Interview with Wendy Kiely, Executive Assistant at a Law Firm

Wendy Kiely

ASSISTENTE-DIREZIONE.IT: Hi Wendy, could you tell us something about yourself?

WENDY KIELY: I am British and have been living in the US for the past ten years with permanent resident status. I came here originally as a secondee with my previous company DHL International, and was based in Florida.  In October 2008 I decided to leave DHL and Florida and moved up to the Mid West and to Chicago.

AD: For which company do you currently work?

WK: I work for a medium sized law firm called Boundas, Skarzynski, Walsh & Black which has offices in Chicago, New York, Princeton and London.  They specialize in Insurance and Re-Insurance and we work very closely with Underwriters and the Lloyds of London Insurance Market.

AD: Which tasks/responsibilities does your job include and with which Manager(s) do you work?

WK: My day includes all the traditional assistant tasks of calendar control, domestic and international travel logistics; both private and professional, telephone calls, expense reports, client entertaining and hospitality and daily “fire-fighting”.  Additionally, and because we are a law firm where each tenth of an hour is billed, I ensure the time logs are up to date for two of the attorneys I look after.  My primary assignments are two executive principals of the firm (Boundas & Black) plus an Associate who works closely with them.  Also, we have a back up system in place whereby if another assistant is out on vacation or sick, we help out their attorney in getting things done that day.  This of course can lead to non-stop days with little time for good old fashioned “catching up”.

AD: How did you start your career? And what are your previous professional experiences?

WK: My career as an assistant began in 1988.  I had joined DHL as a receptionist at their head office near Heathrow Airport in the U.K.  After six months I was asked by the then UK Customer Service Manager if I would like to be his assistant.  The thought absolutely terrified me!  I had no training as an assistant and even less confidence.  However, before taking the job I discussed with him that I needed to attend secretarial school as well.  He understood my concerns and allowed me to attend one of the best secretarial colleges (at the time) in London.   From then on my career as an assistant at DHL grew and I worked my way up to being the P.A. to the DHL UK Managing Director.  He was promoted to Regional Director based in Brussels and this allowed me my first move abroad.  I lived and worked in Brussels for a year before moving back to the UK.   A few years later, that same boss was again promoted but this time the move was to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Initially I did not want to move abroad again but I was eventually persuaded.  The irony is that when my boss was transferred back to Brussels two years later I chose to stay in the USA, and have been here ever since!

AD: What software do you use most in your job and which ones are more effective in your opinion?

WK: In my current role, we use the Microsoft suite of programs.  Currently Word and Excel are the programs most used along with Outlook for email and calendar control.  Previously in my role at DHL, Powerpoint was used much more.  For our time keeping and invoice generation we use Elite.  And for the central online filing system we have software called NetDocs allowing us to file a document from our screen and into the relevant matter file the minute we are finished with it.  Different firms have different needs of course and I have a found a law firm to be very different from the more usual types of corporations.

AD: What languages do you use in your job?

WK: English is the language most used in my current job.  With DHL in Florida, Spanish was the most heard and my understanding was sufficient to get by.  Surprisingly, when I was based in Brussels, English was the business language at the time and I only needed my schoolgirl French for going out to dinner in the evenings.

AD: Do you think continuous training is important in your role?

WK: Absolutely.  I think continuous training is important in any role.  Over the years I have attended workshops and seminars and although I’ve picked up a few tips, these learning arenas allow greatly for networking and making new contacts.  My preferred method of learning is to read.  I’ve read so many books on being an assistant, organization, self-improvement and so forth that by the time I reach some of the seminars they’re sounding rather familiar… Having said that, I would strongly advocate that everyone read about the latest advancements in their fields of expertise along with reading about people who are successful in that career path.  Take that learning and use it; knowledge is power only if it’s put it into action.

AD: Did you notice any important changes in the role of executive assistant since you have started to work in this position?

WK: The role of executive assistant has changed over the years; from simply typing and handling mail and the telephone to becoming a “go to” person who has all the answers or who knows where to find them.  But even in its current definition the role of an Executive Assistant can vary greatly in responsibility and salary range.   All my bosses have basically told me that the role is what I make it.  I can become as involved as I would like.  I am grateful for their trust in me and in all cases I have always felt heard when I’ve gone to them with ideas, possible solutions and other problem solvers.   In many cases I think it’s up to the assistant as to how involved they wish to be in the company they work for.  Surface work will of course get the job done but understanding why the work is needed and the difference that it makes to others in the firm can make a difference in job satisfaction.

AD: What was the biggest challenge you have had to face in your current job?

WK: As with any new job, learning the ropes of a new firm can be tremendously challenging.  I joined my current firm after spending twenty-one years at DHL.  Coming into a law firm for the first time was a huge learning curve for me.  Things are done very differently and the first thing taught is how to bill time!  Then there is learning to understand the firm’s filing system and which matter numbers relate to which matters (files).  Finally, fourteen months later, I find myself being able to name matters by number rather than name, but it took a while…

AD: What are – in your opinion – the 3 most important skills an Assistant must have to be competent in her job?

