We need to take the younger ones by the hand and lead them to the futureSherideen Inge Meyer
I have been singing the song of evolution for this profession for almost 10 years and sometimes it seems like a lifetime. But it also feels like we are in the midst of a breakthrough moment across the world – and across the profession.
Later this week, I will be speaking in Geneva at the International Management Assistants (IMA) Annual Conference. The theme is ‘The Future is Now’ and the Association, which has its roots in Europe, is celebrating 45 years since its founder, the visionary Sonia Vanular held her first meeting in Bale, Switzerland in the autumn of 1973. As a former secretary herself, Sonia had wanted to create an association of top-level secretaries who would be able to prove to the world that being a secretary was a very difficult job, requiring intelligence, knowledge and many of the soft skills which managers often lacked. Sonia turns 99 this year and still attends almost every IMA Training Day and Conference. Although the profession has come such a long way, Sonia still envisions a legacy that sees Assistants integrated into their businesses and not to be seen as ‘just support’.
Last week I was with New Zealand’s Eth Lloyd, Chair of the World Administrators Summit, in Spain. Eth holds a Master’s in Education where her research topic focused on Administrative Professionals and their professional development opportunities and career pathways. This was one of the only pieces of academic research into our sector. The most revealing part of her conclusion was that what holds Administrative Professionals back more than anything else is their lack of belief in themselves. Her commitment to driving the profession forward and creating a clear career path across the globe is what she sees as her legacy.
In New Orleans, just over two weeks ago, I joined Eth Lloyd, Dr Veronica Cochran (CEO of the IAPP), Melba Duncan (author of the iconic HBR article ‘The Case for Executive Assistants’ & Megan Hall (Director of APC) on stage at the Administrative Professionals Conference (APC). APC had a record-breaking 2600 Assistants attend this year and it was the first time that I can remember that the two US associations have worked together in this way. There is also absolutely no doubt that businesses are waking up to the need for Assistant training. Our session was about World Administrator’s Summit, the world work and what we are trying to achieve in terms of creating a skills matrix and corresponding levels for career progression for Assistants across the globe. By the time we get to Wellington for World Administrator’s Summit next year, we should be able to get sign off on the plan so it can be taken back to each participant’s country.
In theory, such a positive step forward for the profession and yet just three weeks ago, in the UK, KPMG announced that it was cutting 200 of its 600 Assistants. The headlines focused on KPMG cost-cutting and a statement that KPMG felt it more cost-effective for Executives to do their own expenses. The headlines show clearly that a gross misunderstanding of the role persists. It is perpetuated by a mainstream press interested in provocative headlines. The truth is that, like many others, the company is restructuring its administrative department. Yes, they will be losing around a third of their administrative staff, but after voluntary redundancies, these will be mainly at the lower level. Those that remain will benefit from training, investment and upskilling. It’s symptomatic of the themes I wrote about a couple of months ago in my editor’s letter. Whilst my heart goes out to those affected, I know better than most how the process can create opportunities both for those that go and for those that stay.
Meanwhile, also in the UK, there are two sets of awards taking place this week that I am speaking at: the Yorkshire PA of the Year Awards and the Deloitte EA of the Year Awards. Both are exceptional events. The thing I love most about these particular awards is that they are not just a nod to their staff. They have substance. They celebrate actual achievements. The winning Assistants’ Executives and colleagues have provided support materials that shout about the power of the Assistant role when it is used properly.
Judging and speaking at these two award ceremonies is always a highlight. They clearly show the phenomenal work being done by Assistants when they are allowed to take the role and run with it. Winners’ skills included leadership, communication, emotional intelligence, project management and complex problem-solving. Words and phrases used to describe the winners were ‘transformational’, ‘nothing short of heroic’, ‘actively seeks out solutions and shows an enormous sense of initiative’, ‘proactive’, and ‘results-orientated’. In 2015, I wrote in an open letter to the world’s CEOs that if Assistants were allowed to do what they are meant to do then you could change the economy of the business world. I stand by that.
As I write, I am sitting on a plane at 37,995ft on my way to Dubai from South Africa. Training in South Africa always reminds me more vividly than almost anywhere else why I do what I do. There is such heart quality and passion for the role there and yet it is still so undervalued. My delegates’ frustration was palpable. But, in both Cape Town and Johannesburg, as the two days of training progressed there was an energy that grew. We could feel it. My delegates saw the vision of what was possible and where the profession is headed.
I had the pleasure of sharing a car journey with Sherideen Inge Meyer, organiser of my Cape Town Modern Day Assistant event. It was the first time that we had met. On the way back to the airport we talked extensively about her background, her battle to gain the education needed to finally realise her dream of becoming an Assistant, and about our Isipho Admin Bursary, which takes young people from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds in South Africa and trains them to be Assistants. The clarity of her vision and passion for the future for the profession brought me close to tears.
We need to build on the whirlwind of energy and momentum that is being created in each region of the world and work together to ensure that the legacies of the women whose shoulders we stand upon are realised. We have a responsibility to them and to future generations of Assistants to get this right and to change the world of work for the half a billion people that work in the administrative profession across the world.
Sherideen’s parting words: We need to take the younger ones by the hand and lead them to the future.
I couldn’t agree more.