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 21 countries to date: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the USA and Wales. Today, we’re back to South Africa.
My typical day starts at about 6:00 a.m., when I wake and start getting the household ready for the day ahead, and get the girls out of bed and ready. I check my phone and see if anything important and urgent has come into my inbox, and also check social media. I drop my girls at school and then head into the office. There are no real “must haves” for my morning routine, but I try to squeeze in a coffee. The first cup is often at the office.
My commute to work is about 20 minutes. I drive myself and use this time to try to predict what will be happening in the office – my assumptions are completely wrong eight out of 10 times, but that is why I love doing what I do!
Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? My commuting playlists are mixes of all sort of music, combined with radio news and sports broadcasts.
At the Office
Morning Routines: I do have a routine; I go and have a strong cup of coffee, open my emails, chat to my boss about our day ahead, check social media, work through my emails and get my “list” started. I try to finish off anything that is urgent first, and then work on whatever arrived overnight or first thing in the morning.
Primary Responsibilities: Some of my primary responsibilities include office management, travel, executive assistance, budgetary control and – as with all EAs/PAs – anything else that comes up.
My typical day (not that there is any such thing) consists of a host of meetings and planning. I am the right hand to the COO and involve myself in every aspect of her role within the business. I try to be around for everything she might need, and attend meetings if she is unable to. I reply to emails and chat with stakeholders, internal and external. My day also includes work on travel, budget recons, project update meetings, exco (executive committee) meetings and steerco (steering committee) meetings.
Digital Assistants: I will never see them as a threat, as nothing can compare to human interaction
How long is your work day? I usually work about nine hours, but not all of these are in the office. I work in the office from 8:00 to 4:00, and then again from home from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., once the girls are asleep and house is quiet.
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? We encourage staff to be active and walk regularly. We try to get people away from their desks, even if it is for a five-minute walk around the office, up a flight of stairs or out on the balcony.
What might be a typical lunch? I always eat away from my desk. Lunch normally consists of a sandwich or salad from a restaurant around the corner from our office.
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? In my role, I like to be on top of things and so I tend to work from home more often than not. I always check my emails throughout the evening, and then sit and plan the next day as best I can once my daughters are asleep. I am always preparing, and that is how I stay on top – or ahead – of matters.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Trying to have my boss perform at the optimum level to be a success in her role – she is needed for many engagements, and trying to make time for her to actually sit down and do work is extremely difficult. I try to always allow her 15 minutes between meetings and 30 minutes to eat something at lunch.
I enjoy the pressure, the responsibility and the knowledge that you are positively contributing to the success of the company
What do you most enjoy about your career? It is an ever changing environment; no two days are alike, and no two minutes are alike. I enjoy the pressure, the responsibility and the knowledge that you are positively contributing to the success of the company with all you do.
On Saying “No”
I tend to say no very little. It is a weakness, as I always want to help. When I do say no to someone, it is usually because there is something else that needs my attention – but, with that, there is always a but involved. I will always give an alternative suggestion. Don’t just say no for the sake of saying it; always give people a reason and an alternative.
I was born in Cape Town, South Africa and currently reside in Cape Town. It is such a beautiful city that one does not want to leave. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? Definitely a city mouse; I prefer the buzzing city life, the get up and go attitude. But I also love to do the country life every now and again, to just slow things down and relax properly.
How long have you been an admin. professional? I have been an admin professional for the past 12 years. What was your first role as an admin. professional? I was brought in as an office administrator.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I spend my time with my family; I love my girls (one aged three years, and one aged seven months). I am also an avid sports lover. I play water polo, do a bit of swimming and also play a bit of soccer in winter.
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I decompress with my family and spend time with my daughters, having a family braai (Afrikaans for “roast” or “barbeque”), relaxing with friends and lots of wine.
A dream holiday or travel adventure? An ideal holiday would be a trip to an island destination with water, sunshine, palm trees and cocktails.
Education and Professional Development
Education: I am busy with a Bachelor’s in Commerce degree, but have completed many short courses through various training establishments in South Africa.
A network with peers in all corners of South Africa: it’s like having your own assistants
Peer and Professional Associations: I belong to South African associations PAFSA (Professional Association for Secretaries and Administrative Assistants), SASPA (South African Secretaries and PAs Association) and OPSA (The Association for Office Professionals South Africa), and am proud and excited to say that I have recently been granted membership by IMA (International Management Assistants). Have you held a leadership role in such an organisation? No, not yet, but we are planning an exciting launch of IMA in South Africa.
How have these networks or associations helped you? These associations have helped me in establishing a network of peers who can assist with anything that you may need. These peers are based in all the corners of our great country and can assist from afar; it’s like having your own assistants when you need something.
You need to be strong enough to say that when it’s family time, you will concentrate on your family
What are the primary means of communication for members of your network(s)/professional association(s)? We use WhatsApp a lot. This platform allows you to connect throughout the world and helps enable a quick turnaround. I use social media a lot, especially LinkedIn; this allows you to connect and chat to anyone in any field and is so underused it’s scary. Facebook does help with the social side of this career and Twitter is great for a quick catch up using limited characters.
The Digital Age, and Evolution of the Assistant’s Role
What are your preferred forms of social media? LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook
Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? All the apps on my iPhone are dream apps. The ones I use most are Evernote, AppintheAir, Charlie and EasilyDo.
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Yes. Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability via smartphones, etc. may have had on your quality of life. We all know that our roles are always going to be 24/7, especially if you have a boss who travels internationally. The negative side of having employer-provided smartphones and laptops is that you are always able to work, but this is also a positive: you have the ability to work at the drop of a hat. This allows you to stay one step ahead, and ultimately that is what you want to do as a EA. You need to be strong enough to say that when it’s family time, you will concentrate on your family – and your bosses need to understand this.
