Day 11: 2021’s 12 Days of Real Careers

Are you still working away, or have you tucked away your hardware and begun to focus on the holidays? 

Today marks the second last day of the 2021 edition of my 12 Days of Real Careers tradition.  

At this time of year, I look back on the many Real Careers interviews I’ve conducted with impressive assistants from 27 countries over the past six and a half years. From there, it’s a matter of selecting snippets of the many inspiring insights to share with you this month. 

Enjoy today’s read, and see which ideas resonate and may benefit you as you wind down 2021 and prepare for the new year ahead. Some people featured in this series have changed careers and, this year, I’m also including excerpts from association leaders on pandemic experiences. To read the full interview from any of these individuals, just click on her or his name.

“The number one thing I’ve learned when it comes to mapping out your career goals is that it’s all on you; no one will do this for you”

Megan Bishop, USA: Bishop, Megan - USA“The number one thing I’ve learned when it comes to mapping out your career goals is that it’s all on you; no one will do this for you. That may be a bit scary to some, but it’s also invigorating. You’ve got a clear blue sky – where do you want to go?

… I urge you to map out your own career. We are in a delightfully special role with no one singular path to promotion or growth. Also, frankly, many executives don’t entirely know what to do with us. Talking about being a career EA might get you some odd looks from executives. So, I encourage you to dream big and think about what you want to learn. Then utilize all of the existing resources out there …” 

“Problems aren’t problems, they’re just an opportunity to find a solution”

Brazzill, JaneJane Brazzill, England: “You’re not just a secretary – you’re not just anything. You’re a crucial and integral part of the team … Don’t let anyone undermine you or make you feel less worthy.”

“If you’re like me and you’re constantly got a voice in your head telling you the million OTHER things that you have to do, keep a pad of paper on your desk and write down each of these to-do items as they come to you.

Emptying them out of your head allows you to stay focused on the task at hand, and you won’t worry that you’re forgetting something important.”

“Keep building your skills and network”

Kimberleigh Deignan, USA: “Keep building your skills and network. Let your executive and talent acquisition team know of your desire for growth opportunities.

Taking on new tasks or responsibilities every year or quarter will increase your knowledge and skills. It may not seem like a lot at the time, but the incremental increase of skills is valuable. Set a goal for how many new (even temporary) projects or tasks you can add next year.”


“Leave negative energy at the door”

Erika Giesl, Canada, on job searches: “ I would recommend doing your due diligence prior to applying for any employment opportunity. If you know more about the company, you may know more about where you would like to fit in.

Find out what technology based environment they are working in, and whether they have a professional development plan for employees. Also investigate whether there is opportunity for advancement within that role, in another department, and if there is room to grow.  Talk to an employee in that company to get a better feel of the culture.”

… and on job interviews: “I totally believe in dressing for success. Perhaps I am old school, but I do believe that if you look good, you feel good walking in. Always keep mindful of what is being said, and hold eye contact to demonstrate confidence.” 

“Approach a job interview as a puzzle, and remember it’s a two-way conversation”

Sarah Howson, EnglandHowson-Sarah-England, on returning to work as a new parent: “You can 100% be the person you were before you had a baby! It’s daunting, it’s nerve-wracking, but you can do it. I found having a ‘project’ to focus on whilst I was off kept me on my toes and kept my confidence up. Search out your local PA networking group and attend a session – or, better yet, offer to help organise an event.”

… on job interviews: “Think of it as a puzzle that needs to be put together from all angles, and remember that it is a two-way conversation. Have plenty of questions to ask about how you’d be working in real life. I firmly believe you need to be happy at work and love your role.”

“I have found that the most important thing for me is the personality fit with my executive(s)”

Cindy Moeser, Canada: “In my career, I Moeser-Cindy-Canadahave found that the most important thing for me is the personality fit with my executive(s). A bad fit can be very challenging and often demotivating. The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to go with your gut when moving from one role to the next, and keep an eye out for red flags during the hiring process – if something does not feel right, there is a reason. I once ignored my gut to get out of a job that I was not enjoying and it landed me in an even worse situation.

