I was flattered and honoured when my comrade in EA-arms nominated me to be interviewed for a Russian magazine Administrative Assistant. I was to share my foreign experiences with the community of executive assistants, personal assistants, administrative assistants, office managers and clerks in Russia.
I believe that the opportunity to share experiences is significant for personal and professional growth. I have always looked for tutors and mentors throughout my career, knowing that learning from them can benefit me immensely. Sharing my knowledge and experience with fellow colleagues is an excellent opportunity to pay tribute to some of those who helped me become who I am today.
This episode of The Life and Wonderful Adventures of an EA features the adapted translation of my interview with the Administrative Assistant, published in July. The original version can be seen here.
The essential qualities of the Executive Assistant are the ability to keep calm in any situation as well as the ability to be fully prepared for whatever might come your way.
What do you think of the profession of an assistant? How did you become one?
The word “assistant” suggests a junior specialist. The EA is the right hand of the Executive, a person with the right to make decisions concerning the professional and private everyday life of the Executive. I prefer using EA when referring to the job I do.
Niccolo Machiavelli is deemed to have said: “The retinue plays the king”. This quote explains how I see who the Executive Assistants are. There is still not enough understanding in the business world of how vital an EA can be to a company and an Executive.
A qualified EA takes care of private and professional agenda, business trips and vacations. She schedules and sets up the meetings, makes sure tasks are completed on time, prepares reports, does research. On top of that, she finds solutions for any situation. She frees up the Executive’s time by taking care of problems and questions that occur, be it administrative issues or others. EA keeps track of everything and reminds timely, makes sure the deadlines are met and takes care of some questions on behalf of her Executive.
Basically, the EA makes the work of an Executive as comfortable and efficient as possible. However, this is not yet it. EA also remembers ice-cream flavour preferences of family members and makes sure his personal car gets a timely appointment for the change of season tires.
I had no master plan “to become an Executive Assistant”. I don’t have any specific education that made me one. At some point in my life it turned out that I am great at organising myself and others, I respect certain hierarchies but don’t idolise the management. I can understand practically anything if I make it my goal, I can think critically and never lose my head in any situation. This can-do attitude, combined with the high quality of service, has made me a person to whom others came for advice or assistance. More often than not, I found myself assisting middle and higher-level management with the tasks far outside of my main job description.
How did you end up in Switzerland?
I have been working as the head of the administrative office at the bank for some years. I felt that I’ve reached my limit here. I thought that international experience would be a reasonable next step.
Since German was my major at the university, Germany was my first choice. Unfortunately, it was not as welcoming for admin professionals as I would have wished. However, my headhunter offered me the position of an Executive and Personal Assistant in Switzerland. I went to meet the potential employer in February – and I have moved in April.
I have to admit, Switzerland was a surprise for me. What I knew about the country before I moved was limited to Swiss chocolate, Swiss cheese and the fact that there are many banks in Switzerland. Aside from basic geographic knowledge, of course.
How is the EA job in Switzerland different from your previous experience?
Switzerland is a highly regulated country. Different to the former USSR region, the duties of phone operator, receptionist, office manager, secretary, administrative assistant, executive assistant and personal assistant here are rarely done by a single person.
An EA would, of course, take Executive calls in her absence as well as deal with some issues outside of the regular office hours, if absolutely necessary; however, the latter is an exception and not a rule. One could hardly expect a Swiss receptionist to arrange corporate events and attend to the office on the weekend (unless working in shifts).
However, the most noticeable difference is in the perception of the profession in general.
First, any of the positions above are proper full-time jobs. Back in Latvia, I remember seeing quite a flow of just graduated ladies applying for the position of a receptionist or a secretary just to jump-start their careers. After a year or so, they wanted a promotion. Nobody had aspirations to be a receptionist.
There are still people in Switzerland who are educated phone operators – and they are hired as such. If you are a receptionist or administrator here, you most probably have a diploma that entitles you to work as such. However, it is absolutely not necessary that you want to grow into a team leader or head of a department. You might enjoy being a receptionist and want to be a receptionist your whole life.
When I was desperately looking for a job, my application for a position of an evening receptionist was rejected. My experience as head of the administrative office, that included managing a team of receptionists, was not seen by the potential employer as an advantage.
On the contrary, most Swiss employers would think that a person cannot be happy doing a job below his qualifications. And an unhappy employee cannot be efficient.
