Exceptional EA showcases Real Careers, in which administrators from around the globe generously share the benefit of their experience. We’ve made strips to Belgium, Canada, England, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa and the USA, and now make our way to Sussex, England to visit with Catherine Butler.
Organised, and a Kiss Goodbye
My alarm usually goes off at 5:45 in the morning. My routine is very basic– up, wash, dressed and make-up, pick up bags, kiss the beloved goodbye and wish him a good day, and then out the door! I’ve just discovered that my nearest swimming pool does early morning swims, so I think I may start rising a bit earlier and go swimming before heading off to work.
I live about 40 miles away from where I work, so I try and to commute by train if at all possible – the commute is then about 90 minutes door to door. If I need to come in by car, then it’s an hour to work but can be anything up to two hours for the return home.
What musicians/composers are on your playlist for your commute? I tend to listen to podcasts – the BBC provides a variety and, as my brother’s in Australia, I like to keep up with what’s going on over there. The ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) has some good podcasts, as does NPR (National Public Radio). I also like listening to This American,too, and The Moth. However, at the moment, I’ve got choral music playing – I’m getting married in January so Paul (my fiancé) and I are busy deciding on Mass settings, anthems and organ music for the service.
What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? Anything and everything. I can’t help singing along to Abba, Alison Krauss or Deacon Blue but, if the music’s on, I’m going to sing along!
At the Office
Morning Routines: I switch on the kettle for coffee, and then my computer and the printer. As the computer and printer are firing up, I’ll have my first coffee of the day and breakfast (which I bring in with me). I’ll then check voicemail messages.
Primary Responsibilities: There’s only me in the office – so I’m responsible for maintaining the office in terms of stationery and software, and for all the correspondence, the Bishop’s budget (we file quarterly returns to the Church Commissioners – the part of the Church of England that ensures the Bishops have finances for the work they do), travel and the website, etc. Like all assistants, my job is to ensure that our managers’ lives run as smoothly as possible.
There isn’t such a thing as a typical day – though emails and phone calls feature heavily. The Bishop of Ebbsfleet is one of three Provincial Episcopal Visitors in the Church of England; that is, he is one of the three Bishops who minister to parishes who cannot accept the ordination of women to the episcopate or to the priesthood. The area assigned to the Bishop covers 13 dioceses in the Church of England, which ranges from Cornwall through to Derbyshire, so there’s a lot of travel and visiting parishes.
How long is your work day? My contracted hours are 9:00 to 5:00 but, like most assistants, I don’t work those hours. I’m always in by 8:00 and, if the Bishop is away, I’ll leave around 4:30 p.m. to miss the worst of the traffic, if I’m driving. If the Bishop is in, then it depends.
What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? Lunch is usually a salad with a jacket (baked) potato. I’m afraid I eat at my desk.
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? I confess I do! We’re on Office 365, which means I can access emails and documents from my phone and from my home computer. If it’s the Bishop’s day off, I’ll work from home. I work from a room in his home and having me in on a day off could prove too much of a distraction for him to work.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? I think the most challenging aspect is being the sole person in the office and keeping on top of everything (to the best of my ability). The office was relocated just before I started in this job, just over a year ago, and I’m still going through files finding out what’s what and getting everything as I would want it to be, but that takes time.
Also: geography – I’m geographically challenged. Although I’m quite good at placing countries, I’m quite bad at placing towns in the UK, so Google Maps is my best friend! I admit to the clergy that I’m not the best in terms of geography, so they’ll often help me in pointing out where they are and what’s possible in terms of the Bishop travelling to them from another place!
Tackle intimidating, daunting tasks before others
What do you most enjoy about your career? The Bishop and I have known each other since 2002; we were work colleagues in another office, so that relationship is a good one. There are some exciting projects on the horizon – and if there’s added incentive to have a spreadsheet for it, then I’m a happy person! Basically, I enjoy being busy.
There have been some other highlights, too – my previous post before this was working at Westminster Abbey and I was part of the team there during the Royal Wedding in 2011. The week before that, I was introduced to Her Majesty the Queen, as I received the Royal Maundy on behalf of someone who was unwell. That was a particular highlight.
