Real Careers: Debbie Grimshaw

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 and the USA, and now make our way to Manchester to visit with Debbie Grimshaw.

Debbie Grimshaw is a Senior Executive Assistant. Here’s a look at her world.

Exercise, Tea, and Ready for the Day

My alarm is set for 6:00 a m. and I get up at 6:15 to walk my dogs. My partner Andy always has a cup of tea waiting for me when I get back: no sugar and a tiny splash of milk … I love a builder’s tea!  Whilst I watch the news, I check my calendar, emails and social media then shower and start my morning routine. I normally take breakfast – Greek yogurt, some nuts and fresh fruit – to work.

I am fortunate to live very close to the office. If I walk at a leisurely pace, it takes about 15 minutes.  However, I tend to drive to the office most days as I come home at lunchtime to let my two dogs Ted and Lilly out. When driving, I usually listen to Capital Manchester on the radio. The breakfast show presenters always make me laugh and it’s a great way to start the day. If walking, then it will always be George Michael; he is my life long idol. What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? “Around Here” by George Michael.

At the Office

Morning Routines: I start work by going through my diary, planning out my day in the calendar and updating my “to do” list. I then go through Phil’s email and mine, and filter my inbox into Urgent, Action, Reading and Other. I’ll have another quick look at Twitter before the mail arrives and, once that is cleared, I get to work. I normally eat my breakfast around 9:30 a.m. and have my first cup of tea shortly after.

Primary Responsibilities: As EA to the Managing Director (MD), I get an insight into all aspects of the business, which means I see the big picture. My primary responsibility is to keep the Executive Office running smoothly, supporting the Managing Director and another Director. I sit on several teams, work on several projects, and manage the business travel account and administration of our intranet.

There really is no such thing as a typical day. I get into the office with the very best of intentions to run with the priorities on my list, but then my in box starts to fill up, I have someone at my office door wanting assistance, or the phone rings. Every day is different and has its various challenges. I manage the complex and demanding diary of our MD, organise meetings, interact with other Managers, book travel,  and more. It’s a fast paced role and constantly changing – but I enjoy being busy and get real job satisfaction knowing that I make someone else’s life easier.

IMG_9639How long is your work day? Officially, my day begin at 8:45 a.m. but I usually arrive early, have 45 minutes for lunch and leave later than the official end time. The extra time enables me to finish tasks with no telephone calls or interruptions. What might be a typical lunch?  I usually have a sandwich and a cup of tea, at home, and often use that opportunity to check on the social media channels of the charity for which I volunteer.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? As we now live in a mobile world, I never really switch off. I check in on email a couple of times each evening just to clear anything that isn’t urgent and prioritise my inbox. I think that, once you become a PA and work so closely with someone at such a senior level, you come to expect that the job doesn’t stop when the bell goes.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? The most challenging aspect of my role is prioritising and balancing the workload to maximise my time. The day always starts off with a great plan, but then I find myself juggling things around and straying from the plan. As an EA, you don’t really get much quiet time to work without interruptions.

Delegate routine tasks; they can be a learning opportunity for others, and enable you to get on with priorities

What do you most enjoy about your career? It might sound cheesy, but what I enjoy most about my career is working for a fabulous company and my family of colleagues. Brother UK is a caring company; they really do everything possible to achieve the highest level of employee engagement. They strongly support me in my personal development, and let me use office resources and time to work for a local charity. They provide me the latest technology to maximise my efficiency, and allow me to attend valuable networking events – and take the PA team with me. We have staff wellbeing events, a subsidised restaurant, funds to organise social events … and the list just goes on.

Then there is my actual role in the business, supporting one of Manchester’s prominent business leaders. No two days are ever the same. Sometimes it’s a real juggling act, but I wouldn’t swap my job for the world. I get the opportunity to work on lots of interesting projects and events, meet and speak to many different people at all levels, mentor other PAs in the business and work independently with a trusted level of responsibility. I have a great working relationship with my boss and feel valued and appreciated as his “right hand”.

That’s why I am still working here 26 years after walking through the front doors. It’s a cool and fun company to work for, with an “at your side” company motto that is demonstrated by everyone I work with.

On Saying “No”

This is my biggest weakness, but you can’t do everything and I’d rather do a job properly than overload myself. So, I politely say, “I am happy to help but, if you have a deadline, please understand that at the moment I have other priorities and so it will have to wait.”

