Real Careers: Mirella Autard-Catherine

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, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa and the USA, and now make our way to Mauritius to visit with Mirella Autard-Catherine.

Mirella Autard-Catherine is Personal Assistant to the Head of Human Resources at The Mauritius Commercial Bank Ltd., Mauritius. Here’s a look at her world.

Up and Organised for a Shared Commute

I usually wake up at 6:15 a.m. and, in winter I may push the alarm clock to 6:30. It’s straight into the shower, put on my makeup, and do my hair … and by “doing my hair”, I mean just a shuffle with my fingers! Then to the kitchen to prepare my daily snacks (for morning tea and afternoon tea), pack my lunch and have breakfast. After a toast and a cup of herbal tea, I get dressed in my uniform and am out the door at around 7:40.

Depending on the traffic, it usually takes me around 20 to 30 minutes from home in Quatre Bornes to Port Louis, our capital city where my office is located. My husband works in the same city, so I normally have a lift with him every morning and catch the office staff  bus in the afternoon as his days are longer than mine. I occasionally drive to work when I need to come in earlier due to the workload.

What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening?  I like listening to the radio while commuting. This way I listen to some music and to the morning news.

At the Office

Morning Routines: As soon as I get in, which is usually earlier than my boss, I go via his office first to check if he left files for me in his out tray. Once in my own office, I have my first glass of water of the day… it gets me going. (My caffeine kick is for later, around 9:30). I check my manager’s schedule for the day, prepare files he may need for scheduled meetings, check and respond to emails and listen to my voice mail.

Primary Responsibilities: I manage my manager’s calendar, organise his meetings, lunches and business trips. The role involves answering telephone queries and screening all phone calls directed to my boss, and meeting and greeting guests. I give him the necessary administrative support, i.e., correspondence, reports and other admin tasks. With the help of an Admin Clerk, I also handle a few other admin tasks for my HR colleagues.  I  supervise a team of six staff – an HR Admin Clerk and five Office Attendants, commonly called “Messengers”. They are employees who look after the cleaning of offices, distribution of postal mail and general housekeeping of our floor.

Is there a “typical” day for PAs? Let’s look at a “normal easy day”: Reply to emails, meet and greet visitors coming in for appointments with my manager, and set meetings as per telephone calls or emails received … this is more a case of “playing puzzle with meetings” in the electronic calendar! I answer various telephone queries from staff and external parties. I make sure that my manager has the files he needs for meetings and remain at his disposal for any unexpected task which may arise during the day. In parallel, I monitor my team’s tasks, ensure that they are focusing on their objectives, and keep them motivated. I  check upon the general housekeeping of our floor, cleanliness of our meeting rooms, floors and furniture and ensure all office equipment is running properly.

How long is your work day?  We have flexi hours and can start anytime between 7:30 and 10:00 a.m. and leave anytime between 2:45 and 6:00 p.m., obviously depending upon your manager’s requirements. I usually start my days at 8:00 and, most days, leave the office at 4:00. I work flexi hours twice a week, with an earlier start. If my manager needs me to finish some urgent tasks, though, I obviously stay on duty until I finish what needs to be done.

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What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? I bring my own lunch everyday (it consists of left overs from last night’s dinner) and go down to the staff canteen to eat. I make sure I stop working for our 30 minute break; I feel I need a break halfway through the day.  I make a point of having a proper sit down lunch and going out for a walk around the block or some shopping to get out of the office and clear my mind.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? I often log in to check my email remotely, especially if I’ve been handling a specific matter which needs special attention. I discipline myself, though, and don’t check my email after 6:00 p.m. or on weekends.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Dealing with last minute changes in my manager’s calendar and making sure that my team remains motivated.

Believe in yourself, and don’t let yourself be intimidated by anyone

What do you most enjoy about your career? The interaction with people, the satisfaction (being in HR) of being able to help colleagues, the enriching professional relationship I have with my boss. He has taught me so much in the seven years I’ve worked with him. There’s also the satisfaction of my achievement when I go the extra mile and make things happen!

