Florence Katono is the Pitman PA of the Year 2015 & Publicity Secretary of the Bank of Uganda Administrative Assistants Association (BUAA)
Can we start with a little background information? Where are you from and what are your current roles?
I am Florence Katono, a Senior Administrative Assistant with Bank of Uganda. I am also the Publicity Secretary of the Bank of Uganda Administrative Assistants Association (BUAA) and the Strategy Champion for Administrative Assistants category in the Bank. I am the founder of Proudly Admin Uganda, an online PA network. I am a mother of two adorable girls, Gabriella Kebirungi and Kolaiah Kemirembe.
I took after my last name Katono (meaning the small one) from my father who also took after his own. I am a member of the Ngonge (otter) clan of the Ganda tribe. My Father is Mr Katono Moses and Mother Mrs Elizabeth Katono. I am first among five; Happy, Polly, Hannington and Noela. We were raised on a family estate in Namumira, Mukono district (about 21km from Uganda’s capital, Kampala). As children we had a lot of fun growing up. We decorated our eyelashes with pink flowers, smeared our faces with brown soil and eyebrows with shiny stones. Oh boy, we were the most beautiful village belles Mukono had ever seen! In the evenings, we watched the train descend to the capital. We did not have electricity at the time so our only source of night entertainment was a black and white television powered by battery. One fateful day, that battery was stolen as Dad took it for charging. That was the last we watched “Mind Your Language”, a series that aired on the only state-owned station known as Uganda Television. From then on, Dad and Mum read books to us by a kerosene lamp until it burned out.
Dad worked in Kampala while mum owned a retail shop in Mukono town. One day, her neighbor’s shop caught fire and so did hers. She stayed home and took care of us. That left the family to depend on Dad’s income. He later joined Kayunga Town Council in 1996 and continues to serve as a Senior Internal Auditor. As a public servant, his salary often came several months later. I watched him struggle to put us through school. He split his pay cheque until he had nothing left for himself. Paying half of tuition for one child, a third for another and the balance, if any, took care of the family needs. Fortunately we depended on the farm for food and milk and some of our close relatives gave a hand.
I attended Our Lady Nursery School in Mukono and was often driven there by Uncle Isaac who owned an old maroon Peugeot, registration number UPE 439, since we didn’t own a car then. At six years of age, I joined Seeta Boarding Primary school because my home area didn’t have good primary schools. I cried a lot because of the loneliness and waited by the school gate for my parents. In P.3 Dad lost his Kampala job and conditions toughened. We were moved to a cheaper all-girl catholic boarding school, St. Agnes Girls’ Primary School, Naggalama. It’s there that I learned many practical skills; gardening, peeling, writing and reading the Bible. Sister Mary George (RIP) beat our knuckles if we wrote slanting letters.
That school was much further from home and the loneliness was overbearing. At 5.30am as we went for the cold morning prep, I waved to the gate and cried out to Dad to take me home. Visits only came once a term; it was a joy seeing our parents. We were not allowed packaged food or drinks so we depended on the school farm for food. On weekends we were taken to dig after which we were given a cup of white porridge and a ban. Since we lacked piped water, we rose early as early as 5:00 am to pump water from a borehole located near the convent. However, upper primary was fun as we played dodge ball, seven stone, and hide and seek after classes.
Towards Primary Leaving Examinations, I developed chickenpox and was taken home for treatment. Mum cried when she saw me. Chickenpox is the worst that can happen to a child that age; I scratched the skin until it developed blisters. We visited a doctor who advised that I shouldn’t sit for exams because the pox caused a fever. After two days, mother went against the doctor’s advice and took me back to school. I walked with difficulty as the pain from the injections was unbearable. In the evening the school nurse smeared me with calamine lotion and kept me in the school dispensary to avoid spreading the pox to others. Fortunately I managed to sit the exams, and returned home immediately. The results were released a couple of months later, I scored aggregate 7 (the best being 4). That earned me a placement at my first choice school, Nabisunsa Girl’s School located a few kilometers from Kampala. There were only two of us from my St. Agnes and getting by was a challenge at first. However, as time went on we blended in really well. I was elected Pink East Dormitory Prefect in S.3 and Routine Prefect in S.5.