WK: I would say that foremost is attitude; helpfulness, kindness and willing to get things done.  Next would be the ability to communicate at all levels in all mediums and this includes accurate spelling and grammar in emails and good old fashioned letters along with eye contact and confidence in how we speak to each other. The third important skill would be confidence teamed with professionalism; as the saying goes, professionalism is not the job you do, but how you do the job.  If you turn up late, inappropriately dressed and with a scowl on your face, the initial perception of anyone meeting you is low to say the least.  Coupling this with bad grammar in speech, correspondence full of typos and a look to all people that says “don’t ask me I’m having a bad day” is not conducive to being skilled at the Executive Assistant role.  I know we all have bad days and down days but the basics of attitude, good communication ability and professionalism are timeless, essential and sometimes sadly missing.  Of course computer skills are vital today but given that the majority of people from age nine years old and upwards are proficient in computer usage, it seems to me that the more soft skills are necessary for success.

AD: You have an international professional experience in the UK and Belgium and you are presently working as an executive assistant in Chicago (USA).
Could you tell us something about your life experience in these 3 countries?

WK: The UK is my home country although it’s been ten years since I’ve lived there.   My family is all still there and even though the people in the US are lovely, the UK can sometimes seem very far away.  Fortunately my supply of PG Tips teabags is easily maintained as Amazon appears to sell everything!  I’ve also just subscribed to The English Home magazine which brings me news and photos from home every two months and staves off home sickness that still comes even after ten years away.

Given that Belgium is only a 45 minute flight from London, I never really settled there and was always homesick.  Perhaps that was because it was my first assignment abroad.  Either way, it was a good experience for a year which involved a lot of other European travel at the time including Russia, Israel, Slovenia, France, Spain and Portugal, plus my French improved a bit.

The US has been a life changing journey.  Arriving in Florida in 2000 was a shock to the system after the gray weather of London and, with the large Spanish speaking population in the South Florida area, I learned much about Latin America, its people and its delicious foods.   I had the pleasure of traveling to Mexico and Argentina for business and attending a Spanish language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico for two weeks.  Sadly my foreign language ability is poor and I marvel at people who can switch between different languages at will.  I follow the conversations but my brain doesn’t work fast enough to think of the answer in the appropriate language!

Moving up to the Mid West and Chicago at the end of 2008 has been the best move so far.  I missed the changing seasons and we certainly see dramatic winters up here.  I have learned that buying winter clothing when living in Chicago is an investment… And the mid westerners are the real American people.  Friendship, hospitality and kindness are foremost here.  I am very happy in my new “home”.

AD: Did you notice a different approach in their way of working?

WK: My perception is that in the UK there is less formality in the office environment than in the US.  The UK work day is a full one there is no doubt but time is taken to perhaps go out for lunch at the pub and communication exchanges are more jokey and, dare I say, ambiguous or with innuendo!   In the US, there is a clear unspoken understanding that certain things are never discussed or alluded to.  I can only conclude that this is for fear of discrimination in some way whether it be religion, age, or anything else.   The other issue I wrestle with here is that if you are new in a position you only receive ten days vacation a year and this seems fairly standard across the spectrum of companies.  This has been a hard pill to swallow after my twenty-five days at the previous company.  I know that the US jokes about Europe always being on holiday but I do feel it’s essential to have a break and something longer than five days would be pure luxury for me at the moment!  However it is what it is and I have learned from my American colleagues to become very creative with my days by putting them either side of public holidays and weekends to really make the most of them.

AD: Do you have any anecdote regarding your experience abroad that you would like to tell us about?

WK: When I worked for DHL and was based in Brussels, I did a lot of European traveling with my boss, Peter, and his senior management team.  For one particular meeting in Spain, there was a “team-building” day involving golf.  Over the years as Peter’s assistant, it was an unwritten part of my job description to always be his caddy when on the golf course.  Not a role I particularly looked forward to but on this occasion it was a beautiful day in Marbella and I was at the wheel of the little golf cart, with my foot to the floor, charging along the palm tree lined course.  At various points along the way I would look up and see colleagues waving and laughing and I would wave back.   Peter was assessing his golf scores as I kept us on time from hole to hole.  Another few feet and more people waved and smiled.  I waved back.

Suddenly, Peter yelled at me, “Stop!”

My little cart came to a screeching halt and I turned to him in surprise.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Ashen faced and only slightly trembling, Peter asked “Didn’t you read the map?”

“What map?” I asked.

“The map of the golf course.  Look where we are!”

He showed me the map and I noted rather faintly that we were about thirty feet from a sheer drop into a crater; clearly not a great career move.  It dawned on me at that point that all my waving, cheery colleagues had been trying to tell me I was heading for a fall…

Interestingly enough, after that episode I was never asked to be caddy again.

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