Real Careers: Cathy Harris

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 Florida Park, South Africa to visit with Cathy Harris.

Cathy Harris is Executive PA to the Deputy CEO of Discovery Life and Invest. Here’s a look at her world.

Early Cuddles and Enroute to the Office

My iPhone alarm beams me back to reality at 4:30 a.m. That is, if my grandchildren have not already woken me up to come for a cuddle in nana’s big warm bed. I head straight for the shower, dress, dry the hair, hugs and kisses goodbye to the clan and out the door by 5:30. My mornings are mostly organized the night before, selecting what I will wear the next day and setting it out and ready for the morning. I pack my briefcase and of course a lunchbox, too – well, most days, anyway.

I travel by car to Sandton – a 25 km (15.5 mile) drive, and leaving by 5:30 allows me to miss all the traffic and get to the office by 6:00 a.m., ready to rock the day! I absolutely love starting the morning off with my gospel music; Hillsong and Casting Crowns are my favourites. It gets me into the spirit of the day and sets me off on a positive journey.  If I were to leave just 15 minutes later, my commute would take me over an hour! I thrive on being organized, hate traffic, and love the peace the early morning in the office provides me.

What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? My grandchildren live with us, so it’s either the Barney song, or Bob the Builder.

At the Office

Morning Routines: Certain routine tasks are essential in ensuring the groundwork is set for the day, so that when the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan, you at least have a foundation from which to rebuild. But first things first – a bowl of fibre flakes, hot cup of tea, my morning dedication and prayer to thank God for the many blessings in my life, and now I am ready to roll. This all takes about 15 minutes or so.

My work day begins by first reviewing my executive’s diary for the day. I update, print, remind and confirm entries and invites, and check out the follow up folder and print out all meeting documentations. I download meeting eDocuments on his iPad, and write up a short agenda of things I need to review with my manager when he gets in.

Without a doubt things never go according to plan, but I make sure that there is always a plan in place regardless. I review my tasks on Outlook and re-prioritize, update and action. Emails are then read, reviewed and actioned. If it is a morning where I need to take minutes, I would have already structured the set up the day before, so for me organization is key, and having back up plans is essential.

Primary Responsibilities: Managing my executive’s life, from scheduling meetings, managing calls and broker enquiries, to international and domestic travel arrangements and all the logistics involved with that – not only for my manager, but our entire team. Responsibilities also include meetings and minute management, and of course taking care of his direct reports and their actuarial teams for both the Life and Invest companies; all in all, about 120 professionals.

How long is your work day? A typical work day in the office is approximately 11 hours, from 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. There are exceptions, and when you partner with a high level executive, you have to work executive hours! My executive’s day does not necessarily end once I have left the office. He messages me often, and sends voice messages of tasks he needs done. I love my iPhone, as I can access most things from it.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? I either sit at my desk and eat, or retreat to one of our many pause areas with a colleague to enjoy a quick bite, normally a sandwich and a fruit juice. I feel it’s important to have a break. This doesn’t mean that I am not busy and have no work to do – for me, it means coming up to catch my breath so that I can continue being effective throughout the rest of the day.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? I definitely work from home on “off” hours – there is always something someone needs, or missed flights, lost documentation, contact details, etc. from the management teams, and of course the onslaught of messages and requests from my own executive. For safety reasons, I never “work” while driving. It’s irresponsible and certainly not worth the risk, handset or not.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? I am challenged every day by the need to be curious and to experiment on doing things quicker, better, faster. It’s exhausting, but immensely educational.

Belonging to any association provides an opportunity to network, learn and be involved in the global family of assistants

What do you most enjoy about your career?  Having been in my career for over 35 years, right now I enjoy sharing my experience and knowledge. Sharing what you know with others is so empowering and fulfilling! I also love working for an organization of forward thinking innovators – that allows me to ensure I stay at the top of my game!

On Saying “No”

I never say “no” to my manager unless the request is illegal or immoral. I believe in collaborating with my peers and the expertise around me to make things happen. Building great professional relationships with people and giving them an opportunity to be a part of a project I may be running, inspires and motivates them. By so doing, I ensure that I am effective in all aspects of the support I provide. My manager is not interested in how I get it done, as long as it gets done.

Cathy’s World

Map of worldI was born in the Naval Hospital in Simonstown, which is based in the south eastern part of the Cape in South Africa. I now live in Florida Park, a suburb of Johannesburg, west of Sandton. I enjoy the convenience of the city, but thrive on the peacefulness the countryside brings. Home, though, is where the heart is – that’s my own little paradise!

