Cathy Harris is the author of The Executive Secretary Guide to Creating an Internal Assistant Network and a mentor for the Isipho Admin Bursary

Can we start with a little background information? Where you from and what are is your current role?

My father was a Naval Officer and my mother a Spanish immigrant; together they lived a love story that still reflects in my life today. I was born in a small naval hospital based in Simonstown, just 40 kilometers from the mother city of Cape Town, nestled at the very southern point of Africa.

I am very proudly South African, and can share that my country is steeped in beauty, both natural and man-made, with amazing ocean views to the south, diverse ecosystems, architectural designs like our new award winning 5 star green rated HQ, as well as the most amazing wildlife, which can be seen by visiting one of many safari lodges or our world renowned Kruger National Park, situated in the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces in the north-eastern part of South Africa.

Our people are passionate and warm, and we embrace the opportunity to contribute towards a truly diverse and positive change in our country, as we embrace our new South Africa. We are a rainbow nation boasting 11 official languages, and where most people speak more than one!

I have been with Discovery Group for just over 18 years, first fulfilling the role of Executive Assistant to our then Head of Discovery People, (commonly known as HR), and progressed through to work in our Group CEO’s office, but have for the last 11 years worked with my current executive, Kenny Rabson, CEO of Discovery Invest and Employee Benefits. A wonderful leader, an investment product genius, and a family man.

What is your background?

I live in an African country that was not at war, but where, sadly, I was living in a nation of segregation. Where white and black people did not live nor work together, and if caught could pay the price of imprisonment. It was a time of stark realities. I remember my parents harbouring black folk in our home during the night, to avoid them being arrested for not carrying their pass identification document, a document which only black people had to have. My mother was a member of the then Black Sash, a group of women opposed to apartheid, and my mother, being an immigrant, despised apartheid. As a young child I could never understand why the people in charge wanted us to be separate while my parents encouraged us to treat people of all races equally. It was a conflicting time.

After finishing high school in 1979, I enrolled in nursing college to become a nurse. Truth be told, the only reason for this choice was so that I could get to live in a hostel with my friends, and go out partying with the young guys at the then Rand Afrikaans University, which was just next door! I did manage to complete my first few blocks of nursing college, before being placed in the children’s ward of the hospital, which simply just broke my heart and changed my mind about this career choice.

How did you become an Assistant?

My father owned a very old typewriter, and I used to help him prepare some documents for the navy. I was rather good at reading his handwriting and I could type pretty fast, so after I left nursing I decided to pursue a career as a secretary. I was quickly employed by a medical health company in 1980. By 1983 I was married, had my son Scott in 1985 followed by my daughter Louise in 1987, and was well on my way to creating a career as a secretary, simply because I enjoyed the variety the role provided, and the opportunity to constantly change processes.

It was in these early years of my profession when technology emerged its rapidly sprouting head and the typewriter was being unceremoniously replaced by “real” technology. I clearly remember being excited to receive a personal computer, teaching MultiMate and Lotus to my peers and managers, and then progressing to work on WordPerfect, an upgrade from MultiMate which was a blue screen with white print! Wow!

I recall going for an interview and seeing an electronic typewriter on the secretary’s desk, before entering the managers’ office. I politely informed the manager that I was already using a computerised typing system, and I didn’t want to waste his time if the expectation was to work on an old golf ball typewriter! The interview never happened. I still cannot believe I was so cheeky!

I have been incredibly blessed in this profession of mine, and I must add that I do believe that my success has been largely due to a comment my mother made before I left for my very first work interview, “just remember my girl, don’t try and give smart-ass answers, but rather be the one asking smart-ass questions.” That gave me such confidence, and I do admit I like challenging mediocrity.

What are the main changes you have seen in the time you have been an Assistant?

There are three key changes I personally have experienced. Gaining both speed and velocity is first, technology, where we are constantly evolving and getting better at adapting to change and embracing the new way of doing things quicker, smarter and more efficiently. This is by far the greatest change.

Back in 1980, as an assistant you certainly knew your place and, depending on the relationship you had with your manager, that determined whether or not you could challenge some of their decisions or choices. Change number two, therefore, is leadership. The leadership role of executives has changed vastly. Before it was more about position and power; today leadership is definitely more democratic, and the psychology behind it is to make people feel included. We collaborate better, and everyone has the opportunity to share their opinion. This did not happen in the early 1980s.  Leaders, without even realising it, did not have the support they enjoy today. The philosophy of teamwork is part of the evolution of our current leadership trends. “You are as strong as the weakest link in your team.”

The third key change in our profession has been education; focussing on topics like communication, leadership, time management, EQ, strategic partnerships, self-development, technology enhancements – just to name a few. All of these now lead to globally recognising our profession through accreditations, role descriptions and position titles.  Enter the formidable World Administrative Summit initiatives! Education for secretaries in the past was learning how to type, and to type fast!

