Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Brenda Edwards of Cornwall, England.
Brenda Edwards is Executive Assistant at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. Here’s a look at her world.
My day starts with a 6:30 alarm, with lots of snooze button hitting until 7:00 a.m. I take my dog, Mini, on a quick walk before breakfast, then get ready and generally potter about listening to the radio. I usually quickly check work emails on my phone to see what I’m walking in to. I find, more often than not, that I am required later in the working day, so I usually arrive by 9:00 a.m. and stay later. That said, we’ve just hosted a series of Business Breakfasts for which I needed to be in at 7:15 a.m., so it really depends on my working day.
After many years of hour-long commutes, I am now lucky enough to live just an eight-minute drive away. Hmm. Does that leave any opportunity for a commuting playlist/podcast? I’ll have BBC Radio 2 on for a normal daily commute but, if going further afield for a meeting, then it’s a bit of Ed Sheeran – or 80s classics if I’m in a singing-in-the-car sort of mood.
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: Diary and email management for two executives, travel booking, event organisation and management, minuting meetings and expenses
Morning Routines: Like most people, the first thing I do is check my emails to see if there is anything urgent, and also the diary to see if anything has changed overnight.
I support two Executive Directors: the Finance Director and the Director of Outreach and Development. Though they both share the same names (first and middle names – and their wives’ names are the same, as well!), their roles are very different, which makes my role quite varied. There is not a typical day. However, there is the routine stuff each day, like checking emails (theirs as well as mine if I have the time), diary management – such as rescheduling appointments as priorities change or urgent requests come in – organising travel (and itineraries where appropriate), and catching up with both Peters if they are in.
There are several executives within Eden and Eden International (a subsidiary company), and so there are several of we EAs who work, and sit, together as a team. It works really well, as part of the typical day involves working with them to enable the execs to meet up/travel together/collaborate on projects. It also enables us to support and cover each other for leave, etc. We all get on really well too, which helps!
How long is your work day? I typically spend around nine hours in the office. My contracted hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and I tend to work until around 6:00. I sometimes come in earlier, as previously mentioned, and sometimes later. As part of my role, as well as the Business Breakfasts, I also get to organise the Eden Summer Garden Party, which the EAs also support, so that runs late in to the evening. It’s well worth it, though, as it’s a wonderful event.
We are able to work from home, which is handy when there are minutes to type up or a need or focus – or even a rare snow day – but I prefer to be in the office.
We are allowed to bring our dogs into the office, so you will frequently find the dogs being walked
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? We’re very lucky working at Eden in that we have the gardens to walk in. Many of us take advantage of them during our lunch break when we can. We are allowed to bring our dogs in to the office, so you will frequently find the dogs being walked. Often a group of staff will walk their dogs at the same time, so that’s a sociable way to get to know your colleagues as well as getting exercise.
We are also offered stand desks and/or ball chairs.
As they say, “‘a healthy mind is as important as a healthy body”, and so we have recently started a singing group as part of our wellbeing programme. Any staff member can participate. Nothing beats a good sing-song to make you feel better, don’t you think?
What might be a typical lunch? As an EA group, we do try to grab at least 20 minutes together for lunch. If we go for a walk, or just have too much on, then we’ll eat at our desks. But more often than not, we do manage to eat in the staff room together – where work is rarely the topic of conversation!
Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role? I am the Deputy Chair of the Members’ Assembly (MA). This is a group of representatives from each department who act as advocates for the staff they represent. Staff can bring any comments or concerns they have to the MA, who in turn raise it with a member of the Executive Team – usually the CEO – who takes time to attend the MA Meetings. The Director of HR attends the meetings as well. The MA acts as a conduit for dialogue between the staff and the Executive Management, and is quite open.
The Members’ Assembly acts as a conduit for dialogue between the staff and the executive management
Outside of work, I am working with another EA I know outside of Eden, Juliet Harrison of Folk2Folk, to set up an EA Support Forum page on social media for EAs/PAs in the Cornwall and Plymouth area.
Juliet and I were part of the Plymouth PA Network, which recently ended. There isn’t an EA/PA Network in Cornwall, which is a large (approximately 80 miles/129 kilometers long) but disparate area, so we thought we would try to fill the void and find a way to bring the EAs and PAs of Cornwall together – virtually, if not geographically.
