Sara Ferro makes the case for why practical philosophy can be useful to the role of the Assistant

It was January 2019, the time of the year to open a new diary.

The desire to grow professionally and to challenge myself was strong. I gathered my ideas, my expertise and my knowledge and I tried to answer this question: “What does an Assistant need to be projected into the future?” My journey started here.

I decided to enroll at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice to get a master’s degree in Philosophical Consulting. I have spent two hard years on virtual lessons on weekends, doing internships, reading books and above all I have asked many questions and I have had many answers.

How Does Philosophy and Its Practices Fit with the Role of an Executive Assistant?

The first step is to put aside the idea of an academic philosophy path where we are taught the notions and thoughts of others, and to adopt a different approach where our thoughts and our meaning of life are pivotal.

The practice of philosophy is among the most ancient in the world: it dates to the time of Socrates, who questioned his fellow citizens on various life issues, trying to make sense of them. So, why couldn’t we bring this same approach to a company? Training the critical sensibility of people is a constructive exercise within any organization and it can help people take a proactive approach to their improvement. This step is fundamental for innovation (from the Latin in nova agere, “to put new ideas in action”).

In a technology-pervaded world, there is an increasing need for agile people characterized by an “out of the box” approach who are consequently able to impact our company’s DNA. The purpose of philosophy in this case is to change the perspective from which we observe the dynamics of the company.

Everything starts from the questions we ask ourselves; it is through the art of questioning those ideas become clearer, so we better enable ourselves to act and react quickly in the V.U.C.A. (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

Uncertainty generates fear and therefore immobility, but at the same time people who do not change are already “dead”.

What Does It Mean to Work with a Philosophical Approach within an Organization?

In short, it means:

  • to ask questions when everything seems to be clear
  • to clarify and define when everything seems to be obvious
  • to move from communication to dialogue
  • to be creative in a standardized environment

The fluid society in which we live is transforming our lives and undermining our certainty. For these reasons, it is necessary to change:

  • questions to figures
  • dialogue to speech
  • the invisible to the visible
  • faith to certainty

Only acting this way, in today’s world, can we create tomorrow.

Philosophical skills are closely related to soft skills; philosophical practice increases our ability to listen, to negotiate, to discuss and to problem-solve (there are no insurmountable problems but only opportunities to be seized, because nothing has an end).

Why shouldn’t we aspire to become like Aristotle for Alexander the Great, Seneca for Nero or Machiavelli for Lorenzo the Magnificent?

Philosophy helps us to dream and to understand that everybody needs to dream, to give meaning to our life, to master our profession and always try to do the best we can to build and achieve our dream, day by day.

Putting Knowledge into Practice

To put my new knowledge into practice, I directly involved my fellow Assistants within the Secretary.it community. In March 2021, we planned a cycle of philosophical workshops during which we investigated the meaning of the word “change”. As part of this, we launched fundraising for a scholarship to be given to an Assistant facing a difficult situation and who needed to reset and upskill. Our focus was clear: as a community, we have a strong ethical sense, and we have always been careful of our social role (to be stronger together).

This first cycle of philosophical workshops ended in May. Thirteen Executive Assistants from all over Italy experimented with philosophical practices, worked with their thinking and discovered that philosophy is not boring!

Conversely, they experienced effective training and mental stretching focused on the awareness of our brain power and thoughts and driven by unsettling questions, different points of view, ambivalence and many debates, across five Saturday mornings. Everyone got involved and at the end were amazed by how their talent emerged through spontaneous conversation.

What Did We Practice During Our Workshops?

We developed our lateral thinking skills to produce original and innovative solutions. We analyzed common concepts and words from different perspectives. At the beginning there were some doubts about the effectiveness of this approach, but it was immediately clear that the doubts originated from the lack of habit of analyzing our thoughts, since we are often distracted by our daily routine.

The most debated issue was certainly change, the “red thread” of the philosophical path. By analyzing this concept, the workshop participants acquired the awareness of implicit preconceptions. We concluded that there can be a thousand truths and no truth at the same time, and that it is only necessary to learn to manage this relativity in a constructive way, through safe questions that progressively lead to the sought-after answer.

To describe one’s own thoughts or emotions, it is essential to start from personal and real experiences. Proposing examples of life experiences was helpful to investigate different concepts. By discussing situations that occurred during working hours, we understood how the philosophical approach could be an important ally in the professional life of an Assistant. Stepping out of our comfort zones gave us a wider perspective. The magical consequence of this was to always find a solution.

Conclusion

Asking the right question at the right time is one of an Assistant’s best abilities and part of our daily routine. One of the greatest lessons we learned was that a philosophical approach does not give answers but helps us ask the right questions, face issues in the best possible way and find the most effective solution. This is truly the role of the Assistant, each and every day.

At the end of this path, many attendants judged this approach as something truly innovative; in fact, any innovation first starts from the flexibility of our thoughts. Philosophy, with its continuous questioning, its reflections and the use of dialogue, trains us to better manage ourselves and move from complexity to transparency.

Another important lesson learnt was the importance of collaborating as a group. Such an approach helped us to use active listening, and to find new perspectives that we often underestimated; we became conscious of our areas for improvement.

And above all, we learned that philosophy is not boring, and we can’t wait to bring it into our companies, in a creative and innovative way.

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Sara Ferro is EA to the CEO at Onexecutive (Italy) who loves being among people as much as she loves solitude. Ideas, stimuli and having her "head in the clouds" co-exist with her work, where organization is key. Due to her curiosity and proactivity, she ... (Read More)

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