Maria Cristina Bruschi, Office Manager, Assistant and Project Manager to the Executive Vice President at Diamond Resorts International, one of the largest vacation ownership companies in the world, chatted with me about her transition from small town Italian girl to living The American Dream, the ease of making tough decisions, and, somehow, always being at the right place at the right time.

Elle Hernandez: If you may, talk to me about Italy and coming to the United States.

Maria Cristina Bruschi: I was born in Italy, in a little town called Pavia, about 18 kilometers from Milan.  After I completed my formal studies at the Liceo Classico Ugo Foscolo, with concentrations in Latin, Ancient Greek and Philosophy, I decided to come to America, to New York, and pursue a career.  I was a child, just 19 years old.

EH: Did you always know you wanted to be an administrative assistant?

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MCB: I knew I loved the service environment.  As a young child I always admired flight attendants; I equated them with glamour and success.  The concept of making a customer feel important; that stuck with me.

What did you do when you got to New York?

I enrolled at the Parsons School for Design.  I was also an au pair for a couple and their two children, at the time 2-years-old and 6-months-old, in Brooklyn.  I had never taken care of children before in that capacity, so while I was thrilled that they invested their trust in me, it was definitely a learning curve.

Talk to me about your decision to leave the Parsons School.

I studied at the Parsons School for two and a half years before I decided to leave.  I met my son’s father while I was living in Italy years before, and we had remained in contact.  When we decided to marry, leaving Parsons was not a difficult decision; my priorities had become clear, and they were to be a wife and a mother.  You know, Italian women of a certain generation, we have that nurturing, supportive, motherly thing in our blood.

So you left New York for Washington, DC.

My in-laws lived in Washington at the time, and so my son’s father and I moved there to be closer to his family and to have more support.  That didn’t work out as well as I had hoped. We ended up separating and divorcing when my child was still a baby.   At 21, you feel like you’re on top of the world, like you’re somehow invincible.  And so, I picked myself up and rolled up my sleeves rather quickly to provide for my son, regardless of the fact that I was a naïve young woman in a completely new environment and culture.

Without a college degree or any prior experience, how were you able to land a job as the Assistant to the Regional Executive Officer at the then-largest community banking institution in the U.S., Nationsbank (now the Bank of America)?

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I approached a headhunter who presented me with the job and, for the interview, I turned on my charm.  I didn’t mislead them in any way, but I did try to replace my lack of experience with a sense of understanding of what they were looking for in the person they wanted to fill that role with.  I was adamant about showing my dedication and my commitment to excellence, two attributes that would become the firm cornerstones of my career.

How did your parents react to your newfound employment?

My mother had served as a waitress and as domestic help.  My father was a dishwasher and a truck driver, so their status in the social scale was, frankly, quite low. Neither had any formal education; my mother perhaps completed up to the fourth grade. Seeing their daughter working in an office, settling in the corporate world, in the U.S., was an incredible source of pride for my parents.  “My daughter has found fortune in America!” they would say. My father was particularly proud.  He would tell all of his fellow truck drivers that his daughter worked in a bank in Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States of America!

Nationsbank was, at the time, growing rapidly.  How did it feel to be part of that?

I was told that the person I would be supporting was difficult.  Well, I was willing to take the abuse because I had to provide for me and my son.  As it turned out, he was demanding but actually quite charming, and so I adapted well.  At that time, taking hand-written minutes during board meetings was very important.  I was good at that, at listening and reporting.  I was completely committed to that job.  The institution was experiencing a lot of growth at the time and, truth be told, with the excitement of its growth came a sense of doubt of where my own job was headed.  On the one hand, I had a definite sense of euphoria that I was part of a dream in the making, but on the other hand, I felt somewhat unstable.  If the company is growing so quickly, what will happen to me?  So, to stave off this “fear” of instability, I made sure that I performed to the fullest each day.  I never took any sick days, I always worked overtime.  It was imperative for me to establish enough experience to propel me into whatever came next.

What came next?

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The REO was relocated to Charlotte, NC.  I obviously remained in D.C., and suddenly, I felt displaced.  I didn’t quite know where I fit in.  The bank began training me as a Loan Officer, and I tried that for a few months.  It was incredibly paper-intensive and that didn’t help my feeling of being lost.  You see, I was in my 20s and still very green.  I still needed a bit of hand-holding, guidance.  Becoming a Loan Officer meant making a lot of decisions independently, and I just was not ready for that yet.

