Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Priscilia Gough of Vancouver, Canada.
Priscilia Gough is Senior Executive Assistant, Office of the CEO & Board of Directors at her organisation. Here’s a look at her world.
An informed start
I wake up every morning at 5:00 a.m. The first thing I do is put on a pot of coffee which brews while I start to get ready for the day. Getting ready for me includes checking emails, turning on the news so I can catch up on top stories and spending some time with my puppy, Meea. My goal is to leave home by 6:00 a.m. and I am usually in the office by 6:30.
My commute is 35 minutes by car. My husband and I drive in together and this is our opportunity to talk about what our days have in store in for us – meetings, times we expect to be done, etc.
Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? I would say that my primary responsibilities are calendaring: clearing conflicts, making my CEO available to key stakeholders, ensuring he has all the materials he needs ahead of his meetings and so on. In addition, I do a lot of travel planning, budgeting, working with senior executives in various departments, formatting documents, and drafting and sending out communications on behalf of the CEO. I also project manage our annual Staff off-site retreat and head our Social Committee.
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: I am always the first person in the office. As soon as I get in, I make myself a cup of coffee and sit down to respond to emails for about the first hour. Because I checked my emails at home, I know which ones are a priority by the time I get in. I also work a lot with people in the UK, so I generally use the first two hours of my morning to deal with any phone calls or correspondence with people in the UK.
I like to take an hour in the morning to connect with my colleagues when they get in the office to find out about their days and priorities. From there, my day usually varies depending on the priorities. I often have one or two meetings in a day and I block out my calendar for any important priorities or projects that I have to manage. The last hour of my day is usually spent looking forward into the next day and working on any materials or prep work that needs to be done.
How long is your work day? I am usually “in the office” for about eight hours. But I never really stop working. My laptop comes home with me each day, and I often do a few hours of emails/work after dinner. I would say I generally work about 10 hours a day.
What might be a typical lunch? I often eat lunch (a chicken salad) at my desk. I very rarely get away for lunch and take the time while I am eating my lunch to check my personal emails, read a few news websites and browse LinkedIn.
Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role? I do lead our Social Committee and our Corporate Social Responsibility groups. While I don’t consider these to be part of my role, I feel like everything I am involved in directly links into the vision and feel of the office of the CEO.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? I think the most challenging part of my career is to make people understand that the role of an EA is not just administrative. I work hard to ensure that I am seen as a key member of the Executive Team and that I can be part of the strategic decisions and discussions that are taking place. I try to ensure I always have a seat at the boardroom table so that I know what is happening. This helps me anticipate issues that might arise and helps me be proactive in the work that I do.
I work hard to ensure that I am seen as a key member of the Executive Team
What do you most enjoy about your career? My favourite thing about being an EA is that I get to work with nearly everyone and every department in the company. I get a high-level view of the entire organization and an understanding of how all the pieces come together to drive the company goals and objectives.
On Saying “No”
I try not to say “No”; rather, I give different suggestions or solutions if I am asked to do something that I do not agree with or don’t believe I should do. I will ask questions that will help me understand the request better and then try to have an open and honest discussion with the person about why I am saying no to a certain request. I think setting expectations at the start of a working relationship also helps avoid situations where you have to say no to certain requests.
I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. My husband and I met and started dating in high school. When we got married, we decided we wanted to see more of the world and we moved to the UK for a few years. While we were there, we went to Vancouver, Canada on holiday and fell in love with the city. We have now lived in Vancouver for 10 years and I am very proudly Canadian!
At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I am definitely a city girl. I enjoy the “hub” of the city, the fast paced environment and the diversity of all the people you get to meet. The amazing thing about Vancouver is that you can be in the city and, within 30 minutes, you can be at the beach, hiking up a mountain or skiing on a glacier. It’s the best of both worlds.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? On weeknights, I usually try to go straight to the gym. When I get home I take my dog Meea for a walk, and then it’s home, have dinner and deal with emails that have come in during my time away from my computer. On the weekends I enjoy being outdoors (cycling, hiking, etc.) and then spending time with friends and family. I enjoy being social and having an active weekend! So much of my week is taken up with work that I really like to unwind on the weekend.
