Introducing East Africa’s PA of the Year, Kristine Wanjiru
Can we start with a little background information? Where you from and what is your current role?
I am from Nairobi, Kenya and I am the Executive Assistant to the Regional Director, Africa and the Finance Assistant for the Africa’s Regional Office based in Nairobi for responsAbility Investment AG.responsAbility Investments AG is one of the world’s leading independent asset managers specializing in development-related sectors of emerging economies. They comprise the areas of finance, agriculture, energy, healthcare and education. responsAbility provides debt and equity financing to non-listed companies with business models that target the lower-income section of the population and can thus drive economic growth and social progress. responsAbility offers professionally-managed investment solutions to both institutional and private investors.
What is your background?
I am 29 years old and the 5th born in a family of 6 children, comprising of 4 girls and 2 boys. I was raised in an average Kenyan family, as my father was a lands commissioner in the Ministry of Lands and my mother was the secretary to the General Manager at DFCK, now known as Development Bank of Kenya.
However regardless of the fact that my parents earned an average salary, we were fortunate that the cost of living in Kenya while we grew up was lower than it is currently is, hence we were able to live comfortably with minor luxuries. We were all educated to university level with my brother being taken for piloting school and my two elder sisters going for masters in Australia and the United Kingdom respectively.
I am a mother of an 8 year old boy, who has been my biggest influencer in the last 8 years. When I discovered I was pregnant I was just 21 years old and a 2nd year in university. I thought my life was over and my parents would disown me. For that reason I did not tell my parents that I was pregnant, I kept it to myself till my father noticed the changes in my body. After my mother’s inquiries I first denied it as I was not prepared to have that conversation with her, even though I was already 6 months pregnant. I was wrong since my parents where super supportive, I am sure they were disappointed but they never showed it. My father actually called me and congratulated me, as if this was a great achievement and my mother went into mummy mode to ensure my health was right and that the baby was doing okay.
To date I can’t thank my mother enough as she is still a trooper for she co-parents with me and is the best partner I would ever ask for. I am never worried about child care as she is always willing to help, my siblings also play a great role as each has had their share of baby sitting and representing me as my son’s parent when I am held up with work.
How did you become an Assistant?
It all started in 2009, when I graduated from University. I have a bachelor’s degree in Marketing, a career I was sure I would enjoy since I am an outgoing person. However, during my coveted internship at a local hotel, I come to the realization that I hated everything to do with Marketing. After the end of my internship, they offered me an entry level job which I declined and decided to look for something else. I was naïve to the unemployment rate in Kenya, I didn’t expect to be home for 6 months before I got a job, and actually it was my Aunty who called in a favour from one of her friends.
The position was an Administration Assistant to a Sole proprietor, and that is where my love for administration began: the pressure, being depended on, being the brains and heart of an organization, was all too exiting. The position was stressful as my manager had a bad attitude and it come with long hours and I received all the blame when something went wrong, yet I enjoyed the experience.That is when I realized that administration was my career path; 6 years down the line, I have moved up the administration chain, and I am still in love and proud to be an administrator. I have never been influenced by other people hence I am comfortable with people’s judgement on my career decision both negative and positive.
Congratulations on winning PA of the Year at the inaugural East Africa PA Awards. What do you think this will do for the assistant profession in East Africa?
Thank you, Kathleen. I am happy at what the PA Magazine is doing as the assistant profession is seriously looked down upon in East Africa; it is mostly reserved for older women who never got a change to further their education. As a matter of fact in East Africa being an assistant is not a profession, it is a job that you do when nothing else is forthcoming.
This award is starting to change the mind set of East Africans. As the winner and being 29 years old, I have had a lot of people reach out to me with inquires on why I am an assistant and what being an assistant constitutes. It has made me understand how the general public in East Africa is ignorant to what an assistant is, and I see the work that is cut out for me to bring awareness on the importance and the role of an assistant. The award has brought awareness that being an assistant is a profession just like Medicine, and you do not accidentally become an assistant, you choose to be an assistant. Assistants are educated individuals who choose a career in assisting their managers to perform at their optimum, just like nurses assist doctors on patient care.
