Real Careers: Susan Engelbrecht

Exceptional EA is pleased to launch Real Careers, in which EAs, Management Assistants, PAs and other administrators from around the globe generously share a bit of their lives and the benefit of their experience. We began with virtual trips to South Africa, the US and the UK, and now return to South Africa to visit with Susan Engelbrecht.

Susan Engelbrecht is Executive PA to the CEO & Chief Actuary, Discovery Health. Here’s a look at her world.

Up Early to Beat Traffic

I get up at 4:45 a.m. every morning and leave home by 6:00 a.m. to reach my office at 6:30 a.m. If I leave home half an hour later, it takes 60 minutes longer to get into the office; it’s only 40 kms (24 miles) from home, but traffic is horrendous that time of the morning.

I use my car to travel to the office and listen to a local radio station, Jacaranda 92.4FM. They play anything from the 70’s to current music and covers everything from rock to ballads. What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? Adele’s “fire in my heart” to Neil Diamond’s “Jazz Singer”.

 At the Office

Morning Routines: I tend to work around my managers’ schedules – whatever is priority today might not be priority tomorrow. Checking emails, making sure calendars are up to date, setting up meetings, following up on reports, outstanding action points, and general office admin duties to name a few. As an EA, you are jack-of-all-trades! You follow the lead of your manager/s, but also ensure everything is done even before they ask!

Primary Responsibilities: There is no such thing as a typical day at the office! Every day brings new challenges and opportunities. Priority, though, is to ensure the calendars are up to date, important meeting documents are ready and feedback is given where required. I also do LOADS of travel arrangements! When I’m out of the office people tend to call me to find out where I am as there is nobody to field calls or assist with ad hoc jobs.

How long is your work day? In my world it can be from 6:30 a.m. to 800 p.m. All depends on the priorities of the day. I find that my best time to do catch up is either before 9:00 a.m. or after 5:00 p.m. That’s when I can actually focus on MY work!IMG_9639

What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? A healthy chicken or beef salad at my desk. There is no such thing as a lunch break for a PA/EA. You eat while you work.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? Traffic does not allow for me to “work” whilst driving. Should I think of important things, I will send myself a quick note via email whilst driving … yes, I know it is not acceptable, but it’s saved me many times over the years!

But yes, I will log in from home over a weekend or after hours if the need is there. I can also work on my iPad if necessary. I will remain contactable and online for any issues during the evening but will check email for the last time before I go to bed. Bad habit…

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Constant changes to the calendars and travel arrangements. Both my managers often travel abroad and I can honestly say that I have never had a trip go as planned; there are always last minute changes! But, as any PA/EA can tell you, a TO-DO list is there to change, not to follow.

Communication is vital

What do you most enjoy about your career? I love my profession! I love being an EA! One minute I’m making sure my CEO is prepared for his meeting and offering my opinion on what he should take with him, the next I’m sorting through mail and fielding phone calls. I’m definitely not limited to one type of task and there’s no doubt that without me the office would come to a screeching halt.

On Saying “No”

Sadly, I do not often say NO. But I have learnt to do so without being rude. Learning to be assertive takes time and practice.

Practice assertiveness techniques

Start practicing your assertiveness techniques in small situations, such as telling your friend that you don’t want to watch a certain movie. Build upon each experience and soon you will find yourself to be assertive in other situations, too.

Susan’s World

Map of worldI was born in Germiston and am now living in Boksburgis, a city on the East Rand of Gauteng province of South Africa.

Gold was discovered in Boksburg in 1887. It was named after the State Secretary of the South African Republic,  Eduard Bok. The Main Reef Road linked Boksburg to all the other major mining towns on the Witwatersrand. Boksburg is part of the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality, which forms the local government of most of the East Rand.

I am a city gal as I have always lived in a city. My dream is to one day retire in a small town in our Mpumalanga province, which means “The place where the sun rises”. It is considered one of the most geographically diverse and unbelievable beautiful places in South Africa! So yes, I can become a country mouse…

Outside the office you can find me relaxing with a good book on my couch… I am not a shopaholic nor an energy bunny. I prefer my own home where I can relax and spend time with my loved ones.

A dream holiday or travel adventure? My travel adventure would definitely be two weeks on safari in the bush. We are fortunate enough to have many options as our country offers so much. I love spending time in the Kruger National Park, which is world-renowned and offers a wildlife experience that ranks with the best in Africa. It was established in 1898 to protect the South African wildlife in nearly two million hectares.

My dream holiday would be an European tour! In 2000 I was privileged enough to tour Europe with my partner, but I feel it is time again! Finances permitted of course, as our Rand exchange is very poor at this stage.

