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 23 countries to date: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mauritius, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates , the United States of America and Wales.
Debbie Huckerby is Senior Secretary at her firm. Here’s a look at her world.
Walks to Work
I don’t get up until 7:30 a.m., lucky me. I often walk to work (about three and a half miles), but not before I have my usual warm water with lemon to set me up for the day. If I walk to the office it’s about 45 minutes (downhill) but, by bus, which I will treat myself to now and again, it takes about 20 minutes.
Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? I have a mix of country and western as well as 80s and folk music, especially Seth Lakeman.
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: I have worked at the firm for 11 years now, in both our International Management Team and in a Practice Group (department) called Litigation & Regulatory. Whichever area I have been in, the role has always consisted of email and diary management – I have full access – as well as expenses, appointments and international travel.
In the Management Team, I worked for the Senior Partner and then the International HR Director. Both roles involved a highly confidential and sensitive workload and dealing with many people at a very senior level. I then moved to work in Litigation & Regulatory for the newly appointed International Group Head and his Head of Operations. They ran the whole of the International Litigation & Regulatory team and, again, there was confidential and sensitive work including performance reviews, salary reviews, HR issues and financial matters, including the marketing budget.
Following an internal transfer, I now work out of our Sheffield office, still in the Litigation & Regulatory team, in a Secretarial Hub with three other secretaries. We have case work, which means lots of email and diary management for all the fee earners in our team. This also involves digital dictation, billing, preparing emails, correspondence and court documents court bundles. I also continue to update the Department’s internal intranet pages using SharePoint, and I still help manage the marketing budget and liaison with Finance for invoices and expenses.
I have a varied workload that can change on a daily basis, and that’s what keeps me interested and entertained in my role as well as working with and for some lovely people.
The confidence to say no comes with age and with trust
Morning Routines: I have a yogurt or bagel and a latte, and check emails and diaries: mine, and those of my senior partner and International Business Manager. Then I check the Secretarial Hub work and then re-check my To Do list.
I can then finally relax and get started! A typical day will see me replying directly to a few emails, printing off others for one of my partners, checking our Finance System for any invoices which need approval and liaising as necessary. I amend documents, create financial documents, monitor the marketing budget and pay invoices as well as the bog-standard typing up of letters and court documents and booking lots and lots of travel!
How long is your work day? I’m normally in the office by about 8:45, although my start time is 9:30. Most of the time I’m lucky to get my 5:45 p.m. bus home, but on the odd occasion it slips to the 6:25 p.m. bus.
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? The firm does promote general health and wellbeing, and offers various benefits including half price gym membership; we access benefits via a new portal. I know a few of my colleagues do have standing and adjustable desks, but this follows a formal referral from a consultant and a full risk assessment and routine check-ups. The firm is becoming more and more aware of issues and is currently promoting mental awareness throughout all of our offices.
What might be a typical lunch? I do try to go out and get some fresh air, but I’ll often sit in with my lunch and read a book or do a crossword. Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? I will stay and get things done when needed, but am lucky in that most of the time I can now get away just after 5:30 – after updating my To Do list for the next day.
Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role? I am part of a People Forum for our local office; we meet every few months to discuss various issues from around the office. I am also part of a firm-wide Mentoring Scheme and the LGBIT Group to help support colleagues across offices.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? The most challenging time in my career was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2013. Telling my boss and other colleagues was hard. I managed to come into the office now and again to see everyone, which kept me sane (!), and I worked from home too, which was a help as it took my mind off my treatment. It was hard coming back, even with a gradual return, because you feel okay but you know you’re not quite there … and everyone forgets and expects you to be running at full steam. When someone would remember, I would say I was okay. It was a strange time and an eye-opener as to what you can achieve if you put your mind to it – and I came out the other side. I am very, very lucky as I lost two colleagues to cancer within a year of being given the all clear myself.
I am very, very lucky
What do you most enjoy about your career? Receiving a “thank you” goes a long way. I am lucky to have worked with – and continue to work with – some lovely people, and it makes your day better to hear just one of them say, “Good job” or “Thank you”. I like being able to help someone and seeing something that I know I’ve had a hand in sorting go out to a client.
On Saying “No”
It is very hard to say an outright “no” to someone, as you feel you should just take care of it for them, but inevitably it turns into a mammoth task you wish you hadn’t started! Over the years, I’ve made myself late for appointments or dinners, just to stay and get something done for someone. If you really push, though, and say, “Is it really needed now/tonight?” more often than not it’s, “Oh, actually no, tomorrow morning is fine.” I think the confidence to say no comes with age and possibly a trust that the person won’t say it’s urgent when actually it isn’t.
