Running in heels

In between sprinting from domestic to international terminal at Manila Airport, I managed to pick up Glamour magazine. (As to why I had to sprint [and swear!] at that airport is for another post.)

The US edition of Glamour magazine is my second option if there’s no Marie Claire US in sight, so it had been years since I read that magazine. It wasn’t disappointing at all. And there’s an article that took me back to my life in 2005–2008, the four years of pure hard work climbing the corporate ladder in print media industry. The article is called “The Assistant Diaries”—how to master an entry-level job.

I remember myself saying to my assistant a couple of years ago: always treat your first jobs as internship program, where you do whatever it takes to get your work recognized and get paid very little. One must not grumble because soon enough, one’s work will speak for itself when one negotiates a better pay in the next job.

I have to say, I’ve no regrettable job experience throughout my career. I graduated from one job to the next one with flying colors and a happy note. I was also quite lucky that I carefully chose my formal and non-formal education as well as extracurricular activities that supported my career goals. My parents and my high-school psychologist helped a lot in forming these goals.

However, most people these days are in the job that they weren’t educated or trained for. My husband, for example, is a marine biology graduate who runs a publishing company and critiques fashion whenever Joan Rivers is on.

One day when he was going to speak to his editorial staff, he asked me, “Honey, after being in the work force for so long what do you wish you had learned in school?” I said, nothing. I went to schools that prepared me for the field that I do now. The only thing I didn’t know is that dealing with people you work with/for is often the biggest challenge of the job.

That’s why when I read the article about how even Christiane Amanpour worked her way up from being an assistant, I thought: you could almost forget everything you learned in school, as long as you can master being a good assistant you could end up in the corner office.

Here’s why being a good assistant is a good way to get ahead:

  1. A good assistant is often asked to be involved in projects. This is an opportunity to show that you’re more that just good at making coffee. Pay attention to what is being discussed in the room and be confident to pitch your idea. Even if they turn down your idea, you wont be too embarrassed because you’re a junior anyway. I remember pitching an idea (protests that were happening around the world against Valentine’s Day) that was considered too political for the young female magazine I worked for. In time, you’ll learn what sort of ideas that is welcomed in a particular project.
  2. A good assistant gets the cool assignment. Reporting Jazz Goes to Campus 2004 with an ANALOG SLR camera!

  3. A good assistant is trusted by their boss(es) enough that they are allowed to be in the room for an important or high-profile meeting. This is a great way for you to be exposed to what executive levels normally discuss. You will know that as a low-level employee, all this time you have only seen a fraction of the business. Being the “fly on the wall” in these meetings is like getting a free course on doing the job/business on a macro level. I sat down as a research assistant in a meeting of Commission IX Indonesian House of Representative in 2005. I sat on the tribune with nothing to do but listening to a government-level discussion about local TV stations that were just starting to bloom. That was an eye-opener.
  4. A good assistant of a good boss is lucky because they can watch and learn closely. Treat your boss as a mentor because there must be something that they know about the job that lead them to that position. When there’s a problem or a debate, I listen carefully to what my boss says/does. I take note on the principles in handling crisis because THIS is what they don’t teach you in school!
  5. A good assistant is so good that their boss is dependent on her. This is a great opportunity and leverage. Now I don’t suggest you be cocky. I suggest that you keep showing to your boss that you are irreplaceable and indispensable. Unless your boss is a douche, they will quick to understand this and then promote you in no time.
  6. A good assistant automatically gets good references when applying for a new job. So, never burn bridges!

Carrying years-of-salary worth of designer tote bags for a photo shoot was the most glamorous thing for me at the time

