Christine Aarons is the Executive Assistant and Administration Manager to the Chief Information Officer at the University of Technology Sydney. She is an accomplished and experienced Senior Executive Assistant with more than 20 years’ experience working in legal professional services, financial services industry and more recently Higher Education. Christine has worked in small and large corporate organisations during her career, including 13 years with a large financial institution as a C-Suite Executive Assistant for a Group Executive. Over time, the role was expanded to that of Business Development with a strong focus of working with the wider group including HR specialty teams, specifically to coordinate the delivery of people and culture initiatives in SE Asia’s Emerging Markets. This involved working and supporting senior stakeholders including Board, CEO and Group Executives, aligned to the organisation’s international strategy.
The team at Criterion Conferences spoke to Christine about her journey in Asia and the various lessons that she has learnt in her career path.
Here is what she had to say:
What are your lessons learnt from 10 years in business development working throughout Asia
My role prior to Business Development, was for most of my career working as an Executive Assistant and for the last 20+ years as a C-Suite Executive Assistant. I have been fortunate throughout my career to work mostly for executives, who are driven to lead with purpose, by that I mean, the executives lead their teams with clarity aligned to the organisation’s purpose and vision. They lead from above and not in the weeds, which in turn empowers the team, including the EA to ‘get involved’. If one is fortunate enough to have that type of leader, recognise the ‘lottery’ you have just won and seek out opportunities where you believe you will be able to add value, embrace the change and do not be afraid to step into unchartered waters.
I grabbed such an opportunity in 2000 in a large financial organisation, in an embryonic business unit that the company had just acquired, by way of a merger back in 2000. The business unit had businesses scattered throughout Asia including North and South Vietnam, Jakarta, China, Japan and Fiji in the South Pacific. These businesses inherited from the merger were insurance Joint Ventures (JV’s) with life companies and the model going forward was to seek out JV’s with retail banking. The gift for the GE was he could work with a clean canvas in Sydney by way of his team and seek out staff from within the bank who were capable and willing (he found 4 and myself who was certainly willing!) to take up the challenge of living where required and working in a different cultures where English definitely was not the country’s first language.
There was never an option to fail, so we rallied together to make this happen and create a small mark in the international market – under promise and over deliver was the GE’s mantra to us, as it helped to focus on the end goal without being distracted by the ‘chatter’ around us. The next few years saw the business grow and over time we found our feet and became more culturally aware and trust developed.
My EA role developed within the first year as we acquired our first banking JV in north China and transitioned to Executive, Business Development and HR. I sat with my GE and the two team members I acquired from the training resources and together we undertook a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunity and Threats) we could identify. Strengths and weaknesses typically comes from within the organisation and opportunity and threats are typically external. Strengths and weaknesses in this case would be our team to undertake this work and weaknesses could be how we would tackle new cultures, but they would become strengths in time. Clearly the potential language barriers and Government Regulators were considered threats and opportunity in my mind had to be the people who worked in the businesses and were open to learning new ways to serve their customers and grow business.
With that in mind we came up with an abridged sales and service model that we believed we could engage and roll out to the local senior management. We also developed a succession planning model and worked closely with the HR teams in the countries to ensure the integrity of the programs and earn trust and in time the changes in the local staff came about. I would meet with the senior management, with interpreters to discuss our models and get engagement, which I might say took time and patience and know when yes actually meant no not yet, particularly in China. Understand the culture you are working in and be respectful whilst being mindful of why you are there. Be very considered in the cultural changes you are hoping to introduce.
The opportunity I had over those 10 years working with offshore businesses was unique and the friends I made in those businesses are still with me today. I learnt how to eat very different food and drink Matai and smile through it all for the greater good especially China! Achievements were always as a team and the learnings are there for the taking every day. How we communicate and how we listen is integral to all and any outcome, particularly when working in other countries. Believe in and understand your purpose, in this instance, the purpose was never to shoot the lights out and be a huge revenue builder, but more about putting our branding into Asia and making the brand resonate for the future. Work for the organisation as if it were your own business. Always be accountable and take ownership as the leader when it goes well and when we sometimes have fails, best to fail at the beginning and be better equipped for the road ahead. Find your passion and motivation every day and when that is not present question why, is it time for a change in direction.
It has been found over time, a team that is light in numbers, but driven by strong purposeful leadership, encourages the passion, trust, drive and motivation for its people to navigate the difficult and every changing world we face today. I heard the other day that the prime minister of Australia had a team of 5 in the 70s and today has a team of around 55…. Look where we are with government!
How do you manage expectations and look at the bigger picture?
All through my career I have considered communication front and centre to managing expectations including my own and understanding and driving outcomes. By this I mean both verbal and written whilst building trusting and sustainable relationships. In my roles as EA I have worked closely with Boards and executives at the very pointy end of business and premiers and government officials both in Australia and overseas and at the end of the day they are just like us and welcome input and guidance where appropriate. As I have sought buy in for some of the programs rolled out offshore I have indirectly been able to engage the Board Chairman without going to board. Building trust and respect is essential with key stakeholders and of course across organisations working with other EA’s, we help each other to get things done.
It was and is a continual work in progress for me, and during my time in Business Development never more so. I could not become complacent as the environment we worked in was continually changing. We took the board to visit the businesses in Indonesia and China in 2007 and we started organising 12 months in advance to lock in meetings. Because it was elections in China in late 2007 no one would commit as they did not know who would be in government so we pushed on and the meetings finally came together the night before we were to meet. There was a welcome committee on arrival into China but still touch and go through til the first meeting. It was an anxious time but I felt confident it would be alright on the night.! I took the chairman to the markets in the evening and it was a time to relax and have some laughs. Lots of rewarding moments to reflect on.
What tips would you give other aspiring EA’s from your experience?
Being an EA is really about learning to adapt to your environment, it is not about being the most intelligent or strongest it is about the ability to adapt. Communicating, actively listening, listening, listening and if you are not sure of something you put your hand up and you say I’m not sure and you learn. Every year in my career has been a learning experience. Be conscious of the culture you are working in or the culture you are considering. Examples; does everyone work from 7am to 7pm without exception and the pressure is 24/7, or is everyone old and you are young, or is everyone young and you are old. BTW every culture will have its own politics, do some sleuthing to find if it is just office politics or is it something more toxic and everyone is scrambling over everyone else to get to the top or they work in isolation not as a whole.
For me, I love working with strategy, which can throw you into a spin daily, so UTS where I am now, has a lot of strategy going on and I thrive in that environment. The job is different every day. As an EA I have learnt that being aware of your environment and working out those filters better equips your understanding of strategic initiatives and the why. One must communicate and actively listen and involve stakeholders throughout the process. Manage expectations, again by keeping in touch and communicating, manage timelines, manage budgets and we did all of that on the smell of an oily rag when I worked in Business Development and delivered amazing outcomes at the time.
Also be prepared to change with the times, do not be afraid of the unknown, see it as exciting and you will be able to grow your role and morph as you see the future in front of you. I can say that for me the EA platform remains a great building block of skills for your career. What was in the past is helpful to reflect on at times on lessons learnt, but do not stay there, it is today and tomorrow in this fast moving world. These are my lessons I’ve learnt in my journey so far.
Don’t miss Christine Aarons at the 10th Annual EAPA Conference 30th April & 1st May 2019, L’Aqua, Sydney.
Christine will be sharing her insights on ‘Building a filter to understand strategic initiatives’ with a key focus on:
- Managing expectations and looking at the bigger picture
- Driving outcomes and learning how to lead with purpose
- Lessons learnt from 10 years in business development working throughout Asia