Real Careers: Teri Wells

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, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, the USA and Wales, and now make our way back to South Africa to visit with Teri Wells.

Teri Wells is an Executive PA. Here’s a look at her world.

A Very Early Bird

I set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. but must admit that getting up at this time in winter is a challenge. It’s way too early to eat, so I just have a “flower pot” of tea and contemplate what to wear while the kettle boils. Whilst I am a morning person, I don’t like to rush around because when I leave the house, I don’t want to have to think if I’ve remembered to put on mascara or brush my hair or put on my underwear! I give myself about an hour after the tea is made but having overslept on occasion, I know that at a push I can be presentable in a half hour. I aim to leave the house between 6:00 and 6:15.

The public transport in SA “sucks” and I am fortunate to own a car, so I drive to work. It is only 24 km (approximately 15 miles) but I choose to drive back roads and, dependent on traffic, the commute takes anything from 40 minutes to an hour. The traffic congestion can be horrendous some days and I clearly remember taking three hours to get to the office on more than one occasion. If this happens, I open the window, turn up the radio and chill … don’t want to get to the office stressed and out of sorts.

What or who is on your commuting playlist? I listen to the local radio station most mornings but occasionally, when I’m plotting a coup of any sort (personal or business), Climb Ev’ry Mountain from The Sound of Music or, when I know that the day ahead demands that I be all things to all people and in 10 places at once, Whataya Want from Me by Adam Lambert.

At the Office

Morning Routines: Being a PA means you have to be ready for anything so, although I like to head straight for the cappuccino machine, I can hold out if there is something more pressing that needs my attention. This does not happen often as I am usually first in the office, giving me time to get organised (including switching my brain from wife and mom to “Super Power”). Typically, a cappuccino, go through my “to do” list, check the diary and check email.

Primary Responsibilities: I have two daughters and people often ask me if I ever wish I had a son. Having worked for men most of my life, my standard answer is, “I have two sons.” My responsibilities include managing my executives’ lives, which is pretty much what you do for your children, isn’t it?

My primary responsibilities include scheduling meetings, screening and managing calls, domestic and international travel from start to finish (I keep hinting that I will gladly carry their bags if I can go with them but sadly, to no avail).  I attend a weekly Exco meeting and monthly Communication Forum meeting to take the minutes and compile the quarterly Board and Audit Meeting packs.

I have been teased about being the “Google” of the office as I try to make time to assist anyone with anything I can. I read everything that crosses my desk and “bank the information” for later withdrawal should the need arise.

Read information crossing your desk and “bank” it for later withdrawals

How long is your work day? I am currently living the dream, but let me explain …. For 21 years I was the Executive PA to the Chairman (and Founder) as well as the CEO of the largest furniture retailer in SA. My days were unbelievably busy and there was a time for a period of about 10 years that I was never up to date, working 12 hour days in the office and then putting in an hour or two once I got home. I must add that I loved every minute of it!

Last year, in January, I decided that I wanted to give back to the profession that was making me so happy. I discovered a passion for motivating and teaching others and had to find a way to do both. I needed to continue to pay the bills and, at the same time, explore my newfound passion. I agonised for some time, looking for a solution, and then it hit me … a half day position continuing to do what I love (to pay the bills) and the afternoon to explore my new love.

In September last year it all fell into place, and I am now the envy of many of my friends and peers as I continue to follow my chosen career and have time to explore the cherry on top. Although I finish work at 1:00 p.m., I guess being busy is a way of life and I work as a Personal PA approximately three afternoons a week. The remaining afternoons are used for prep for motivational and teaching engagements to which I’m invited.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? I usually take left-overs from the previous night’s dinner and eat at my desk. It would be a touch irresponsible to still take a lunch break when I work half days.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? It’s simple; if they need me, I’m available.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Mind reading …

Manage and control your stress

What do you most enjoy about your career? Everything! Sure, I have off days – but if, after 28 years, I can’t get over it or deal with it, then the problem is with me.

On Saying “No”

I used to always say “yes” and it almost brought me to my knees with exhaustion and frustration at never being on top of everything. I tendered my resignation (about 10 years in to my 21 year service) because I felt I was drowning.

Always saying yes can bring you to your knees; speak up if you need assistance

My bosses were mortified and immediately offered all and any assistance I needed. It was then that I realised that I had to speak up. It was their job to support me as much as it was mine to support them.

Teri’s World

Map of worldI was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and live in Roodekrans, which is a suburb west of Johannesburg and is as close to “living in the country without living in the country” as I can get. I am surrounded by mountains and love “going home” every day.

At heart, are you a city gal or small community person (city mouse/country mouse)? Definitely a half and half.  I love the fact that the city presents daily opportunities to pursue my career but, given the opportunity, I would be outdoors in the country or at the beach every weekend. Outside the office is outside for me. My husband and youngest daughter are both rock climbers and when time allows, I enjoy going to the crags with them. Sadly, this does not happen often as I usually have work to do.