Inside the career
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Juggling two Peters! My most commonly used phrase is, “Which Peter?” It doesn’t help that they have the same middle names! Even their wives have the same name.
Otherwise, it is managing and attempting to preempt changing priorities, along with the inevitable diary fallout, which can be frustrating for the people whose schedules you are having to rearrange.
What do you most enjoy about your career? The variety. The task you’re doing can change in a heartbeat, so you’re never doing the same things all day, and no two days are the same! I also enjoy helping people and problem solving, which is a major part of the EA role.
Also, just being part of Eden. It has long been recognised as an authority on and leader in all things “eco” and I fancy myself as bit of an eco warrior. Their ethos on sustainability, biodiversity and battling climate change closely aligns with my views, which gives great pride and job satisfaction.
We have recently started a singing group, as part of our wellbeing programme
On Saying “No”
Saying no comes with the territory, I’m afraid – especially when it comes to the executives’ time. The best advice I can give on saying no is to empathise. Whilst priorities differ, it is the most important thing at that time to the person asking. I always try to give explain why I am having to say no and, where possible, give them an alternative option.
At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I’ve experienced both – and both have their merits! There are more music gigs and theatre – and nightlife in general – in the cities, along with better public transportation, more career opportunities and, often, better pay. However, work/life balance is so important and you can’t beat the beach and country walks in walking distance of home.
How long have you been in this career? Nearly 31 years! Where does the time go? I was 22 when I was offered my first PA role. What was that first role? PA to the Principal of Fircroft Adult Education College in Birmingham. The college was housed in the birthplace of George Cadbury (one of the founders of Cadbury’s chocolate), so was steeped in history. In his, will, George Cadbury left the building as a college for working class adults, and it is still educating people to this day.
How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? A colleague in my previous role drew my attention to it, saying it was “right up my street”. She was right – it is!
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? Walking my dog Mini, pub quizzes, cinema, theatre, live music gigs and a glass or two of red wine. I fairly recently graduated from a degree program, so am still relishing the lack of deadlines now I don’t have essays to write. That said, I have just signed up to volunteer at a local charity that supports homeless people.
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A good film, a good wine, good company (usually my boyfriend, Andrew) and a snuggle with my dog. A walk along the beach with Andrew and Mini also works.
Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? As a freckly, easily sunburned person, I’m not a big fan of the beach, so I like to explore. I love history and places of historical interest. I also love dressing up, so my favourite holiday has to be Carnevale in Venice. I’ve had the privilege of taking part a couple of times and love the masquerade costumes.
In the future, though, I would love to learn diving and explore the underwater wonders of a warm, tropical sea.
Their (Eden Project’s) ethos on sustainability, biodiversity and battling climate change closely aligns with my views
Education and professional development
I fairly recently graduated with a BA (Hons) in English Literature, which I did part time over a six year period as I was still working full time and running a pirate-themed Shanty Group. Whilst Literature may not be the first degree that comes to mind for an EA role, it was instrumental in teaching me how to research and write formally and succinctly, when needed. My degree was encouraged and (mostly) financially supported by my employers throughout that time.
Networking, inspiration and achievements
Let’s talk about the positive benefits your networking has had on your career, and/or for your employer. Networking has been a crucial part of my career. Let’s face it, being an EA can be quite isolating; you are not one of the executive or management teams, but you are not necessarily part of the rest of the team either.
You are not one of the executive or management teams, but you are not necessarily part of the rest of the team either
Most of the time, you are the only EA or PA in the organisation and so networking can make you feel part of something and not alone. It is a great way to share good practices, tips, get reassurance – or just to vent! At PA conferences, I have learned a lot – from minute taking tips, to the existence of VAs, to recommendations for formal training to tips on handling a difficult situation with a (former) boss.
These days, it’s a great way of finding online or social media contacts. I wouldn’t have found Exceptional EA without networking. The events I organise in my current role are networking events for executive level people. If networking is good for your boss, then it’s good for you!
I wouldn’t have found Exceptional EA without networking
Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. Gosh … there are so many. I used to be a Constituency Manager for an MP and was able to help many constituents, including a young woman and her baby who were made homeless and had been refused help by the local housing team. I intervened and helped secure her a permanent home. I was also able to help refugees who had wrongly been denied support.