On Saying “No”
I will try and be as helpful as I can be, but ultimately I need to think of what’s best for the Bishop. In terms of visits to parishes, the Bishop and I like to be as strategic as possible, so we encourage planned visits, but of course there are the ad-hoc services that need to be put into a packed diary. I need to be sure that the Bishop can get where he needs to be, but also that he has time in the office and time to rest and be with his family. So I will say no, and sometimes that’s to the Bishop, too!
I was born in Leek in Staffordshire but just before my second birthday we moved to Lincoln, and then to the North East. My parents live in County Durham now. I moved south nearly 20 years ago and I live in Guildford in Surrey.
At heart, are you a city gal or small community person (city mouse/country mouse)? Either! My fiancé would say I’m definitely not a country mouse – his parents are farmers and I don’t do mud or wellies (I don’t even own a pair!), so probably a city mouse.
Outside the office, I spend time visiting family and friends, visiting art galleries and museums, and reading. At the moment, it’s wedding planning, too – though, as there’s a spreadsheet involved, I’m not complaining!
How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I find that the journey home and then chatting to Paul is enough of a decompression for a tough day or week. That, and a gin and tonic!
A dream holiday or travel adventure? A ’round-the-world trip – involving the Northern Lights, visiting friends in Canada, visiting New Zealand, my brother and his family in Australia, and then the Galapagos Islands.
Education and Professional Development
Education: I have a degree in Theology, which has been useful in working for the church. I then did a secretarial course with Pitmans and that was it until about four years ago, which is when I attended a course through Today’s PA and have been hooked on development and training ever since. My career has taken off since then.
Seek a mentor who knows you, and will both challenge and encourage you
Peer and Professional Associations: I’m a member of Number 42, a group for senior assistants – I value the opportunities that being a member, and thus the networking opportunities, provide. I’m also intending to become a member of the Executive and Personal Assistants Association (EPAA) when that launches later in the year.
Preferred form(s) of social media? I prefer Facebook for personal contact, while Twitter is partly personal and partly professional, and LinkedIn for professional purposes.
Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? Two!
- Software that pings up every time I type a place name – and it automatically launches a map so I know where places are (with a list of places as exceptions, because I know exactly where they are)!
- An app that tells you where the PA networking group (or other networking groups) nearest to you is located – either at work or at home.
Awards and Recognition
I was second runner up in the Hays PA / Executive PA Magazine PA of the Year award in 2013.
Style and Substance
What is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I don’t really have one – I tend to wear smart trousers with a top, and there’s always a jacket to hand as well. I’d probably make sure I’d put a bit more effort into my make-up and have shoes with a little bit of a heel.
Heels or flats in the office? Flats. The highest heel I can wear without walking like a giraffe on stilts is 1.5 inches (about 3 cm). For your commute? Flats – usually trainers. Your favourite brand of shoes? Duke and Dexter shoes. I came across them at Number 42 – the owner spoke to us one evening – and they are the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn.
Preferred scent: There are three! All about Eve by Joop, which is sadly discontinued (but I have a few bottles put by), Le Jardin du Monsieur Li by Hermès, and Jour d’Hermès Gardenia. I was recently introduced to the world of Jo Malone, so I think some of their scents might become favourites, too.
What might we find in your desk drawer? Post-it notes, staples, elastic bands (in a ball, so they’re tidy), a roll of Sellotape, a ruler, crocodile clips, a spare pencil and pens in blue, black, red and green, a pencil sharpener, labels, a spare notepad, calculator… and I have a see-through pencil case with an emergency kit (plasters , cotton buds, shampoo, make-up remover wipes, tooth brush & paste, nail file, etc.).
App developers: perhaps an app to ID nearby networking groups?
Travel or travel planning advice? Well, for me, it’s find out where the destination is! Then build around travel time and diarise it. I’ll always add at least 30 minutes to factor in traffic or a driving break. The Bishop has a brief for every trip he makes but there’s always a covering travel brief attached to that, on top of it, with leaving times for each place, the postcode (postal code, for the SatNav), the important appointments and a contact telephone number.