In addition, I have a-ma-zing friends that I love spending time with just chatting, plotting and planning.

What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? Miley Cyrus’ The Climb.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? Time permitting, a trip to a spa or – in desperate times- an afternoon nap.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? My bucket list for travel is way too long to bore you with the details, and I have to add my husband’s list to mine as well.

Education and Professional Development

Education: Everything I do has been self-taught, on the job trial and error, and a “never say CAN’T” attitude along the way … with the exception of doing a basic Microsoft course in the dark ages, and an EQ course about eight years ago.

It’s okay to speak out

Role models or mentors? It is only during the past few years that I have found role models and mentors, and cannot believe how I survived without them. I prefer to call them friends but they certainly challenge me, teach me, stretch me and provide a support base that was non-existent for many many years.

You have met most of them in Anel Martin, Susan Engelbrecht, Michele Thwaits, Cathy Harris and Lucy Brazier … and a host of other exceptional PAs, including Elaine Olivier, who was a colleague. I am proud to add her to my “friend” list.

Peer and Professional Associations: I am a member (past Vice President) of PAFSA, the Professional Association for Secretaries and Administrative Assistants, as well as The Academy of Excellence (Past President). It is through these associations that my network grew to include all of the above ladies.



Preferred form(s) of social media? I’m the first to admit that I am a social media dunce. I remember Anel handing over a Twitter account and months later I publically admitted that “I don’t Twit and I am a Twit”. We have an unconfirmed appointment to try and get me up to speed and, until then, Facebook it is.

No tweeting … yet

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? A “mind reading” app

Awards and Recognition

I received the Chairman’s Award for Innovator of the Year, for introducing a concept that virtually saved the company millions of Rands over a period of many years.

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? A plain black suit or black pinstripe suit with a bright shirt (and scarf in winter).

What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? Mascara and lipstick

Heels or flats in the office?  Always heels, in the office and for the commute. Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? I am lethal on shoes, so I accept that there will be no designer shoes for me; I’ll end up crying when I destroy them … but I do lust after Aldo.

Preferred scent: For day time, DKNY’s Be Delicious and, for night time, Estee Lauder’s Private Collection

What might we find in your desk drawer? Stationery, stationery, stationery, hand cream, stationery, “ideas” book – oh, and did I mention stationery?

Travel or travel planning advice? Make a check list and double check everything – e.g., even if you know that a car is not required, check with the traveler; if you know they do not need a visa, check with the Embassy (rules change daily). Most of all, be flexible, as travel plans change at the drop of a hat.

Inspirational reads? The Prophet by Kalil Gibran and Watership Down by Richard Adams

Always present yourself professionally in your appearance, work output and attitude

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I was anonymously nominated for the PA of the Year award for 2012 /13 and it was an amazing feeling to know that what I was doing did not go unnoticed. I found out afterwards that it was one of my bosses who nominated me. Going on to win the title is something I am very proud of, and the resultant opportunities are a constant reminder of my achievement.

Being asked to write for Career Success (a South African publication) and Executive Secretary was probably the scariest thing, from a career perspective, that I have ever tried. I continue to try and continue to learn and I really love the challenge.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I do indeed, but I’m not ready to share this with the universe just yet … watch this space.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? “It’s okay to speak out”, “Learn to say NO”, “manage and control your stress”.

Your attitude will determine your altitude

Your most effective time management strategy? Before I leave the office every day, I sort through everything and make “to do” lists clearly setting out my priorities for the next day.

Advice for a new mother working to the workplace? Quickly find the balance between work and home. The time you lose with your family is lost forever.

If you have core skills and the right attitude, your acquisition of additional skills can make you invaluable

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: An assistant is the single most valuable asset to your office. You need to allow the assistant into your world. It will take time while you build the trust and dependence, but it will be worth it. See your assistant as an extension of yourself. If you employ someone with the basic skills required but the right attitude, you can teach her/him anything you need to. Given the opportunity, s/he will improve your life substantially.

Treat your assistant as an invaluable resource, confidant and partner and learn to let go; delegate.

For those interested in promotion: ALWAYS have a “can do” attitude.  I know it is an old cliché, but your attitude will determine your altitude. I have long lived by the code of, “I will do anything my executives ask me to do provided it’s not against the law.” ALWAYS present yourself professionally in your appearance, work output and attitude. DON’T be afraid of hard work; it is a very hard career, but so rewarding!


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Teri referenced may be interested in checking the following links. To explore a range of resources recommended by readers, click here for Exceptional EA’s Resources Page, here to see all professional associations and networks recommended by peers, or here for a list of assorted blogs and websites.

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