What are the main changes you have seen in the time you have been an Assistant?
The main change in my time as an assistant is that the secretaries with only typing skills are almost extinct. Assistants are educated, smart individuals, with some graduating top of their class, with education levels as high as PHDs. The assistant today goes beyond managing their executives’ calendar and travel arrangements, they have become the executive management office’s ambassador, they organize and preparing board and shareholder meetings, documentation and resolutions, ensuring they are approved accordingly and filed to the right authority. Assistants are the secretaries for executive management meetings and ensure that decisions from the meetings are communicated to the organization.
A while ago assistants never evolved to anything else, they just remained as secretaries until their retirement. Now assistants are growing into HR managers, CEOs, CFOs, speakers, and authors. Assistants are growing to leadership roles, and in most cases being top consideration to replace their managers, in the event of the manager leaving the company or retirement.
What inspires and motivates you?
My siblings are my biggest inspiration, they have each faced big adversity and they have learnt to overcome it; through my older siblings I have learnt that when the world gives you lemons you create lemonade, and when it throws rocks at you, you build a house with the rocks. From my small brother, I have learnt that that if people don’t think your dreams are crazy, then your dreams are not big enough. I am glad to be born into a big family as I never lack role models and mentors in my personal and professional journey.
My greatest motivation is my son, as a single parent I am all he looks up to; I am his role model and his hero. He is growing up fast and each day he expects more from me. Whenever I feel like quitting, I look at him and I am reminded that failure is not an option. I wish to provide him more than I got, and to achieve that I need to be more than my parents were.
My parents have been a great support system and I want to make them proud. This keeps me up at night, as I feel I let them down once and I want to make up for it every day of my life. Even though my father has passed away, I want to ensure that I represent him to my full capacity. I want to give my mother all the luxuries she gave up to give us all the comfort we grew up with.
I want to gain Assistants more respect and that is why I work towards being a Chief Operations Officer for it is easier to change something from the inside. Once you become the success story, you become an example to use in championing change. It is important to educate assistants of their worth, however it is also important to educate the general public of assistants’ worth. All assistants are professional smart individuals and I believe it is time the world began to accept and appreciate assistants.
What advice would you give someone just starting out as an Assistant?
My first advice to a first time assistant would be to evaluate themselves to see if this is what they want. We have a lot of assistants who are rude and unpleasant to work with because for most of them being an assistant is not what they wanted to do, it was just a fall back plan, and because the pay was reasonable they stayed. We want more assistants who receive you with a smile, who are willing to help; to whom helping an executive is a joy and not a task. If we are to change the general image of an assistant, we also need assistants who show they choose their job and they enjoy it.
Secondly, I would encourage the new assistant to look into training. I am self-taught and it has taken me 6 years to get to where I am, and yet I am not there yet. If only I had known the importance of taking up executive assistant training I am sure I would be better at my work and I would have avoided most mistakes that come up with self-education.
Finally, I would encourage assistants to seek connection with other assistants. Having a good network as an assistant helps you to perform your duties swiftly and saves time. If you need to get your manager an audience with another Executive, if you have networks you have direct lines to other assistants. The older assistants become mentors to your young profession since they have gone through more, and they become confidantes and shoulders to lean on when the going is tough, as the life of an assistant in an organization can become quite lonely as colleagues mostly tend to keep away from assistants.
What’s next for Kristine Wanjiru? Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
Being the inaugural PA of the year East Africa has woken me up; I am starting to look for knowledge not only in my Finance career but now in my assistant career.
What’s next for me is I want to reach out to other assistants in East Africa; I want to create a network where we can learn from each other and be supportive to each other’s career and day to day activities since we might need each other or our connection at one point of our careers. I want to be an example that will encourage the young professionals in East Africa to look into building a career as an assistant.
In five years, I hope to be a fully qualified Finance professional, I hope to be working with a top ranked CFO, hopefully at the capacity of his assistant or financial controller. I want to be in the journey of being a role model to other assistants; I want to be a mentor to young administration professionals and an example that they are not “just an assistant”.