On Saying “No”

I never say “no” to my boss, though it happens that I negotiate with him for some extra time if a deadline needs to be met. However, I have had to learn to say “no” to some of my colleagues, because I am so inclined to give a helping hand – listening to those who come and see me to vent off a problem or ask for advice, may it be personal or professional – that I end up forgetting about myself and find myself spending too much time on others rather than on my own objectives. I am now able to say “no” with tact and diplomacy.

Mirella‘s World

Map of worldI was born in Mauritius, a small island with a population of 1.4 million, located in the Indian Ocean, to the east of Madagascar and Africa. I spent six years in Sydney between 1987 and 1993, when my family migrated to Australia, and worked in the insurance field during that time. Then I decided to come back home for sentimental reasons! I now live in Quatre Bornes, a small inland residential town, in Mauritius.

Though I couldn’t live far from a city and shopping malls, I need the occasional escape from the madding crowd for at least a weekend every now and then. I live on a tropical island, so a weekend in a beach house is always very rejuvenating.

I like watching a good movie and reading. I don’t particularly enjoy cooking, but do so every afternoon when I’m back from work to feed the family!  I do aquagym twice a week to keep fit and keep the kilos away! On the weekend, other than going out for a coffee or a meal, shopping or a day at the beach, I never miss my FaceTime moment with my 20 year old son, Vincent, my only child, who went to Australia last year for his university studies.

What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? Definitely I Believe I Can Fly by R. Kelly and a French song called On Danse (“We Dance”) by French singer M. Pokora. But really, only when no one is listening!

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A pedicure, manicure or massage every now and again.  But there is nothing better than a good shopping therapy!

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? I love travelling and have many dream holidays lined up on my bucket list! I’ve visited Paris and London twice, Australia more than once, and Fiji, Singapore and South Africa. My next dream holiday would be the USA. I have friends living in Washington, DC and Virginia, and I’d like to visit them one day.  I want to visit San Francisco, California, Florida and Beverly Hills, and spend a white Christmas somewhere one day.

Education and Professional Development

Education: After my Higher School Certificate, I had private tuitions to become a Secretary. This didn’t happen until I was in my 30s, as it was another 14 years before I worked in the secretarial field. In the meantime, I took on a number of courses to improve my skills and competencies in the workplace. When I became a PA 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a number of workshops to help me refresh my secretarial skills and keep up with trends. Meeting other PAs during these workshops and sharing our common experience is also so beneficial.

Understand your strengths and weaknesses; acknowledge your competencies

Peer and Professional Associations: I joined the Professional Secretaries Association five years ago. This has helped with my networking, as I get to meet a number of PAs and share our common experience, as well as give and receive advice. We are more than just members of the association now; great friendships have grown from this.

Technology

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Preferred form(s) of social media? Facebook, of course! As my family and a lot of my friends live abroad, it’s the best way for me to keep up to date and in touch on a regular basis. I created a Twitter account a short while , but still need to figure out how this works …

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career?  If an app had to be invented to help me in my career, it would be a mail merge app that’s easier to manage than the regular Windows mail merge! This is my pet hate…

Everyone deserves respect

Career Accomplishments, Awards and Recognition

I was presented the “Secretary of the Year” award organised by the Professional Secretaries Association in 2010, with the help of Cathy Harris from Professional Secretaries Association South Africa. This was a wonderful experience. It helped boost my self confidence and taught me more about my strengths and weaknesses. It also helped me realise that I had competencies that I myself was taking for granted.

I completed a six-month Dale Carnegie course on Human Relations and Communication about three years ago, and was awarded the Highest Award of Achievement in my group. During my younger years in Australia, I was presented a Silver Excellence Award, for which I was nominated by my supervisor. My 2010 Secretary of the Year award presented by the Professional Secretaries Association remains, for me, the greatest award.

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I don’t have much choice, as wearing our uniform is compulsory. We have various pieces, including grey skirts and pants, red and white tops, and a greyish blue dress with a corporate coloured red and grey scarf.  I tend to wear my dress with my scarf and red accessories for an important event in the work place.

