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’re off to Northampton England to visit with April Pardoe.
April Pardoe is PA to a hospital’s Chief Operating Officer and Deputy CEO. Here’s a look at her world.
A Mindful Start to the Day
I first surface at 6:00 a.m. when my husband gets up to go to work, but I tend to go back to sleep until my alarm goes off at 7:00. As soon as that goes off, I get up – snooze is too dangerous! The first thing I do is make a cup of tea. Then I have some quiet time; I usually I do a mindfulness exercise on Headspace for about ten minutes before putting on BBC Breakfast and checking social media. Then I get ready for work, say goodbye to my daughter and the cat and leave the house.
I’m very lucky in that I only live eight minutes’ walk from my office, so I walk to work every day. I don’t listen to any playlists because I like to use the walk to and from home to clear my head and switch from home mode to work mode and vice versa at the end of the day.
At the Office
Morning Routines: The first thing I do is check voicemail and email. Emails from my exec are flagged in my inbox so I can easily pick them out and action anything urgent. After that, I walk down to our little kitchen/pantry via the printer to collect anything that needed printing, check in with my colleagues and make a cup of tea; then I eat breakfast (yoghurt and granola brought in from home) at my desk and go through my exec’s and my diaries and my To Do list for the day.
My day can be varied, as my exec has such a wide range of responsibilities. As the Chief Operating Officer of a very busy NHS (National Health Service) hospital, she always has a lot going on and a large number of targets to achieve. There are a lot of meetings and papers to coordinate, and her diary is the busiest I’ve ever had to manage!
Primary Responsibilities: I sometimes describe my role as making sure my exec is in the right place at the right time with the right information, but there’s a lot more to it than that! I run the diary, and in a busy hospital that can change all the time so it is something I have to keep an eye on throughout the day! Email is the main method of communication and, when my exec is tied up in meetings, I keep an eye on things that come up and flag them as and when necessary.
I see my role as being there to make my exec’s life easier – I do the day to day stuff (expenses, correspondence, timesheets, invoices, requisitions, annual leave, etc., etc.) so she can do the more important things. I like Adam Fidler’s description of EAs operating in the space of management so that execs can operate in the space of leadership!
I have learnt that I can’t do everything and I have to say no sometimes, in order to be able to do the things I want to do as well as I possibly can
A significant part of my role involves meetings: the whole process from setting them up, issuing the papers to taking the minutes. That can take up quite a lot of time, so I do what I can to streamline the process; where possible, I take minutes directly onto my laptop.
Recently I have been involved in organising our annual staff awards and it has been such a privilege to see how people value their colleagues and how patients appreciate the staff at the hospital – everyone from doctors to cleaners. There were over 200 nominations this year. I was lucky to see the whole process from the nominations through to the awards being presented.
How long is your work day? I work 8:30 a.m. til 5:00 p.m. but am happy to come in earlier or stay late when necessary.
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? Due to the location of my office, I have to walk to the printer and kitchen – so I try to do that at least once an hour! Where possible, I will go and speak to colleagues rather than phone them but, given the size of the hospital, that isn’t always practical! I do walk to and from work and go home at lunchtime. We are lucky that we have a gym onsite, and have discounted membership rates, so I go to the gym at least twice a week. I do find that, if I sit still for too long, I get stiff and cold!
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? I will work late or come in early if necessary. For example, meetings often start at 8:00 a.m. and so I come in early for them, but generally I stick to my contracted hours.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? In such a busy hospital, things can change really quickly and so it can be quite a challenge to keep track of changes to meetings and appointments.
You can do anything but not everything, and you can’t please everyone
What do you most enjoy about your career? I like the variety of the work and I love learning about different parts of the hospital and how it all fits together. I like planning and pulling things together, and making someone else’s life easier.
I really enjoy being a PA and am very proud that I have worked my way to this level. Organisation is one of my strong points, and I enjoy using those skills to help others and make their lives easier.
On Saying “No”
This is something I find very hard, both personally and professionally. When it comes to protecting my exec’s time, and when it’s appropriate, I will say no – but when it’s my time, it’s much harder. To be honest, I’m only just beginning to be able to do it in my personal life. I hate the idea that I’m letting people down, but I have learnt that I can’t do everything and I have to say no sometimes to be able to do the things I want to do as well as I possibly can.