What is your Background?
I am a career Administrative Assistant. I pursued a Bachelors Degree of Secretarial Studies and graduated with a first class honours. I then pursued a Master’s Degree (Human Resource Management) both at Makerere University Kampala. I am certified in Prince2 Project Management.
I have pursued also short courses in events management, public speaking, creative writing and child nutrition.
How did you become an Assistant?
At 15 years of age in Nabisunsa Girls’ School, I sat an admission interview with about 50 others. Our teacher Ms Nabwire admitted 12 students because only 12 of the 50 typewriters were functional.
During the first months of typewriting, I pressed hard on the keys “asdf;lkj”. Ms Nabwire, was very tough. She threatened to box the ears of anyone who broke a machine. She marked our scripts with a red pen, circling all errors and typos. She always told us to assume assignments were newspapers. Nobody wanted to read newspapers with errors. To this day, I see those red circles in my scripts, they put me in check. I fell in love with the typewriter on learning touch typing and wrote many letters. I recall the one I wrote to my friend Jamila expressing my sincere apology for losing her belt. I wrote several others to my parents and even tried drawing a castle using the backward slash key of the typewriter.
My enrolment in the typewriting class encouraged me to become a secretary. At the university, I was offered a government scholarship to pursue a Bachelors of Secretarial Studies. Dad was against it at first, he wanted me to become a lawyer while mum a journalist. In effect, he bought me a change of course form. I hid it in my suitcase and when he asked about it later I smiled – we both knew what that meant. He then bought me a Brother typewriter (I have kept it to date).
My secretarial journey began; I studied shorthand, psychology and public relations with so much enthusiasm. Most of our computer classes were theoretical as the faculty did not have enough computers for us all. The same applied to typewriting classes. I remember we sat the typewriting exam in an all-day shift. The text books in the faculty library were also not enough. We were allowed to borrow a book for only a week so that others could also access it. The worst was when you got a book only to discover that some selfish student had plucked out the pages you needed for the course work. Fellow students looked down on our course and referred to it as the “Bachelor of punching and stapling”. That hurt, but we kept focused.
At the end of the second year, I was offered an internship placement at a government utility, National Water and Sewerage Corporation. It was a great learning experience for me. My immediate supervisor, a Senior Secretary, Ms Jessica Namukwana taught me that a secretary was a problem solver. In her words “don’t come to me with only a problem – identify a problem and possible solutions and let’s discuss.” After the internship, I was retained as a Trainee Secretary with an allowance of UGX 200,000/= (equivalent to $60). I changed to the evening classes to complete my course. Work-school balance was challenging. Trying to find my way to the university during the evening traffic was a nightmare. Many times I jumped onto a boda boda (motorbike taxi).
During my studies, Dad made a promise to give me a car (by then he had two saloon cars) if I graduated with a first class honours. I did and he kept his promise making me a manual car owner at 22 years of age.
After graduation, like many Ugandan graduates, I applied to many institutions. Some called me back but others didn’t bother. After a series of interviews, I landed a job as a Personal Secretary at the Bank of Uganda on March 1 2009. I have since grown to the position of Senior Administrative Assistant.
You are best known as Pitman’s new PA of the Year. How did this come about and how has it changed your working life?
