Patrizia Iacono: "There's not much typing these days." Photo: Jessica Hromas
Patrizia Iacono exemplifies the new generation of executive assistants
by Sue Green
Patrizia Iacono logs onto her e-mails after dinner to keep up to date, reviews the next day's executive meetings "so when I walk in at 8.30am I am prepared" and switches on her phone at 5.30am to catch up with overnight e-mails and news.
No, she is not the chief executive. She is his executive assistant – a role once described as a secretary. But let's be clear: Iacono does not pick up dry-cleaning, buy birthday presents for her boss's partner, nor bring in baking for his afternoon tea.
She is one of the new breed of executive assistants, a senior and multi-skilled corporate role attracting tertiary-educated applicants and providing a career path which does not revolve around typing.
"I think we are evolving our own unique job description rather than where it was 20 or 30 years ago with the traditional personal secretary who sat in the typing pool, made cups of tea and went home at 5pm," says Iacono, executive assistant to Mike Wilkins, chief executive officer of the Insurance Australia Group.
Jonathan McIlroy, director of the Executive Assistant Network, says a key distinction relates to initiative and self-direction: "Previously they were given tasks to complete, most of the stuff they did was handed to them.
"Today it is much more of a senior level partnership. The executive assistant is using a lot more of their own initiative and intuition to anticipate what the executive is going to need. They are finding solutions before the executive has asked for them."
The Executive Assistant Network is a 5000-member network for senior personal and executive assistants which holds networking events and offers training and education. Its goal: to help its members "become more efficient and proficient, understanding that their role is to manage the office of their executive in a way that facilitates them being as productive and effective as possible".
Its training programs range from short courses in first aid or computer skills, minute taking and event planning, strategic planning and project management to a three-tiered diploma in executive office management.
McIlroy says excellent time management skills are vital, but so too are high-level analytical and financial skills, legal awareness, information and knowledge management, knowledge of marketing and sales and of human resources.
"One executive described it as having to have the breadth of knowledge of the general manager but without the depth of knowledge. They read all the incoming (mail, e-mails) and have to understand what they are reading."
Iacono, who mentors 28 executive assistants across Australia, has undertaken courses ranging from women in leadership to media performance management, executive leadership coaching and communication and presentation skills excellence.
She recommends internships for those potentially interested in the role and says a business management or communications degree is an excellent starting point.
But she has also enhanced her knowledge by moving between companies, after starting her working life as an advertising agency account director. Her EA roles over the past 20 years have included supporting high profile executives in publishing with ACP, brewing corporate with Lion Nathan and banking with Westpac.
Asked to describe what she does she hesitates – every day is different, she says. Managing her boss' diary is key, ensuring he is briefed before his meetings, dealing with his invitations, taking minutes at executive committee meetings and following up the action items, organising his travel and "helping him respond to issues that arise".
"There's not much typing these days," she says. "Sometimes you have 10 to 20 balls up in the air and have to make sure they don't drop."