When I am not doing PA stuff, I love baking, cake decorating, sewing my own outfits, painting, entertaining my grandchildren. I am currently anticipating the arrival of my daughter’s one in a million, naturally conceived, identical triplet boys!

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I am not very good at rewarding myself; I have way too many other wonderful people whom I feel need rewarding more. On the very rare occasion, though, I do dabble in on-line shoe shopping!

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? A four week, all expenses paid tour of Europe … old castles, quaint towns, riverboats, great cuisine and fine wine!

Education and Professional Development

Education: Years ago, having completed 10 years of formal education seemed more than ample. Then in later years, I found that educating myself in finances, project management, and office administration went a long way in keeping me up to speed as far as workplace skills were concerned. Today, I strongly advocate for ongoing professional development and am involved with the official Certification for Office Professionals in South Africa, managed by the Office Professionals Association of SA.

Peer and Professional Associations

  • I initiated the OPSA Leadership Institute, formed the first workgroup in 2013 and was elected President of the OPSA Leadership Institute (Office Professionals of South Africa)
  • Chairperson of the Discovery PA forum for a few years
  • Current member of EUMA, European Management Assistants
  • Joint Chair of the Discovery PA Centre of Excellence (our in-house PA Forum)
  • Honorary member of the Mauritius Secretary Association (assisted them in setting up their association in 2007)
  • Member of the Academy of Excellence which is part of the Professional Association for Secretaries and Administrative Assistants (PAFSA)

Belonging to any association provides an opportunity to network knowledge and experiences, learn new things, be kept abreast of everything our profession has to offer and to become involved in, and be part of, the global family of assistants experiencing and going through the same day to day experiences.



Preferred form(s) of social media? I find LinkedIn a great way to connect on a professional level with my peers and peer groups. Facebook is a must for “social” social media, and I still need to get my head around Twitter.

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career?  I have to admit that I LOVE my iPhone – it’s a small, mean, hardworking little PA machine! It has everything I need on it right now, and downloading apps is easy and simple.

Awards and Recognition
  • 2006: I received a PruHealth Award from the CEO for Outstanding Performance
  • Nominated for our annual organizations Star Awards
  • Receive Dazzling Award nominations on a monthly basis
  • Won the SA National Office Professional of the Year Award in 2006

Be confident in who you are, and your capabilities

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace?  A red ruffled neckline blouse, black skirt and jacket, and red heels

What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without?  Lipstick and hand lotion

Heels or flats?  Heels in the office, and flats for the commute. Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? Nine West and Miss Black

Preferred scent: Gucci Rush

What might we find in your desk drawer? A little sewing kit that has literally saved the trouser butt of many a gent

Travel or travel planning advice? Keep it simple. Our managers no longer need to carry a briefcase full of documents around with them. Check them in on-line, send their tickets to their smartphones, and ensure their electronic diaries are up to date with ALL their travel itinerary needs. Make sure they always travel with their phone chargers.

Don’t wait for something to happen; make it happen

Inspirational reads? Steven R. Covey’s The 8th Habit

Role models or mentors? I am always inspired by greatness, especially amongst my peers. To mention but a few: Susan Engelbrecht, Kim Andersen, Anel Martin, Michele Thwaits, Mirella Autard-Cathrine, Jennifer Corcoran, Victoria Darragh and Lucy Brazier – all positive, forward thinkers, legacy makers and game changers.

Harris, Cathy - Mobi Jane Self Dev

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. The two that top the list are being awarded the coveted SA National Office Professional of the Year Award in 2006 and having completed the first edition of my Mobi-Jane series – Self Development and Innovation  last December. The other three editions should be completed by January 2016.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I definitely want to focus on writing more books that will inspire, encourage and uplift our profession, and of course am looking for my first European invitation to host a workshop on PA forums and other awesome topics of interest to my peers!

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Be confident about who you are and what you are capable of.

Ongoing professional development is critical

Your most effective time management strategy? Plan in advance and arrive on time.

Advice for a new mother re-entering the workplace?  Give yourself time to adapt to the changes and avoid being too harsh on yourself. I am here to help!

When you work with a high level executive, be prepared to work executive hours

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: You are in a strategic partnership with your assistant. Collaborate and communicate often, ask each other how your day is, and remember that your assistant has only your best professional interests at heart, all the time, and every day! Treat your assistant the way you would want to be treated.

For those interested in promotion: Don’t wait for something to happen – make it happen!


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Cathy referenced may be interested in checking the following links. To explore a range of resources recommended by our readers, click here for Exceptional EA’s Resources Page.

2 Comments on “Real Careers: Cathy Harris

    • Agreed, thanks, Jennifer – and I love Cathy’s “Don’t wait for something to happen; make it happen” approach.

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