I was born in Merseyside in the UK and have lived in Northampton, UK for 23 years. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I love the seaside, and my ultimate dream is to live somewhere I can see the sea every day. I am a very quiet, introverted person and I hate crowds, but I like to live somewhere where shops, theatres and restaurants are easy to access. So, I think living where I live now, on the edge of a busy town – not quite city, not quite suburbs but a quiet street – suits me very well.
How long have you been an admin. professional? I’ve worked in admin since graduating from university in 1997. I started as an admin. temp, which led to a maternity leave cover post at a bank. I ended up staying at the bank until I went on my own maternity leave two years later!
What was your first role as an admin. professional? My first admin. roles were temporary positions in various places, all of them short term until I got the maternity leave post. I went back to work when my daughter was three; I worked part time for a number of public sector organisations. The job I am in now is my first full time post in 17 years, and coming back full time was a challenge – but it was one I was ready for.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I love spending time with my husband and daughter. Now she is 17 and has a very busy schedule of her own, so it’s very special when we get to spend time together. My big passion is acting; I have been involved in amateur dramatics for over 20 years. In 2017, I performed in five productions. I also enjoy cooking, especially baking. In recent years, I have become the “go to” baker for my family, making wedding cakes for both my mum and my sister, christening cakes for two of my nephews and more birthday cakes than I count! I am also an avid reader and very interested in history – my favourite periods being Tudors and Stuarts.
Organisation is one of my strong points, and I enjoy using those skills
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? Not so long ago, I would have said chocolate but, over this last year, I have lost over three stone (42 pounds) in weight and have no intention of putting it back on. So, chocolate is strictly for treats and not stress relief! Surprisingly, I find going to the gym is really good – it takes my mind off work and gets those endorphins buzzing! Rehearsals are also a good way to decompress, as you have to think about something else. On nights when I don’t have to go out, I love a long soak in a hot bath with a good book.
A dream holiday or travel adventure? There are so many places I want to go to in the world! Las Vegas holds a very special place in my heart, as my husband and I got married there and we’ve promised ourselves we’ll go back one day!
At the top of my wish list are Barcelona, Morocco and Japan. I like places with lots of things to see and do – especially churches, castles, galleries and museums. I’m not the type of person who can lie by a pool all day.
I like Adam Fidler’s description of EAs operating in the space of management so that execs can operate in the space of leadership
Education and Professional Development
Education: When I was 16 – 18 and doing my A-Levels, I was studying drama with a view to trying an acting career. I was very aware of the fact that this would be difficult and there would be many times where something else would be needed to pay the bills. So, alongside my A-Levels, I did the RSA qualifications in word processing – and after completing my drama degree and realising that an acting career wasn’t for me, it was having those qualifications that enabled me to get a foot in the door as a temp. As time passed and things developed, I knew I wanted to progress along the admin career path and become a PA.
Later, in 2010, I completed the Springboard Women’s Development Programme. It is one of the best things I have ever done, as it really helped me clarify what I wanted and how I was going to achieve it.
Peer and Professional Associations: I belong to EPAA (Executive and Personal Assistants Association). How has this association helped you? It provides me access to training and support, and up to date information about what is happening in the admin. world. I benefit from recommendations on travel, accommodation, catering, apps, etc., to help me in my role. The networking is also very useful.
What are the primary means of communication for members of your network(s)/professional association(s)? Email, the EPAA website, Facebook and Twitter
The Digital Age, and Evolution of the Assistant’s Role
What are your preferred forms of social media? Facebook and Twitter Do you publish to, and/or monitor social media, or a website, as part of your professional responsibilities? No.
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? OneNote, Todoist and Google Calendar
Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? I love OneNote. It is so useful, and easy to manage. I recently discovered Pocket as a good way to store articles I want to read.
Have you used technology to digitize processes or materials in your workplace? Time sheets, expenses and procurement were already digitized before I came into this post.
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? No.
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital, or paper-based? Our meetings are all paper-based, and we have to produce paper packs for meetings.
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 that, in general, admin. professionals are very adaptable and quick to pick up something that will make their lives easier. The admin. and PA roles can be so demanding that it can be very helpful to have something digital that speeds up or simplifies a process.
In the main, I would say younger PAs/Admins are quicker to pick up digital changes as it’s what they are used to in their personal lives. Some industries will pick up digital technology quicker than others; the public sector in general is usually quite slow on these things!
Have itineraries for each step of the trip, provide full addresses as well as postcodes, and always have a backup (e.g., know when the next train departs, or where to get a taxi). Build space in the schedule to allow for travel delays.
