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PA profile: Neftali Karlsson

Neftali Karlsson

“Ever since I was young, I saw my dad packing his bags, going away, coming back and going away again as he was working on major offshore projects across the globe. There’s probably not one place he hasn’t been to and he always used to bring back exotic and fascinating souvenirs. I soon realised that I wanted to start traveling to interesting places too. So, as soon as I finished school, five days after my graduation, I moved to New Zealand because I want to go as far away as I could from home.”

Embarking on a career aged 19, Neftali became an au pair for a high net worth family; faced with the prospect of moving back to Sweden a year later, she found herself in London, working with one of Britain’s most famous families.

“I applied for one job through a Swedish agency – and it was through that I got the job with The Geldof family. In the beginning, I wasn’t just Bob’s PA, I was dealing with his entire family. It wasn’t a ‘normal’ PA role. I first started out almost as a ‘mother’s help.’ Bob and his wife Jeanne were travelling around the globe all the time – and I was there to help them with everything.”

After a successful year working in this capacity and with the highest of recommendations from Sir Bob Geldof, Neftali also began working with Sir Bob’s management office Kruger Cowne (KC) – one of Europe’s leading talent management agencies.

“Bob told me that one of the Founding Partners, Mark Cowne was looking for someone to join their team and help them out because their EA/PA needed extra help. I wasn’t really sure what to expect in all honesty and soon after, I joined Kruger Cowne in May 2014. I started off as an intern and basically got thrown in at the deep end.

“On my first day in the office, I had limited time with the existing PA/EA as she was about to jet off on holiday for two weeks, which meant I had to pick up everything she was working on. I have never worked so hard in my life, trying to learn more and develop my skills, slowly working my way up. I’d never picked up the phone; I’d never done anything like this before. I’d never had a proper office job. Everything was new to me and I tried my hardest to really excel.”

Three months later Neftali was balancing the diaries of multiple high profile individuals alongside her initial role with the Geldof’s and was soon promoted to the role of Personal Assistant for Boris Becker, managing his personal and business affairs. Shortly after, she became the Management Assistant and PA to the CEO of Kruger Cowne, Mark Cowne, whilst also supporting across the roster, working with KC clients such as John Simpson CBE, Naga Munchetty and Fatima Bhutto.

The best Executive Assistants immerse themselves in the businesses they work for.

“I’ve worked really hard to get where I am. I‘m in love with the job – I love what I do. I love the people that I work with and have become close with a lot of them.”

So what does Neftali’s daily role entail exactly? “There is not one day that is the same. All of them are different. One day I could be booking a private jet, the next I’m trying to organise flowers for a party, or trying to source a cake, then suddenly I’m dealing with a dog that needs to travel from Australia to London, different conferences, travel plans, diaries and booking restaurants – it’s all so varied.

“Say one of our managers here has signed a contract for a client to go and do a speaking engagement in Australia; the manager will get the contract sorted and once that is arranged, everything goes on me. I have to make sure that everything for the event is finalised – ensure my manager is covered, the artist is covered, the logistics are sorted, visas – anything they could possibly need. I’m on call anytime. Even if I’m on holiday – I am technically still available if any of the talents I look after need me.”

How does she stay on top of juggling multiple clients? “I use spread sheets in Excel. I put in absolutely everything that I need to do on it. I have a separate one for each person and it alerts me when things need to be done. I have reminders on my phone, to-do lists and I cover my computer with sticky notes – I have reminders everywhere.”

Having a list of reliable suppliers on hand to help provide products and services at short notice is evidently an important element of her role. “Yes it is. I have everything in my phone – everything! If I lost my phone, I’d be lost too!”

Today’s technology has replaced the typing pool, creating opportunities for PAs to take on new responsibilities. I ask Neftali to think of how the PA role used to be twenty plus years ago, and without the technology we have now. Does she think she could she do her job as effectively?

“It would never work. The PA during that time wasn’t as developed as it is now. The PA today has so many demands to facilitate. More technology, means the needs have increased. The demands have grown from bosses, which has a knock-on effect.”

One of the main challenges I often hear from PAs is the lack of appreciation and respect they receive from their bosses. Defining and undervaluing the PA role remains a stigma for the industry. Fortunately for Neftali this doesn’t appear to be the case.

“I definitely feel like I get recognition. Mark Cowne and Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne (Founding Partners) tell me often – and I know I do a good job. If anyone in the office needs anything they come to me. I know that I am valued, I feel respected as a PA.”

So what does she most enjoy about her role? “I love working with people, working with our talents – I like helping them out. I especially like the direct, personal contact with them.”

And the least? “Well I am very ambitious. I work hard and I like making sure that people are happy, however, I sometimes feel like I am living their lives and I forget about myself.

“I’m quite new to this role and the PA industry in general; I’m still trying to get to know myself. In the beginning I forgot about taking care of myself, making sure I made time for me, outside of work – like spending time with family and friends and going to the gym for example.

“I’ve learnt that I need to make sure I take care of myself too. That’s something I think is so important for other PAs too – because it’s so easy to forget yourself when you are busy with other things, other people’s lives.”

Having been privy to Neftali’s busy dairy, I’m not surprised to find out that she does not actively participate in PA networking events.

“I just don’t have the time. I’d love to get more involved though. I am aware of a few of the industry shows and conferences such as office*, but otherwise I haven’t really got involved in that side of things. I can feel like I’m alone sometimes, being a PA can be an isolating job. Being part of such a small team here at Kruger however, means we are all really close. We know each other well. How each other works, thinks. I don’t know how it would be for me to work for a bigger company – this is my first role and I like the family-like vibe.”

I ask her what key traits she feels are essential to make a good PA.

“Confidentiality is imperative. It’s paramount – it’s the most important thing. Whatever gets said in the office doesn’t leave. When I meet new people, I never say what I do because I feel like people solely focus on the fact that I work with high profile individuals – and they forget about me. They just want to focus on the talents. I don’t like mentioning my role, I simply say I’m a Management Assistant and I leave it at that. Otherwise if they know whom we represent, they will inevitably ask a lot of questions. That may subconsciously be why I don’t actively network.”

Juggling a demanding job requires some down-time too. In order to try and achieve a healthy work-life balance, what does she enjoy doing in her own time?

“I love travelling. I’ve visited Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Nigeria, Japan, Thailand and Europe, which has enabled me to learn so much about different cultures and meet so many people.

“I also enjoy the gym. I tend to live by routine. Normally I go to the gym in the morning – five days a week. I wake up at 5.30am; I’m at the gym by 6am till 7.20am and then head to work about 8:45am. It’s my time to focus on myself, think about me. I love it – it makes me feel so much more focused. As soon as I finish my day I go home, work a little bit more, then chill – with Bob and the family.”

This is certainly a unique setup – living with one of your clients. Most people can go home and switch off. “They are like family to me. I’m very close with them. I talk to them about everything.”

And what’s next on the cards career-wise? “I’m sure I’ll be working in the industry for a couple more years – maybe I’ll have my own agency, or a party planning business further down the line. I don’t see myself as a PA for the rest of my life. For now, I love doing what I do. I’m only twenty-three so there’s plenty of time for me to decide.

“It’s an amazing experience being a PA as you get to do a little bit of everything. The people I work with are so intelligent and inspiring – I learn from them every day. The skills I have developed in my role have provided me with a really good basis professionally for the rest of my working life.”