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A rock star amongst Executive Assistants

Interview By Daniel Kjellsson

 

If it would be possible to acquire rock star status amongst Executive Assistants, Elena Aylott should be considered to have just that. After having worked for seven years as Executive Assistant to the CEO of Oriflame, she was promoted to Director CEO Office and International Communications in November 2014.

In this exclusive interview we meet with the longtime EUMA Sweden board member, razor sharp careerist and industry legend to try to deconstruct her successful strategy and way of life.

Elena, could you elaborate on your current position at Oriflame?

– I currently have a staff of two and my team is responsible for the planning and structuring of our CEO’s day-to-day diary and operations. I also have the strategic responsibility for internal communications and for coordinating various ongoing communications initiatives within the group.

Looking back, how did you become an Executive Assistant in the first place?

– I have a Masters in Linguistics from the Moscow State University and a professional background in marketing and communications. When I first decided to accept the challenge of becoming an Executive Assistant some of my friends were doubtful, and a few even told me it’d be a step “down” for me career wise. I, however, had the opposite view; to become an Executive Assistant was a chance to experience world business both from the front row and from backstage at the same time. The best possible business school.

Sounds like you had your targets figured out.

– I’ve always had this interest in business, organizations and leadership. I knew from my first day that I too wanted to become a CEO one day. It all became so clear: where can I learn as much a is humanly possible about business acumen, entrepreneurship and the daily life as CEO? Standing right next to one, of course.

During that first time on the job, did you have a certain strategy to continue leaning and improving?

– It can be a somewhat mysterious position, actually. If an Executive Assistant is perfect, he or she is almost invisible. To some extent I guess one can claim that our ambition is to be invisible, because when we’ve performed well everything is efficient and proceeds seamlessly. When something’s not working out though, an Executive Assistant can become the centre of attention – for the wrong reasons. Our purpose is to create the best possible conditions for everyone else to focus and perform.

What are the key components of a successful manager/assistant relationship? – Trust, transparency and somewhat similar values. When the manager and the assistant both feel that they’re heading in the right direction – and that the actions taken are the right ones – they can both stand tall and fight each other’s battles. An executive assistant is one of the few people in an organization that fully understands what it means to be the CEO. The loneliness of being ultimately responsible. Sometimes the Executive Assistant will be the only one in the organization in a position to tell it straight and give the hard truth. That kind of openness cannot be underestimated. Me and my boss often laugh about the fact that we can sometimes read each other's thoughts. He can enter a room and I already know what he’s going to say, and so forth. We’re on the same level.

Sounds like Executive Assistants would potentially make great CEOs?

– Most definitely! There are examples of that exact thing happening in lots of countries, Sweden included. If anyone thinks the Executive Assistant position is a dead-end, they’re not even seeing half of it. Make sure you continuously improve and learn the mechanics of the company inside out. All of a sudden people are going to come to you for business advice. Again: you are presumably one of the few people in the entire organisation with a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on. That’s very valuable.

I keep thinking that Executive Assistants must be super communicators.

– Executive Assistants don’t’ necessarily have a voice of their own. Which means that whatever you say will, directly or indirectly, be interpreted as the words of your manager. You need to not only be correct but aligned with your boss. To an Executive Assistant, professional communication skills truly are a “make or break”. If your skills impact positively how people perceive your manager, that’s invaluable. If you’re currently lacking some of those skills – get to work.

You were recently promoted. How did that come about? – As I just mentioned, being the Executive Assistant to the CEO means you’ve got a bird’s-eye view. You’re informed and naturally involved in processes and networks across the company. That’s an aspect of your job that could (and should) be taken advantage of. With regards to Oriflame, I was initially made responsible for coordinating our global communications committee. Soon after that, I was leading it. Through the work we did in the committee it became clear that our internal communication wasn’t functioning properly. Various divisions weren’t fully informed in regards to what was happening in other parts of the business and we were losing out on valuable synergies. At Oriflame internal communications were a direct CEO responsibility and all such are golden opportunities. You can step in, help out and improve while also acquiring valuable experience and mandate.

Sounds like various projects can be a great way into new ongoing responsibilities?

 

– The best. To volunteer for various committees, project groups and similar is a great way to extend your network within the firm, learn and improve.

Say there are no obvious projects or committees to aim for, then what’s your advice?

– Presumably you’re already attending most management meetings, board meetings and similar – which means you know about what’s going on. When something suitable comes up, offer to help. If you want to create your own opportunities I recommend projects which aim to cut costs or improve efficiency. Initiatives with a direct impact on the bottom line are obviously easier to pitch. Can be anything from purchasing to conferences. No matter whether you propose to cut costs for pens or are pitching an entirely new product launch – always focus on what’s best for the company, not for you personally. Credibility is important.

It’s one thing to propose a more cost-efficient conference venue, it’s a very different thing to pitch a new business idea. What are your advice to someone not fully confident around corporate lingo, business models and revenue projection?

– Always have the ambition to understand what you are a part of. If we’re preparing documents ahead of a meeting I want to fully understand those documents. Early on in my career that could mean looking up a certain word I didn’t understand, reading up separately on how to write a business plan or look deeper into accounting. I find preparing documents that I myself don’t understand extremely difficult. As you learn, opinions and ideas will follow.

Businessmanship, you mean.

– Precisely. Once you fully understand your company and its mechanics you’ll also be more motivated to help improve it. If you can do anything to improve the financial results, that’s almost always a good thing. Practise the skill to always point to how the financial results can benefit from whatever idea or opinion you have. Once you have that mindset you are a super resource! You’ve been involved in Företagsuniversitetet’s course “Executive Assistant – Masterclass”. Why would you recommend industry colleagues to apply and participate?

– Because it will help improve and strengthen you in all key areas of expertise for a modern Executive Assistant. It will boost the skills you’re already confident with too. Personally I’ve always found it important to remain up to date and on top of what’s going on in the world and in the industry. You think you know something inside out and all of a sudden it has changed. Considering the speed in which everything evolves today, I’d say it’s more important than ever before to continuously improve one’s skillset. The “Executive Assistant – Masterclass” is just that – always on top of things, always up to date.

Assuming I’m the CEO, how do I benefit from my assistant taking the course?

– Every time you return from external training you feel highly motivated and in possession of new insights and new inspiration. Företagsuniversitetet’s “Executive Assistant – Masterclass” turns your assistant into a modern resource working every day – through you – to improve the bottom line.

 

You have, due to your recent promotion, decided to leave your position on the board of EUMA Sweden. What is the most common advice you’ve given people over the last seven years?

– You can read all the books and articles in the world yet nothing can compare to meeting your counterparts in business and discussing the opportunities and challenges you share. Always aim to keep improving all your key skills and fully understand the company you work for, and its central business metrics. Also build a strong professional network of colleagues you can trust. EUMA will help you with that.