For career growth, I would recommend that you network with other EAs and attend as many events as you can to understand the dynamics of this ever-changing role.” 

“No one knows everything, no matter how long you’ve been in a role; you can always learn”

Donna Olliver, England: “Learn. Have a mentor, even if you don’t feel you need one. It’s great to become a mentor and to be mentored. You learn so much. Go on as much training as you can, and pass the knowledge on. No one knows everything, no matter how long you have been in the role. You can always learn. It may be something that you have done a certain way for years, but maybe now there is a different way or an app for it.

We are lucky that KPMG value their PA team and they value our ideas and input. If I have an idea, I feel that I can voice it at the team meeting just like any other member of the team. In my early days as a PA, I remember being at a client event and caught myself saying to a client, ‘Oh, I’m just the PA.’ The client turned to me and said, “There is no such things as just anything.” That has always stayed with me and I’ve never said it since, because I know that PAs bring value to their teams and workplaces … most of all, we are ambassadors for the firms we work for and ourselves.”

“Look for stretch opportunities and take appropriate initiative”

Lisa Olsen, USA: “  Making mistakes is okay. Own them, learn from them. If you are a working mom, never compare yourself to another working mom’s situation. Work hard and be nice to people – it’s been the best piece of advice I ever received and has opened more doors than any other skill I have.

Value yourself enough to be committed to your role – no matter what capacity or level. Look for stretch opportunities and take appropriate initiative. Always have a professional attitude and carry yourself well. Maintain your credibility at all costs. Don’t get caught up in office gossip, and never speak negatively about your boss. Read. Find a mentor or coach. Practice being the assistant you aspire to be!” 

“Opportunity knocks only for those who are prepared”

Barbara J. (BJ) Parrish, USA: ” Be a continParrish, Barbara J. -USAuous learner who is always seeking self-improvement, including the soft skills areas such as communication, teamwork, and emotional intelligence.

Opportunity knocks only for those who are prepared; be prepared when it knocks for you. Don’t wait for things to happen; make things happen.

Take on projects to learn a new skill or engage with people with whom you don’t normally work. Keep your eyes and your options open. Be fearless!”


“Don’t sit back and wait for things to happen”

Debra Peltz, EnglandDebra-Jacobs-Peltz-England: “Don’t sit back and wait for things to happen. Ask your leader or seek out opportunities to attend training and development sessions – it could be a free webinar or session you find online.

If you see a role that you are interested in pursuing but don’t yet have the right experience or skills, find out what you would need to do in order to gain them so that you would be in a better position next timeIt could be as simple as brushing up on your Microsoft skills.”

“Step out of your own way; see the bigger picture”

Marshall, Catherine - USACatherine Penasa, USA: ” Essentially, I developed a network of mentors to help me along my career path and give me good advice. The challenging part of this was listening when sometimes I wanted to do things my own way, and trying to see the bigger picture. Once I was able to see the bigger picture, taking and following good advice was a benefit in my career.

My career role model or mentor has been an amazing woman named Ann Dahlke. I met her when I joined the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP). She took me under her wing and taught me how to take advantage of opportunities to gain experience and growth …  I thought to myself that I wanted to have a successful career just like hers. Since I met her, she has been there every step of my career so far, and I hope we can always remain friends no matter what our careers hold for us.”

“Know your worth!”

Richmond-Karen-ScotlandKaren Richmond, Scotland: ” Know your worth! Looking back to when I started as a PA in a factory office, I’m amazed at how sexist attitudes were (from both male and female colleagues).  I’m glad that has changed, but I do think it is important for young people to realise how valuable they are to an organisation and to realise their self worth.

