Real Careers: Alison Boler

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 way back o London, England.

Alison Boler is Paralegal PA to Senior Vice President & Vice President of Legal & Business Affairs, Sony Music UK. Here’s a look at her world.

Anything but Pedestrian

I get up around 6:45. Every morning is started with a healthy bowl of porridge! It gives me the energy to get through to lunch. I walk an hour to work, just over three and a half miles, and home again after work. I am a walking addict; I walk over 40 miles a week. It is the best exercise and there are zero travel costs. The only downside is the London air pollution.

Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? BBC Radio 2 or a Spotify playlist (a lot of 80s pop and rock classics).


At the Office

Morning Routines: I make a proper pot of strong Italian coffee (half-caff if I’m being good!), then emails can be checked and I can prepare and plan my day ahead. Every day really is different. I may have some dictation to type, making sure that any artists’ advances are paid out and raising any new artist payments. There will always be some contract drafting/amending work and diary management.

I will always keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone

Primary Responsibilities: PA support, drafting and managing artist contracts across Syco and RCA record labels, artist advance payments, drafting and negotiating remixer agreements, acting as a point of contact for managers, lawyers and artists, and drafting and coordinating signature of contestant contracts for X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent.

How long is your work day? It runs from 8:30 to 6:00. I l ike to work an extra hour in the morning; this is my “Golden Hour”. I sit in a record label which is very vibrant and music is always pumping, so an hour of quiet time is essential to get ahead for the day.

Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? We have a good benefits package for health and fitness, and Sony often runs some lunchtime talks on wellbeing. I am guilty of sitting constantly at my desk, but one of my bosses sits on the floor below, so I do make more of an effort to get up and move around the building.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? Lunch is always at my desk, which is a bad habit, I know! Sony has a great canteen, so I can get a healthy hot meal.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? I work a ten-hour day in the office and I am very strict in maintaining my work/life balance, so I don’t tend to work after-hours and my bosses are very supportive of that.

I am a novel writer outside of work, so I have to be able to balance both careers. I prefer to work overtime in the morning so I can leave on time and be able to write in the evenings.

Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role?  We have a really strong, friendly group of PAs at Sony and so the support network is always there, even if it is just a coffee in the canteen, rather than a formal PA network structure.

 A “no” should always have a positive message attached to it

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? I have always worked for multiple bosses and it is an ongoing challenge to maintain the balance of support across each boss. I want each boss to feel like they are getting a 1:1 support role from me and that can sometimes be a challenge; this is why planning my day in advance is essential.

What do you most enjoy about your career? I love meeting and getting to know new artists at the start of their careers, when they sign their record deals. It is immensely satisfying to see them grow and develop into stars.


On Saying “No”

I am always very aware that if I have to say “no”, I will back it up with, “… but I can offer this solution …” A “no” should always have a positive message attached to it.


Alison’s World

Map of worldI was born and raised in Kent in the south of England, but I have lived in London for 20 years. I am a Londoner through and through now and I am very proud of my city.  At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I grew up in the countryside, but I am a city girl at heart. I love living and working in the vibrant hub of culture, music and nightlife that London gives me. I like living in a place where anything and everything is possible.

How long have you been an admin. professional? 20 years. What was your first role as an admin. professional? As PA to a producer and script editor at an independent film and TV company in London

How do you like to spend your time away from the office? Writing – I have just finished my first novel, which has taken over ten years to research and write. I am just about to start research on book number two.

How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? My long walk home allows me to have the time and personal space to process the working day out of my head.

A dream holiday or travel adventure? Somewhere warm to read books all day and explore historical and archaeological sites


Education and Professional Development

Education: I have a degree in History and English Literature, although I don’t feel that this qualification has been necessary for my PA career. I attained RSA qualifications in typing and computer literacy when I started my career, and those skills are still essential.

Networking events: invaluable for building your own network of PA contacts across a wide variety of companies and sectors

Peer and Professional Associations: In the past year I joined EPAA, which is without doubt the best PA association out there.  I also like attending networking evenings via a number of associations / publications and these are invaluable for building your own network of PA contacts across a wide variety of companies and sectors. I have also attended a number of Hays workshops and talks.