So I contacted another headhunter who presented me with the opportunity at Jones Lang Wootton (now Jones Lang LaSalle).  I interviewed and started working rather quickly.  To go from banking to real estate you have to learn a new set of rules.  This new position at Jones Lang Wootton, supporting the Head of the Corporate Services Department, was particularly typing-intensive.  I suddenly spent a lot of time in front of a mouse-driven computer—truly a new office amenity! And, again, another learning curve.  At the bank I handled a lot of book binding and collating.  The skills required at this new position weren’t necessarily all there, but I was extremely focused and aware.  That was one thing [the Head of the Corporate Services Department] said about me, that I was always willing to listen and apply what I had heard.

Women have made huge strides in business, especially the “corporate ladder” in the last 10 years.  What was it like for you in the early 90s to have gone from supporting a male executive to a female executive?

The supportive role is the same, but there are certain elements you turn on and off.  Supporting the REO at Nationsbank required more of a nurturing element.  I had to turn that off, in a way, at Jones.  I have to admit, being in my 20s, I was intimidated by her personality; here we have a successful woman, an executive, with a sassy, confident, professional demeanor.  She was a real spit-fire.  In the beginning, I was absolutely intimidated by her.  But you learn quickly that the perceived assertion within business, for her, was a front that she had to put up in order to be taken seriously.  Underneath, she was very engaging, warm and gregarious.  Of course at first, you simply sit with your head down and do as you’re told until the breech is made and trust is formed.  That’s when you have success.  Our relationship was different in that we were more collegial, like peers, yet I remained at her behest.  Partners in crime, almost.

Why did you leave Jones Lang Wootton?

The biggest dream for an Italian girl in service is to work in government.  I always had my eye on the Official Bulletins for any vacancies at the Embassy of Italy in the United States, obviously located in D.C.  These vacancies were very seldom posted to the general public, mostly because of a widespread culture of hiring from within or via a “recommendation”. In October 1995, the Italian Embassy was looking for an assistant to work with its Deputy Chief of Mission. I applied.  I seriously didn’t think anything would come from it, so you can imagine the mix of emotions I felt when they called me.  The concorso was tough: I had to sit through written exams, a translation test, and an oral exam; a specially-appointed Commission tested you on gubernatorial rules and regulations.  There were 50 initial applicants, 15 finalists and at the end, I ranked at the top.

There you were, an Italian girl from Pavia working for the Italian Embassy; is there anything that stands out for you in that experience?

Working at a diplomatic post invariably means becoming part of a huge diplomatic machine that requires constant tact and discretion – from the tiniest of internal meetings to official visits from foreign dignitaries.  They are to be greeted appropriately and always escorted, for their comfort and safety—you wouldn’t want something to happen to a foreign diplomat on your soil. While working at the Embassy, I had the honor of being appointed Support Staff to the then President of the Italian Republic on his visit to the United States back in ’96.

What was it like assisting the President of your homeland?

He and his diplomatic contingent were quite easy.  That said, everything that was to be done for him had to be done with the utmost discretion and tact; you are expected to follow a strict protocol.  He and his upper leadership tended to be older and somewhat computer unsavvy, and so often their requests were as simple as getting a newspaper.  It was simple stuff.  I reported press releases, at the time still delivered in the form of telegrams, which had to reach the foreign ministry in Rome, basically just updating Italy of our President’s activities while in the United States

You mentioned that for an Italian girl working in service, working for the government was a dream.  Why did you leave and what happened next?

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My father, who still lived in Italy, became ill.  As his only daughter, I made the decision to leave the United States and go back to Europe to be closer to my family.  At the time, my son was finishing high school with his father, so it was much easier for me to go overseas.  I was in my thirties at that point.  Italy was struggling with unemployment of their own and so the next best place for me to look for a job was London, an hour and fifty minutes by plane to my parents’ hometown.

I landed in London on June 5th of 2000, with a suitcase and my resume.  I contacted a headhunter who gave me a typing test and told me about a law firm that was looking for an assistant who spoke Italian.  My resume contained other elements that they were looking for; I had banking, real estate and government experience at that point.

