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 21 countries to date: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the USA and Wales. Today, we make our first stop in North Lanarkshire, in the Central Belt of Scotland.
Family and News
I get up at around 6:00 a.m. My routine includes ensuring that my daughters are up for school, making up packed lunches, feeding rabbits and a cat … and I must have a coffee and a bowl of porridge. I also like to watch some of the BBC Breakfast news – especially Reporting Scotland if I have time.
I have a 10-15 minute walk to the bus stop; there is a closer one, but I enjoy walking no matter the weather. I then have a 50-60 minute bus journey, depending on the traffic and weather. What’s on your commuting playlist? I usually listen to Capital FM Scotland, or local radio station Clyde 1.
At the Office
Morning Routines: My priorities on arriving at the office are to check through my emails for anything urgent, to catch up with the team of PAs with whom I share an office, and to have a quick catch up with the University Secretary before meetings begin. I usually make a coffee for the catch up.
Primary Responsibilities: Aside from being a jobshare PA to the University Secretary & Vice Principal Governance, which includes all the hectic diary management, committee servicing and travel arranging, etc., in which most PAs are involved, I lead a team of brilliant Executive PAs, manage the Executive Support Office, and plan and organise events ranging from book launches to portrait unveilings to formal dinners.
I’m not sure that I have a typical working day, as I work in such a dynamic environment. My day starts with checking emails and catching up with the University Secretary. I try to catch up with the team of Executive PAs, too – since, although we all work for separate members of the Executive, we are a team and help each other out; there is an overlap in our work. During any one day, I will be involved in a diverse range of activities. I may be involved in minuting a meeting, or actively taking part in a meeting. I’m involved in University Governance issues. I can be meeting and greeting the University Secretary’s guests or dealing with a complex HR issue. I could be researching information for a Board paper or planning/managing a high profile event.
Above all, the majority of my day is spent communicating, either by written correspondence, telephone or in face to face meetings. As I job share, I have to ensure that my job share partner is also kept up to date with everything that is happening. No two days are the same.
Other staff often open up to a PA with their issues before they open up to the executive
How long is your work day? My working hours are 9:00 to 5:00. I’m often in the office until around 5:30, and occasionally longer if required, but I do try not to make a habit of it.
What might be a typical lunch? Sometimes I bring in my lunch from home, and sometimes I buy a salad or a sandwich. If I’m pressed for time, I’ll buy soup from our in-house caterers to eat at my desk. I always try to get away from my desk for a short time, and ideally I like to go out for a walk. If I don’t get a break, then I find that I’m much less productive in the afternoon.
A PA should be given the autonomy to run with projects and ideas
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? As I’ve mentioned, I job share and we both work three days a week. I try not to work at home on my days off, although I’m obviously available to speak to my job-share partner on the phone or by text as it could be that I can quickly help with something urgent.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? The most challenging aspect of my career has been becoming (along with my job share partner) a manager of the peer group I was working with. It wasn’t plain sailing in the early days, but I like to think that we have come a long way as a team over the past couple of years.
I’m proud to say that I’ve worked for Glasgow Caledonian University since 1995
What do you most enjoy about your career? I love the variety of my day. As I work on a part time basis, I’m never 100% sure of what has happened on my days off and what my immediate priority will be on entering the office.
On Saying “No”
Sometimes it is necessary to say no; just being assertive, along with an explanation of why you are saying no, helps. Being willing to compromise and talking things through help others to see your viewpoint – and it helps you to get a clear understanding as to what is being asked of you.
I was born in South Derbyshire, England and my family moved to the West Coast of Scotland in the mid-1980s. However, for the past 20 years I’ve lived in North Lanarkshire in the Central Belt of Scotland. It’s very handy for commuting to Glasgow, Edinburgh or Stirling.
At heart, are you a city gal or small community person (city mouse/country mouse)? It’s difficult to say. I absolutely love working in Glasgow. It is such a vibrant city and the people really are so friendly; they make Glasgow what it is. I do, however, also love rural environments and it’s nice to escape from the city. I’m lucky that the town where I live is extremely pedestrian and cycle friendly; there are plenty of green places to walk. I can choose the city, coast or countryside, as all are a short drive away.
On my days off, I love walking, cooking, reading, going to the cinema or theatre, or going to yoga classes or the gym. I spend a lot of time with my family. I have recently become a member of the Children’s Panel. The Children’s Panel is made up from volunteers from the local community for the Children’s Hearing System. The Children’s Hearing system in Scotland is a unique care and justice system for children and young people. It aims to ensure the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable children and young people, through a decision-making lay tribunal called the Children’s Panel. I have met many interesting people through this volunteer work and thoroughly enjoy it.
Know your worth!