I thrive on change, and see it as another challenge to overcome and to master
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital (relying on portals and/or PDFs of meeting materials), or paper-based? We use digital versions for everything, unless there’s a legal requirement to have a hard, paper-based copy.
Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint or other web portals? We use a SharePoint/intranet portal for all staff and company shared information. This was incorporated eight to 10 years ago.
Digital Innovation and Disruption
Let’s talk about the pace of change in the admin. world in general. Do you see variations in how people adapt to change? Digital innovation over the last few years has been fast and furious. This has come at a price for many admins, as keeping up with technology can be a bit daunting. People are starting to adapt more easily now, with the advent of smart phones and tablets. I thrive on change, and see it as another challenge to overcome and to master.
What about the impact of Digital Assistants/AI (Artificial Intelligence) resources such as Siri and OK Google, which we can use for voice/other searches, task reminders, etc., and meeting-scheduling bots that can correspond with actual assistants? Digital assistants can do a lot of good, and allow you to get help at the push of a button. I will never see them as a threat, as nothing can compare to human interaction; this is what our existence is built on.
What do you think of IOT (Internet of Things) devices used for smart lighting, security and air conditioning, etc.? I just think this will only enhance our roles and capabilities. It allows us to do multiple things simultaneously, with each thing controlling a very specific task.
AI, Digital Assistants and the IOT: Their Impacts on this Career
What impact(s) do you think AI (artificial intelligence), Digital Assistants and IOT (the Internet of Things) will have on the admin. professional of 2020? AI and all things like that will only enhance the future; it will require a lot of development and training, but ultimately help us with our jobs. I recommend that people always keep learning and developing new skills. I feel well equipped for the future, as I grew up in an age where AI and all things internet-related were developed and expanded.
Travel or travel planning recommendations? When I plan travel for anyone, I always check for the fastest routes, best hotels and restaurants, meeting points, landmarks, and public transport. This allows me to give the traveller an overall virtual tour before they actually depart. When dealing with international travel, I will always advise on where to eat, and best practice . I believe that if you arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible about a particular place, then you can create and exceed the expectation of the individual travelling.
Always know the traveller and their likes and dislikes. Always let the traveller have the final say regarding travel, as they are the ones travelling and might want to do it differently.
Style and Substance
Name a go-to piece or two from your wardrobe to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? A good fitting black suit and crisp white shirt – this always makes you look and feel FRESH!
What might we find in your desk drawer? Chewing gum, deodorant and chocolate
I feel well equipped for the future, as I grew up in an age where AI and all things internet-related were developed and expanded
Role models or mentors? Adam Fidler. He has real world experiences that he bases his training and information on; he has researched the role and put together real world examples and tips. I have always looked to him for advice, and he is always willing to share and assist.
Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? I was nominated by a colleague for the PAFSA PA of the Year Award in 2016.
On role model Adam Fidler: Always willing to share and assist, he bases his training on real world experiences
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I was a finalist for both the PAFSA (Professional Association for Secretaries and Administrative Assistants) PA of the Year 2015, and for the Pitman Training SuperAchiever PA of the Year 2016 award.
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I want to complete an internationally recognised project management course.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I would like to still be in my current role, but with more responsibility. I have been with my current boss for only the last five months and would love to work closely with her for the next few years. She is a treasure trove of knowledge, and I would like to have some of her insights.
On going beyond one’s comfort zone: I always start planning the move; I never go unprepared
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? When I realize that I need to move beyond my comfort zone, I always start planning the move. I never go unprepared beyond my comfort zone. I will then execute and do my best to make it a positive experience.
Talking to Executives
Imagine that a cohort of executives invited discussion of the business case for working with (or without) an executive assistant. Anticipate that they’re tech savvy, and that some may have dated perceptions of what a skilled assistant can bring to the table. How do you make the case for having an EA, MA or PA on the payroll to enhance the success of the executive and the organisation?
The main question here is if an assistant could help an executive do better at his/her job; the answer is pretty clear. Look at the world leaders; for them to manage and execute flawlessly, they need assistance. The assistant is not only there to ensure you get to your meetings on time but to act as a sounding board and liaison, and to help make decisions based on the relationship you have developed. Ultimately, the assistant will help you achieve all the company and personal goals you have set out for yourself and the company you own or work for. They save you time, and endless days of wasted time working on things that you could just pass to your assistant.
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Always research the company you are interviewing for as well as the person you are interviewing with. Never talk badly about any previous employment situation.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? That it’s not just a woman’s job; I started seriously looking at my career late in life as I didn’t know of any otrher males in the profession.
It’s not just a woman’s job
Your most effective time management strategy? I always use Stephen Covey’s Time Management Quadrants.
Advice for a new parent working to the workplace? Take time to relearn the environment. Things might have changed in your absence, but remember that you will get back to where you were before you left; it will just take some time.
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive / principal? Conversations when beginning a new relationship should include how to work together, time management, dos and don’ts, expectations, and the limitations for each person.
Learn as much about the business or industry as possible
For those interested in promotion: Learn as much about said business or industry as possible. The only way you will be considered and recognised is to be as knowledgeable as possible. This adds to how much value you add, and it’s this value that will make you a number one choice for promotion and growth.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Shirwyn mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- Adam Fidler
- IMA – International Management Assistants
- OPSA – The Association for Office Professionals South Africa
- PAFSA – Professional Association for Secretaries and Administrative Assistants
- Pitman Training SuperAchiever PA of the Year Awards
- SASPA – South African Secretaries and PAs Association
- Stephen Covey – time management matrix