More recently, I always feel proud when the Summer Garden Party goes well and people clearly enjoy it – and the same with the Business Breakfasts. I take pride in the little things, like successfully preempting something or being asked to do something, and able to say I have already done it!
Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? Organisational skills, the ability to preempt and think round corners (a phrase a previous boss used in an appraisal to describe me), flexibility, ability to adapt and respond quickly to change, researching skills and attention to detail
I was once told by an executive that I made them feel that “everything is going to be okay” when I came into work each day, which was a huge compliment. I feel that’s a big part of the EA role – to take pressure and stress away from the executive and, in that way, give reassurance.
Role models or mentors? I don’t really have one. I have always been self-starting and self-motivating, so I’ve not really felt the need – especially now. In the early years of assisting, I always used my boss as my mentor, as they had often been there before me and could give me guidance.
Have you received any awards or recognition within this career? Not as yet. LOL!
When I was a young (age 20) hotel receptionist, I was awarded Hotel Receptionist of the Year, which was nice. Guests and staff alike made the nominations, so it meant a lot. However, this wasn’t in an assistant role. I think it’s a really difficult thing to achieve, as the assistant role is naturally one where support, helping others and going beyond the call of duty are the norm. I really admire those who are successful in getting this recognition.
If networking is good for your boss, then it’s good for you!
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? First of all, I need to recognise when I will be out of my comfort zone. Then, it’s preparation. If I am prepared, I feel more in control and less nervous or anxious.
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? At Eden we have a development fund that every member of staff can apply to for training or development. A panel then decides which applications will be awarded the funding. I haven’t applied as yet, given my recent graduation. However, we do have an excellent in-house training team who deliver everything from mandatory training (like Health and Safety) to an overnight “‘Connections” leadership programme that connects you with nature. They also recently delivered a mock tribunal training course, with actual lawyers, acting out a sexual harassment case. Brilliant! It taught me a lot.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? To continue to support my executives to achieve their goals, thereby ensuring that the Eden Project continues to educate and entertain people. To keep learning and developing – as we like to say at Eden, “Every day’s a learning day!”
The best advice I can give on saying no is to empathise
The Digital Age
What are your preferred forms of social media? Facebook and LinkedIn
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? Access Workspace and LinkedIn Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? A tracking device for both my executives for when they go “rogue”
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? I don’t have a work mobile. However, I take calls on my personal mobile and at home if needed, but that is very rare.
Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint or other web portals? Yes. We have an intranet called Grapevine, where all information is shared. It is also through Grapevine that we book annual leaves, book people on the guest list, etc.
We also use Facebook Workspace to share good news stories and information in a less formal way.
Our board meetings are paperless, which works really well and is definitely on message.
How have digital assistants and artificial intelligence (AI) impacted your role? This hasn’t affected my role personally, but I can see that these are increasing in popularity across the EA/PA world. It’s even made it to Cornwall, and I recently met up with a group at a networking event and heard how it’s growing.
Every day’s a learning day!
What positive impact(s) do you think AI, digital assistants and IOT (the Internet of Things) will have on the assistant of 2025? As there is a climate crisis going on, we should embrace the technologies to enable us to have virtual meetings. This would help save the planet as well as travel time. Hologram meetings would be great!
What forms of professional development would you recommend to assistants who want to ensure their roles remain relevant and rewarding in this digital age? PA conferences are a good place to start. They are a great place for horizon scanning and seeing new developments and what technologies are coming. There are also some great PA-focused training courses, diplomas and qualifications out there – far more than was available in my early career. Decide on where and how you want to advance, and find the qualifications they are looking for to get you there.
Travel or travel planning recommendations? A good, clear itinerary – One that includes supporting paperwork/tickets/boarding passes, etc.! For work, we use a travel management company,so it’s important to have their contact details as well – you can always guarantee that any travel problems or delays will be in the middle of night (UK time), so it’s good to know our travellers are able to get help if needed.
What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and expense tracking? We’ve recently started using Access Workspace for expenses, which is both an app and online. It allows my executives to do their expenses as they go, if they prefer, or for me to do it for them. It is electronic, so no paper is involved, which fits with our ethos as well.