We have evolved from typist to rock star assistants in a huge way. We are now that collaborative and democratic team, we are active and valuable contributors; we influence decisions and have become multi-skilled experts. We are resourceful and keep calm under pressure, and we are so much more proactive and confident. Assistants are expert organizers and planners, yet above all of this we are now strategic partners, trusted confidants and learners for life!

Tell us about writing The Executive Secretary Guide to Creating an Internal Assistant Network. How did that come about?

Believe it or not, but I actually started a Secretary’s Circle back in 1987 when I worked for an organisation who distributed Sony, Pioneer and Defy appliances. I arranged monthly get-togethers during lunch times, where I would arrange for the key business people to share the processes in the business that secretaries would benefit from knowing about.

Time passed, and in 2001 I joined Discovery where the idea of a PA Forum was in its infant stages. It did not take me long to share ideas, collaborate on new processes and participate in creating a value added, in-house resource for everyone to access.  We formed a committee of dedicated PAs and shortly afterwards I was nominated Chairperson. Our small little team started to work on some big initiatives.

The PA Forum evolved into the Discovery PA Centre of Excellence. The word spread and before I knew it, I was invited to talk at corporations across South Africa on how to start a PA Forum. Training organisations were asking me to host workshops and it didn’t take me long before I compiled a brief handbook on “How to create a PA forum within your organisation”. I freely shared my handbook with many people and associations.

It was only when I met the incredible and extraordinary Lucy Brazier that the suggestion to publish this resource, and to make it available globally, was realised. I do have to mention that I did not start the forum on my own. It was the combined enthusiasm of people like Susan Engelbrecht, Elaine Alho, Kim Andersen, Michelle Nortje and a few others, that made it possible!

Why are Associations and networks important to the career of an Assistant?

Associations and networks are vital for the longevity of an assistant’s career. Networks and associations are synergistic, bringing many like-minded professionals together. We cannot -and should not – work in isolation.

Associations and networks provide a plethora of resources to broaden an assistant’s skillset. They keep us informed about trends in the workplace specific to our profession, help us build a platform where we can take charge of our careers as assistants, have a say in how we manage our development, and help us to build relationships with other assistants so we can draw on their experiences, skillsets and expertise.

You are a mentor for the Isipho Admin Bursary.  Tell us about that.

Being a mentor is such a privilege and an honour! To be able to positively influence and help shape another human being’s life is a huge responsibility. I recall our very first intake of students: there were four young women, all of them enthusiastic, all of them willing to take up the challenge, but we could only choose two …. When it came time to decide, the team debated how to tell two young women that they would have to go home empty handed.

One text to Lucy and a few seconds later, we were all “snot en trane” (tears and weeping). All four would be covered!  From that moment on, the Isipho Team, consisting of Anel Martin and Teri Wells (Directors) and the mentors (Susan Engelbrecht, myself, Lize Momberg and Michele Thwaits), committed ourselves to making a difference and staying committed to our students.

We are now in our third year of the program, and still making a difference, one life at a time. Our own lives forever changed, not by doing good things alone, but by seeing the impact of the good we do. Isipho Admin would not be possible without the love and support of this fabulous admin network, and the many individuals who have gone above and beyond!

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead 

Nelson Mandela

What advice would you give your mentees when they are just starting out as Assistants?

The world is a scary, competitive and sometimes unforgiving place for any person, but my advice is, and always will be, this: Be true to yourself and your personal values. Never allow the inadequacies of the arrogant or negative to disrupt your journey, nor the lack of compassion from others to destroy your belief in humanity, because if you want a life filled with people over things, you will have it, and have it abundantly. Create relationships that will help you become a great human being, one where you open yourself to learning, and accept the responsibility of failing. It is within the love for others that true wealth lies. Stay positive and focused and always remain authentically you!

What inspires and motivates you?

People inspire me. We all have so much to give of ourselves to others. There is always someone less fortunate than yourself. Then, the motivation comes from understanding that it will not always be easy as there are so many challenges to overcome first.

When you go through your own personal life challenges, and when you have felt that anxiety and pain, you don’t want others to go through it too. To be of servant leadership. To inspire others by loving them just the way they are, and encouraging them to be more than what they believe they are. This is what inspires me!

So, what’s next for Cathy Harris? Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

I definitely want to be more engaged with my profession from a digital perspective, so on-line learning and mentoring is definitely a work already in progress, as well as completing and publishing a few unfinished resource tools for PAs.  Looking forward to reaching and teaching on every continent may sound aspirational, but I know I can do it!

What I am doing in the present moment is what will count for what happens in five years’, so officially I am a work “under construction”. God bless each of you!

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Kathleen Drum’s mission is to bring thought-provoking, timely and inspiring content to administrative professionals worldwide, empowering them to succeed in their roles and excel in their careers. As the Senior Editor at Executive Support Media, she works ... (Read More)

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