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, Canada, England, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa and the USA, and now make our way to Johannesburg, South Africa to visit with Michele Thwaits.
Michele Thwaits is Executive Assistant to the President and Head Africa Cluster, Novartis SA (Pty) Ltd. Here’s a look at her world.
Snowball, Social Media, and Everything Spotless
Well, if you didn’t know me and saw my routine in the morning, you would think I had OCD. Let me see, my alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. and my cat, Snowball, hovers over me to let me know that I should get up and not lie back. Those whiskers tickle so much. I reach over for my glasses and grab my phones (yes, personal and work phones) and go through my Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts and see what has been happening in the lives of my family and friends … and if there is anything I need to share with my fellow PAs out there (during the day, there is just no time to even look at my phones). Once I have done my bit for social media, I eventually get up.
And then my OCD ritual begins. I make up my bed, take all my vitamins and my “chill” pill (my kids refer to my HRT as that) and then get into the shower. I have this thing that when I have finished showering, I need to walk into a neat and tidy room. Don’t know why. Oh, and if Snowball doesn’t want to get out of bed, I make the bed with her in it. Crazy, isn’t it. By the time makeup is on, and I am ready, it is almost 7:00.
My lounge and kitchen are an open plan area, so I proceed to open curtains and unlock the patio door (I just love the crisp air in the mornings), make my breakfast and take out my laptop and go through emails before I leave for work.
Again, my routine continues: I wash up all dishes, clean counters, make sure cushions are positioned in their place on the couches, fill the cat bowl, replenish water for the cat, take out meat or whatever it is I want for dinner later, make sure all lights are switched off and gather my bag, laptop bag and lunch bag and off I go to work. That would be around 8:00 a.m.
My travel time to work is a dream – I travel only about 20 minutes and I am there. Till just recently before we moved offices, I travelled 45 minutes to an hour. I have my own car, so leaving when I want to and not having to rely on anyone for a lift or public transport makes a huge difference.
What’s on your commute playlist? I listen to the local radio station, 947 Breakfast Express. A team of people who sometimes talk the biggest load of rubbish, prank people, tell jokes and just have a lot of fun on air – they make my day and there is no time for getting angry in traffic. I focus on the radio and, if they play great music which gets us moving in the car, I turn up the volume and do my “car jive”. People look at me and just laugh but, hey, I feel good and it is a lovely way to start my day. There is so much stress and seriousness out there, why not.
What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? Anything with a beat or to which I know the words. I am a soprano and was involved with the Rhema Choir for 10 years; I was one of the lead conductors and we cut six gospel CDs. So, music, rhythm and song make me very happy – I get lost in that world. I am also a lover of the Gregorian Monks, flute and any musical instrument – I used to play piano myself.
At the Office
Morning Routines: Oh, yes, routine is important to complete my day. Get into the office, greet everyone on the way in and to my desk, which is situated in front of a wall of window – which means I have a view and a half. I set up my laptop and wireless mouse and get my laptop and PC up and running and ready to rock and roll. I punch in the code to open my phone, and take my glasses out. My phones come out just in case my boss – or anyone else, for that matter – is looking for me and can’t get hold of me on the land line. I pack the handbag and lunch bag away. I go through to the kitchen and get my water for my desk – and away I go. Another crazy day begins.
Primary Responsibilities: Well, my primary role is Executive Assistant to the President and Head of Africa Cluster, Novartis. I need to make sure his diary is up to date and his day runs as smoothly as possible. Even if he is not in the office, he ensures I never have a dull moment. Besides working for him, I do assist the Head of Compliance, Head Medical, Head Government Affairs and Head Communication. The latter two are a constant challenge and keep me busy. All these heads are extremely busy and travel quite a lot – so constant travel bookings, setting up of meetings, transfers, hotel accommodation are part and parcel of my workload.
And of course, when anyone needs help, or needs information, I appear to be the local telephone directory, psychic, dictionary, tracker, coach, mentor and teacher – but I don’t mind. Somehow I take it as a compliment that I am seen in that light and try and make myself available as much as I possibly can. Not always possible in the moment, but then I make a plan to make time.
No day is ever the same. I am on the run all day – no time for chit chat in the office. Only at my half an hour lunch break (we go to the pause area as we are not allowed to eat at our desks), and there I have lunch with some of my colleagues and catch up on some chat. Every day is a new challenge; it is stressful and a lot of pressure, but when I get home at night and am brain dead and ready to fall asleep as soon as I sit down and relax, I smile because I love what I do, I love the people with whom I work and it was worth it.
How long is your work day? My day is a long one. Even though I get in around 8:30 – 9:00, I work till about 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. The end of the day is wonderful as it is quieter, no phones are ringing, there are less interruptions and I can plan for the following day or weeks ahead.