Secondly, the employee in Switzerland is legally more secure than in some other countries, including my native country. People here don’t have a fear of losing their jobs in a second. You don’t feel obliged to work overtime or take additional tasks that are out of the scope of your job description. If you agree to other duties, you are quite sure there will also be an extra remuneration.
I had witnessed this myself when my employer started to delay salary payments without dismissing me. I had to comply with specific legal steps – send reminders to my boss, keep working for a particular time to ensure I am not refusing the service. I was without a salary and was not able to apply for unemployment benefits. It was not a pleasant situation.
The unemployment office helped me a lot. They explained to me the proper procedure to deal with my situation and the specifics of job hunt in Switzerland.
The clerk at the unemployment office kindly explained to me what the application package should be like. Including your diplomas and certificates into the application package is not something you are required to do in Latvia. References from the former employer are voluntary, which is hard to explain to Swiss employers. In Switzerland, the employer is legally obliged to provide a reference certificate once the employment relationship has been terminated. The clerk was also kind enough to look at my resume and suggest how to adjust it to the preferences of the local headhunters and HR specialists.
I was advised how to proceed in case I run out of the means to pay for my flat and food. I was impressed that the social office will not let you starve, you will receive financial support. You will be required to return the funds given to you once you start earning again, though. For those who move into Switzerland, it is also good to keep in mind that receiving social support might negatively influence the renewal of your permit, once due.
All the consultations I got from the unemployment office were free of charge.
The mediation court has accepted and processed my claim without any costs for me. It turned out that no mediation was possible, and I had to take my case further to the administrative court. I found a lawyer. He was outraged by what happened to me to such an extent that he invoiced me at a discounted rate only after the court decision was made. I won the court. This story is hardly imaginable back in Latvia.
What are the working conditions in Switzerland: working schedule, vacation, salary?
As I’ve said before, Switzerland is a very regulated and structured country. According to the Employment law, office employees are not allowed to work more than 45 hours, overtime is either compensated or paid. Individual schedules are set in employment agreements, I, for example, work 42,5 hours weekly. Weekends are for rest, I seldom work on weekends. Minimal vacation possible is 4 weeks, I have 5.
There are no minimum wages in Switzerland. Some cantons have set such limits; however, these only apply within those cantons. One of the reasons, in my opinion, is a large quantity of small and middle-size businesses in Switzerland, some of them family-owned. Many of these might not be able to pay specific minimum wages, so they would be left without employees. And some people would be left without jobs.
What is the essential quality for an EA? What is the role of an EA in the company?
The essential qualities of the Executive Assistant are the ability to keep calm in any situation as well as the ability to be fully prepared for whatever might come your way. During the 2 months of COVID-19 lockdown, my colleagues called me a lot. They kept asking me how I manage to keep the panic out of my day. During all the years I have been an EA, I have learned to stay calm in any situation, so the lockdown was not much of a stress for me professionally. And with a stress-free mind, decision making is easy.
What apps do you use for planning of trips and agenda for your Executive?
Jelena: I don’t have any personal preferences. All I care about is that my working space is organised most simply and effectively.
It’s been years since I’ve adopted the habit of noting everything down. Recently one of my colleagues gave me a present – a book by David Allen Getting things done. It was in this book that I’ve read that by noting information down we free our mind to process other information. The fact is that our brain is always thinking over the issues, using up resources that could be used elsewhere. The primary condition for the system to work is to have a single and secure storage space for the notes. This shows the mind that the task has been noted and will not be forgotten.
At my current working place, I use MS Outlook, mostly it’s tasks and calendar. I am categorising tasks according to priorities. Tasks in the category Executive – Working on will always be more critical than Various. I track deadlines, status and always minute everything that was done. I actively use reminders, they make it much easier to be on time. In my private life, I actively use Google calendar, reminders, goals and notes.
When planning leisure travels, I either contact the travel agency or plan the trip myself. At the very beginning of my career, I used to work in the travel industry, so I have some experience with this.
How do you keep yourself organised to manage more?
As I’ve just mentioned, everything that happens in my professional or private space is planned, structured and categorised. I believe in planning. My personal productivity system has been working for me for years. I can keep track of my short and long term goals, and achieve what I have planned, both personally and professionally. It has long since become my second nature.