Inspirational reads? There are a few again – Joan Burge’s books (and Office Dynamics webinars) are awesome, as is Bonnie Low Kramen’s book Be the Ultimate Assistant. For networking, there’s Laura Schwartz’s Eat, Drink and Succeed; for all things Microsoft there’s Vickie Sokol-Evans’ 100 tips in 100 Minutes; for email management there’s Monica Seeley’s Brilliant Email and Marsha Egan’s Inbox Detox.
At the moment I’m reading How to be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott and next on my reading list is Melba Duncan’s The New Executive Assistant.
Role models or mentors? There are lots!
I’m truly grateful to Paul Pennant of Today’s PA who has encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and develop myself over the past four years. Through him, I met Gill Quirk and my professional life has never been the same since. She introduced me to Lucy Brazier (whose magazine and conference are second to none) and to some amazing award winning PAs like Victoria Darragh. There is a group of PAs who meet once a quarter for lunch, and they inspire me continually; I’m honoured to be part of their group.
Through Lucy’s conference I’ve become friends with Anel Martin, Bonnie Low-Kramen and Vickie Sokol-Evans and I’m truly blessed to have them in my life.
In terms of a professional mentor, Debs Eden is my mentor. I wanted to have someone who knows me but will challenge me and encourage me to see things from all perspectives.
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I co-founded a network of PAs in Westminster (Network PA SW1) with a friend, Gill Quirk, who works in Whitehall, where our government departments are predominantly based. It’s gone from strength to strength and I’m incredibly proud of that. The highlight was when a group of PAs decided to set up an internal PA network following one of our meetings. We celebrate our third birthday in 2016.
Gill also nominated me for the Hays PA / Executive PA Magazine PA of the Year in 2013, and I was second runner-up, so I’m quite proud of that, too.
Step out of your comfort zone
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I’d love to see our network continue to develop, and for an internal network of PAs in the Church to develop. Part of my work remit is to build up relationships with the Bishops’ offices of the 13 dioceses in the Ebbsfleet area – so I’m intending to visit offices this coming year to get to know my fellow PAs more.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Research development, training and networking opportunities. Never to be afraid to ask (the worst answer can be no). Not to be afraid that people might not like you, and not to try and save the world.
Don’t be afraid to ask, don’t be afraid people may not like you, and don’t try to save the world
Your most effective time management strategy? Check emails only at certain times of the day (I have a reminder ping up on my computer) and then use the two-minute rule: if it can be dealt with in two minutes, do it. If not, use those two minutes to plan what you’re going to do with it and then put it into a task to be worked on outside the “checking emails” time slot.
I also categorize everything so that I’m not flitting from writing a letter to making a phone call to photocopying to filling to writing another letter – everything gets done in a block when you’re in that particular “zone”.
Also, do the slightly intimidating things first!
Advice for a new mother returning to the workplace? I’m not a mother, so this can only be what I imagine it could be – and I suspect that something similar might be used for those returning to the workplace after being off for a long time due to ill health or caring for a loved one – be kind to yourself. Your body has been through an amazing yet exhausting process; pace yourself. A new or changed environment requires stamina, and that can be built up only gradually.
Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Keep communications open and keep your assistant informed. S/he will learn to know how to prioritise according to your requirements by getting to know what’s important to you.
For those interested in promotion: Network, network, network. Find a mentor or a PA who is where you would like to be, and go talk to that person.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Catherine 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.
- Lucy Brazier – Executive Secretary Magazine
- Victoria Darragh – EPAA; Executive & Personal Assistants Association
- Bonnie Low-Kramen –BTUA – Be The Ultimate Assistant
- Anel Martin
- Paul Pennant – Today’s PA
- Vickie Sokol-Evan – Red Cape Company
- Brilliant Email – How to Win Back Time and Increase Your Productivity – Seeley, Monica
- Eat, Drink and Succeed – Climb Your Way to the Top Using the Networking Power of Social Events – Schwartz, Laura
- How to be a Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More, and Love What You Do – Allcott, Graham
- Inbox Detox – Egan, Marsha
- The New Executive Assistant: Advice for Succeeding in Your Career – Duncan, Melba