A good assistant…

  1. Is never too proud to do minor tasks. Stuffing goodie bags, taking lunch orders, drive for the team, entertain boss’ kids, or help a model put on a bikini, all of which I’ve done in the past with grace.
  2. Asks questions, even the stupid ones, every step of the way when doing something completely new. Hey, you’re there to learn from your boss so the next time you have to do the same thing, you won’t have to bother them again.
  3. Takes notes. Trust me, you will never remember (to follow-up) things unless you write it down. Always have a system! One of my assistants in the past writes everything I say when I come to her desk. It may sounds ridiculous but she said to me, “You talk rather fast and sometimes it’s hard to understand which one to do first out of the five things you say. So I just write everything down and read it after you leave.” She is one of the best I had!
  4. Always has a pen and a paper. Because you will be thanked to when your boss needs it. Don’t be that guy who’s searching for a pen in pockets, bag, and looking stupid and unprepared while doing so.
  5. Is proactive. When you’re booking a flight for your boss, think beyond the airline and ticket cost. Think about the airport transfers. Think about the timing: how much time will they need to drive to the airport and is it convenient to leave the city at that hour? Will the boss be happier to land home early or late at night when the traffic from airport to home is easier? See what I mean?
  6. My first time entertaining journalist as a PR.Guess what, my boss didn’t even know I went there and my being proactive scored great rapport with the journos!

  7. Is a fast learner. Hopefully, it takes only one learning curve for each task so next times you don’t need your boss to remind you stuff. My worst assistant ever actually made ME her “assistant” because I was always the one to remind her what to do and when her next deadline was.
  8. Is not a gossip. Tagging along your boss everywhere means you have a good chance of overhearing their personal conversation or high-level discussion. No matter how itching you are to tell your colleague about your boss’ new young score or the company’s plan to let go a few people, DONT! If you want to ever be a boss someday, you have to put your feet in their shoes. Wouldn’t you want your assistant to be able to keep a secret?
  9. Does not lick ass. BUT know which button to push to please the boss. It would be a life-saver for you to mark the calendar for your female boss’s PMS week!
  10. PR’s their boss. Yes, I know it is almost mandatory to talk about your boss at lunch breaks. But unless your boss is a real bitch—in which case I suggest you to find another boss/job—you have to be fair to your boss and not only talk about the negatives. What assistants forget sometimes is that their boss represents the company they work for. So if you talk bad about your boss and then somehow a prospective client of the company hears that, resulting a loss… that means you are costing your company actual money! At the end of the day, it is your business to keep your company’s image intact. So do find something nice about your boss to talk about.
  11. Is fun. It is the boss’ job to be serious and moody and hard. Having a fun assistant brings rainbow to the office. Find what you can do to cheer up the room especially when you all are working late on a big project. Tell (appropriate) jokes, take fun pictures, bring snack, play music, suggest activities for company outing, plan a surprise party for the boss’ birthday, remember to pay a visit when a colleague just had a new baby, and try your best to ALWAYS be in a good mood. Your goal is to leave a good impression on everyone in the office so they will miss you when you’re gone and take that new job you always dreamed of.

Always be happy to be the office clown and always be prepared to (one day) be the office diva 😉

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H for hotel (part 1)

View from our room at Meritus Mandarin at Orchard Rd., Singapore

We worked in travel magazines (and at one point of our careers Matthew and I were rivals).

He and I met on a coffee corner at a convention centre where a travel trade show was held.

The first 12 hours we’ve ever spent together involved: a party on a hotel rooftop, another party in a hotel ballroom, and a room-service midnight dinner in another hotel room.

In the first year we’ve been a couple we’ve stayed in more than 30 hotels, mostly in Southeast Asia and including some that were under renovation or even under construction.

Those were fun facts about us that lead to this blog post. We’re summing up a list of things in a hotel we fancy and/or found handy. I think this would be helpful for hoteliers who are designing and building hotels at the moment. For fellow travellers, this list will be useful in choosing your next camp!

On a site inspection at a big white colonial private villa. East Bali.

Attending a travel & tourism summit, NOT as an Egyptian delegate, obviously. Westin Resort Bali.

