We are all working, and living, through unprecedented times right now as the coronavirus makes its way through every company and every country. We decided to check in with Laura Belgrado, Project Coordinator and EA to the President of KIND International, at MARS Inc. Laura is also a key participator in the Professional Master for Executive Assistants programme and we asked her for some perspectives on how to develop even more solid executive support, during times of volatility and disruption.
Laura, we are all experiencing volatile times right now. From your perspective as an Executive Assistant to a global executive, how have you approached this challenge?
– During the past few weeks, I felt the underlying pressure and tension building up. My Executive is based in New York and I work out of our Brussels office, or my home office. My first step was to ensure that I was always on standby. Shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus was announced in China, I made a list of the different travel plans and events that we had scheduled over the next weeks/months. I took pro-active action by connecting with my Executive and some of our Team members to brief them about the possibility of upcoming cancellations and rescheduling. I wanted everyone to know that if we had to move fast, such plans were in place.
– I normally have regular calls, WhatsApp and email conversations with my Executive. I sensed the pressure and the concern on his end and the business itself, so I adopted a “lay low” approach – as well as reminding myself of the “do not take it personally” mentality as he was focusing on dealing with critical business operations. We did get a last-minute communication a few weeks ago to cancel our attendance at a big event, and we also got hit with a travel ban for all travel that was not business-critical. Again, I had already taken the proactive approach and prepared a full overview so that we had a birdseye view on all upcoming meetings and travel. That made it easier for him to send back his feedback and thoughts.
– My general approach was always to remain calm, and I kept myself informed and subscribed to newsfeeds from the World Health Organization as well as regular updates from within our own organization. I made sure to have trustworthy resources that would provide live updates (rather than going to social media or tabloids or even TV as I felt that such “phenomenon media” would only cause me to maybe lose track or get lost amongst disaster-headlines. I focused on ensuring business continuity and personal safety of my own family, my Executive and his family and our team members and colleagues.
You have previously said that volatile, disruptive times, can be an Executive Assistant’s “time to shine”. What do you mean?
– Yes, that is correct. During the current disruptive time it’s crucial for the EA’s/PA’s to keep calm, always and to ensure to give high-level support to their Executive(s).
– I have had several emails and messages over the past weeks come in from fellow Assistants around the world, worried about the situation but also worried about the fact that most companies are now implementing travel bans and similar restrictions, limiting the need for calendar work. My first feedback is always – breathe. You know your Executive(s), so reach out to him/her/them to pro-actively offer support, as well as help with communications. Use this time to focus on keeping yourself and your Executive(s) energized and motivated to ensure business continuity. I know several Assistants who were previously not allowed to work from home, hence this is an opportunity to prove the benefits of such a set up as well.
– Use your emotional intelligence and your “gut feeling” to make sure to continue communication with your Executive(s) and within your teams. Reach out to colleagues across the globe across different segments to ensure they are OK. Stop saying “sorry” for having to cancel travel or moving meetings. We are all in the same boat right now and we all understand. We need to remain calm and focused. I think most of us, the Assistants, know their Executive(s) well enough to understand their mood, and their energy levels, so now is a time to really step in and tell them – in an assertive way – that you, as their Assistant, are there right next to them to support. And to be a soundboard also, for other team members that might approach you since you know how to communicate concerns to your Executive(s).
In times like these, Executives are put under increased pressure. In the “Professional Master for Executive Assistants” programme, you present a variety of plans, models and examples of utilizing emotional intelligence to being able to offer more, and more strategic support and value. How do I utilize that in this situation?
– That is correct. In the different modules during the programme I speak about Resilience, Assertive Communication, our Role as Assistants within Teams, handling complex and difficult situations. It starts with first making sure you, as in yourself and your family are in a safe place. You cannot take care of your Executive(s) if you are not in a good place yourself. I work from home already most of the time, but I had a talk with my two children when I felt the outbreak was becoming larger than we were prepared for and I knew I would have to be on stand-by at any time, any day. I made the necessary arrangements with my children at home and we came up with our own plan of action. I had a Friday night where all the changes started to happen so we were ready as a team at home – there was food, and my children were safe – so I was able to work fully focused on getting everything cancelled without any panic or having to worry for my loved ones.
– Be aware of what is always going on around you and most importantly – reach out to your network, reach out to other Assistants and ask for advice, guidance, feedback, support and help.
What are your next steps?
– I will always continue to remain calm and BE-prepared. I made sure my Executive was able to travel back earlier to his home country and back together with the Family. That was my number 1 priority. The following week I planned a 1-hour call with my Executive. We can then, with some perspective and new information, have a good catch-up and make sure we are OK. I have prepared the most crucial topics to discuss. As I am writing this, updates are pouring into my inbox and I will be comfortable with the fact that this situation is ever-changing. All you can do is to keep adapting your plans. Continuous change is the new normal.
– I feel responsible to make sure that we get through this disruptive and quite scary and crazy time together. I would urge all fellow Assistants to remain calm and make sure you remain “super-well-informed” about the situation. Get continuous real-time updates from the World Health Organization and confirm that you get any internal updates as soon as they are being communicated (or sooner…). If your company or organization does not have a crisis team implemented already – reach out to all relevant stakeholders to put together such a “go-to” group. Work from home as much as you can – and communicate using whatever technology necessary. Step out of your comfort zone to get things done.
– We have the empathy and the knowledge and experience as Assistants to really give support to our Executive(s), our teams and companies – so this is the time to find your courage, to be prepared and to openly reach out in a proactive and assertive way.
– Keep safe everyone and remember: Together we are stronger we will be “just fine”
You can follow Laura on her LinkedIn, and also make sure to enrol in the Professional Master for Executives programme, containing a variety of video lectures, podcasts, exercises, webinars, and interactive learning opportunities hosted by Laura and other thought-leaders, professors and industry experts.