The interview that gave me more than I bargained for…

Patrizia Iacono, Executive Assistant to the Group CIO Insurance Australia Group is quite honestly one of the most interesting people I’ve spoken to.

As with most interviews, I was speaking  to Patrizia due to her participation in an event of ours. In this case it was the EAPA Summit 2014.

I thought the interview was going to lead down a path specifically for some top tips that EAs and PAs could have to help them progress in their career. This group of professionals is a personal favorite of mine, and I always try to get some top resources to share with them.

However, i had completely underestimated how much i’d personally be able to take away from our conversation – Looking forward to meeting in July, but for now, over to Patrizia for the insights.

Hope you enjoy as much as i did…

I have been an Executive Assistant for over 20 years now, I started at the top, which is a really unusual place to start, I started supporting the chairman of a global advertising agency with my first job and I was very fortunate that I landed that role. It was a role that I really didn’t want because I was going to be an advertising executive, and I was working at the time on the Myer Children’s Wear account as an account executive. Believe it or not, it all fell apart one Friday afternoon when my boss called me in to his office to say that effective on the Monday morning I’d be working for our chairman, and it really was from day one where I fell in love with the role and really enjoyed the role very, very much.

It steamrolled from there with a move to Sydney, working for the CEO at the time, Dr Richard Walsh, and from there I went on to work at Lion Nathan, working for their chairman, back into adverting. From advertising I landed what you would call the job of a lifetime where I was working for an American IT management consultancy and my role was traveling the globe alongside our CEO with just a laptop and a mobile phone. For its time it was really a rare occurrence in this country for any executive assistant to land such a role, whereas in today’s climate it is becoming more common.

Things changed from there and I fell pregnant after 15 years that I’d been married, I took a step sideways and decided to work part time for a few years until my daughter was old enough to join school, and I picked up my career from there and here I am now. Really loving the role and loving being a great executive assistant, for me now it’s about sharing the knowledge I’ve acquired over those years and hopefully inspiring others through my mentoring. I have relationships with over 40 executive assistants as their mentor and it’s something I truly am passionate about.

Alex – We still have a lot of issues around people struggling with personality clashes; obviously you’ve worked for many different types of bosses and colleagues. What’s your advice on how to cope with those demanding personalities?

Patrizia –  I’ve had my fair share of demanding executives, even some that I now refer to as my Miranda, from the movie The Devil Wears Prada. The key to handling these demanding personalities is that I’ve always managed to adapt to the personality of the executive that I support. Some of those skills that I use are understanding their needs, their tasks and executing it as quickly as possible. You will know when an executive wants a task completed yesterday rather than today, it’s all about acting with speed and efficiency, and in turn that is what builds that trust which is crucial in the relationship of the EA and their executive.

The other skill I would add here is foresight, that ability to plan what could go wrong before it does go wrong, you have a demanding executive who has meetings back to back all day, what I would be doing is starting from the night before checking all the meetings for the following days, are the attendees confirmed, are the bookings in there, have technology been confirmed, PC facilities, etc. It’s ensuring the executive has their pre-reading material in hand as well.

If there’s travel involved, it’s having that foresight to say, right, reconfirm the car service ahead of time, ask them to pick up your boss ten minutes before because that person’s a picnicker or stresser, it’s all about you really having that foresight to go in there and nab all the things that could go wrong before they do go wrong.

I always think of it as when an executive becomes irate I never take it personally, I never have taken it personally, but I take it professionally, for me it’s, why is he irate and what can I do to actually calm this situation, to me the biggest tip is always stay cool, calm and collected.

Alex – A lot of people that come to our EA and PA summit are at the start of their career, but not sure about where they can go or where they want to go from here on in. What sort of plan you think people should be putting in place to make sure career development is constantly a vision and a clear goal for them?

Patrizia – For me, that stage really begins at the research stage before you join an organisation; what I’ve done in every role that I’ve ever been in and the organisations I’ve joined is that I’ve actually researched and evaluated the organisation before even going in for an interview with the executive or with the HR team of that organisation. For me it helps to ascertain if that organisation is investing in their employee’s career development plans, and some of the questions that I always would ask and do ask are, what training programmes are offered for EAs, does the organisation have an EA community, is there a mentor programme in place?