What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? Can’t go without my lipstick and lip liner. I also carry some compact powder to cover up the shiny look on a hot and muggy day after I’ve been out at lunch time.

Heels or flats in the office?  Heels, for sure.  I am only 1m56 (just over 5’1″) tall… For your commute? Flats to commute and to go out during lunch time. Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? I wish I could afford a pair of Louboutin shoes one day.

Preferred scent: La vie est belle by Lancôme for evenings out, and Blue Seduction by Antonio Banderas for work. I am a perfume maniac, and must have worn every single perfume that ever came out!  My next purchase will be the new Kenzo Jeu d’Amour.  

What might we find in your desk drawer? I don’t know where to start. There are so many things in my drawer… stationery, deodorant, wipes, a small mirror, Paracetamol, umbrella, herbal tea, and a jar of decaf coffee for the days where I feel too hyper with the intake of caffeine!

Travel or travel planning advice? When organising my first business trip (Mauritius to Berlin via Paris) 15 years ago for my boss at the time, I forgot to check that his Schengen Visa was still valid for his transit in Paris. On the day of his departure, it hit me that his visa had expired! Luckily, I had a very nice boss who reassured me and said he would take the risk and still catch the flight to Paris. I didn’t eat nor sleep for about 24 hours until I knew he had reached Berlin! Ever since then, visa and other requirements that the host country needs are the first thing I check, for both business and personal travel.

I also always ensure that intervals between connecting flights are neither too short nor too long. You don’t want your boss to get bored in between flights and irritated before reaching his destination, or having to run through the airport to catch connecting flights!

Inspirational reads? Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, and How to Develop Self Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking are three books that have really helped me not only in my career but also in my personal life.

Make a point of maintaining appropriate work/life balance

Role models or mentors? Definitely Cathy Harris from Professional Secretaries Association, South Africa, whom I had the chance to meet on several occasions when she came to Mauritius to run workshops for PAs. She is so passionate in her role that talking to her increases one’s own passion. I have learnt so much from Cathy and from what she told me about her own experience. She is a beautiful person inside and out. She is not only an expert PA, but also such a dedicated mom, nanna, and wife at the same time! She manages to keep up with her professional and personal lives no matter how busy they are, and always has a smile on her face. She is a legend! She is my inspiration.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? Coaching has been appealing to me lately. Being a soft skills trainer is what I would really like to engage in before retiring.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Believe in yourself, and don’t let yourself be intimidated by anyone. Everyone deserves respect.

Stop, Revive, Survive: a strategy for moments when you’re overwhelmed

Your most effective time management strategy? I review my daily planning as well as my manager’s calendar every hour or so and adjust to last minute changes as they crop up. I always ensure that I can keep some time during the day to handle unexpected situations. If I feel overwhelmed at a certain point during a difficult day, I stop for a while, go for a walk or a coffee and come back to my office with a clearer mind. I call this my “stop, revive, survive” moment!

Advice for a new mother working to the workplace? Make sure you have appropriate work/life balance. You are allowed to have a personal life even though you have a professional life; never mix both.

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: In my opinion, trust, communication and respect are the key words. You have to fully trust your assistant, communicate as much as you can, and show respect even though you are the boss. Feel comfortable talking to each other about professional as well as casual matters. This is what creates the bond between the executive and the assistant.

Know what you want career-wise, and take courses and workshops to keep abreast with changes

For those interested in promotion: First, you have to know where you want to go. Find out the requirements for the job you want next. Don’t be scared to ask questions, or to seek advice from your manager concerning your career path. Talk to HR colleagues for advice, and take courses and workshops to keep abreast with changes and evolution of the business. Be assertive and show interest when you bump into job adverts. Even if you don’t win the first time, you’ll finally get there with perseverance. Stay positive all along.

 Resources

… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Mirella 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.

  • Carnegie, DaleHow to Win Friends and Influence People, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, and How to Develop Self Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking
  • PAFSA (Professional Association for Secretaries and Administrative Assistants)
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