Real Careers: Lorna Cowan

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 Belgium, Canada, England, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa and the USA, and now make our way to Northern Ireland to visit with Lorna Cowan.

Lorna Cowan is Executive Assistant (PA to the Chief Executive), Visit Belfast. Here’s a look at her world.

Reading, Social Media and Music to Start the Day

My alarm goes off at 6:40 a.m. and I hit snooze for as long as I possibly can! If time permits, I’ll have a quick breakfast and read a chapter of whatever book I’m reading or catch up on social media and read my emails. I like to know what’s in my inbox before I reach the office, so I’m prepared for the day ahead.

I drive to work, a commute of around 30-45 minutes (on a good day!). I like to put some music on and chill out on my journey to work. I then catch the park and ride bus into the centre of Belfast. On the bus I read emails, scroll through social media, read a book or catch up with colleagues who use the bus, too. If I’m feeling energetic I sometimes walk to and from work from the car park – a 15 to 20 minute walk.

What musicians/composers are on your playlist for your commute? I love all kinds of music and will listen to just about anything – pop, country, mullet rock, classical. If I’m not tuned into the local radio station (I like to catch the news headlines and traffic reports), I’ll be singing along to Dolly Parton. Who doesn’t like to start their day blasting Nine to Five!

What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? I sing along to everything! I love music. My favourite feel good songs are Soul Sister by Train, Better Get to Livin’ by Dolly Parton and Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac.

At the Office

Morning Routines: Usually I’ve already checked my emails before I reach the office, so I’ve a fair idea of the most urgent tasks. If time permits, I’ll grab a cup of tea and some water to keep at my desk. I’ll then consult my “to do” list (prepared before I left the office the day before) and check in with the Chief Executive to see what the priorities are for the day.

Primary Responsibilities: My day to day duties vary but include general PA functions (diary management, booking flights, hotels and restaurants), business planning, board management (arranging meetings, preparing agendas and papers, taking minutes) and HR (recruitment, providing training and inductions, attending HR meetings and dealing with any issues).

I’m also responsible for office and facilities management (I’m great at unblocking loos!) and managing the reception area, so I’ll liaise with the Receptionist throughout the day to ensure all meetings are catered for and meeting rooms booked and prepared. As well as the Chief Executive, I also support four directors, an HR consultant and the Chair of our Board of Directors, so I’ll catch up with them throughout the day to see what they need.

Every day is different and very much dependent on the Chief Executive’s schedule, but on a normal day I’ll be in the office by 8:50 a.m. and leave around 5:40 p.m. On busy days, if we are hosting meetings or special events, I’ll be in the office earlier and will stay later. Flexibility is key in my role.

At the beginning of each week I meet with the Chief Executive to go through the diary and raise any issues he needs to know about or make decisions on. Immediately after this the senior management team meets to discuss the week ahead and any issues. The agenda is usually lengthy and I always come out with a long list of actions that I spend the rest of the week implementing.

How long is your work day?  It’s rare that I would be needed to work additional hours other than the standard 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but I do keep an eye on emails in the evening and at weekends and respond as required.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat?  I typically have lunch at the office, but away from my desk; I’m trying to save my hard earned cash, so I try not to buy lunch out every day! I’m also on a healthy eating kick, so I tend to eat baked potatoes, salads, etc.

My favourite way to spend lunch time, though, is either a picnic lunch during the summer months, in the grounds of Belfast City Hall or, in the winter months, I’ll have lunch in the historic Linen Hall Library. If possible, I like to spend some time relaxing away from the office to clear my head; I find it makes me more productive in the afternoon. Sometimes I’ll go to the Ulster Hall for the Ulster Orchestra lunch time concerts.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours? Occasionally I’ll be involved in events outside normal working hours, and am also happy to come in early or work late if required. Work-life balance is important to me and I have a lot of commitments outside work, so I try to get away from the office on time and my Chief Executive respects that.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career?  As a PA, my day is varied and constantly changing and this can be hugely challenging. The priorities of my day can shift in an instant. Meetings are cancelled and rescheduled, travel plans change, deadlines move and the demands on your time can be taxing. It often feels like I have to be in two places at once and managing multiple projects. It’s important to take a minute to breathe and assess priorities. Sometimes the hardest part of being a PA is learning to say no. It’s in our nature to be helpful, and sometimes we can take on more than we can handle!

