreign colleagues, and participate – when possible – in International events such as Executive Secretary LIVE. As regional Business Ambassador, I work with my community board to organise local events and training meetings for the associates within my region. I also have created #secretarypower to promote our logo, and this will be also the name of the new Secretary.it blog, which is coming soon.
We are business professionals, and this is not just a “job”
Preferred form(s) of social media? I am regularly on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest. I mostly use Facebook and Instagram to keep in touch with relatives and friends scattered around the world. I use LinkedIn mainly for professional connections, Twitter as a news agency and for business opportunities in my line of work. I have been nicknamed Ms. Socialite, but I believe in the importance of being social, not only for personal purposes. EAs/PAs are a fifth of the world’s working population and, if we make ourselves visible, we become not only brand ambassadors for ourselves or for our company, but for our profession, too.
If we make ourselves visible, we become brand ambassadors for our companies and our profession
Awards and Recognition
Last year I entered the Italian contest, EA Of the Year and I ranked second, with less than one point to the winner. It was, however, very interesting and a challenging experience to have your work scrutinized not only by a jury of selected professionals but also by your peers.
In a global economy, nothing exists in isolation any more
Style and Substance
What is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I have my rules and definitely I am a two-piece suit kind of girl. It may or may not be one colour or a classical style. An elegant dress would be fine, too, but no frills. I confess I am sort of vain and, living in the World Fashion capital, I am always careful about my attire and very fussy to ensure that I wear the perfect outfit for any situation.
What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? I never go anywhere without a lipstick or a gloss and fragrance.
Heels or flats in the office? It depends on the attire. Heels if I’m wearing an elegant dress or two-piece suit, but never very high heels in the office. For your commute? Absolutely flat and comfortable, even if I drive a car every day. Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? In Italy we have a wide range of amazing brands, but my favourite is Luciano Padovan for elegant shoes and Tod’s for casual shoes. However, I do adore Manolo Blahnik and Laboutin.
Preferred scent: Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel in spring and summer, Velvet Rose & Oud by Joe Malone and Cinema by Yves Saint Laurent in wintertime and fall. But when I travel to France, I always buy some fragrances from Fragonard.
What might we find in your desk drawer? One can call me Mary Poppins, because almost anything comes out of my drawer. I also have a micro hair dryer to use in case of wet hair or wet clothes when you arrive at the office having been caught in the rain!
Travel or travel planning advice? Being a meticulous person, I double-check every program. Business travel is one of my priorities in my present position and, although we have a travel agency, I usually rely on advice and suggestions from local people, whether it be friends or colleagues from my networking.
Ask for feedback, be proactive and take notes
Inspirational reads? The most inspiring book I have ever read is certainly A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Although it was written a century ago and addressed to women who wanted to start a career as writers, the issues she addresses in her book can be applied to every working woman, including EAs and PAs. Shakespeare’s gifted (and imaginary) sister is a brilliant example of the great potential and creativity every woman has deep inside herself.
Another inspiring book is The CEO’s Secret Weapon, by Jan Jones. I like the fact that finally someone has put a clear focus on the pivotal role EAs play in an executive’s life. EAs are business partners and more importantly, in this book there is a “road map” for assistants who want to take their career to the next level. It looks at skills and traits EAs need to develop, in order to function successfully with executives at the highest levels of business. Not only has the author shared what is required, but the famous people interviewed in the book also share what they most value in their assistants. I had the honour of being interviewed by Jan for the book, in which my comments are briefly mentioned. I am also working with Jan to translate her work into Italian.
I was also inspired by Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, written by Zelda La Grange, longtime PA to Nelson Mandela. I had the pleasure of listening to her last year at Executive Secretary LIVE in London. I read her book during a very difficult moment of my professional life, and it gave me comfort and hope. I wrote Zelda to express my sentiments, and she kindly wrote me back.
Role models or mentors? I have been very lucky during my career to have worked with some exceptional CEOs and amazing EAs, all with different personalities – and every one of them has taught me something valuable. I had great bosses who helped me to improve professionally by giving me responsibilities, trusting me and believing in my potential. “Learn from the best” has always been my motto.
My motto: Learn from the best
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I would like to contribute, through my community, to the empowerment of the role of EAs in my country and worldwide, by making people understand that we are business partners with our executives. We are business professionals, and it is not just a “job”.
I would like to contribute to the empowerment of the role of EAs
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Do not rush. Learn from experiences and failures.
Learn from experiences and failures
Your most effective time management strategy? Organise, prioritize and always have a plan B, if not a plan C.
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 asking the new employer exactly what skills s/he is looking for in the new assistant. It is also very important to ask about the company’s values and ask how they are applied within the company.
Ask about the company’s values, and how they are applied within the company
Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant? Communicate with your assistant as much as you can, in order that s/he understands exactly what you want – this will enable your assistant to readily anticipate your needs.
For those interested in promotion: Do not passively wait to be told something. Ask for feedback, be proactive and take notes. Read about your industry to develop an understanding about the business. And accept new challenges: never stop learning and improving one’s self.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Carla mentioned may be interested in checking the following links. To explore a range of resources recommended by readers, click here for Exceptional EA’s Resources Page or click here to see all professional associations and networks recommended by peers.
- Executive Secretary LIVE – Dubai, Johannesburg and London
- Laura Schwartz
- The CEO’s Secret Weapon : How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Effectiveness – Jan Jones