Once you’ve joined that organisation, that is the right fit for you, what I’ve done is sit down with the executive and work out a clear set of objectives and career plan. For example, my personal career plan is mapped out as a strategy document, what I’ve got is a plan of action to achieve a set of goals, I’ve identified what I want to accomplish, in six months, in a year, and three years, that’s how I keep on track with my personal career development and achievable goals, I really think that’s the forward plan that most EAs should be really thinking about when they do join an organisation.

Alex – Personal brand is something that comes up frequently. What tips would you give to develop personal brand and perception?

Patrizia – Personal brand is really, really important to me. Your personal brand is your professional reputation, it’s the impression we all leave or the image we want to portray that we will be remembered for. It’s a choice we make on how we’re going to leverage ourselves in the workplace, it’s also a great opportunity to showcase the knowledge which is important to the success and the career progression of any EA.

Some of the tips that I’d like to share are those that I’ve built up over the last 20 years, really think about how people see you through the way you communicate, are you empathetic and approachable; the way you play ball in the organisation; are you seen as a team player or a silo player; are you a problem solver with a real can-do attitude. Are you sharing the knowledge and inspiring others; and do you treat others the way you want to be treated? As an EA we are the brand of the executive we support and certainly the organisation, both internally and externally.

Alex – With the variety of tasks that need to be juggled, have you got any ideas in terms of organisational excellence, where do you think we can really start to improve that time management?

Patrizia – We face many challenges in the organisation, on a daily basis. To achieve that organisational excellence we need to remember that we’re no longer viewed as the support staff but more as that integral business partner. We’re finally matching the skills of the people that we support. We’re also serving as innovation catalyst, we manage and simplify those processes, time can be a huge benefit to the executive. We need to have the business acumen to understand the strategy and plan to deliver that vision through our own analytic thoroughness, innovation and cultural awareness through time management. By managing the executive’s day to day business, you’re giving them time back so they spend more time focusing on strategy and certainly productivity.

Time management for me never has been an issue, it’s learning to prioritise, pretty much by the time I get to work in the mornings I know exactly what’s going on, it’s how we manage that time effectively to give them time back.

If you run out of time and it’s just not working, always ask for help, always reach out to your peers, to anyone to say, can you give me hand, don’t ever be afraid to ask for help.

Alex – Has the job been how you expected it to be?

Patrizia – The role of the executive assistant means being much, much more than just that standard job description that you’re given at a job interview or that you may read on a recruitment website. For me it’s not just the hard skills, okay, sure, we do need those hard skills, but what’s really important especially now is the ability to actually bring a lot more soft skills to the role.

Business is now becoming a lot more agile than it ever has been, and especially with organisations having to respond rapidly to changes in internal and external environments without losing that vision, we’re actually required to start using a lot more of the soft skills; the multitasking, organisation, adaptability, flexibility and initiative. We really are creating and evolving our own unique job description day by day in the organisation we work in.

Alex – I was interested if you had any stories to tell, have you ever been tasked with something quite strange or something you weren’t expecting to do?

Patrizia – Definitely. I had a Miranda moment, that’s how I love to refer to them. Some years ago I was working for an executive who was invited to attend the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, I got him off to the airport, got him on the plane, when he landed in Los Angeles and got to his hotel room he’d realised he’d left his favourite cufflinks in Sydney, and he wasn’t going to go to the Academy Awards without these particular cufflinks, it’s crazy, I know.

So I got this panicked call at 5 am saying, well, I won’t say asking, he was actually telling me that he needed these cufflinks and that he wanted me to personally fly them over. I was out of bed, within a couple of hours, I’d booked a car to drive me to his apartment, find the cufflinks, drive to the airport, book a flight, fly to Los Angeles, cab it to the Beverly Wilshire, cab straight back to the airport and fly home to Sydney, if that’s not weird, I’m not sure what is. But he was a very, very happy executive and went off to the Academy Awards with his favourite cufflinks, that’s one of my, probably one of the strangest, I’d say, but one of many, many stories that I love to share.

It was, it was all done in a day, literally in a day, I think the flight landed that morning and I was back on a flight that evening, yes, it was crazy.

Employee engagement: One simple idea… One mighty impact.

Customer Experience is a term that’s become very familiar to me recently. Pretty much all of the events I work across have a customer element to them, so I was interested to see what Customer Experience Management 2014 was going to offer up.

We’re part way through day one, and it’s pretty exciting down here. When I first got down here, I was expecting to hear a whole heap of the usual buzzwords; centricity, digital, journey and so on.