Take a minute to breathe and assess priorities

What do you most enjoy about your career?  Before becoming a PA, my career six years ago was focused on public relations, marketing and events. I never intended to become a PA but, now that I’m here, I love it. I’m a natural organiser and I enjoy providing a support role.

Visit Belfast is an exciting organisation to work for and I love working in a marketing and tourism focused environment. I don’t think I would enjoy working in an organisation that wasn’t as creative or as dynamic and fast paced as Visit Belfast! The team here are all passionate about our city and we get to experience key attractions and events in advance. We work hard and we work fast, but we have a lot of fun doing it!

On Saying “No”

When I first started working as a PA, I found it difficult to say no and often felt overwhelmed with the workload. Now I’m better at prioritising, assessing what’s urgent and time sensitive, knowing when to delegate and when it’s appropriate to say no. I always ask for clear guidelines on requests and deadlines; this helps me to understand the task and manage other peoples’ expectations. It also stops me from becoming overwhelmed and allows me to deliver what is required.

Lorna’s World

Map of worldI was born in Belfast but raised in Bangor, County Down, Northern Ireland. Other than a stint in Edinburgh, Scotland for about six years during and after university, I’ve always lived in Bangor. I love living by the sea!

Being from Northern Ireland, I have the best of both worlds. While I live in a seaside town, I work in Belfast, only 10 miles away. Working for the official tourism marketing agency for the Belfast City Region, I am passionate about arts, culture and the community in Belfast. I like to know what’s going on and regularly attend festivals and events in the city, but equally enjoy spending time by the sea or in the country. You don’t have to go far in Northern Ireland to experience both!

I spend a lot of time with my friends and family – I have two nephews and a new baby niece who live nearby and like to spend time with them. I’m also very involved in the church I attend, and am a member of an amateur choir, Alive Community Choir. I sit on the Choir’s committee and manage all our social media accounts: @alivechoirbelfast (Instagram), @AliveChoir (Twitter) and (Facebook). I’m not lying when I say I I can’t read music or even carry a tune, but I love music!

I’m also a registered volunteer with Volunteer Now and enjoy being involved in events and festivals. I’ll be volunteering at the European Heritage Open Days in September. I’ve recently taken up running and would eventually like to be fit enough to take part in 5k and 10k races, maybe even a marathon! I also love Pilates and Zumba and would love to have more time (and motivation!) to commit to weekly classes.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? Prosecco! Who doesn’t love a little glass of wine and some chocolate or crisps as a treat?! I’ll also treat myself to a DVD box set – have just finished watching Breaking Bad, and loved it!

 A dream holiday or travel adventure?  I’m more of a city break type of person than someone who likes a beach holiday. I like to explore new places and cultures, and my favourite cities are Rome and Krakow. My younger sister moved to North Carolina in the US a few years ago, so now most of my holidays are spent visiting her and my one year old twin nieces!

Education and Professional Development

Education: As my previous career path was focused on public relations, events and marketing, my qualifications reflect that path. However, having a degree in Corporate Communications and post graduate qualifications in marketing and management have proven useful in my current role. I always like to keep learning, and make a point of attending training workshops and PA conferences when time permits.

Peer and Professional Associations: In the past I have been a member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the Association of Personal Assistants and the Chartered Management Institute.  I’ve recently become involved in setting up the Belfast PA Networking Group.



Preferred form(s) of social media? I love social media! I have personal Twitter (@LornaCowanNI), Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn accounts and also manage social media accounts for my Chief Executive, the Belfast PA Network and my choir. Social media, particularly Twitter, is an invaluable source of information that is current and instantaneous and, if used appropriately, it can be an amazing networking and promotional tool.

Twitter: appropriately used, an amazing networking and promotional tool

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career?  A crystal ball! What PA wouldn’t like to be able to see into the future or be a mind reader!

Awards and Recognition

Not to date, nor do I expect it. I’m a behind the scenes kinda gal; I don’t like to draw too much attention to myself and would be a little embarrassed to be nominated for an award. My Chief Executive is always quick to say thank you or recognise when I’ve gone over and above my job role and I appreciate that he takes the time to do that.

Flexibility is key

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace?  Something light and comfortable that I can move around in. As a PA you never know what you’re going to be called upon to do, so something practical but pretty is a must!

What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without?  I don’t wear a lot of makeup but I’m never without pressed powder, mascara and lip gloss. Currently obsessed with Clinique’s Chubby Stick lip colour balm in super strawberry!