Debbie’s World

Map of worldI was born in Manchester, in the north of the United Kingdom, and still live there in a town called Audenshaw. I’m a small community person but like to go in to the city occasionally with friends, and whenever my work or PA networking takes me there.

I try to do Zumba twice a week. That relieves the stresses of the day and it’s a chance to catch up with friends. I’m usually at a PA networking event at least once a month, making new connections, and enjoy shopping, walking my dogs and catching up with good friends over a nice bottle of wine and a meal. I volunteer for a children’s charity, helping them with their admin and social media channels. At least once a fortnight, I try to visit elderly friends.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A nice soak in the bath, do my nails, and a large glass of Rioja

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? Three years ago my partner Andy took me to Barbados. I’ve visited many countries and stood on lots of beaches before, but nothing compared to the white sand and crystal clear water of the Caribbean and the wonderful friendly Bajan people. It was an amazing holiday, and at the end of it he wrote in the sand and asked me to marry him – so Barbados gets my vote for dream holiday every time. However, working for a Japanese company for 26 years and having made so many Japanese friends, I think I would also love to visit their home country of Japan.

Education and Professional Development

Education: In my last year at school, I did a  business studies course of shorthand and typing.  I went straight into an office role at the age of 16 and, over the years, have continually invested in my personal development:  external and in-house training courses, attended seminars and also online training.

Over the past few years, I have had some fabulous EA/PA training for a minimal cost through Diversified at office* Show. There, I have received training from some globally recognised trainers and leading women in the profession, some of whom started off as an EA/PA and know exactly what challenges we face in a typical day. I have also had lots of free training at PA networking events, so I would encourage everyone to get out there networking and get involved.

Working with a senior executive, the job doesn’t stop when the bell goes

Peer and Professional Associations: I did join the APA but they had to announce their closure. I would like to know more about peer/professional associations, so plan to chat with other PAs about them at my award shortlisting event.



Preferred form(s) of social media? Twitter for business and PA friends, and Facebook for family and personal friends. I use LinkedIn but plan to do some training and focus on this a little more in the future.

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? A real life crystal ball; something that gives me the ability to read people’s minds

Awards and Recognition

I was delighted to be a runner up for the 2014 office* Show PA Contributor of the Year award, and to make the first shortlist for Executive PA Magazine Awards in 2013.

This year, I am thrilled to be shortlisted for the WeAreTheCity Top 50 Rising Star Awards Personal and Executive Assistants category. I feel very honoured to have made this shortlist, as there are some very inspiring ladies in my category. I have also been nominated for a Manchester PA of the Year Award. This award is the first of its kind in Manchester, and for this reason I would love to make the shortlist.  Not only would these awards be amazing accolades personally, but they would also inspire the team of PAs who work so hard alongside me at Brother UK – and, I hope, encourage them that the role of the PA is truly valued.

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? Heels and a smart dress or trouser suit, with my trademark Mac Morange lipstick

What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? Without doubt, my lipstick and mascara!

Heels or flats in the office?  Heels. For your commute? Heels, every time; I wear flat shoes only when exercising.  Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? I don’t really have a favourite brand; I buy from several different high street shops, although I really would love a pair of Louboutin black patent skyscraper heels. Sadly, the only black heels with red soles I own sit on top of a wine stopper – maybe one day!

Preferred scent: I don’t have a particular favourite. I like Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, Chanel Chance, Estee Lauder Pleasures and Daisy.

What might we find in your desk drawer? Business cards, trusty erasable Pilot pens, toothbrush, shoe shine, super glue, a sewing kit, stamps and an endless array of toiletries and medicines … just in case!

Travel or travel planning advice? I recently worked on a project to drive significant cost savings and efficiencies by transforming our business travel through use of an online travel management programme. I collaborated with a small team of PAs who take care of all travel requests, and it has greatly improved the travel experience for our colleagues and brought valuable benefits to our business.  Working with this new system, and because we were able to incorporate budget limits, we saved £16.5K in the first quarter.

The whole PA team is able to access our log-in anywhere with an internet connection, so last minute changes or bookings can be made at any time of day. I do, however, encourage our business travellers to plan ahead as much as they can so that we can benefit from low fares and advance hotel rates. I use the recommendations of our agent’s team (a wealth of experience), and we also ask our colleagues for feedback on hotels.