Things we need and want in a hotel when we’re on a business trip…

  • First and foremost: high-speed Internet connection, preferably free and wireless. These days we may not bring our computers with us but only portable tablets that depend on WIFI. Also, this is not the era where you put on “auto-reply: out office” when you’re travelling. You’re expected to be online anywhere and at anytime.
  • A big working desk is appreciated. Even better: one that has multiple and universal electricity sockets. A club/suite room normally features a study or a working station. The separation makes it easier for you to focus when working or trying to sleep.
  • Iron and ironing board. Even better: free ironing service. This service is normally offered for club/suite guests so don’t be shy to ask, as it is mostly only valid on arrival.
  • Portable hairdryer. I know that hotels fear that guests will steal hairdryer but there must be a way to prevent this other than plugging it to the wall of the bathroom. Some of us have long hair and need to look sharp for that important business meeting, so it needs work for at least half an hour. And we’d like to dry our hair while watching TV, please.
  • Full cable service. Business travellers normally stay alone in the room. It gets boring if you only have limited channels on TV (and no Internet connection!). Even better: a DVD player and a library of DVDs for guests to borrow.

The coziest rooms we could find (so far) in Singapore that has greenery as the view. Fort Canning Hotel.

  • Room service that comes at 30 minutes or less. This is pretty standard actually, but we could get food delivered from outside the hotel for the same wait. So when we stay in a hotel that delivers at 20 minutes, we tend to order in, especially if our schedule is packed and we can’t be bothered to explore what the foreign city has to offer.
  • Breakfast in bed. Eating alone is no fun. Ironically, the only hotels that serve in-room breakfast without extra charge are honeymoon hotels, not business hotels. I guess it would be a hectic service if all thousand of your guests order in-room breakfast every time.

More praise for Fort Canning Hotel: most distinctive room service tray!

When we’re company delegates:

  • If given the choice, we would stick to the budget but choose our own hotel
  • We choose free WIFI over breakfast inclusion
  • We would order a paid airport transfer over public taxi for comfort, safety and security
  • We don’t care for iPod docks, we care about user-friendly control panels and uncomplicated lighting systems
  • Swimming pool and gym are not a consideration but would be nice to have for when we feel like it

Breakfast with a view. Karma Kandara, Bali.

Yes, we were on a business trip in Bali. It was for an interview and photo op, also attending a beach club opening. Envy us, please. And now we’re wishing we could have a nickel for every person that envies us 😉

Now, if you wanna know our preference when we travel as a couple, read here.

H for hotel (part 2)

This is the second page about what we appreciate in hotel rooms that we’ve stayed in. As a business traveller, we have different needs and wants. As a couple travelling without children…

  • A his-and-hers sink arrangement is a very good way to keep things tidy and peaceful. It allows us to have our own territory and to save time before going out as each of us can do our thing at the same time. Even better: an extra bathroom. This feature can easily be found on a club/suite level or a two-bedroom condotel or villa.
  • And speaking of bathrooms, we prefer ones that have perfect privacy. We have seen a number of design on boutique hotels and villas that actually have clear glass walls around the toilet or have a big open window from bedroom to bathroom. When travelling with a partner, you don’t want them to be THAT intimate with your bathroom business.
  • Balcony, preferably with a view. Maybe it’s the English part of us, maybe it’s just a vanity, but we do like to have tea in the afternoon on a balcony and enjoy the natural sunlight and breeze.

My birthday present for Matthew’s 41st: two nights in the sun. Conrad Bali.

  • Couple’s room spa. We may have separation anxiety issues but even if we were normal, isn’t it nice to have a spa treatment with your spouse in the same room?
  • Turn-down service. There’s something sexy about a white, clean, and made-up bed. This is what couples don’t normally get at home. Coming back to our hotel bed after a dinner out is something to look forward to when we know our room would have been made up. Even better: chocolate as turn-down favors. I have to say, I rarely find this in Asia.
  • Full-on butler service. Just another vanity. We’ve used this service to our delight! From drawing us a bath to packing our overloaded suitcases.

One of the most modest places we’ve ever stayed it but the coffee-shop serves coffee unrivaled by 5-star hotels. Fortville Guesthouse Bangkok.

When we book for a short getaway:

  • We choose location over luxury
  • We can stay in a budget hotel but never in a place that has no amenities, TV, and daily housekeeping
  • We would pay more for room size
  • We would not dine in the hotel, mostly because we want to explore the area and/or eat local food
  • We appreciate hotels that commit to providing a double bed when we book a double bed. Not a lot of hotels can guarantee this nowadays

Simple, cozy, and at a great location. Grey Hotel Bali.