During 2014, I took part in the IYOTSA 2014, a campaign that was aimed at elevating recognition and appreciation of the administrative role. It was then that I learned about the Pitman PA Award and decided to join the competition. A few months later, I was contacted by Ms Kathryn Bingley who informed me that I was shortlisted among four semi-finalists. I remember telling her that I was glad to have made it that far. Being shortlisted was an achievement in itself. The names were then forwarded to the judges for a final decision and, according to Judge Hillary Devey, I came top of a very strong group of professional candidates from all over the world. Pitman group recognizes exemplary leadership, commitment and passion for the profession, and the effort to grow others. I am thankful to them for setting up an international platform of recognition. When I received the news, I Immediately shared it with my Head of Department, Mrs Agnes Kijjambu who in turn informed all the staff at the Bank. Celebrations and congratulatory messages followed. I recall that my inbox overflowed like the River Nile.
The award is one of my greatest achievements and has been a great turning point in my life. Wole Soyinka an African Nobel Laureate Award winner said “One’s own self-worth is tied to the worth of the community to which they belong which is intimately connected to humanity in general.” I feel that the award is an achievement of Africa as a community.
Pitman Training Group offered me an events management course from which I have gained expertise on the dos and donts of managing events. They also offered me a cash prize of £500 which I have used to start my PA network and conduct inspirational talks to Assistants in Uganda.
The Director of Human Resources, Bank of Uganda, Dr Jan Tibamwenda, sent me a congratulatory letter that read “….on behalf of the Bank, I wish to extend our sincere congratulations to you for this landmark achievement. I am inclined to hold as true that as long as our memories serve us right, we will not cease to bask in the glory you have bestowed on us. It is my sincere belief that you will use this unprecedented achievement as a springboard to spur your professionalism for the good of the Bank and our country Uganda…” That to me is a life-time achievement.
Following the award, I was ask by NTV Uganda to talk about the changing role of a PA. It was a great honor, that being my first TV appearance. I remember asking my interviewer, Brian which camera I should focus on. He laughed out loud. I guess to him it was very obvious. From the feedback I received, the talk impacted many Assistants locally and internationally. Gina, a friend in the USA was contemplating enrolling for a PA course. After watching the clip she signed up for the classes.
I have also been privileged to mentor other PAs. I often receive emails from Assistants requesting meet ups. I take those very passionately. Sometimes I speak to Senior Assistants but mostly to junior ones looking to grow. I see young souls who have a deep passion to grow. I feel happy speaking to them and giving them courage and assurance.
As Pitman’s winner for 2015, you came to London and to Executive Secretary LIVE in order to accept your prize. Tell us a bit about the trip and how you feel it has impacted on your role.
I was invited by Pitman Training Group to receive my prize at the Executive Secretary LIVE event in London. It was my first time visiting London. I touched down at Heathrow airport at about 7am. Clad in a black jacket, I rolled my suitcases towards the exit of the busy airport where I was welcomed by a rude cold breeze. For a moment I thought of going back inside but I quickly jumped into a black cab and off we sped. My Auntie Christine who had travelled to London before told amazing stories of winter and snow, and that’s what I visualized. I also expected to see skyscrapers but was surprised to find that London is a golden olden historical city. I visited some of the historical sites; Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace all of which I studied in European history at A Level. At Buckingham Palace, I waited to see Queen Elizabeth in vain; however I was happy to see the royal guards and Princess Diana’s memorial walk emblem. I also made a courtesy visit to the Ugandan Embassy located at Trafalgar Square. They were happy to receive me. I was very glad to connect with long lost friends.
At Executive Secretary LIVE, I was privileged to be handed the Award by Ms Laura Schwartz and Ms Lucy Brazier. That glorious moment remains alive in my heart. Standing before all these great people and receiving my award. It is a beautiful moment that I will live to remember. When my grandmother is happy with me she calls me “Flozensi” – I truly and proudly felt like Flozensi that day.
At Executive Secretary LIVE, I met many amazing Assistants most of whom I am in touch with. I strongly admired their zeal to grow and the urge to assist others. I took away many lessons from the great speakers on project management, mentoring, PA brand, social media for PAs, being present in life and was happy to learn about the trends and technology in the profession. Upon my return, I shared this knowledge with colleagues in Uganda. I do apply those skills in my work here at the Bank.