Inspirational reads? 

  • The Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook – Sue France
  • Heels of Steel – Vanessa Valley
  • Blogs from Practically Perfect PA – Nicky Christmas
  • Pearls of Wisdom– Lindsay Taylor

Role models or mentors? My first role model in life was my lovely Mum, whom sadly I lost to breast cancer when she was 43. As she climbed the career ladder, she taught me values and self-worth. I watched her progress, studying hard in every spare moment while working shifts and taking care of three young daughters and our family home. She was never afraid to roll up her sleeves and muck in with the team when they were short staffed. She said I should always listen, be a caring friend and someone to depend on. She always looked for the good in people and was there to lend a hand to someone in need. I learnt from her that you should never give up; that you should believe in yourself and accept that mistakes are just part of the learning process.  Throughout her illness, she taught me to have courage and strength. Most importantly, she taught me how to always be yourself and never forget who you are.

There are not enough words to describe just how important the lessons from my mum have been to me throughout my career, and the powerful influence she continues to be even though she isn’t around. Throughout my 26 years at Brother, there have been lots of people I have looked up to and learnt from, but my mum is the motivating force in everything I do – and I hope I became the woman she thought I would be.

Never stay in a role where you can’t be heard, contribute or learn

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I helped to drive a £2.7M project refurbishing a building of 45,000 square feet. The project involved the creation of an innovative, sustainable and inspiring office interior, a new server room, conversion of a warehouse into office space, and the construction of a 100 seat conference centre and bistro area.

Following the 2011 tsunami and earthquake disaster, I was a member of a working group who organised “Japan Day”, a fundraising event. We engaged our business partners in the sponsorship of a commemorative book for presentation to our company President in Japan.  Ccontributions raised from the fundraising efforts amounted to a total of 96,000 Euros, which was donated to the Japanese Red Cross and assisted the people of Japan.

Avail yourself of training opportunities; get out there, and network online and in-person

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I am enjoying mentoring other PAs in the business, and would like to work towards an official managerial position instead of the undercover management role I am now working in. I would also like to earn some recognition by achieving PA awards.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Now that I am mentoring other PAs, I realise it would have been so helpful to have the support and advice of someone knowledgeable in the profession. That probably would have given me more focused direction in the early days.

Set achievable targets, and keep on top of your to do list

Your most effective time management strategy? Keep on top of your to do list, and make sure you are organised by prioritising your workload in your calendar. Be in control and set yourself achievable targets. Delegate more routine tasks if you are able to. This gives someone else a chance to learn the ropes and enables you to get on with your priorities. Last but not least, switch off email notifications to reduce distraction if you are working to a deadline.

Advice for a new mother working to the workplace? My girls are all grown up now, but I would advise a new mum to get herself online. There are lots of support groups out there for mums returning to work, as well as blogs, Twitter accounts, etc

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Work as a team, and have a regular debrief. For me, the most important part of my working relationship with Phil is that we communicate well; he makes time for me and he has complete trust in me. We sit down once a week and go through the diary right to the end of the year. He keeps me fully briefed on upcoming events, changes, sensitive issues, his movements and times of pressure when he will need space and distance. This enables me to recognise when I need to keep his diary and his office door guarded, prioritising who or what gets his attention. He also allows me the opportunity to speak up about any concerns I have in the office that I think may have an impact on the business.

Support your assistant in her/his personal development. The assistant is the lynchpin keeping the office pumping at full speed, establishing and maintaining working relationships with staff at all levels and making things happen, so appreciate her/his talent, skills and competence. With support and the opportunity to advance their skills, assistants they can make your life easier by allowing you to achieve more with your time. Understand what matters to them and take an interest in their life outside of the office.

With the advice and support of a mentor, create a strategy for your development

For those interested in promotion: Find yourself a mentor. Having the right people to advise and support you should be part of your development strategy.

Never stay in a role where you can’t be heard, contribute or learn.

Go to office* Show and PA networking events; there are a huge amount of low cost or free training opportunities delivered by some really inspirational people. Get out there, and network online and in-person. I feel my career has grown and opportunities have come about just by being connected with people I met at networking events. Continue to invest in your personal development to open doors to broader responsibilities.


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Debbie referenced may be interested in checking the following links. For a list of resources recommended by our readers, click here.

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