From time to time I relax – go on vacation with no program, rely on a friend to arrange the weekend trip or simply have a no-plan weekend for myself. But in general, any of my friends will confirm that I always have a plan for any occasion.
What do you think is better – to work a long time for one company, or switch jobs regularly?
Back in Latvia, I have changed jobs every 3 years. My most recent position in Switzerland I have held for almost 6 years. Both scenarios have advantages and disadvantages. I had the chance to work in different industries, have learned a lot. Working with a single company for a more extended period has made my experience more thorough and taught me a lot about people.
What is the most complicated task you’ve ever dealt with? How did you do?
The most complicated task I’ve faced was technically complex. I remember it very clearly. I had to take care of customs clearance of freight of rare porcelain, shipped from outside the EU. To make it even more fun, the original shipment documents were not completed correctly. The information I was getting from the carrier and from the customs office was sometimes contrary. It was a lengthy and stressful process, but in the end, it was done.
On the other hand – one of my previous Executives once tasked me with building a pedestrian bridge 🙂
Have you made any grave mistakes? How did you deal with the situation?
Of course, I did. Whenever I make a mistake, I start by admitting it and apologising. Then I figure out what can be done to fix it.
Do you have a lot of personal tasks in your job? Or mostly only professional?
With my current Executive, I don’t have many personal tasks. I am mostly working on professional issues.
What does your job mean to you?
Being an EA keeps me engaged. It provides endless learning opportunities. In the last 5 years, I have studied such areas as trust management, specifics of taxation systems of various countries, automatic exchange of information on financial accounts. I have consequently used the knowledge in my work. I solved optimisation tasks, administered websites, became proficient in various customer relationship management programs. I have improved my writing skills, public speaking skills, skills in creation and description of business processes, event management, creation of archiving systems and staff training. I have learned that it is vital your Executive is ready to share the knowledge. I was lucky to have one that was.
What do you think of possible future development for an EA?
There are quite a few paths possible. One could choose to be an EA for life. But if you want to change – just choose the direction. You can always pay closer attention to the area you feel drawn to and discuss with your Executive. You can get more involved in certain activities. Of course, if you are great EA chances are that your Executive wouldn’t want to let you go. But I believe everything is negotiable. Being so close to the process of company management gives you a chance to try on various roles and see which fits you best. I have been a member of the board of a professional women network, responsible for event management. I’ve upgraded my project management and event management skills – and used them, in turn, for the benefit of my employer.
Your advice to newbies
Being an EA is an intense and exciting job. To be able to do it well, you have to be curious, stress-resistant and critically thinking. You need to be ready and willing to work with vast amounts of information, various people. You have to be willing to help.
What do you do outside of work?
I try to travel as much as possible, I like it very much. I read a lot, am a passionate hobby-photographer, and I blog. I try to learn some new skills regularly. I have learned to like hiking here in Switzerland – I spend many Sundays in the mountains.
How is Switzerland different to other parts of Europe? What makes it unique?
Setup. Switzerland is a federative republic, consisting of 26 cantons. Each canton has its own constitution, limited by the federal constitution. As an example – each canton has its individual number plates, when moving from one canton to another, you would have to change them. Even taxation is on three levels – administrative, cantonal and federal. Any law could be approved or rejected by a popular vote — direct democracy in action.
Innovation. Switzerland is the world’s most innovative country as per the Global Innovation Index 2019. Swiss have invented chocolate the way we know it, velcro, Red Cross, alu foil and absinth and a lot more. One can feel it in the way Swiss organise their lives and in the people themselves.
Switzerland produces over 450 different cheese types. Every canton speaks its own dialect, probably every second Swiss person can shoot, waste classification and recycling are everyday life. You will be informed by a dedicated sticker when entering the escalator that you have to stand on the right and walk on the left side of it. Many houses have bomb shelters, during the Fastnacht – Swiss carnival, people even go to the office dressed up, and the streets of Lucerne are covered with confetti. And if you choose to obtain a driving licence, be prepared to have it on probation after successfully passing theoretical and practical exams.
What I am amazed the most is respect towards human labour and love for their own country. Swiss travel a lot, they know their country and love it. And they respect manual labour. Streets in Switzerland are litter-free not only because the street cleaners are doing a great job, but also because locals will not litter on the streets.
Do you have some questions that you would want to know? Happy to answer in the comments or via PM 🙂