What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? I like to have a light lunch, so I usually pack my own. Chicken mayo with a green salad. I also have fruit with me so that when I get peckish during the afternoon, I nibble on that. I try and avoid starches and carbs.
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? Yes, I do work from home after hours. Sometimes, and depending on if my colleagues are travelling and needing assistance should anything go wrong, I need to be on hand. I attend a number of meetings, and minutes need to go out within 48 hours. And if work is too busy during the day, at home I can get it done with no interruptions. We have a policy in place where we are allowed to work from home two days a week. I very rarely use this opportunity, as my boss prefers me to be in the office.
I have Bluetooth in my car so, if people don’t get hold of me at the office, they know they can talk to me whilst I am travelling to or from work. Sometimes, that is also the best time to catch up with business and personal calls.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Making sure I keep everyone that I work for happy and keep my finger on the button – I do not want to drop any balls, at any time. That is why I have a “to do list”. Quite a colourful book as when tasks are completed, and not necessarily in the order I wrote them down, I cross out and highlight them.
Understand verbal and non-verbal communication dos and don’ts
What do you most enjoy about your career? I love the fact that I am able to be relied upon to get things done on behalf of my boss and the people I support. I love serving and doing for others and doing it well. I love everything about my career; that is why I am still here doing it.
On Saying “No”
Very hard to say no to someone. So instead, I find out what is the latest I can get done what is required from me and make sure I do so at the time/date agreed. Sometimes, I have to propose an alternate date. And heaven forbid if I do not write it down – I forget. And no, this is not an age thing – there is just so much to remember and do in a day, I need to write it down (By the way, I have a notepad on my fridge so I can list whatever needs replenishing – because I can forget).
I was born in the beautiful city of Cape Town. My parents were transferred to Johannesburg in 1967 and I have been living here ever since. I am a divorcee with three beautiful children, two of whom are married, and a very proud granny of a two year old little boy.
At heart, I would say that I am a bit of both city person and small community person. I enjoy both. I can survive in both and be happy. I love to be at the seaside; something about the ocean just entices me and calms me down. When I go out for breakfast or lunch on the weekends, I want to be eating somewhere outside, not inside. I am in the office eight+ hours a day, so need to get out in the fresh air and sunshine.
Away from the office, going to watch a good movie is always good for me. It takes me out of my reality world, calms me down and makes me forget any worries or stress. I love to read a good book (fiction); I get lost in the story.
When I am not doing a movie or reading, I am out walking, birding or hiking. Just love nature and being outside. Time is not important – I can be out all day, it is just so relaxing.
How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? Any of my family and friends could answer that one for me in an instant – a spa treatment, any spa treatment: a full body massage, manicure, pedicure and/or facial. I just love it.
After a really tough day, I pour myself a glass of Amarula and if the sun is till shining, sit on my patio and enjoy it as the sun goes down.
A dream holiday or travel adventure? Believe it or not, Europe holds a fascination for me. I am planning to do a trip to Spain, Italy (Venice) and Portugal next year. Just something about Europe is calling me. Would also love to do the cruise down the Nile River.
Education and Professional Development
Education: I am not and have never been an academic, so learning for me has to be simple and easy. Show me and I will learn. I have applied myself to whatever is required to get the job done and I watched ladies who were in the positions to which I aspired; I listened to how they talked to people, watched how they worked, and copied them.
The coaching also gave me an insight on how to talk to people, listen to people and not judge or assume. Very interesting, and I certainly learnt a lot about my self during that training.
Dream it, believe it, achieve it; own your position
Peer and Professional Associations: I am currently Chairperson of the Career Committee (PAFSA), and a member of the Academy of Excellence. Keeping in touch, networking, and sharing of ideas with others in our profession. It’s very good to be a part of such an association; keeps you on your toes.
Preferred form(s) of social media? Mostly on Facebook and Linkedin. I use WhatsApp on the mobile phones.
Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? Believe it or not, I am technically challenged in some areas but to be simplistic I would need my iPhone, iPad and laptop all linked/connected so that I have access anywhere, anytime on any item.
Awards and Recognition
In 2011 I received the Crystal award from PAFSA for my contribution to the PA profession. I recently received acknowledgement for my role as Move Champion, where I assisted in the logistics behind our office move. This was so unexpected, as I usually get only a thank you.
Observe those you respect. Watch how they talk to others, and how they work. Then, apply yourself to implementing what you’ve learned.
Style and Substance
What is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I know they usually say the little black number, but I have one of two dresses which I accessorise with a nice scarf and a long coat …. and heels. I just feel a little more professional for the day.
What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? Lipstick – and my JPG (Jean Paul Gaultier) and hand cream.
Heels or flats? Heels, for both the office and the commute. Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? No particular brand, as long as they are comfortable and look smart.
Preferred scent: Jean Paul Gaultier – I don’t wear anything else.