My first day of work in London was June 15th, 10 days after I had landed.  I started out supporting the Associate who reported to the Senior Partner.  I did that for two days and then the temp secretary who was supporting the Senior Partner at the time suddenly quit.  I was asked if I could support him until they found a replacement, and how could I say no?  As far as I’m aware, no one ever interviewed for the position.

How was the transition from the embassy back to corporate for you?

I took a sizeable drop in pay when I started at Latham & Watkins, but I didn’t have a choice.  The Senior Partner was very much focused on growing the practice, and I became a part of that huge project.  We opened offices in Milan and Rome.  My role and duties expanded from a classical assistant’s; I trained the local secretaries on the firm’s procedures; as Latham was an American law firm in Italy, my job was also to make sure that its very specific policies and procedures were carried effectively into their Italian office environment.  I trained the secretaries on how to submit “stuff” like legal bills, new client information, and matter memorandums.  The firm also moved me to Rome for about 6 months.  This level of involvement in the Italian practice of this law firm became a huge step forward for me.  By the end of my nine-year tenure at Latham, my salary had doubled.

What influenced your decision to then return to the U.S.?

I have a very strong personal faith and I believe that all things happen for a reason.  My son also married very young and bore a son.  I had to turn on my mom-mode again; they needed help and I needed to nurture.  I had since remarried, and my husband—who was working for Business Objects (later SAP)—had the opportunity to transfer to a U.S. office in Florida.  It was a no-brainer, really.  I put my resume on a job site with my new Florida address and packed

We moved to Orlando on October 22nd.  On October 31, I was on my way back from the grocery store when I got a phone call from a headhunter about a vacancy they were seeking to fill in Orlando for the EA to the Vice President of Government Relations at Bright House Networks.

Was your new position at Bright House Networks comparable in terms of salary to your previous positions?

It was a simple job, very stress-free, no overtime and a light workload.  It paid $22 an hour, which for the Orlando market, post-economic crash, was quite good.  Even though I viewed this job as a means to tide me over, I did come away with a new set of skills learned – handling Media/Telecommunications.  I left BHN in 2012 when this great opportunity I now have at Diamond Resorts presented itself.

Were the duties at BHN of the same caliber as your duties working with previous executives?

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At BHN, dealing with normal customer service was a lesson in humility.  Customers would call because their phones weren’t working or their cable wasn’t working, and I would just try to find a way to help them.  What could I do to help?  I really just wanted to be of service.  This lesson really teaches you that no matter how small a need it is, it’s still a need.  When you fully embrace this, your job becomes much easier.

On the complete opposite side of my duties’ spectrum, I recall my former boss at the law firm being particularly demanding.  I remember once he and one of his clients, the CEO of a major fashion company, were running late to the airport and they called me to let me know because they couldn’t miss the flight.  This was a commercial flight, so my problem-solving latitude in this case was quite narrow, but I still had to do my best.  Together with my travel coordinator, I called the airline and, quite frankly, begged and pleaded with them to stall the flight.  The plane had already left the terminal—it was sitting on the runway ready for takeoff. 

Did they make it?

Miraculously, the airline somehow agreed to bring the plane back in and wait for my boss and the fashion CEO, so yes,  we managed to get them on that flight.

Is there a common theme that threads all of the positions you’ve held together?

There’s definitely an underlying theme of growth.  I was, by a twist of fate, kind of thrown into administration, not knowing how to “properly” assist anyone, but I learned continuously and consistently.  I was dedicated and absolutely focused on performing to the best of my abilities, and that’s something that’s stuck with me to this day.

Any last words?

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No matter how much latitude or clout you have as an administrator of any level, you must always remember that your role is a support role, a service role.  Just because you’ve reached what you may think is the pinnacle of your profession, or you have been given the opportunity to support a member of the C-Suite team, you may think, “Great! I no longer have to do the more menial work!”  When you start thinking that way, you will undoubtedly be tainted with self-righteousness and boastful pride.  That is a great tragedy.  My success comes from the success of the people I’ve supported—that’s when I know I’ve done my job well.  Always practice humility.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee, Maria Cristina Bruschi, and do not reflect in any way those of the institutions to which she is or was affiliated. This includes Nationsbank (now Bank of America), Jones Lang Wootton (now Jones Lang LaSalle), the Embassy of Italy in the United States, Latham & Watkins, Bright House Networks, and Diamond Resorts International.

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