There’s always been one element of CX which stood out as a challenge, and that’s change. With the world we’re in now, it’s inevitable. As one of our speakers said earlier: ‘It’s not about what we did last year anymore, it’s not even last month – change is a daily constant’. For that reason, the spotlight is well and truly on employee engagement. After all, they are the ones driving change within any business.

Without making any sweeping statements, and probably unfair ones, there’s a lot of ‘same-same’ CX talk around the web these days. But today I was stopped in my same-same thinking tracks by a simple idea that lit up the entire room.

And it’s called A Personal Board.

So what is it? Quite simply, the notion that every single employee, upon recruitment, builds their own personal board of directors across the business. It’s an idea that comes from eBay, where every member of staff is tasked with the challenge of looking across the business – all levels and in all countries – to find a role they’d be interested in knowing about. They then pick up the phone and ask the person to be involved in their informal board. This helps with a few things:

  • Keeps employees engaged
  • Breaks down silos within the organisation
  • Drives innovation
  • Builds a network
  • Encourages communication
  • Helps drive change

So what does it take?

The smart thing that eBay has done is demonstrate the importance of the project to every single employee. People have a job to teach, but there’s no reason why you can’t start to do the same. It’s an informal process and only takes one person to drive it. Begin with your new starters and watch it spread.

I don’t know about you, but I love the thought of checking in with a few people across the business worldwide to get their thoughts or hear about their priorities.

P.S – if you haven’t been down to CEM 2014…. you should. They have mini-golf and everything.

Content Marketing World Sydney: What I took from day 1

I’ll be honest, when I rocked up to Content Marketing World Sydney (or #CMWorld), I was a little sceptical. Primarily because i work in the conference industry so I understand how hard it is to get a decent coffee at these things. Secondly, because I had a feeling the day may be centred around ‘the art of story telling’.

Don’t get me wrong, and you can probably tell by the name of this blog – I love story telling. Ultimately though i feel like that’s where Australia has got a bit stuck when it comes to content. Articles, podcasts, webinars, ebooks, infographics – in my current job we’ve been doing these pretty well for over a year now.

Yes, i know i should be doing more videos, but i was looking for a little more from CMWorld – APAC’s largest gathering of content experts.

It’s the end of day one now and i’ve been pleasantly surprised. The event is really well run and the speakers are very energetic and passionate about what they do. The lunch was pretty tasty too. Coffee, yeah it’s a bit rubbish but you can’t win them all.

Anyway, i wanted to share a few key points i picked up today:

  • Content Strategy – Network Strategy

This was the big takeaway for me. We’ve been fine tuning the content strategy for a while now. The term network strategy came up during the morning session and it’s exactly where i want to focus our own efforts. The thing about digital (and no i don’t think print is dead) is that it’s built on a series of platforms, it’s spread by a series of influencers. Those influencers used to be sports stars, actors, musicians, models… Not anymore. Absolutely anyone with a twitter account and blog can become an influencer – let’s try to become them and let’s try to engage with them.

Social proof is becoming paramount. If you look for a picture of a cat in a box – are you more likely to share the cat that only 3 people have looked at, or the cat that has had 300 views? (Personally i’d go for this one.)

There’s a few key things for network strategy: a) find the influencers in your business  – websites like Klout can help you find out who has the potential to spread content widely across the network by scoring the people you work with on their social influence. b) appinions – I think toilet roll is a boring subject matter. But if i’m developing a toilet roll product, is my influence matched with the rest of the market? For example, i say no one wants to read content around Claims Leakage in insurance – but what am i comparing that with? Are there conversations happening without my content? Appinion can provide the tools to check you’re not missing a gap. c) People – they are everywhere talking about everything under the sun, let’s find them, let’s engage with them and let’s work together to spread the word beyond our internal campaign cycle.

  • Customer Centricity

Without waffling on too much about this, as someone who works in b2b content – it’s something i’ve written about a lot. Today served as a strong reminder to check that i’m talking the talk in my own content marketing practices. 1000 photo’s are added every minute with the #me on instagram. No joke. The new marketing mix isn’t about the ‘4Ps’ anymore – it’s about principles, people, ideas then launch – it’s all about the customer. Marketing is giving people something to talk about. The challenge from today was set: It isn’t the best idea that wins, it’s the greatest understanding of the customer.