Fugee fun, part 3: Back to Bangkok and beyond

August 28–September 7, 2011

We arrived back in Bangkok that day and headed straight to backpacker heaven. Yep, we’d arranged to stay in the Khao San Road area—where old hippies don’t die, they just start up pad thai noodle shops bars serving younger, hairier hippies. Anyway, the Fortville Guest House (fortvilleguesthouse.khaosanroad.com) would be our stay for the next few days, with a short break to Pattaya, the self-styled “extreme city.” Hmmm.

Fortville served THE best coffee.

But first things first: a same-day, mind-warping trip to the British Consulate via a splashy water taxi to get an emergency travel document (in this case, an emergency passport), all of which was unusually easy (administrative and bureaucratic nightmare stories will resonate with many expat readers). Actually, I have to give full credit where it’s deserved: Rebecca shouldered a lot of the organizational work and much of the stress; she even picked up the forms I’d need for a new passport when finally in Jakarta. Assuming I got there eventually without further deportation issues…

River taxi for the penniless. Only 11 baht per person one way!

Bless her heart, Rebecca also arranged our time there in Khao San, making logical and informed purchasing decisions on everything from new luggage to sun hats. (The latter a challenge for me as I have a big head. No, I mean it literally: my head is huge.) The room, while functional, was a lot better than an airline security office floor, and since that time I’ve started to see a bed to lie on and a working pillow as a God-given reason to count my blessings.

Matt, with the only hat that fit his large head.

We even managed a few nights out in Khao San Road, including Rebecca’s birthday, singing along to a local duo in a packed second-story bar in which I was perhaps the oldest person there (notable favorite: Wonderwall by Oasis).

Khao San's answer to Hard Rock Cafe

In between, and also organized by Rebecca, we managed a trip to Pattaya (“Good Guys Go To Heaven, Bad Guys Go To Pattaya,” or so the T-shirts say). We almost didn’t make it, though. Our driver, arranged by the guesthouse, drove literally at breakneck speed (I have what is medically termed ankylosing spondylitis, or, as we sufferers like to know it, a pain in the neck) and I really did fear for my life—so much so that I complained to him in my best Thai. We ended up at the port for the island of Koh Samet, about an hour from Pattaya. Total travel time: five hours. Still, we saw the X-Men movie prequel.

Hilton Pattaya, NOT where we stayed.

In Pattaya, we managed to fit in all the cultural and intellectual activities on offer and after those 30 minutes were up, we hit the strip bars and go-go joints. Well, when in Rome…

We returned, packed, checked out and headed to the airport. To be honest, my memory of that time is now a little hazy, partly as I was so spooked that I’d somehow get turned away at Jakarta airport, and partly due to lack of sleep. I shouldn’t have worried. We departed Thailand early morning with no fuss and arrived in Jakarta a few hours later.

Needless to say, our arrival was somewhat rushed and hectic. Rather than check in to my serviced apartment, I headed straight to the office where some of my luggage was stored from a previous trip. Along the way, we took some musghot photos for my new passport application, and on arrival, I filled in the form and had it ready for posting. And without pause for breath or thought, I launched straight into a full-fledged magazine proposal that very afternoon.

At the time of writing this, I now have a new passport, ID card, KITAS, work permit, police book and police registration card. I’ve even registered with the embassy. I am the most legal expat in all of Jakarta. Life, at last, is good.

*The Fugees were a band in the 90s who had a brief but shining time in the spotlight with a cover of  “Killing Me Softly,” originally by Roberta Flack. The band name is a contraction of “refugees.”

Cunning trilinguist

I just ordered a cup of coffee in Bahasa Indonesia And this without hand gestures, broken English and confusion on all sides. A small victory of sorts.

When I first got together with Rebecca, learning Indonesian was not (I hate to say) a major priority. She is basically natively fluent in English, albeit with a cute American accent, and a journalist (in both languages) and PR pro. Communication was never an issue.

But having met her family in April and having now moved here, and commanding a staff of 72 Indonesians and one Malayasian, learning the local lingo has become a must. As with Thai, I think it also shows a certain respect for the country one is a guest in.