How have these networks or associations helped you? They have built my confidence, especially attending networking events where you have to introduce yourself to strangers. I can manage my own personal CPD (continuing professional development) by attending workshops and talks which are specifically tailored to the PA profession.

What are the primary means of communication for members of your network(s)/professional association(s)? Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter


The Digital Age, and Evolution of the Assistant’s Role

imageWhat are your preferred forms of social media? Twitter, LinkdIn and Facebook are the best ways to connect and interact with other PAs, organisations and recruiters. I would use Instagram on a more private/personal basis.

Do you maintain, monitor and/or publish to a website or social media as part of your professional responsibilities? No.

What apps do you make use of in your professional life? Google Maps; I always like to give my bosses a link to a map if they are going to a new lunch/meeting venue. LinkedIn is still an essential tool for connecting and networking across all professions.

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career?  I think a mentoring app would be a great idea -a central point for PAs to share all of their years of advice in one place, accessible to all levels of admin professionals.

Every workplace will have to invest in data security

Describe any impacts social media has had on the role you hold within your organisation. All social media is an essential means of connecting with our artists, management and other employees. It is a great means for me to also promote our bands/artists to my own followers.

Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? One is available if I want it, but because of my work/life balance I have not requested one. Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability via smartphones may have had on your quality of life. It would be a negative impact on my work/life balance if I had a work phone.


Digital Innovation and Disruption

Let’s talk about the pace of change in the admin. world in general. Do you see variations in how people adapt to change? I think all PAs have experienced the situation where new technology or equipment is introduced (sometimes overnight) and you as the PA are expected to be an expert in it to assist everyone else. When I first started as a PA in the late 90s, we still used typewriters and only the boss had an email account. From then on, technology changed at breakneck speed. You have to be open and flexible when the change happens and not be afraid to ask for more training. I think you have to have the attitude to be flexible and adapt and embrace all new technologies.   

Technological change:  You have to be open, flexible and unafraid to ask for more training

What about the impact of Digital Assistants/AI (Artificial Intelligence) resources such as Siri and OK Google, which we can use for voice/other searches, task reminders, etc., and meeting-scheduling bots that can correspond with actual assistants?  I think AI is still a few years off becoming the norm.  I work in the legal side of entertainment, so we still have to have the human ability to see problems before they arise, consider the legal consequences of every email and document that is sent and stored.  

What do you think of IOT (Internet of Things) devices used for smart lighting, security and air conditioning, etc.? I think this is much more prevalent in every workplace and I think this will continue to develop and change at a very quick pace.

AI: We still have to have the human ability to see problems before they arise and consider legal consequences

Your experience and thoughts on cyber security/data security practices? Again, this is much more active in the past few years and I think in the world we live in with constant data threats, this has to be where investment is spent. 

New legislation dealing with breaches of data security has been introduced in a number of jurisdictions. Let’s talk about disclosure requirements associated with instances of data security breaches. Every workplace will have to invest in data security and I think that this will be where the most impact is felt in our day to day roles.


AI, Digital Assistants and the IOT: Their Impacts on this Career

What impact(s) do you think AI (artificial intelligence), Digital Assistants and IOT (the Internet of Things) will have on the admin. professional of 2020? I do feel prepared because, like every other PA, you have to be constantly versatile to new technologies as and when they arise in your company and in your role. I would hope that digital technologies can only help and assist our core roles and not replace them entirely.


Travel Planning

Travel or travel planning recommendations? I use my Twitter/Facebook networks to ask for recommendations for hotels in cities that my boss may not have gone to before. It is also very useful to get other PAs’ ideas on local restaurants and meeting venues. Sometimes PAs who live and work in that city will respond, and their input is invaluable.

I use my Twitter/Facebook networks to ask for recommendations for hotels in cities that my boss may not have gone to before

What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and for tracking expenses? The ability to check-in online using an app is essential; paper documents can and will go astray! Using Dropbox (or similar cloud app) to securely save a scan of their passport and other documents is also useful.


Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyName a go-to piece or two from your wardrobe to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace. As I work in a record company, smart skinny jeans are my wardrobe staple.  I like to look good for the environment I work in and the people that I meet, so that gives me confidence. In one day I may have to wear an outfit that is suitable to greet a media lawyer or to have a coffee with a grime rapper …which can be tricky!

What might we find in your desk drawer? Herbal teas, safety pins and a sewing kit, cayenne pepper (I’m a chili addict), a mini grooming set and a spare black top (you never know when you might be invited to an artist showcase or a last minute gig).

Inspirational reads? Bonnie Low-Kramen. She is quite simply a legend and her book, “Be The Ultimate Assistant”, is a must-read for any admin professional.

Role models or mentors? Victoria Darragh. I met Victoria in 2012 and she helped me so much when I was taking on public speaking for the first time. Her work founding and running EPAA is outstanding and she is dedicated to supporting and promoting our profession.

Role model Victoria Darragh: Her work founding and running EPAA is outstanding

Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? I was runner up in the Hays & Executive PA Magazine PA of the Year Awards 2012 and a finalist in the Secs In The City PA of the year Awards 2015.

What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I will always keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone.  When I was asked to make a speech to PAs for the first time five years ago, I felt terrified. But pushing myself through that comfort zone actually changed my life and I am now more confident and I will never be scared again to push myself.

Bonnie Low-Kramen: She is quite simply a legend

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. My two greatest accomplishments were being a runner up in the Hays & Executive PA Magazine PA of the Year Awards 2012 and a finalist in the Secs In The City PA of the year Awards 2015. As a result, I got the opportunity to speak and present to a large number of incredible PAs across the United Kingdom.

What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I am going to continue to attend as many courses and talks as possible, especially on the legal side of my role.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I’d like to stay at Sony for a few more years, but my long-term career goal is to be a full-time author.

Talking to Executives

Imagine that a cohort of executives invited discussion of the business case for working with (or without) an executive assistant. Anticipate that they’re tech savvy, and that some may have dated perceptions of what a skilled assistant can bring to the table. How do you make the case for having an EA, MA or PA on the payroll to enhance the success of the executive and the organisation? 

A PA is the glue that holds a company together. A PA is at the forefront of your company and represents you at the highest level. A PA will assist you in achieving your work potential and hitting your goals and targets. A PA will provide dedicated, professional support across all aspects of your company. A PA is a strong investment in the smooth running and future growth of your company. Having a PA is a two-way relationship; honest expectations of what can be achieved should be clearly set out.

Lessons Learned

Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Take a brief pause before you answer any question. Be aware to show your confidence and positivity when you walk through the front door of the building and greet the receptionist; that is when the interview starts.

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? I think just having someone else to ask advice and to make me feel like I wasn’t alone. At the start of my career in the 90s, there was no networking or social media or anyone to ask for help and advice. I actually feel very blessed to now live in a world where there is so much more support for PAs.

Job interviews: Show your confidence and positivity when you walk through the door and greet the receptionist; that is when the interview starts

Your most effective time management strategy?  Planning. I use my first hour in the morning to set clearly in my mind how I am going to manage the day.

Advice for a new parent working to the workplace?  Definitely come back in for a couple of inset and training days before you fully return to work.  If you are off for a year, then technology and systems will have changed and it will be far less daunting to know what has changed before you return full time.

Performance reviews: Write a business plan for what you would like to achieve and how you would like to achieve it

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Don’t be afraid to ask your boss how they would like you to support them; this can remove weeks of trial and error and trying to guess what is needed with a new boss.

For those interested in promotion: I think it is best to be honest with your boss and your annual review is the best time to have that discussion. If you don’t have an annual review, then ask for one! Be prepared, even write out a “‘business plan” for what you would like to achieve and how you would like to achieve it.


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Alison mentioned 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 or click here to see all professional associations and networks recommended by peers.