How long have you been in this career? I have been an admin professional for 17 years. I started my career as soon as I graduated high school. I took a one-year diploma course as a Legal Executive Secretary the year after high school, and had my first job a month after graduation. What was your first such role? I worked as a Secretary at a family-run law office that specialized in family law and conveyancing. A lot of my duties were basic administration, such as reception, filing, expenses and office organization.
What might we find in your desk drawer? I have a full set of makeup, a hair straightener, Cold-FX, headache tablets and a few cans of tinned soup in my drawer. I also have an assortment of thank you, bereavement and congratulations cards. I’m a strong believer in hand-written thank you cards!
Social media is a must
How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? The role was posted on LinkedIn through a recruiter that I had worked with previously.
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? Going to the gym at the end of my work day helps me unplug for an hour. I leave my phone in my locker and plug into my iPod so I can “zone out” and focus on “me” time. I also enjoy a great bottle of wine and dinner on a Friday night to reward myself for a successful week! During the week, dinners usually consistent of smoothies or “quick” food as my days are full. So, Fridays allow me to take the time to make a good meal and share a great bottle of wine.
Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? I love history and sight-seeing. My holidays are often jam-packed itineraries of going to museums, landmarks and sightseeing. I love to walk everywhere and get a flavour of the local community and culture. I very rarely stay in hotels and prefer to stay in local AirBnBs, so I am immersed in the culture. However, I also enjoy a good all-inclusive holiday on white sandy beaches and Caribbean blue seas!
Education and Professional Development
The role of an EA has changed significantly in the past 20 years. EAs in today’s job market are expected to have excellent technical skills in terms of emerging technology and business systems, as well as soft skills to lead teams and negotiate with stakeholders, etc. I try to ensure that I am involved in professional development on a regular basis to keep all of these skills (soft and hard) up to date.
I have done Project Management for Administrative Professionals and social media training, as well as Negotiating and Time Management development. I also believe in doing industry-specific training so you can understand better the needs of your company. For example, when working for a large accounting company, I did courses on tax preparation.
Role models and mentors from the Deloitte days: Eden Black and Jean Kosterewa
Networking: Being able to network with fellow EAs has allowed me to build my career in such a positive way. The simplest of conversations with a person can open up multiple opportunities for you. It’s through my network that I learned about several courses I’ve taken. I have found groups (Office Ninja) and magazines that give excellent advice. Networking has also helped me build very strong relationships with vendors (restaurants, hotels, travel providers, airlines, etc.) in my community; that positively impacts my company when I am able to negotiate better rates or assistance because of these connections. The most important benefit though of having such a large and strong network is that, if I do find myself needing advice or help in any form, I have an extensive network to reach out to for help!
Inspirational reads? Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is my favourite book and the one that has really driven me to make sure I have a seat and a voice at the boardroom table. It is very motivational and should be on every assistant’s reading list.
Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? I think my strongest competency that makes me so successful is my ability to anticipate needs and bring proactive solutions to the table. These two competencies go hand in hand as they allow me to know that something might come up and be prepared with solutions before it does arise.
You are the master of your own universe and you should advocate for your personal time
Role models or mentors? I have had a few. Eden Black and Jean Kosterewa worked at Deloitte during my time there, and were both my mentors and role models in a variety of different ways. Eden helped me understand Canadian corporate culture. She guided me through a lot of career decisions and taught me how to “walk softly but carry a big stick”. Not only was Eden my mentor; she was also my advocate and I owe a large part of my success here in Canada to her. Jean taught me the importance of building connections and relationships with my peers, and how to build a strong network of like minded professionals. Jean has amazing empathy and taught me how to channel mine for the greater good.
Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? I was nominated three years running for the Carol Brown Award, an employee recognition award at McCarthy Tétrault. This award recognizes a significant impact on the firm through dedication, competence, exceptional performance, teamwork and excellent client service. Various companies I have worked for also had peer-to-peer recognition awards, and I have received a number of these in my 17 years.
If I find myself needing advice or help in any form, I have an extensive network to reach out to for help
Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. When I first came to Canada, I was very lucky to land in a role at Deloitte Touche (Deloitte). Within the first few months, Deloitte (which had been selected to be the accounting firm for the Vancouver Olympics) ran a national competition to send 20 staff as volunteers to the Vancouver Olympics. I was one of the lucky 20 chosen, and I strongly believe it was due to my ability to present myself as a strong leader, communicator and organizer. While this isn’t necessarily a career accomplishment, I do believe that my career gave me the confidence and skills to be able to represent my company (and myself) at this once in a lifetime opportunity.
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I’m very lucky in that I don’t really consider myself to have a comfort zone. I am always up for a challenge, big or small. If there has ever been a case of me not wanting to step out of my comfort zone, it has usually been for a very good reason and I don’t do it.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? My goal is to always continue to expand my resume by learning and growing. I enjoy being a people manager/mentor and I am hoping to lead a group of assistants in the coming years.
The Digital Age
What are your preferred forms of social media? For professional purposes, I am a champion of LinkedIn. It is such a robust platform for information, networking, learning and careers. I also really like Twitter. Personally, I love Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram. Do you publish to, and/or monitor social media or a website as part of your professional responsibilities? No.
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? AdobeScan, DropBox (OneDrive), Google (translate, maps), business card scanner, a lot of news apps, and Concur (receipts)
Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? A concierge type app that links me with other assistants in various cities where my executive travels, so he has on the ground support!
I enjoy being a people manager/mentor
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Yes. Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability via smartphones, etc. may have had on your quality of life. I used to be the person who could never put my phone down and was “on” all the time. That gets exhausting and burnout tends to occur very quickly. I think you have to manage expectations and have good conversations with your executives about the use of technology and your availability outside working hours.
You are the master of your own universe and you should advocate for your personal time. Saying that, I know that I can be called upon at any hour, in the event of an emergency, and I know that is part of my job and what I have signed up for. However, if you find yourself getting out of office regular calls that are not emergencies, a conversation needs to occur. Set boundaries for yourself and stick to them!
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital (relying on portals and/or PDFs of meeting materials), or paper-based? All of my meetings are completely digital. We use WebEx to share materials and for our voice calls.
I believe in industry-specific training so you can understand better the needs of your company
Does your organisation make use of a portal for any of its bodies/committees? Not in my current company, but previous companies I have worked in have used BoardVantage to share board/committee materials. As with everything technology based, there are always pros and cons with service issues around these types of platforms.
It’s not unusual to read that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will increasingly impact employment prospects across a range of occupations. What forms of professional development would you recommend to assistants who want to ensure their roles remain relevant and rewarding in this digital age? A few things here. One: Social media is a must! Understanding all the various platforms, their particular uses and how to engage your stakeholders, clients and community using these various platforms is critical. Two: being virtual. Understanding all of the various software that allows you to not only work virtually, but globally, is critical. There are so many fantastic web-based applications and software that can help you collaborate and connect with anyone, anywhere. Staying abreast of this technology by joining groups on LinkedIn, subscribing to tech magazines (such as Wired) will help you know what is coming out and how it works. Then do the training!!
Learning how to adapt your communication and work style depending on the person you are working with is really key
Travel or travel planning recommendations? Travel planning requires a strong understanding about the needs and preferences of your executives. Discussions about the expectations and needs associated with a trip are crucial to creating the right itinerary for your executive. I also believe in brand loyalty (e.g., Fairmont Presidents Club, Air Canada’s Aeroplan) to ensure smooth and successful travel. If your executive does a lot of travelling, getting to those elite status levels will ensure that they receive exceptional service.