Bless her little white cotton socks (she does have some), Rebecca did teach me the basics, and while she perhaps thought I didn’t take it seriously, I still remember them. But two lessons down and I am starting to get to grips with conversational Bahasa. Yes, I still talk “like a robot” (she says) since I have to recall each word: sentence construction is not easy for me yet. But hey, it’s two hours of lessons and I can still ask for coffee, tea, and so on.

I feel quite proud of myself. In Thailand, it was three years before I could hold an actual conversation. And that was simply: “Barman, 10 more pints!”

I do remember Thai, and I can still speak it I think. But I do have to simply “turn off” the Thai in my head and switch to a Bahasa head.

*As written in coffee shop outside Bank Mayapada on Forbes Indonesia business… See attached pic! Now onwards into a meeting with some rich people!

Writing this, before Forbes meeting

How I met your father

Kids, it was simple. But damn it was not easy. It took several career jumps for me to reach the stratosphere where he was at. Then I finally met him, gave him my number, and a week later, he gave me a call, a sweet surprising long-distance morning call.

In 2008, after successfully launched Mother&Baby Indonesia, I thought I should go international, or go regional at least, publishing or no publishing. So I applied to two interesting posts: promotion executive for Singapore Tourism Board and editorial position at DestinAsian magazine. STB never called back –thanks! DA called me in for an interview. It was a swift process landing the job, but it took two months, a massive 3-day fair, and one thick anniversary issue till I finally left M&B.

I was happy with my new desk. Luxury travel was a completely new world for me. I could give you a list of several painful placenta abnormalities, but I didn’t know there’s a hotel brand called “W”. I needed references from (rival) magazines and hours worth of armchair travelling every day. I ploughed through back issues of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia over my daily dose of cafe latte. I only focused on its “Stylish Traveller” page to get fashion shoots ideas. But, like many avid readers do, I always read magazines’ editor’s note.

At one point, I read one TLSEA editor’s note too many. Just from the wit and humour, I felt the pull. It drove me wondering how great it would be if I worked for this charming editor-in-chief. I dropped this fantasy pretty quickly. I didn’t think that highly of myself to apply to him for a job. Then again, it was merely a daydream.

Two years and one big move to Bali later, I was dispatched to Singapore, representing Bali in a travel trade show. For three days, the crème de la crème of travel and tourism industry gathered at Suntec Convention Center, networking and contracting (and partying too!). It was not a surprise that I bumped into a friend, lovely sales manager from TLSEA. But I had completely forgotten about my old daydream when she introduced me to “her editor”. He was standing there in all his glory: suited, handsome, with a hint of coffee breath (granted it was at a coffee stand).

But yeah… there he was. Matt Leppard in the flesh.

So kids, that’s how I met your father.

Jack of all, master of one?

It’s often a question people ask, and often I don’t think they want to hear my hours-long explanation and observations. After all, ask me how I am and I will tell you, from my impending alopecia to a stubbed toe to my suspected but never proven blood sugar issue. So here, in a nutshell, is a summary of the various non-editorial jobs I’ve done, and some perspectives about each, looking back in the first instance to me aged 13. And that’s almost 30 years ago. Wow…

Your 5am news call, sir!

My first job was as a paper boy when I was 13. In fact, as soon as I was 13, I started working with the strong encouragement of mum and dad. Being the all-or-nothing person that I tend to be, I took the longest, deepest, darkest, remotest and, yes, rainiest job of all the rounds (it rained on more than anyone else, I rather feel).

This was in Sway, in Hampshire, in the UK (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sway,_Hampshire). This means I was delivering across the vast open and unforgiving hostile steppes (this was my 13-year-old perspective, of course), in a national park, in some areas with no real roads, and many wild horses—most of which seemed as worried to see me as me them at 5am on a Tuesday morning.