Heels or flats in the office?  Both! I have a small collection of shoes in my desk drawer for any occasion. For the commute? Heels if I’m driving or getting the bus; flats if I’m walking. Favourite brands? I particularly like Steve Madden, Michael Kors and Kate Spade – I have a Pinterest board devoted to shoes! I tend to buy my sensible heels from Marks and Spencer.

Preferred scent: I love Chanel Chance or Elie Saab. I wear perfume every day and keep a bottle in my desk drawer.

What else might we find in your desk drawer?  Anything and everything! A good PA is always prepared so I’ll have cereal bars, needles and thread, iPhone, iPad, extra phone chargers, mints, hand cream, pain killers… you name it, I have it!

Inspirational reads? I’m a big reader. I typically read a book a week but don’t read autobiographies or self-help books, so can’t say I’ve found inspiration from any particular writers. Career-wise, I follow a lot of PA blogs and social media accounts I find helpful and inspirational: Lucy Brazier (Executive Secretary), Nicky Christmas (Practically Perfect PA), Victoria Darragh (Hays & EPAA) and Katie McEwan (Ann Summers). Ivanka Trump is my current career inspiration.

Be aware of issues and developments in your industry, and in external environments

Travel or travel planning advice? I hate planning multi-stop business trips! I’m always terrified of getting it wrong or not leaving enough time between transfers. I tend to print out itineraries and really study them to make sure each leg of the trip is feasible before booking anything. Thankfully, I have the support of a travel company to help with the really tricky details.

Role models or mentors?  My Chief Executive and the Directors with whom I work have always been supportive of my career and they make a point of encouraging me to expand my skills. My Chief Executive is particularly supportive of the PA network I’m involved in, and it benefits him, too!

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. As mentioned, I’ve recently become involved in setting up the Belfast PA Networking Group with a small group of local PAs. We all recognised the need for a support network and wanted to develop our networking skills, and share ideas and practical advice. My Chief Executive is incredibly supportive of this and encourages me to build on my skills and network.

Cowan, Lorna - Iron ThroneWe try to meet regularly for lunch or something fun, and recently had an exclusive tour of the Game of Thrones set at Titanic Studios! We haven’t yet developed the network into something bigger but we do have a twitter account which I manage (@BelfastPAs). I enjoy being able to combine my love of marketing and social media with PA networking.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I’d like to see my position develop into more of a Business Support Manager role. As the organisation has grown, and I’ve become more experienced, I’ve taken on more duties outside the traditional PA job description. Career progression is important to me, and I’m keen to expand my skills further within Visit Belfast.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career?  I didn’t set out to be a PA and have no experience of being a PA outside my current role. I learnt on the job through trial and error, common sense, asking questions and instinct. At times I wished I’d had the chance to shadow an experienced PA to see if there was a “right” way to do things.

Ask questions and really listen to the answers; knowledge is power

Your most effective time management strategy? Old fashioned pen and paper “to do” list! I find this easier to work with than online task managers. I write all my notes in one note book that I update throughout the day. I keep on top of my tasks and move on to the next job quickly. I don’t let paperwork, filing or emails get out of control, and I always plan ahead. Spending time each day getting organised means I’m less likely to get overwhelmed during the crazy busy times. I have good filing systems in place and can generally put my hand to any documents or information with little effort. I operate a clear desk policy to prevent getting swamped under paperwork.

Advice for a new mother returning to the workplace? I’m not a mother myself but, having worked with new mums and having friends and family in this position, I’d advise them to go at their own speed, to ask for help when needed and to not compare themselves to other people; everyone is different. I’d also suggest speaking to their line managers or HR department about expectations and support.

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant:  I would advise to not underestimate how valuable a good assistant can be. Include your assistant in key business decisions and make sure that s/he has a good overall understanding and knowledge of the organisation’s goals and business plans. Trust that if your assistant is kept in the loop, knows who the key stakeholders are and the general direction of focus, they can anticipate potential issues, build good working relationships, identify networking opportunities and problem solve. Your Assistant is your representative and should be able to act on your behalf. Knowledge is power.

For those interested in promotion:  Network. Take the time to get to know other PAs; not only will it provide you with an invaluable support network, but you never know what contacts they have or knowledge they can share that can help you in your day to day role as well as your career progression. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. Never stop learning; even if it doesn’t directly relate to your day job, you never know what contacts you’ll make and how that information can be used. Be aware of the issues and developments taking place in your industry, and keep on top of current affairs and the trends in the world around you. Be prepared for anything!


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Lorna referenced may be interested in checking the following links. For a list of resources recommended by our readers, click here.

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