Style and Substance
Name a go-to piece or two from your wardrobe to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I like dresses – they’re smart and easy to wear, as you don’t have to think about what goes with it! I keep a jacket at the office for formal meetings, and a cardigan as I often get cold! I always wear heels to work, as I’m quite short.
What might we find in your desk drawer? Stationery, a first aid kit, spare tights, a sewing kit, emergency birthday cards and tissues
Inspirational reads? A book that completely changed my life was Quiet, by Susan Cain. It’s about introversion and introverts; I always knew that’s what I was, but never had a name for it until I read her book.
Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? I was delighted to be shortlisted for a We Are The City Rising Stars award (PA category) in 2015. It is so important that admin. professionals get the same opportunities for recognition as other professions.
It is so important that admin. professionals get the same opportunities as other professions for recognition
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I am very proud of having completed the Springboard Women’s Development course, as it really helped me clarify what I wanted to do with my career. I am also proud of having developed a staff handbook in my previous job, and taking on managing major events such as national conferences and regional training days.
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I identify an opportunity (training, networking, online courses, etc.) and look at the steps I would need to take to get there – and what I could do once I did get there. For example, when I got my current job, I was looking for a new challenge and was ready to go back to work full time. So, I started to look for openings in areas I was interested in and made some applications.
Going to the gym is really good – it takes my mind off work and gets those endorphins buzzing
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I’d really like to develop my project management skills and knowledge.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I’m always looking to develop and enhance my skills, but there’s nothing specific on the radar yet – but you never know what opportunities might come up! Something I would like to do is talk to students who may be considering an admin. career.
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 good PA can add a huge amount to an exec. When you have someone working with you who understands your objectives and priorities and knows your working style, they can really enhance your day to day working life. An efficient and effective PA will know what you need, when you need it and how you want it. In most cases, they will have fixed a problem before you even know there was one! A PA will often hear things that an exec won’t, and can help to resolve issues and say, “You need to know about this.”
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Do some research into the company and the person you will be working with. Plan to be early so you don’t get stressed by your journey. Dress well – even if it’s high summer, wear a suit and smart shoes. Take copies of any relevant documentation with you. Re-read the job description, profile and your application before the interview.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? You can do anything but not everything, and you can’t please everyone.
Your most effective time management strategy? I don’t check emails as each one arrives; I check it only at set times. I like to use the Pomodoro technique of doing short chunks of work: 30 minutes, 5 minute break, x3 and then a 15 minute break. This is especially useful when you’re ploughing through minutes or big reports.
Advice for a new parent working to the workplace? Be patient with yourself and your children; they are only young. Don’t try and do everything. Don’t go back to work too soon; give yourself time to recover and adapt to your new situation. Having a child does change you and your life and that’s okay, more than okay – it’s great! Expect things to be different and give yourself time and space to understand the differences.
Being a PA is a great career choice for anyone who enjoys variety and organising
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Discuss travel and dietary preferences, preferred styles of working, how much (if any) space they want between appointments, if they want you to manage emails and diary – and how far they want that managed. Ask about the best ways of contacting them; I don’t think a work day goes by without my texting my exec! Expectations of when you should be in the office are important. Do they prefer you to take your leave when they are on leave (if possible)? Ask if you can shadow them for a day/half day to understand how they work and what they do. Find out about their priorities for the business and how you can contribute to that.
Network with other PAs and attend training opportunities
For those interested in promotion: Develop your skills – as well as the fundamental PA skills, look at project management, events or finance. Develop a wider understanding of the business you work in (or want to work in), and read up on things that affect your industry.
Go on social media and find other PAs who work in the areas you are interested in and ask them for advice. Network with other PAs and attend training events if possible. Join an association like EPAA for training and networking opportunities, and take advantage of webinars and other online training like #Adminchat on Twitter. Ask another PA if s/he will mentor you, or just be available for some advice on applying for jobs and developing your skills and career. Being a PA is a great career choice for anyone who enjoys variety and organising; if you can think on your feet, and stay 10 steps ahead – you’ve got it!
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources April mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- Cane, Susan – Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
- Readers may wish to have a look at my November 2014 review of this book
- Adam Fidler Academy
- EPAA – Executive & Personal Assistants Association
- Pomodoro – you can read my articles about Pomodoro by clicking here or here
- Springboard Women’s Development Programme – UCL (University College of London)
- We Are The City (WATC) – Rising Stars award