How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? After a tough day in the office, a long walk through the countryside is a great way to wind down. I like to spend time with family and friends. I also enjoy yoga classes or a workout at the gym; both are great stress busters. A glass of wine at the end of the working week is a nice treat, too.
A dream holiday or travel adventure? An ideal holiday would include a beach. It could be a hot, sunny sandy beach with ice cold cocktails, or a cold, windy and rocky Scottish beach, sitting beside a roaring log fire with a warm drink.
We have come a long way as a team over the past couple of years
Education and Professional Development
Education: I think that graduating with a BA(Hons) Commerce with Information Management certainly helped me to get my first role as PA to the Board of Directors. Since then, I have learned many skills along the way and love to keep up to date through Twitter and LinkedIn, etc. Attending seminars, online training and networking events is really important for self-development and to keep up to date with new technology.
Don’t be afraid to push your boundaries a little and step outside your comfort zone now and again
Peer and Professional Associations: I’m not in any professional associations at the moment. However, I am a member of various groups on LinkedIn such as the PA Hub Network, Executive PA Magazine, PA Life, etc. I’m also a member of networking groups such as the Scottish PA Network and the ESPA Network (Education Sector PA Network).
Preferred form(s) of social media? Twitter and LinkedIn for work colleagues and professional networking, and Facebook for family and friends.
Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? If there was an app to clone myself, that would help! My most used app is my calendar app; I probably wouldn’t be able to leave my house to get to the correct destination on the correct day without it!
Style and Substance
Name a go-to piece or two from your wardrobe to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? Anything comfortable and smart, but not over the top. It will also depend on what the Scottish weather is up to on the day.
Heels or flats in the office? Flats or a small heel. For your commute? Flats – sometimes trainers, and sometimes boots.
What might we find in your desk drawer? Mmmm – my annual leave card, my notebook, some paracetamol, photos of my family and photos of Sean Bean!
Travel or travel planning advice? Build up a traveller profile; know whether your traveller prefers an aisle or a window seat, and keep a note of passport numbers, etc. Do your research into the different ways of travelling, and discuss options with the traveller before you book. Put yourself into your traveller’s shoes – How would you feel if your flight landed at 8:30 a.m. when your meeting starts at 9:00 a.m.?
Ensure that all the little details are worked out. Book early, plan for delays, and – most importantly – plan a step by step itinerary that includes all the details of where to change trains, or how to get to/from the airport, and telephone numbers for taxis or emergencies, etc. Once it is all booked, sit down with the traveller to go over any final details.
Inspirational reads? The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is the one book I have continually referred back to over my career.
Role models or mentors? I feel privileged to have met and worked with some amazing people in my career. So far, I have learned a lot from all of the different Executives and Heads of Department I’ve worked with – and also from the different PAs and administrative staff I’ve worked alongside. I’m a great fan of the quote from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses: “I am a part of all that I have met.”
By tackling things I don’t like first thing in the day, I’ll get them done quicker and more efficiently
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I’m proud to say that I’ve worked for Glasgow Caledonian University in a variety of roles since 1995. I’m always particularly proud at graduation time. With my job share partner, I take the lead in organising the Academic Procession for each ceremony. We look after the VIPs and dignitaries, and the full Exec PA team does a great job.
It’s a lovely feeling to watch the procession get to their seats on stage at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, and to know that you have been part of a close team organising matters in the background. Although the procession is a small part of the students’ graduation event, it is a very colourful and visible part of their day.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? Who knows what may happen in the next five years? I aim to continue developing myself and the team. Ideally, I would hope to set up an internal PA network within the University.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? 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.
It is important for young people to realise how valuable they are to an organisation
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Ask how your executive likes to work, and explain how you like to work. Find out your executive’s diary, travel and meeting preferences – do they like paper copies, or are they fine with electronic versions? Communication and trust are key to building that relationship.
Ask how your executive likes to work, and explain how you like to work
Your most effective time management strategy? For me, it’s tackling tasks I dislike first. If I don’t, then I end up putting them off and procrastinating. By tackling things I don’t like first thing in the day, I’ll get them done quicker and more efficiently.
Advice for a new mother working to the workplace? Take it slowly, and try not to be all things to all people. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either from colleagues in the work place or from family at home. Enjoy your lunch break – you don’t get one when you are looking after small children.
Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Trust your PA with your diary and to draft responses to your correspondence. Encourage your PA to grow, as it will save you time and ultimately help you to be a better executive. Remember that other staff often open up to a PA with their issues before they open up to you. A PA, used wisely, can be an amazing asset – but you need to have open and honest two-way communication and feedback with them. A PA should be given the autonomy to run with projects and ideas.
For those interested in promotion: 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.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Karen mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- ESPA Network (Education Sector PA Network)
- Executive PA Magazine
- PA Hub Network
- PA Life
- Scottish PA Network