Education and Professional Development

Education: The modern PA’s role has changed considerably over recent years. True professional PAs are aware of the essential skills involved in communicating with colleagues and clients. The PA is, after all, the ambassador for the Manager.

Show initiative to learn more

We constantly have to find ways to enhance our skills and relationships. I am in the final stretch of completing a 10-week certification in Executive Support through GetSmarter and the University of Cape Town in South Africa. I have learnt that as an EA I have to constantly up skill to stay abreast of changes in our profession!

We constantly have to find ways to enhance our skills and relationships

Peer and Professional Associations: I belong to PAFSA, the Professional Association for Secretaries and Administrative Assistants), where I also serve as President of the Academy of Excellence. The academy is constituted by PAs who have risen to the upper echelons of their profession by reaching the finals of South Africa’s two national Awards for this profession: PA of the Year and National Office Professional of the Year.

I actively network at all levels in order to develop and create awareness of our profession. PAFSA created the ideal platform!

Awards and Recognition

  • Discovery Marketing Director’s Award for Marketing PA of the Year 2004
  • Semi-Finalist, National Office Professional of Year 2007 (top 10)
  • Discovery Star Awards Annual Winner 2007 (Living Discovery Values category)
  • OPSA Office Professional of the Year 2009 Runner up
  • PAFSA PA Crystal Award 2013 – recognizing commitment to championing the cause of thinking in our industry
  • PAFSA PA of the Year 2014 – top six finalist
Technology: Reality and Wish List

imagePreferred form(s) of social media?

I am addicted to FaceBook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I run with pages for Academy of Excellence as well as Discovery PAs on all the platforms. I feel it important to be out there, promoting not only your profession, but yourself.


Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? Black trousers with a colourful jacket or top. Other people always say a little black dress get you everywhere… for me, it is definitely black trousers!

What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? My lipstick and lip gloss – never without it!

Heels or flats?  Always heels – makes me feel more confident. It enhances almost any outfit and makes a woman look more assertive.

Preferred scent: I adore Chanel Chance or Coco Mademoiselle! Makes me feel alive!

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? Long soak in the bath with candles and a glass of Merlot wine…

What might we find in your desk drawer? From special gel pens, business cards, plasters, hand cream to headache tablets! A real Aladdin’s cave, I am told.

Inspirational reads? “Who took my pen… again?” by Joan Burge, Nancy Fraze & Jasmine Freeman; they have taught me that the value I bring to the workplace cannot be measured with fancy statistics. My value comes from my interpersonal skills such as communication, decision-making abilities, calmness, confliction resolution, adaptability and flexibility. Behind every great leader is a star-performing assistant!

Role models or mentors? I have many mentors in the PA/EA fraternity who have assisted me in some way or exposed me to new ideas and opportunities. Cathy Harris, Michele Thwaits, Anel Martin, Teri Wells and Lucy Brazier to name a few. All brilliant PAs in their own right and world-class speakers! I am so fortunate to have these strong women in my life. Together we empower PAs to develop and succeed in their chosen profession.

I have also mentored several PAs throughout my career. I like to believe that I have made an impact on their lives in the same way my mentors did to me.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Don’t take any criticism personally. If something bothers you, speak up!

Don’t take any criticism personally.

Your most effective time management strategy? Get organised and stop procrastinating. You may be putting off tasks for a variety of reasons. Try breaking down the task into smaller segments that require less time commitment and result in specific, realistic deadlines.

For those interested in promotion: When I started out I was just a secretary; now I have worked my way up to being an Executive PA. I still do all the grunt work but also have additional duties along with a better pay scale and I am the go to person whenever anything happens in the company.

If you are well organized, reliable, efficient in the work you do and show initiative to learn more, you will find that your manager will not hesitate to promote you. I think it is tough to move up when you’re a PA for so long, but the wealth of knowledge you obtain as a PA is remarkable.

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Communication is vital! It is very important to have a strong and healthy relationship with your PA. Tell her what is expected of her; don’t let her guess. A troubled relationship will negatively affect her morale, productivity and happiness to work with you.


… a note, now, from Shelagh. Readers unfamiliar with some of the people and resources Susan mentioned 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.


7 Comments on “Real Careers: Susan Engelbrecht

  1. Pingback: Meet Susan: Career Insights from South Africa | Exceptional EA

  2. An awesome and inspirational mentor!!

    • … and an extremely gracious person, as well. Thanks for writing, Elaine Lou; am also seeing similar feedback to this article on Twitter.

  3. A lady that walks the talk, whose values and work ethic I strongly admire. Susan is an inspiration to her colleagues and friends 🙂

  4. Thank you, I am truly honored to be featured on this webpage. I am truly blessed with good friends xx

    • You’re most welcome, Susan, and I thnk that your many friends are a reflection of the person – and friend – you are to them. 🙂 Have a lovely week.

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