I was born in Nottingham but have lived in Skegness (on the Lincolnshire coast), Leeds, Hertfordshire, City of London, Bedfordshire and now Sheffield. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I’m a country mouse; we are 10 minutess from the beautiful Peak District and not far from the Yorkshire Dales.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? Walking, watching rugby, reading, spending time with family and friends.
How long have you been an admin. professional? I have been a legal secretary since I was 18 so that’s, erm … a number of years. Let’s say, nearly 30! What was your first such role? I was a junior legal secretary in a small firm in Skegness, Lincolnshire. I worked in their residential conveyancing department before moving to work for the Litigation team’s Articled Clerk – who taught me lots!
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? During a tough day at work, I’ll nip upstairs to the café and get ice cream! My partner, Darren, normally cooks and so Friday is usually a good day to have a decent meal with some wine or a gin and tonic!
A dream holiday or travel adventure? Following the death of my Dad, I was lucky enough to take a sabbatical for a year. We travelled to Canada, Tahiti, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I learned to dive in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and we went shark diving in South Africa. We love Canada and hope to do a road trip from the east coast of the US up into the east coast of Canada.
We have to move with the times – if you don’t, you will get left behind
Education and Professional Development
Education: I’ve completed an Executive Personal Assistant Diploma by distance education and, due to my interest in forensic science, I have a Certificate of Distinction in Medical Terminology. I also earned my MOS (Microsoft Office Specialist) in Outlook 2003 and 2010.
Peer and Professional Associations: I am a Fellow of the Institute of Legal Secretaries and Fellow of the Global PA Association. I am also a member of EPAA, the Executive & Personal Assistant Association, and an affiliated member of the British Society for Medical Secretaries. How have these networks or associations helped you? You can get ideas and help with queries. I follow them, primarily on LinkedIn, but also via Facebook or Twitter.
The Digital Age, and Evolution of the Assistant’s Role
Do you publish to, or monitor social media as part of your professional responsibilities? I don’t – but, if I see something about the firm in my personal use of on LinkedIn or Twitter, I will share this. What are your preferred forms of social media? I use LinkedIn a lot, and also use Twitter. I try to stay off Facebook these days.
Do you maintain, monitor and/or publish to a website as part of your professional responsibilities? No, but I do maintain, monitor and publish to the firm’s internal intranet page.
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? Unfortunately, we can’t use our own apps as a lot are blocked by IT.
Have you used technology to digitize processes or materials in your workplace? Being a global law firm, we have many digital processes and more new ones coming in.
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? No. I used to, but my role is no longer senior enough for me to have retained it.
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital, or paper-based? Our current international board members use iPads for meeting materials. When it comes to partners and managers, it depends on their preferences.
I am also really interested in forensic science and forensic IT
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? It often happens quickly and most people embrace change and realise it has to happen. I welcome change. We have to move with the times and, if you don’t, you will get left behind.
What about the impact of Digital Assistants/AI (Artificial Intelligence) resources and meeting-scheduling bots that can correspond with actual assistants? I’m not really sure. I think companies may try and phase actual PA/secretaries out by using voice recognition digital dictation, etc. – but I think that it will then come full circle, and companies will realise the need for someone on the ground with the personal touch. I think that, in some law firms, they do not realise the value a secretary/PA can bring to an organization.
Travel or travel planning recommendations? Put yourself in your traveller’s shoes. Would you really want to make two flight changes if it wasn’t necessary? Can you persuade your traveller to go an evening earlier so they can have a proper rest before that big pitch to a new client the next day? How would you get from the airport to the office you are visiting if you had just landed? Yes, your manager gets to travel business class or first class, but s/he still needs a workable itinerary. Always check your time zones when booking travel. If your traveller lands at 6:00 a.m., s/he will want to freshen up, so book the hotel for arrival the previous night.
What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and for tracking expenses? We use Concur, an expense app. We also rely on OAG Flights. It’s a godsend, especially when you have a lawyer wanting flight information now!
Make sure you enjoy what you do; life is too short!
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 my navy trouser suit with only very light make-up, but red lipstick!
What might we find in your desk drawer? Erm, all sorts of things – a spare hairbrush, deodorant, makeup, a tin opener and a shorthand dictionary to name but a few!
Inspirational reads? I’ve read “How to be a PA” by Maria Fuller and “Become an Inner Circle Assistant” by Joan Burge. I read articles by Bonnie Low-Kramen as well as many articles on Practically Perfect PA, Executive PA etc.