Conferences: great place for horizon scanning and seeing new developments and what technologies are coming
You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend. Keep your CV up to date and really sell yourself. Assistants are often very modest about their tasks and abilities, and tend to under-sell themselves, so don’t fall into that trap.
Register with a proactive agency. I’ve noticed a huge increase in the use of agencies in the last five years. Also, keep your LinkedIn profile up to date and connect with people and networks in the sectors where you would like to work. I was recently headhunted for a role via LinkedIn, so you never know who’s looking! If there are particular companies you would like to work with, it’s worth keeping an eye on their websites and the “Current Vacancies” section. If you don’t have the experience required for where you want to work, volunteer in something similar. It looks great on your CV!
Assistants are often very modest about their tasks and abilities, and tend to under-sell themselves, so don’t fall into that trap
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Honesty! Also, make your interviewers laugh (they’ll remember you) and ask questions (do your research on the company beforehand – check their last published accounts, etc.). Above all, remember it is a two-way process – you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.
What are a couple of suggestions you’d offer that new assistant on the block, in terms of how to build effective business relationships within the office? Be visible. Make yourself known by making the effort to walk round and introduce yourself and book in introductory meetings with key staff. Be reliable and effective and, with the support of your executive, ensure that it is better for staff to turn to you as the first point of contact.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? To be confident enough – even if you don’t feel it – to do everything I mentioned just above.
Your most effective time management strategy? Focus on what you are doing and don’t be distracted from it. As good as we are at multi-tasking, that doesn’t necessarily work for time management. Lists work well for some people – either in Outlook or writing a physical list. I tend to use my inbox as my “to do” list, and delete the emails as I complete the task.
Establish your main priorities for the week, so you are not ambushed with something while you are focused on something else. Time blocking works really well for one of my executives, so if you are able to do that I would recommend it.
Advice for a new parent returning to the workplace? Don’t feel guilty! You’re being an excellent role model for your child.
If you’re returning from maternity leave, then “Keep In Touch” (KIT) meetings are helpful to ease you back in slowly and keep you familiarised with any changes/updates. If you are returning after some years off to a new employer, brush up on your skills by volunteering or going to college to update yourself on new technologies or systems.
Don’t be afraid to ask HR for information on the systems you will be using so you can update yourself on those. There is a YouTube tutorial for everything these days. And Google/search the company you’re working for and see if there are any recent developments it would be good to know about. Be prepared!
Decide on where and how you want to advance, and find the qualifications they are looking for to get you there
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Firstly, find out a bit about them personally – family/where they are from/where they worked before/football team (one of my executives is a season ticket holder for a London-based team, so it’s handy for me to know the fixtures as I sometimes add a London-based meeting in his diary while he’s up there).
Secondly, ask how they prefer to work and their expectations of you in supporting them. For example, how “hands on” do they want you to be? You can then move on to asking about their objectives – daily/weekly/monthly/yearly – so you can gauge where their priorities are over those timescales. Obviously, objectives and priorities change but it will give you an overview at that time.
Your thoughts on goal setting? The best lesson is to actually have goals to set! It is something I have not been very good at over the years. I tend to be a “let’s see where the job takes me” and an opportunistic sort of person, but admire those who set goals and work towards them.
Don’t be afraid to aim high
For those interested in promotion: Put time into thinking about what you want to achieve, and discuss it with your executive/principal and HR. See if they are able to support you in that growth and give advice on how to achieve it.
Also check what’s available outside your organisation. It is personal development, so if your organisation is unable or unwilling to support you, there’s nothing to stop you doing it in your own time. When I started my degree, I did it for my own benefit. It was only when I mentioned in passing that I was doing one that my then-employer offered to support me in it.
Above all, don’t be afraid to aim high. The Chief Executive of our local Hospital Trust started as a nurse. One of the Cornish MPs used to be a secretary. Believe in yourself!
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Brenda mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
To explore a range of resources that are relevant to your career, click here to explore what you can find under Exceptional EA’s Real Careers tab.
Interested in knowing more about some of the professional associations and networks specifically for assistants? Click here to see the list Shelagh’s developed based on your peers’ recommendations.
Exceptional EA showcases Real Careers, in which administrators from around the globe generously share the benefit of their experience. We’ve made virtual trips to 24 countries to date: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Italy, Mauritius, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates , the United States of America and Wales.