What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and expense tracking? I have A LOT of travel apps – from having one for each airline so I can check my executive in for flights, to flight trackers, currency converters, open table (restaurant table bookings) to Trip Advisor. I would have to say, though, that Google Maps is my best app as it enables me to plan out every minute of a trip, including travel time between meetings, hotels, airports and more.
You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend. The first thing before embarking on a job search is to ensure your LinkedIn profile is current and up to date. In addition, ensuring you have a professional and current resume is key. Make sure that your resume isn’t too wordy, but still highlights all of your key job responsibilities. Next up, register with one or two recruitment agencies. Doing more than that dilutes your impact. Don’t rely on the agency, though to find a position for you. You have to proactively manage your job search. Go on a variety of different platforms (LinkedIn, Indeed, etc.) and apply directly.
Look at awards presented to employers, and then go on to awardees’ career websites
I also like to look at awards (Top 100 employers, 50 Best Managed, Diversity awards, etc.) that are presented to companies, and then go on to each of those companies’ website and search through their careers section. I find applying directly to companies is often a very successful way to find employment. If you do find a position at a company that you are interested in, go back on LinkedIn and see if you have any connections who have mutual connections there. Word of mouth referrals are essential.
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Research, research, research! Go online, find out all you can about the company and the people you will be interviewing with. Knowing what schools, passions, groups, etc. that your potential interviewers are interested in will help you find common ground when in the interview. Have questions … a lot of them! Think through what is important to you in a role (culture, work space, environment, learning and growth) and incorporate those into your interview questions.
Also ask strategic questions about the company’s growth, strategic direction and guiding principles. Make sure that, through the interview, you understand what makes a person successful (and not successful) in this role. Lastly, do mock interviews with a mentor or someone you trust so that you can gain confidence in answering questions in an interview setting.
Hand in hand: Anticipating needs and bringing proactive solutions to the table
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? For me, it was about how to work with different work styles and personalities. Learning how to adapt your communication and work style depending on the person you are working with is really key. Also, be a team player and make sure you give recognition where it is due when working in teams. You may not realize just how much someone did that helped make you shine, and giving that person an opportunity to shine is very important.
Let’s talk about goal setting. My advice for setting goals is to be realistic but to also stretch yourself. Look for goals that will improve the quality of your resume. Look at job positing for positions or a career path that you WANT. Check the key criteria for those roles, and then find a way to incorporate them in to your own goals.
Have both short term and long term goals. I find short terms goals are a great way to reward yourself for small successes. In addition, life happens and sometimes your long terms goals can change, so at least achieving smaller short time goals will continue to build on your career.
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? Setting up 1:1 phone calls or meetings with key stakeholders is very important. That should include all the executives in senior leadership, so you understand their roles – and those of their departments. Make sure you get to know all the other assistants and clerical staff who are often the people who will be able to guide you through the processes and company culture. Lastly, take an opportunity to attend as many work events as you can, as this will often be the place to have relaxed but informative discussions. Asking clear and concise questions about what people do, how their role contributes to the company and where you can work together will help build trust and rapport with your new coworkers.
I get a high-level view of the entire organization and an understanding of how all the pieces come together to drive the company goals and objectives
Your most effective time management strategy? Manage your calendar the same way you would your executive’s. Block time for key project work where you shut off your email and focus on more specific deliverables. Don’t allow “time creep” into specific areas where you need to focus. And always arrive to meetings five minutes early. This allows you to look composed and professional when the meeting starts, and often gives you the ability for a nice informal chat with the other early arrivers.
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Key topics include communication styles and preferences; do they like email, phone calls, iMessage? If your executive has had assistants in the past, find out what has worked well for them and what hasn’t. If they haven’t had an assistant, getting a key understanding of what they are hoping for out of this role is essential.
In addition, tell them what you can do for them! Sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know, and you need to guide them as to where you can help them be more efficient and effective. Lastly, I always like to set up a 90-day plan outlining what both the executive and I hope I will achieve in my first three months. That helps set expectations and guides a lot of these conversations.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Priscilia mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
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