Role models or mentors? I have never had a mentor but one lady I worked with at a previous law firm was a role model. She started out as a legal secretary like me, but eventually became an HR Manager. My early boss from Lincolnshire did look after me, too, and the International HR Director at my current firm was so unflappable, calm and always looked so smart – if only I could do that!
Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? The UK firm where I currently work does have an “Extra Mile” Award and I have received this twice. The first was for my involvement in managing not only a very heavy secretarial workload but also supporting the International HR Director and her team in the promotions process and interviews. The second was for my role in organising the university event at our London office, whilst based here in Sheffield.
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I was asked to visit two newly opened offices in Luxembourg and Johannesburg, to give on the ground training and know-how to the new team of secretaries. I produced a Secretarial Know-How document featuring things that I knew they would be asked to do on their first day and onwards. I enjoyed it all immensely and made some lovely friends from that experience. I was also asked to help organise an event with students and alumni from a University. The event was held in our London office, so there was a lot of liaison with a lot of people in different groups, and I am pleased to say it went off without a hitch! I also helped run a small business centre in the office; I enjoyed it immensely and met lots of new people from the office.
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I make an action plan, double check instructions and then get to it – more often than not, I’ll tackle something unfamiliar in the morning when I’m more awake!
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? For the time being, and after 10 years of working at a management level, I’m enjoying being a normal legal secretary. In a global law firm of this size, I would hope to perhaps go on a short-term secondment to another office – either in the UK or abroad. I am also hoping to now complete more up to date MOS Exams for Word, Outlook and Excel.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? Not yet but, at a global firm like this, if an opportunity arises, I shall take it! I am also really interested in forensic science and forensic IT, so I will look at more courses to do in those two areas.
Talking to Executives
Imagine that a cohort of executives invited discussion of the business case for working with an executive assistant. Anticipate that they’re tech savvy; how do you make the case for having an EA, MA or PA on the payroll? I am your right-hand man. I deal the with non-important things to let you get on with the real work. I will deal with that urgent flight for you, making sure you have a smooth trip and I will sort out a meeting for you, making sure you have all the materials and equipment needed and I will get you there on time! What’s not to like about that? I’ll help you as much as I can or as much as you want me to – just ask, but nicely!
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. No matter how easygoing the other person is or the questions they ask, always treat it as a formal interview – I made the mistake of saying I would move abroad if I had a lottery win, only to be told I hadn’t got the job because I didn’t take my career seriously enough! Don’t force it in the interview. If your gut instinct is that you don’t like the interviewer (your potential new boss) or something else, you are probably usually right. Do not ever lie on your CV; you will get caught out when you turn up for your new role and haven’t a clue what you are doing!
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Make sure you enjoy what you do; life is too short!
Your most effective time management strategy? A To do list. Check it at night so you have it ready for the next morning, and keep checking it. Have it with you all the time so that, if you get a new project, you can consider what may be moved to a later time or date. Also, keep a clear in-box.
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? “At the interview, you said you wanted someone to manage your in-box, so can I have 10 minutes to get onto your PC and give myself the necessary access? Are you happy with me dealing with all appointments on your behalf, or do you want to review all meeting requests that come through? How should I let you know you have a message – email, handwritten or other.” It’s the little things like that that can make all the difference. Ask, “If you ask me to book you lunch, where is your favourite restaurant?” Make a note of it.
I remember my current boss said to me, “I don’t care if you make a mistake, but come to me immediately or let me know straightaway and that way we can sort it out.” I knew that he wouldn’t comment if I’d done something he liked, and that he would always tell me immediately if he didn’t like something – and, so, 11 years later I’m still working for him.
Get a mentor who can give you ideas and a fresh pair of eyes
For those interested in promotion: Get registered on a LinkedIn and join lots of groups. Read posts about new technology or how to accomplish tasks in Excel, for example. Get hints and tips from Google. Try to get a mentor who can give you a fresh pair of eyes and ideas to help you. Never be afraid to ask for further instructions. If you’re new in a job, create an “Admin” folder where you keep lists, including contacts, favourite restaurants and travel preferences such as hotels.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Debbie mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- British Society for Medical Secretaries
- EPAA – Executive & Personal Assistant Association
- Global PA Association
- Institute of Legal Secretaries
- Bonnie Low-Kramen – Be The Ultimate Assistant
- Burge, Joan – Become an Inner Circle Assistant
- Executive PA
- Fuller, Maria – How to be a PA: A practical guide to becoming a super-efficient Personal Assistant
- Practically Perfect PA