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.

Getting true value from outsourcing: the recipe for success

I first bumped into Jane Stafford, Executive Manager for Banking Process & Optimisation at Suncorp Banking during our Process Excellence event last year,  then again during Shared Services and Outsourcing Week. Jane certainly knows a thing or two about outsourcing – she’s been in the banking and finance industry for more than 20 years, spending years managing the optimal blend of insourcing and outsourcing strategies and implementation for business processes.

Jane’s current role is to manage Process Ownership for Suncorp Bank, monitoring, measuring and delivering business improvement strategies with a focus on process simplification, cost reduction and improved customer experience.  I recently caught up with Jane ahead of here workshop at SSOW 2014 to delve into the key ingredients for achieving an optimal blend – helping other organisations to maximise the true value of outsourcing.  Jane shared her insights on how the landscape has shifted, paving a new way for vendor relationships. Take a read below:

I’m absolutely seeing a need for outsourced providers to continue to be relevant by looking at providing services that sit outside of data entry. Automation is really kicking off in in our industry. We’re seeing far more centralisation of corporate functions (generally the higher value activities like analytics). That’s going have a flow-on effect into knowledge process outsourcing.

We’re seeing the impact of increased regulation occurring. That puts a squeeze on our margins and puts the spotlight on process innovation. The knock on effect to providers is they need to be able to innovate with end to end outsourcing and continue to drive down the cost that sits within that process through lean methodology or something similar.

A few years ago there was a lot of low hanging fruit for outsource providers, if they could do the data entry, they had business. However, client needs are changing as a consequence of a number of different factors that puts pressure on them to go up the value curve in terms of what they can offer from the service point of view.

There are a few fundamentals when looking to cement outsourcing and drive relationships that open up new levels of value:

Keep the ingredients fresh

The secret is building capability in-house to manage optimal blends. Optimal blends means that you are constantly looking at your landscape, making decisions around what is appropriate to outsource, automate and keep in-house.

It’s not as simple as locking in on those three things; it’s constantly evolving depending on what’s happening within your business, what’s happening within the environment and what’s happening in your innovation stakes. We have found most success in just having that management capability pool.

We’ve set up that infrastructure to manage an optimal blend for both onshore and offshore. My team are constantly monitoring dashboards to work out what’s on the horizon in terms of automation onshore or offshore. That involves rolling things back from time to time, and having a framework based on strategy rather than just reacting to what we had done previously.

Set the right temperature

Look at all the decisions that will need to happen to support the way you’ve decided to go. It starts by establishing your core competencies – all the decisions are based around that and people will be challenged if there’s no understanding of what they are.

Executive sponsorship is crucial. There needs to be an appetite to manage the people and cultural components, because every decision you make around in-house, automation or outsourcing has knock on effects that need to be managed throughout that change period. You won’t get your benefit if that isn’t addressed very early on.

One of the key things we learnt five or six years ago is that it’s okay to have a strategy that’s learnt during outsourcing, but if the business is not ready in its own maturity and its own journey, where you haven’t intervened enough to support a new culture, that culture will eat your strategy anyway.

Clean up as you go

Be clear on what your drivers are if you’re choosing to outsource. For us, it was about cost efficiency, labour arbitrage and accessing scale from the outset. But the more and more I get into it, the less important those factors are to me personally, the more I’m actually looking to have providers perform innovation, lean  and refine our processes to remove waste from them. If you don’t have that, your processes end up being old and full of waste.

There’s never a truer analogy of garbage in, garbage out, than when you’re doing an outsource transition…

Set the timer, watch it rise

There are some key areas where you can unlock huge value in the vendor–client relationship: 

  • Move away from master-servant relationships: We’ve tried to co-locate and second people from the outsourced organisation into our organisation, coming to an arrangement with our provider where we actually have contracted in someone from India to be in my team for 12 months. They are actively working in Australia, onshore, understanding the business end-to-end. It takes trust to open your books completely, but the sharing of information and depth of understanding about what we can achieve for our customers is far deeper.
  • At an operational level: Position your outsource provider as an extension of your current team, just sat in another location. Include them in your reward and recognition programme – our outsourcers tend to really enjoy that. It’s still a work in progress for us, but I think it’s the next big thing, to challenge both organisations to position themselves around the commercial structure. That’s where you’re really putting everything on the line.
  • Think beyond the service levels: Our commercials are still structured around SLAs, turnaround times and individual processes. That inhibits everybody from being free of worrying about whether or not a penalty is going to apply. The future is about contracting to end outcomes and saying, “You know what? We don’t care if it’s 24 hours or if it’s 48 hours, this is the outcome we are looking for”. The onus is on both sides, it takes trust and the other party to be willing to not take advantage of that trust too.