What are the main changes you have seen in the time you have been an Assistant?
At the time I joined we were referred to as Personal Secretaries; however the nomenclature has since changed to Administrative/Executive Assistant. The roles too have changed to administrative. Assistants are now more in charge than ever before.
I have also noticed a dynamic change in technology which has brought excitement to the administrative role. The noisy manual typewriters have been replaced by modern smooth touch computer and tablets. While many thought that technology would be a threat to our role, I feel that it has instead enhanced the way we do business. Gone are the days of manual scheduling; MS Outlook enables Assistants to manage schedules of multiple executives. Speaking of multiple executives, Assistants now support teams as opposed to individuals, a term known as time sharing.
Technology has also bred virtual Assistants who support clients in cyber space. That new development means more jobs for Assistants. In Uganda, the unemployment rate is very high. The development of virtual Assistant services is a great opportunity for many Ugandan Assistants.
At the time I joined the profession very few Assistants pursued higher education. However, times have changed and many Assistants have acquired Bachelors and Masters degrees. At Executive Secretary LIVE, Ms Ann Hiatt shared that she was pursuing a PHD. I love the fact that Assistants are career minded and empowering themselves to grow.
What inspires and motivates you?
I believe in God the Almighty and have faith in the Biblical Godly principles. God has seen me through it all and continues to guide me all through life and work. I seek him always.
When I was growing up, I asked my mum very many questions. Some she answered and others she didn’t. She referred to my inquisitive nature as an insect in my head. I am glad that insect has grown; it keeps tickling my head to learn more. I search the internet for knowledge. If the internet were a bed, mine would be very untidy. It’s that same insect that encouraged me to take part in a Pitman PA Award competition and also to take part in a job interview with 700 other applicants.
My father who is also my first role model told me a story about the war in Afghanistan. People lost their lives, buildings which were built over the years were brought down in seconds, crops and cows died just like their masters, and businesses came to a halt. However, the last men standing and the richest in his opinion were the learned. Their education was the biggest asset they had to face the world again. That story holds a lot of meaning for me. It’s the reason I seek knowledge in all disciplines I can get my hands on.
I have identified mentors and leaders in the PA profession who I look up to. “We grow by exposing ourselves to the works of others. By having a mental intercourse with great minds, our minds are stimulated out of our comfort zones.” Okot P’Bitek George.
As a parent, my two daughters are my inspiration. I hung their photo in my office. Gabriella loves writing, she writes me letters letting me how much she loves me. Kolaiah loves to dance, I am happy when I am with them. I love them very much.
Reading. I strongly believe we cannot appreciate who we are if we do not appreciate our history. Therefore I draw a lot of inspiration from great African writers; Okot P’Bitek, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Marcus Garvey, Wole Soyinka, Prof PLO Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and so many more. Marcus Garvey said “The greatest men and women in the world burn the midnight lamp. That is to say when their neighbors and household are gone to bed, they are reading, studying and thinking. When they rise in the morning, they are always ahead of their neighbors and households in the things that they studied, read and thought. A daily repetition of that will carry them daily ahead and above their neighbors and households.” I strongly believe in that.
Sometime back, I experienced a very challenging time. I sought companionship in a book – The Innovative Admin by Julie Perrine. I saw life spring back in me like a tree sprouting from a dead stump. I stretched my rubber band like Julie advised and allowed my creativity juices to flow. I highly recommend all Assistants to read that book as well as Be the Ultimate Assistant by Bonnie Low-Kramen.
Passion – I love to dance like nobody is watching and my friends say that I was born for the dance floor. That’s the same passion I have for my chosen profession. My face lights up when I talk to others about it. That passion drives me to do many voluntary roles to assist others to grow. Many times I stay up till late writing articles that I believe will better others. My brother Hannington often asks me how much I am being paid for them. When I say it’s free he nods his head in amusement. When you do things with passion, others will think you are high on drugs and yet you are high on passion.