What might we find in your desk drawer? A heck of a lot of stationery. Paperclips, Post-it notes, pens, pencil, highlighters, etc. and of course hand cream. I need everything hands on – hate looking for anything when I need it.
Travel or travel planning advice? Organised and structured planning. Follow a routine from the time you request the flight options to the final product when tickets have been issued, hotels booked, etc. Ensure your colleague/boss has whatever is required to take with him/her. Make sure travel from departure to return is blocked out in the calendar, marked as “out of office”. Put in flights, time of departure to arrival (and remember, if travelling out of Africa and abroad, make sure you put in the time zone). I highlight in yellow so that when the calendar is opened, it catches your eye. Also put in the transfer details (same colour). Then attach the ticket, insurance letter, accommodation voucher, transfer voucher, etc. to that calendar entry.
If your boss/colleague is not so reliant on an electronic diary, make a pack with all the relevant documentation and then also prepare an itinerary, with flight departure, transfers, etc., etc. I use the plastic envelope for everything – plus an envelope in which they can put all slips from their travel. We then have them at hand to reconcile on return, for submission of an expense claim.
John Maxwell – love his thoughts and aspects on leadership
Dale Carnegie – love his thoughts on communications
Donna Rachaelson – all about branding and marketing yourself
Role models or mentors? There is no one person. There were many whom I wanted to emulate and become and be like. I dreamt of being in those roles, could see myself in them and worked toward them. There is a saying I live by: “Dream it, Believe it, Achieve it”. And that is what I did. Once I believed I could get to whatever position I wanted, I achieved it. Sometimes not in the timeline I wanted, but it happened at the right time.
Keep those who are true to themselves and to others close to you
I believe in keeping people who are true to themselves and to me close, and have three people who are very important to me. They influence on my life both personally and professionally. You know them:
- Anel Martin – a lady whom I saw and still see as a younger me; she is going after what she wants
- Teri Wells – smart, outspoken and a lady who calls a spade a spade (sometimes a shovel). But that is who she is: no pretenses, no masks; just Teri.
- … and, of course, Susan Engelbrecht – whenever I need to be told something that I am not scared to hear or listen to, I go to Susan. She puts everything into perspective for me.
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. Wow, I have more than two (if I may share). I matriculated top of my class as Duxe Scholar. Very proud of that achievement. Becoming a finalist in Office Professional of the Year in 2006. Finalist in PA of the Year 2013, getting to being PA to CEO of a company (this was on my goal list for many years and I finally got there in 2004), becoming chairperson of the Career Committee for PAFSA (Professional Association for Secretaries and Administrative Assistants), member of the Academy of Excellence, working on the IYOTSA team in 2014, being a part of a team working on the new Blueprint that’s in draft form at the moment. Getting my coaching certificate and recently getting my certificate, through my company, for Project Management Essentials. All very proud moments for me, and I keep pushing and driving myself to do better.
As a result of reaching finalist status for OPSA and PAOTY, speaking engagements, training engagements, facilitation of seminars/conferences and chairing conferences now form part of my extra services I provide over and above my daily work. Writing articles has now also become another one of my goals.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? At 55, this doesn’t leave me much time till retirement; however, I would love to continue my training and speaking engagements. I want to be able to coach and mentor more – even go into this full time when I am no longer in the PA role.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? How to effectively use time management, and insight on the rights and wrongs of communication, both verbal and non-verbal. These are all things I developed by watching and listening to my peers – and implementing what I learnt.
Prioritise tasks and break challenging ones into workable bites
Your most effective time management strategy? Once written down, prioritise and do one thing at a time and complete each task before starting the next one. If need be, break a task down into simple and workable “bites” and your job will go a lot easier and faster. Don’t rush; plan well in advance so there is no last minute rush.
Advice for a new mother re-entering the workplace? When I returned to the workplace, I went temping. It allowed me to get into the swing of things again and learn what changed and where the profession was at. From there, I just applied myself and owned my position no matter what I was doing, as I was convinced the right person at the right company would see my worth and hire me.
Some may go back to the job they were in prior to leaving. If so, just give yourself time, be patient and – if anything new has been put in place – be willing to learn.
Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Communicate, communicate, communicate. This is probably the aspect most lacking in many a relationship between assistant and executive. Let your assistant know what is expected of him/her, and allow the assistant to let you know what s/he expects of you as the executive. Work together at compromise.
Respect and trust are also very important. If you want respect, you need to respect your assistant and appreciate him/her just as you would expect.
Repeat to yourself: I am possible
For those interested in promotion: Whatever you decide to go for, whether it be promotion within your company or into a new area altogether, research, study, and get in touch with someone in that position/career and network. Find out more about the type of work they do, what is required, how to get into such a role, and take it from there. Nothing is impossible – just tell yourself, “I am possible”, and you will do whatever you set your mind and heart to.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Michele 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.