  • Be honest and fail

The other key area worth a mention today all centred around trial and error. Be honest in your content – if you’re speaking to someone because they are sponsoring your product – tell the reader. If you’re interviewing someone that bought you an ice cream – tell the reader. Also, it’s ok to fail. Push the boundaries. Those ideas that give us a bit of fear… give them a go. It doesn’t have to be so serious all the time.

Few key people to follow from today: @MarkSchaefer, @BernadetteJiwa and @TimWasher.

To sum up in one line we need: relevant audience, meaningful content and consistent engagement.

Looking forward to the breakout sessions tomorrow…

 

Is it right to mix professional and private?

After recently writing the Ultimate Guide for EAs and PAs, it left me thinking about  the other side of the coin; the boss’ insight.  To find out more I took a look at some of the most successful women in business, how they got there, and how their EA/PA relationship helped…

One person who really stood out was Chandra Clements, Managing Director at One Legacy. Chandra won the Gold Stevie for Best Female Executive (Asia, Australia & New Zealand); a Gold Stevie for Most Innovative Company; and the Marie Claire National Young Business Woman of the Year Award to name just a few.

As a successful leader, Chandra certainly knows a thing or two about working well with her EAs and PAs over the years. We had a chat about the changing role of the EA or PA and how to make the most of it.

We also discussed one of the questions I’ve heard come up frequently over the past couple of years; what should and shouldn’t be shared in the workplace? It can be a struggle knowing how much of our private lives we should discuss at work, Chandra firmly believes the key to success is transparency between the EA or PA and the leader.

I found our chat insightful and a few key areas emerged that I wanted to share with you:

Do you really need that?

You have to balance what the CEO needs to know versus what people want the CEO to know. Over time those two groups tend to be very distinct. What the CEO or the leader needs to know versus what their team wants them to know can at times be very different.  It’s the fundamental role of the EA or PA to work out and distinguish between those two groups. That starts by being able to create appropriate boundaries with general employees or even people external to the organisation. The EA needs to begin by setting some very reasonable expectations regarding how people interact or communicate with them and that they’re not simply the portal by which, anyone that wants time with the CEO can actually get that.

Transparency is a good thing

There isn’t this complete separation between CEO and the EA/PA, they’re on the same continuum and they operate as two arms of the same body, understanding that, being humble enough to know there are times when your EA  knows more than you. Defer to them and let them do their role to the full potential , there are times where you’re going to have to step in and remove the stress or the barrier or the blockage that’s causing your EA or PA concern; getting that bit right means that people then increase in loyalty and trust and authenticity and security with you.

It comes down to authenticity. When you look at this notion in the business place, people have two lives, their personal life and their professional life.  I don’t believe that and certainly my relationship with my current EA is based around authenticity and complete transparency. Through that process, you get to know each other’s weaknesses and strengths, hot buttons and cold points and what each other’s stress loads are. Through that process of complete transparency and authenticity there becomes a complete alignment in terms of the big issues that we both need to deal with now and what’s important in this very moment in time.

It’s about more than taking actions

There’s a fundamental shift that’s occurred in the marketplace in terms of what needs to be achieved in any one day. Time is of the essence; look at your options for dealing with the request. Do you pass on and advise or assist the leader to make a decision or take an action?  Alternately, would you be handling the request better if you directed the enquiry to a more suitable place, advising someone that the request brought to you may be dealt with better in another way.

These skills are quite new to the role; negotiating and influencing and can really set you apart, distinguishing between what people need to know and what potentially employees and suppliers and customers want the CEO to know.

Nobody’s perfect

It goes back to the idea that people are living two separate lives, their personal life and their professional life. You get one person and that person comes with a holistic bag of strengths and weaknesses and you accept and develop some way to use that. In many cases there’s been a longstanding misnomer that EAs or PAs need to be extremely perfect and have it all together and that their role is the buffer between the sanity of the CEO and the complete insanity of the business.

Whilst that may be, on some level, true, there needs to be an understanding that the EA, PA role is a humanistic role and there’s times when that person needs time out, there’s times when that person is going to have a good day or a bad day It’s  important to have a complete picture of a person in that sense, it should be embraced.

Never underestimate

It’s unfortunate that many companies still only use the EA/PA role as administrative or as a caretaker role for the CEO. It’s a major mistake; the role of both the leader and the EA or PA is to make sure you’re being developed to achieve your full potential.

Chandra will be speaking during the EAPA Summit 2013.