Note that during this time, I also delivered a Thursday-afternoon freesheet and did a Sunday morning round (before my kung fu lessons, but that’s another post). Perhaps my love of print came from this? Who’s to say. My dislike of early mornings may well have done so…

When I left school to go to college at 16, as we do in the UK, I had to graduate to a new job. Forcing newspapers through waay-too-small letterboxes with snappy dogs or huge hounds the other side wasn’t cutting it for me any more. So I trod the path that many Sway teenagers had done before me—and I don’t (just) mean to the off-license. One fateful Saturday lunctime at the behest of mum and dad ( and I love them for it), I trudged to the White Rose Hotel (now Sway Manor, http://www.swaymanor.com), then run by the Winchcombe family, or “sir” and “madam” as the senior owners liked to be called. My question at the time: got a job?

It was Peter Cutler (now of http://www.oldfarmhouseinburley.co.uk/) who, when I walked in at about 12pm, said: start tonight. Yikes!

That Saturday night in May 1986, after a busy (120 or so) service, I walked out of there vowing never, EVER to return to the stinking, disgusting pots and pans, the loud and brash attitude of my colleagues, and the endless ribbings I took as the newbie (AND losing my Saturday night freedom). That was 1986. I actually did leave in the very end… but in 2000 (I even worked part-time as a national magazine editor). In between was one of the best and most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done. For 16 years and not one night.

Being the ambitious type that I can be if I try, I ended up as third chef and either to my eternal shame or eternal luck, I graduated to assistant chef. Peter Cutler will always be my head chef, but I was a pretty good number 3. Or number 2 from time to time, and occassionally number 1 on breakfasts. My remit was starters, salads and sweets, and I still remember the recipe for salad beaucaire. Julienne of leeks, bacon, egg, something else… I think (I may need to look it up). They even offered me to stay and become a fully trained chef.

I worked there also to support my time studying biology at university—Portsmouth Polytechnic as was—during breaks, and worked every summer. Once I graduated, I was happy enough going in at 8:30, finishing at 2pm, then starting again at 5:30 then nipping into the bar at 9pm. And cycling home later on, often crashing into rose bushes (always roses, always). I made some of the best friends I have ever had, many of whom remain so in my heart if not on my Facebook page), and learned (and I do mean this seriously) how to think “on the fly” and how to prep a good “mis en place” to prepare and second-guess the service. And I made the best custard my chef had ever tasted. Just the once… Later on, Anne and Paul, the brother and sister team who ran operations, become close confidantes. Well, I did spend one or more nights propping the bar up, as I said.

Of course, this couldn’t go on forever, despite my love for the job—I did, after all, study chemistry, biology and physics at A-level. So when I was offered the job of assistant scientific officer at the UK Ministry of Agriculture’s Horticulture Research International (HRI) at Efford, Lymington, it seemed like I was going to find my life-sciences feet. But a monthly-renewed contract and laughable pay put paid to that. Nonetheless, again, I made some of my closest friends there and, among the roses, the magnolias, the trees and the glasshouse tomatoes, we had so much fun (and mutual suffering). This was in 1994/5. I know as I remember hearing “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls when counting tomatoes in a glass house.

No more flowers…

After a brief interlude during which I obtained a post-grad diploma in environmental management, I returned to HRI briefly, but then saw another opportunity: science graduates needed as editors! Well, I’d always had a passion for reading and writing, and was an avid magazine collector. So again, I jumped in and got great hands-on education in the dark arts of sub-editing.

Onto editorial…

This was for science journals, not magazines, mind. Not for Nature, or for New Scientist of whatever. No, this was for Computers and Structures, Applied Mechanics, Theoretical Physics and the like. Here, grammar was the rule of law and I learned to wield it. I’m still sure many of my colleagues who went to journalism school have NO IDEA what a “comma splice is” or could not talk about conjunctions and coordinate clauses.

That lasted for a year or so, but when I saw an ad looking for a staff writer for magazines about the Internet, I jumped. After all, ad my dad’s behest, I had taken a Higher National Diploma in graphic design and did work experience at my dad;s ad firm and elsewhere…He must have seen the potential of a cynical writer with an eye for cover design.. (Charlie Brooker: I was only a few months behind you…)

You see, I did fancy myself as a writer and I had always wanted to try the Internet, so in the first few weeks, I wrote 300-odd website reviews. And the rest is editorial history…