Use every opportunity to work with different people. You can learn so much from peers, those in different roles, different executives, etc. Don’t be afraid to push your boundaries a little and step outside your comfort zone now and again. Look at all the online resources available and, if you are unable to network with peers within your organisation, join one of the many online networks and groups available. Just go for it.”

“This profession is both a means AND an end, and an immensely satisfying and gratifying one at that”

James Sobczak, USASobczak, James - Chicago, USA: “There are a number of ways to think about career growth, whether it’s gaining more knowledge, insight and wisdom in your position, or shifting to a new position in a different area of the enterprise … You also need to really consider what a promotion means to you, what kind of promotion you want, and whether you will be happy and fulfilled in the long run, both personally and professionally.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking about any kind of assistant position just as a means to an end to get some ‘better’ job. This profession is both a means AND an end, and an immensely satisfying and gratifying one at that.”


“Saying no will get you a lot further than saying yes and piling the pressure on yourself”

Carys Stacey, England: “I’ve been an assistant for a few years now and when I first started I never said no. To anyone. To any request. What a nightmare! ‘No’ is a complete sentence and I’ve come to realise that actually saying no will get you a lot further than saying yes and piling the pressure on yourself.

My tip would be to be honest but diplomatic. It’s nice to be able to provide a solution to people asking for your help, but it’s not your responsibility to constantly be a problem solver – especially if the people asking you are not your direct manager. If your boss asks you to do something, always manage their expectations and if what they’re asking of you is unrealistic, tell them – politely, of course!”

“People respect your honesty”

Thomas, Catherine - WalesCatherine Thomas, Wales: “ The NHS Wales PA Network is something I am very proud off. It came to life after a conference 10+ years ago, where Susie Barron-Stubley spoke about the value of PA networks. By the time I had commuted back to Wales from London, I had written a business plan illustrating how we were going to implement a network in my organisation. My Director didn’t bat an eyelid at my idea. She did, however, challenge me to implement the network across NHS Wales and not just the six PAs reflected in my business plan!

I owe a lot to Susie Barron-Stubley. I will always be grateful to her for her encouragement to start to network and to my Director Sally Attwood for the push.”


“I see my manager as my client, and I see the rest of management the same way”

Wemanis, Bettina - SwedenBettina Wemanis, Sweden: “I see my manager as my client, and I see the rest of management the same way.  After all, my job is to relieve, facilitate and prepare so that the daily work functions as smoothly as possible. It is important to be flexible and open to changes and new ideas, but also to act as a kind of filter.

…  Create trust with the manager you assist. Be interested in people and trust them. Extend service both internally and externally.”

Many times people ask you to do something as you have shown you are capable of such; yet there are others who are also capable and would welcome the opportunity to show it. Saying  ‘no’ allows someone else the opportunity to shine.”

“Always be respectful, but know your line in the sand”

Layfayette Wilder, USA:  “My personal networks have led me to most, if not all, my employment opportunities. I have found my best job opportunities – and my longest lasting jobs – through my networking relationships. 

Before COVID, we (network contacts) communicated via text and in-person get togethers. Since COVID, we communicate primarily via text, video chats and calls.”

… (on goal setting): “Pick a goal and take a step, just one step, and then another – and find allies.”

“Continually strive to better yourself and to grasp every training opportunity”

Liza Young, Scotland: ” Don’tYoung, Liza - Scotland be afraid to ask – whether that be for time off for appointments, for training, for advice, for promotion. The worst scenario is that the answer will be ‘no’, but much can be learned even from that on communication and negotiation skills, and how to manage or be managed.

… Continually strive to better yourself and to grasp every training opportunity. Budgets are tight in the education sector, but it doesn’t have to cost: shadow somebody, be mentored by somebody, look out for in-house training courses. And be prepared to self-learn … This includes keeping up with changing technologies …”


Shelagh-Donnelly-Grouse-Mtn-2018-4944-Copyright-Shelagh-DonnellyClick any name below for my full interview with any of the Real Careers alumni featured in 2021’s 12 Days of Real Careers

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