Executive assistant: Learning to lead

Ryan Birbeck and Serena Mujtaba

In the second instalment of the series, Insurance Age meets Serena Mujtaba, current executive assistant to Axa chief financial officer UK & Ireland Bertrand Poupart-Lafarge, and Ryan Birbeck, former executive assistant to Axa UK & Ireland group CEO Amanda Blanc

“Being able to work closely with a genuine leader and observe them – look at how they run their teams, look at how they deal with customers and set strategies – you’ll never get a better chance to do that than as an executive assistant (EA),” states Axa’s Ryan Birbeck. 

Birbeck worked as Amanda Blanc’s EA in 2011 after she re-joined the insurer from Towergate Insurance as CEO of the commercial lines business. He notes that his role was “incredibly varied”. It included working on big projects such as developing the business strategy in addition to day-to-day activities such as preparing presentations and communications. 

He explains that one of the reasons he went for the role was to get into the commercial lines side of the business after years of dealing with customers on personal lines, adding that it felt like a quick way to learn and get exposure.

Exciting times

Looking back at his time as an EA, he remarks that the most valuable part of the job was the chance to support and work closely with a senior manager. 

“You try to become a sponge within that role and take as much from it as you can,” he says. “At the time it felt like the most exciting part of my career. The business had gone through so much change so fast. It was great to be part of that.”

He details that the biggest challenge he faced during his time in the role was the level of expectation that came with it.

“It’s no secret that Amanda has really high standards and lots of energy. For me the biggest challenge was keeping up with that and making sure I was always up at the pace that I needed to be.”

Ryan Birbeck

Ryan Birbeck

Birbeck started in the provider’s graduate scheme and has been with Axa since 2005. After two years he moved to the corporate partnerships side of the business where he worked as an account manager for three years.

“I was encouraged to go and meet Amanda [Blanc],” he remembers. “She had just been reappointed and was looking for an executive assistant. I had never thought about it before but it felt like a pretty unique time to do it.”

He left his post as Blanc’s EA after 18 months to become sales manager in the company’s London office and later went on to be the regional manager for Scotland. Last year he moved back to the capital to work as London real estate branch manager. 

“It’s the one part that I’ve always wanted to look after because it’s the specialist part of our commercial business,” he notes. “It’s profitable and high-profile so it’s good from that perspective as well.”

While Birbeck has moved on to take on other challenges within Axa (see box above), Serena Mujtaba currently works as Axa UK & Ireland CFO Bertrand Poupart-Lafarge’s EA

She sets out that her job revolves around making Poupart-Lafarge as efficient as possible in what he does by pulling together presentations and preparing him for meetings, as well as managing various projects.

Bird’s eye view

According to her, being an EA provides a bird’s eye view of how the organisation works and where all of the different functions fit in. This allows her to better understand how the company is run and where decisions are made.

She states that because senior executives are not always available due to diary constraints it is useful for the company to have EAs to go to on a day-to-day basis.

“Longer term you can talk about an EA taking the time to understand the business, its priorities and challenges, and later in their career they will probably bring value,” Mujtaba continues. 

When asked whether EAs increase professionalism in the insurance sector, she points out that having the opportunity to work with senior executives “early on in your career increases your personal level of professionalism”.

Axa currently employs a handful of EAs. Mujtaba highlights that it is beneficial to have such colleagues to go through tasks with.

She explains that one of the most important skills for an EA is the ability to get to know people in the organisation and find out what information they can assist with.

“When you’re in an EA role and you’re asked by a senior person to get something done it’s very important to be resourceful. You need to understand who to go to for information, what you need to pull together and the process that’s involved.”

So far in her career Mujtaba has not yet worked with brokers but she is keen on doing so at some point in the future to understand Axa’s clients and their needs better.

And she would certainly recommend the EA role to others as it gives “exposure to many different areas” of the business.

“It allows you to consider what role you’d want to go into and what opportunities exist.

“I don’t think you’d know about those opportunities as well or they wouldn’t be as easily available if you hadn’t been in an EA role.”

Serena Mujtaba

Serena Mujtaba

Mujtaba joined the Axa Wealth business via Axa’s graduate scheme. She was on the scheme for a year and a half before applying to be Axa UK & Ireland CFO Bertrand Poupart-Lafarge’s EA and moving into the insurance side of the company. 

“I started to understand the products we sell, the customers we target, how our financial teams work together – that’s been a great learning opportunity for me, and of course a challenge,” she explains.

Mujtaba admits that she does not have a particular job in mind for when she leaves her current role, and highlights that it depends on what the company has to offer.

“I didn’t take the EA role to understand what path I want to take, but almost to open opportunities that I’m completely convinced exist within the Axa world.”

EA not PA

However, according to both Mujtaba and Birbeck, there is often a lot of confusion among others in the industry about what an EA actually is, with many believing it’s the same as being a personal assistant.

“In the first role that I went into after I’d been an EA probably about 50-60% of the team I was going to lead thought I had been Amanda’s PA,” Birbeck remembers.

“They thought ‘how can someone who has been looking after Amanda’s diary come and do this job?’.” 

He concludes: “In time I hope they realise that I add value and the fact that I did that role makes me a better fit for my current job.”

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