Secretary JOB – Milan, Italy – 24 November 2017


Digital Training for Digital Assistants

Every year Secretary JOB gathers together nearly 200 Executive Assistants, Personal Assistants and Office Managers from all over Italy; Italian companies are aware of how important it is to improve their Assistants’ skills and competencies.   This year the theme was “The Assistant as a strategic business partner of the company system”, focusing on the digital transformation we are approaching.

After the welcome by the SEA Milan Airport COO and HR Director (SEA Milan Airport hosted the event) and management, the first session was chaired by the Italy Toyota Material Handlings Senior Advisor and his Executive Assistant.  They showed the audience the well-known “Toyota Way”, which allows companies to speed up any business challenge; to improve product quality at lower costs; to develop winning products and services; and turns every employee into a propeller of the company’s quality and success, training them as a leader and a teacher of the company philosophy.

Testament to this winning process was Francesca Corsali, Executive Assistant to MD Toyota Material Handling and Key Account “I have got to know the Toyota Way only recently, but it embodies the three principles I am daily involved with in my profession:  change to achieve perfection, teamwork and respect. Being an Executive Assistant also means facing challenges; working on the same assignments does not mean we cannot try to improve ourselves. The Toyota Way is relevant not only to individuals and our organisation, but also to a team work context. Last but not least, this method improved my problem-solving skills, because I often have to deal with difficult issues and I have to work them out by myself”.

Another important topic was digital transformation, seen as a generational pact:  to fill the gap between employees with over a decade-long experience and the millennial “smart” generation is essential. This should be considered an elevating interchange and not a conflict! Gianna Martinengo, digital businesswoman, DidaelIKTS President and Women for Technologies Association founder, explained that “Technology has simplified our life: but this statement shared by everyone, has some repercussions; the often-under-estimated generational gap.” In fact, young people have an intuitive knowledge for technology, but they lack the ”know-how” built on years of acquired experience “in the field.”

On the other hand, the over 50s risk being easily side-lined in order to renew the organisation, and consequently lose the abovementioned competencies. With the different generations’ interaction and suitable innovation politics, this deadlock can be easily overcome. The potential of the individual can be enhanced, regardless of age. Gianna: “My idea is to create a workplace based on the generational pact with a reciprocal productive exchange of information, an extensive transfer of technology knowledge, not just in the organisation but also in society as a whole”.

This year at Secretary JOB we also had the unique opportunity to see a preview of a documentary entitled “Secretaries. A Life for the Cinema”. Some of the still living secretaries of the glorious Italian film makers and directors of the 1950s were interviewed, portraying some extraordinary women; pioneers of the female emancipation.

Have you ever had an “Agile Coffee”? Filippo De Vita, Vodafone Head of Digital Offer & GoToMarket, is a master. He explained what digital transformation is: “As a software developer, I had the chance to introduce the software developer method into the business world; this is what digital transformation means to me. Twenty years ago, programmers were relegated in garages and today we have, for example, Mark Zuckerberg”. During his session, he overturned the traditional meeting where staff are normally stuck for hours, even if not everybody is interested in the matter. “My team does not have meetings, but every morning we take a 16-minute Agile Coffee (standing of course) where anybody participates, and decisions are shared: those who do not contribute are not necessary. The slots are fixed, and well-defined and each of them leads to one decision about the overall view, the separation into groups is pivotal and we are focused only on the daily task”. The Assistants had the chance to experiment this unusual method with a practical exercise: nine of them were divided into three groups and they had to organise an imaginary company meeting during an Agile Coffee. They had to decide the convention slogan and which employees should attend. It was a very unconventional method; it is not easy to get used to, but benefits are enormous!

Last but not least, one of the most stimulating contributions to Secretary JOB was the Digital Assistants’ round table: Serena Agati from Microsoft and Gabriella Picca from LinkedIn described how they interpret the role of assistants in their companies.

Roundtable Q&A:

What does your company do to guarantee diversity? Do you think there is a good employees’ balance between women and men?

Gabriella: In two years, from 2014 from 2016, the female leadership in our company increased from 25% to 35%. There is a long way to go, but LinkedIn is working on it: indeed, one of the aims of our “Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging” department is to find women talented in leadership and to train them using mentorship, coaching and training projects. The achievement of self-awareness is the goal of these projects, because women employees should not challenge their abilities in front of male executives or peers.

What skills are needed by Executive Assistants?

Serena: It is not easy to define the perfect Executive Assistant’s profile because it involves different skills and a wide range of competencies and tasks. Generally speaking, for hard skills, the mastery of foreign languages and  perfect knowledge of Office packages are essential. In Microsoft we have at our disposal the most innovative, productive, digital tools that make our work easier. For soft skills, I’d like to mention a very good organised approach, strong motivation and the ability to keep a high level of confidentiality.

Both: We are the business cards of our Manager and of our company. Nowadays we manage a lot of assignments that did not exist 20 years ago. In the past, managing diaries and travel was the core of our work, but today this has become part of the routine. We have to be able to solve or better anticipate problems and interact with people of all professional levels. That is why we need a strong soft skills background, which also includes emotional intelligence and leadership.

Why should an Assistant should never stop learning?

Gabriella: I believe in the “70:20:10” learning theory created by Google’s ex-CEO. 70% of human learning results from experience; 20% from feedback, mentoring and coaching and just 10% from training and studying. This means that every new opportunity, even when unknown, should be taken.

What does smartworking mean for Microsoft?

Serena: Microsoft started to approach smartworking 10 years ago. During last decade, the company progressively explored the infinite opportunities offered by a flexible approach to work. Now, all 850 of Microsoft Italy’s employees are 100% smartworkers. We can work where and when it’s better for us to reach our goals and balance our personal needs. This is possible only when the company creates and spreads a strong culture, defines clear objectives and counts on technologies and behaviors that foster collaboration and productivity. Thanks to this approach, I can now be productive and stay in touch with my colleagues wherever I am, and I can freely organize my agenda according to my professional and private tasks to reach a perfect work-life balance.


The most valuable lesson that the Secretary JOB participants learned, is that today the “secretary” is effectively a managerial figure. in fact, they are called Personal, Executive and Manager Assistants and they could never be replaced by smartphones or computers.

To minimize the role to the management of commitments and phone calls is reductive and stereotyped. However, it describes the minority of Italian professional Assistants that are not in this position anymore, but on the other hand they can be considered as the “alter ego” of their Manager.


About Author

Vania Alessi

Vania speaks four languages and graduated in Economics and Commerce. In 2001, after 13 years as a Project Management Assistant in which she managed numerous projects and events, she decided to make her own contribution and experience in Vania loves dealing with communication and PR, studying projects and activities, always putting the needs of Manager Assistants at the center ... because they deserve it!

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