My grandfather James Ssemwanga Katono (RIP), a teacher by profession, died at the age of 40. He left an estate which we enjoy as grandchildren. Like Jajja James, I dream of building an empire for my grandchildren’s children and that keeps me going.
You have really exciting plans for Uganda and the Assistants across Africa. Tell us about them?
Let me start with Uganda my motherland. I have established an online PA network, Proudly Admin Uganda. I intend to connect Ugandan Assistants to the rest of the world as well as inspire them to become better and grow.
I have started groundworks on a PA magazine to connect Assistants in the region; Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. For the first year, I intend to reach out to Assistants in Uganda then roll out to other countries with time. The biggest challenge for Assistants is the lack of recognition and appreciation for their role. As such, many Assistants are kept out of training programmes. I hope the magazine will be used as a platform to share knowledge and experiences.
Strategic Partnerships – No man is an island; we need to benchmark with others. In light of the same, I intend to establish strategic partnerships as a means of exchanging knowledge and ideas. I have already connected with Executive Secretary Magazine, Pitman Training and Be the Ultimate Assistant. Bonnie Low-Kramen extended a free version of her book to Assistants in Africa. IAAP has also extended scholarships to attend the PA Summit in Kentucky, USA.
In an effort to spread the good word, I have started free inspirational talks to University students pursuing secretarial and administrative studies. I am scheduled to speak at Makerere University Business School, Uganda Christian University, Kyambogo University, Busitema University and Gulu University, all here in Uganda.
Ugandan PA Awards – I intend to put up a platform to recognize PA of the year here in Uganda. I hope that will elevate the profile of the PA profession in Uganda.
As a way of assisting upcoming Assistants I intend to write a book on administrative procedures and practice.
What advice would you give someone just starting out as an Assistant?
Having grown up on the farm, my sisters and I loved one of the calves very much. When we returned from school, we headed straight to the farm to check on it. We fed it with milk in a baby bottle. Later that calf grew into a cow and produced milk for us. To my dear novice Assistants, treat this profession like the calf in the story; nurture it, and invest in it, it will pay handsomely!
Identify mentors. Look out for people who have made it in this career. The truth is there are some Assistants who are very negative and will make you regret choosing this profession. However, please walk away from them and instead find mentors who will help you grow. Wole Soyinka said “I believe that the best learning process of any kind of craft is to look at the work of others.” Take that very seriously!
Take interest in the business – This requires Assistants to go beyond the administrative role and take its business interests to heart. The Vision and Mission, Strategic objectives and initiatives – everything. I once supported an executive in the Communications Department of the Central Bank. She was in charge of public relations. When I heard radio talks where issues were being raised about the Bank, I called her immediately to listen in because I knew about her interest in that area. She appreciated that I took an interest in her business.
Join Associations as these bring together like-minded people. I strongly encourage new Assistants to join professional associations both locally and internationally as well as admin groups on Facebook and LinkedIn; NASAP, Executive Secretary, IAAP, PAFSA, African Admin All Stars, All Things Admin, Office Dynamics and so many more.
Lastly I say to them, the problem is that we love to romanticize our professions. We seem to be in monogamy of disciplines. Lawyers are in monogamy with the law, economists with forecasting, accountants with numbers, and administrative Assistants with administrative roles yet the top where we all aspire to be requires polygamy of disciplines.
So what’s next for Florence Katono? Where do you want to be in 5 years’ time?
I have fallen deeply in love with writing. I aspire to write many books and articles. Writing is a sure way of sharing our lives with others and future generations. I hope to see Proudly Admin Uganda grow into the most inspirational and influential PA network of all times.
From my observation, many Assistants in Africa are very talented. However, many lack the confidence to bring forth to the world their talents. In the next five years, I intend to conduct motivational speeches to inspire them to become Africa’s glory that our forefathers dreamed of.
During the next 5 years, I want to start a career in project management. I hope to bring positive change through managing projects.
I aspire to pursue a PHD in Management.