Real Careers: Craig Harris

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, Turkey, the USA and Wales, and now make our way  back to London, England to visit with Craig Harris.

Craig Harris is Executive Assistant to the People Director at the NSPCC, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Here’s a look at his world.

A Running Start

The time I wake up varies; every other day I wake at 5:00 a.m. and go for a run. I feel like a run before work really sets me up for the day, and I’m really lucky that I live right by the sea; it’s so peaceful and a great running route. On the days I don’t run, I wake at 6:00 a.m. I’m usually then ready to leave just before 7:00.

My commute to work, door to door, usually takes me around 75 minutes. I usually jump on the train about 7:00 a.m. It takes me into the city and then I have a 15 minute walk at the other end. I really enjoy the walk in the morning; it takes me through the financial district into probably one of the most trendy up and coming areas in London. It’s great to see the change in people and atmosphere as you walk from one area to the other.

At the Office

Morning Routines: The first thing I do when I get to the office is grab a glass of water and start setting up for the day. I tend to be the first person in, so it gives me some time to really concentrate on the day ahead and prioritise what needs to be done.

Primary Responsibilities: My responsibilities change and really depend on the tasks ahead, but the most important part of my role is managing the diaries and making sure that we are prepared for the day, week, and month ahead. After this, anything goes, really; I could be attending a meeting to take minutes, welcoming guests or running an errand. No two days are ever the same.

I’m really proud to work in the charity sector

I suppose a typical day would be arriving at the office just after 8:00 and checking through emails and voicemails before getting papers, etc., ready for the day ahead. After this I could attend meetings or work on projects; it really depends on what is a priority at the time. I’ll then try to stop at around 1:00 p.m. to have a quick lunch and maybe go for a walk, and then work through to 5:00.

How long is your work day? I’m quite lucky really, my set hours are from nine to five. However, I am usually in work by around 8:15. Of course there are days where I work later or get in earlier, depending on if I’m needed. I try to be as flexible as possible. I think flexibility is a really important part of being an assistant.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? I try to have a bit of variety, so some days I will have made lunch at home and brought it to work with me; this tends to be a chicken, hummus and salad wrap. If I’m getting lunch from somewhere close by, it’s usually something quick, like a sandwich. I try and go for a walk away from my desk but I tend to eat lunch at my desk; it works for me to be at hand if needed.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? I try not to, but I do tend to check emails on the commute and the executive I support knows that she is able to contact me should she need me. We tend to text each other when something pops into one of our heads, but we try not to disturb each other if it can be helped.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? I think a lot of assistants would agree that it doesn’t matter how much you think you are prepared for the day ahead, something will always come up and you need to be prepared to rethink and reprioritise. I can look at my “to do list” at the beginning of the day and you can guarantee it would have changed by the end.

Flexibility is a really important part of being an assistant

What do you most enjoy about your career? I love the variety that comes from being an assistant; I love that I can be doing something completely different every day. It’s also the pride and sense of achievement you get from helping someone to be able to do their job the best they can, because you are supporting them.

On Saying “No”

Hmmmmm, this is a hard one. I’m naturally, as I’m sure other assistants are, always willing to help and so it can be hard to say no. However, I do think it’s important to set boundaries and be able to give an honest answer when required. If I ever need to push back, I simply explain that I might not be the best person to assist or offer help but am realistic with when it can be completed. It’s very rare, however, that I would say no; I usually would find the time to help where I can.

Your growth and development are as much your responsibility as anyone else’s

Craig’s World

Map of worldI was born in Essex, which is a county in England. I now work in London. At heart, are you a city guy or small community person (city mouse/country mouse)? I think I’m a bit of both. I love working in the hustle and bustle that comes with being in London, but I love that I live outside of the city near the sea. The peace and quiet that I have at home is a nice contrast to the city.

Outside of the office, I like to spend time with my partner, family and friends. When I’m not out with my family and friends for lunch/dinners, you would probably find me either reading or going for a run. I took up running over a year ago, and it’s safe to say I’ve got the running bug! My partner and I are also keen theatre goers and love to see a musical or play.

What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? I find that I’m one of the worst people for this; I always get a song in my head and then start singing out loud without even realising. The songs change, but at the moment it’s Bread’s Make it With You – because it’s in an advert on British TV at the moment  and seems to be played everywhere I go.

On time management: I also have a “thinking forward” list

Harris, Craig 2How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I think I do what most would; I just take the time to relax. I love spending time with my partner. So, after a tough week, we like to throw on some comfy clothes, get some snacks and watch old films. These tend to be old movies like Brief Encounter. Or, I’m a sucker for old 80’s films like Back to the Future. I’ve seen it so many times, but it is still a firm favourite.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? I mostly enjoy going away for city breaks; I like to discover a new city, the culture and what it has to offer. We’re hoping that some time soon we will be able to get to New York, as it’s somewhere both myself and my partner have always wanted to go.

Education and Professional Development

Education: I suppose that, being someone who left school and didn’t go on to higher education, professional development and training have probably helped me most. In recent years I’ve realised more how important it is to keep training and to keep learning in order to be at the top of your game.

It’s important that we work together to push ourselves and our profession forward

Peer and Professional Associations: I am a member of EPAA (The Executive & Personal Assistants Association), who are amazing. Their mission is to champion, promote and develop the assistant profession and, although this is a fairly new association, the changes they are making are amazing. They are really getting out there and speaking to assistants to understand what they need and how they can support us. It really helps make you feel part of a community who all want to help. We have some great tools and training available to us via EPAA.

I’m also part of The Charity PA Network, which aims to join together assistants who work in the charity and not for profit sector. I think working as an assistant in the charity sector throws up its own challenges, and it’s great to have a platform to discuss these and meet others working in a similar position.

Craig’s professional affiliations: EPAA and The Charity PA Network

Awards and Recognition

I was nominated for four awards at the London PA Awards 2016, and was then a shortlisted finalist for the Training and Recruitment award. I didn’t win, unfortunately, but it was still a privilege to have been a finalist – and there’s always next year!


Style and Substance

What are your go-to pieces to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? Working in the charity sector, the dress code can be a little more relaxed. However, on an important day I would usually go for a shirt, trousers and shoes combo, something smart and professional.

Preferred scent: My favourite scent would have to be Diesel’s Only the brave.

Travel or travel planning advice? Working in the charity sector, we really have to be careful when booking travel; it’s important to us to check that first the travel is necessary. Could the meeting be done via phone or video conference? If the travel is necessary, I would try to link it in with other meetings or visits so that we are getting the most out of the travel. Outside of the charity sector I think it’s important to always take into account extra time for delays or travel to venues. Always make sure the person you are supporting has everything they will need for their travel by putting together a travel itinerary. This would usually include tickets, times of travel, maps if required, numbers of taxi services and any papers required.

Inspirational reads? There are a few books I have read that have been not only been helpful, but have also given me an insight into working for demanding public figures. These are Be the Ultimate Assistant: A Celebrity Assistant’s Secrets to Success by Bonnie Low–Kramen,  Judy & Eliza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me by Stevie Phillips, and Fairy Tale Interrupted by Rose Marie Terenzo. All have been amazing books and have really made me think about our profession.

Role models or mentors? Firstly my boss, Siobhan Sheridan (NSPCC); she is such an inspiration, she is always developing herself and looking for more ways that she can improve. Siobhan has such belief in me, which has made me push myself and believe that I can do more. There are also many other PAs/EAs who inspire me and are great role models for our profession …  such as Jennifer Corcoran (Crédit Agricole CIB), Leonnie Braker (NSPCC), Matthew Want (Executive Secretary Magazine), Victoria Darragh (EPAA) and  Leeanne Graham (Women in Sport). There are so many others that I could mention, but I have had the pleasure of meeting all of these people on several occasions and they are all great ambassadors for our profession.

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. One of the biggest accomplishments for me was getting the role that I am in now. I’m really proud to work in the charity sector, and it was a challenge getting the role. When I applied for the role, the agency that I was using was reluctant to pass my CV forward as the rep didn’t think I would have enough experience. I pushed back on this and said that I knew I could do the job. This was fed back to the executive I now support and she always says that this determination and ambition are among the reasons she took me on. I think another achievement for me has been being shortlisted for an award at the London PA Awards. I didn’t win, but to be shortlisted out of so many nominees was an amazing feeling.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I think it’s always important to have some goals set for yourself. I’m currently trying to broaden my network and meet other assistants working in different sectors. I think it’s important that as a profession we work together to push ourselves and our profession forward.

Lessons Learned

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? The first thing I would advise is that you ask for a meeting to discuss priorities and diary commitments. It helps to know what meetings are recurring and what take precedence over others. Also find out about any projects or campaigns that are running or likely to be running in the near future; it means you can start looking at the bigger picture and manage your time more efficiently. Also take the time to share your past experiences, as it may be that you have done something in the past which could be put to good use.

Siobhan has such belief in me, which has made me push myself and believe that I can do more

Your most effective time management strategy? It’s an oldie but a goodie: to do lists. I use them all the time; I try to write myself a list every day of what needs to be achieved and by when. Then, from there, it is easier to work out how much time you need to spend on each item. This also helps to provide someone with realistic turnaround times. I also then have a more “thinking forward” list which includes up and coming projects and meetings.

If you could offer a new executive advice on how to best capitalise on having an assistant, and working together, what would that be? Be honest. When you work so closely with someone, you need to have complete honesty and trust. From the get go, explain what you expect from an assistant and where they can best assist you. Also make sure that you set time aside for regular one to ones and diary catch ups. When supporting a busy individual, you need this time to discuss any changes and if priorities have changed. Another suggestion is to offer help and training opportunities where possible. If your assistant thinks training in a certain area would be beneficial, take the time to discuss this; it could help you in the long run.

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: I think the best advice I could give a new executive would be to be clear on what you expect from your assistant. An assistant will be better at supporting an executive when s/he understands what the priorities are and where s/he can best offer help. I also think it’s really important to get to know your assistant; find out about their life outside the office and, in turn, share some details of your life. My executive and I know a lot about each other and this really helps me to understand where I can offer help, or what is important to Siobhan. I also think it helps when we are giving each other feedback; because we have the personal and business relationship, it’s a lot easier to communicate what we are feeling.

For those interested in promotion: Firstly, I would sit down and really think about what it is you want to get from the change. Is it that you want more responsibility, or is there a different side to the business that you would like to explore? Or, is it that you’ve seen an opportunity to earn more? Whatever the reason, really think about it before taking any steps forward.

Seeking an internal promotion? It’s important to put together a business case

Then, after this, it really depends on what the change means for you. If you want to stay within your current organisation, it’s important to put together a business case that outlines what you are proposing. If you are looking outside the organisation for promotion, really outline the skills that you have on your CV and think about what you want to get out of the move. Make sure this is communicated in your CV.

If it’s a case that you are looking for growth or development, there are ways that you can do this outside work. Look at joining a networking group, see if you can find a mentor, search for online training courses such as MOOCs – or consider investing in yourself and paying to attend a course. Your growth and development are as much your responsibility as anyone else’s, so believe in what you can achieve and go for it.


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

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