Real Careers: Debra Jacobs

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 Stanmore to visit with Debra Jacobs.

Debra Jacobs is Personal Assistant to a Learning & Development Partner, Royal Bank of Scotland. Here’s a look at her world.

A Social Start to the Day

My alarm goes off at 6:20 a.m. and the first thing I do is check my emails and social media accounts on my phone. I then go downstairs and feed our three cats before getting  prepared for the day, whilst my husband brings me a cup of tea. It takes me about an hour to get up, get ready and leave the house.

My commute is 75 minutes.  It involves taking a bus to the station where I catch an overground train into the centre  of London, followed by a short walk before taking the underground the last few stops to reach the office.

Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? At the moment I am listening to the original soundtrack from Hamilton, along with some Olly Murs and a bit of Wham.

At the Office

Morning Routines: I purchase a cup of tea on arrival into the office (there is a Benugos onsite) and collect my notebook and papers from my filing cabinet before heading to my desk and logging in to my PC. I first check my inbox, before checking my leader’s. I see if there have been any changes to the diary for the day/ and or if any meeting papers have come through or anything else I need to know about. I am involved in a broad variety of work.

How long is your work day? normally get into the office for 8:50 and leave around 5:10 unless there is a lot going on or I haven’t had the chance to catch up with my leader. I am happy to support and be flexible when required/necessary.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? I’ll usually have either a jacket potato with beans and cheese, or a salad which I bring back and eat at my desk.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? Yes, I take a quick look at my emails whilst on the train. It gives me a heads up before I get into the office so I know what I need to prioritise/focus on first. After hours, I do like to keep an eye on my smart phone/emails, but not religiously.

Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role?  I am Founder and Chair of the RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) PA Network. Established in January 2016, it now has 520 PAs from across the UK & Ireland. Through sheer determination, hard work, resilience, dedication and most importantly passion, I have created a successful PA network at RBS. I am also a member of the Jewish Society and Focused Women Network at the bank.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? I am keen to change the perception of what it means to be a PA. We now work in partnership with our leaders, and are trusted advisors who are able to offer solutions, contribute and challenge and work without supervision, all to achieve best results.

I am keen to change the perception of what it means to be a PA

What do you most enjoy about your career? I enjoy being part of an amazing global PA community – a professional one that is supportive, encouraging of each other, understanding, inspiring and of course passionate.


On Saying “No”

I very rarely say no to people, but it comes with experience in the role and confidence.


Debra’s World

Map of worldI was born in Edgware and now live in Stanmore; both areas are in North West London. I’m from a Jewish family and North West London has a large Jewish community, with lots of specialty shops and places to eat. I enjoy living in the suburbs – there are lots of green spaces, with good access to the motorways and airports. We’re close to our family and friends, but it’s still a reasonable distance to travel into London for work or a night out.

How long have you been an admin. professional? Prior to transitioning to the role of a PA 10 years ago, I began by career in hotels before moving into an event management role. What was your first role as an admin. professional? My first ever role was working in Conference and Banqueting for Forte Hotels in Russell Square. My first ever PA role was temping for American Express.

How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I like spending time with family and friends, watching American TV shows and films, going to the theatre, out for afternoon tea – and holidays in the sun!

I am also a trustee for Saving Macedonia Strays, an animal rescue charity based in Macedonia. I help to raise awareness of the organisation; I fundraise, run their social media outlets and provide support with rehoming of the animals within Macedonia, the UK and across Europe.

PAs: trusted advisors who are able to offer solutions

How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I am not very good at switching off or sitting still. I enjoy getting my nails done on a regular basis and going for a massage.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? My husband and I enjoy travelling together (which is lucky), seeing and experiencing new places and destinations. It could be a short weekend stay in Rome or a road trip across California, which we are doing over Easter this year. One of our favourite destinations is Israel, for the sunshine, the amazing food, the sights and the culture – and not forgetting the nightlife and beaches in Tel Aviv. We have lots of friends over there.


Education and Professional Development

Peer and Professional Associations: I belong to The Executive & Personal Assistants Association (EPAA). I also read and subscripe to several PA publications, including Executive Secretary Magazine and PA Life Magazine.

How have these networks or associations helped you? Through the network and by networking, I’ve gained invaluable PA connections and now have the opportunity to speak as a positive voice for the profession. Have you held a leadership role in any such networks? I am Chair of the PA Network at RBS.

What are the primary means of communication for members of your networks  and professional associations? Email, portals, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and WhatsApp are some examples.


The Digital Age, and Evolution of the Assistant’s Role

imageDo you publish to, and/or monitor social media as part of your professional responsibilities? I look at social media to support my activities as part of the network, and to share articles and word of external events that could be of interest to the PA community at the bank.

What are your preferred forms of social media? Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter; I also regularly watch Ted Talks

What apps do you make use of in your professional life? CityMapper, Calm, Wunderlist, WhatsApp

Do you maintain, monitor and/or publish to a website as part of your professional responsibilities? I manage the RBS PA Network PA HUB, which is an internal collaboration platform.

I now upload all of my leader’s meeting materials on her iPad

Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Yes, I have a Samsung phone  on which I can access my works emails.

Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital (relying on portals and/or PDFs of meeting materials), or paper-based? It varies and is dependant on the audience. I now upload all of my leader’s meeting materials on her iPad, which she can review in meetings, thus negating the need to print.


Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyName a go-to piece or two from your wardrobe to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? It really depends on my mood. Your outfit doesn’t have to be expensive, but it is important that whatever you wear is clean, fits you well (buttonholes don’t stretch), is appropriate for the workplace and presentable. This is another part of your “personal brand”, as is ensuring your nails aren’t chipped and that you have a good hair cut.

What might we find in your desk drawer? I no longer have a pedestal. In my filing cabinet you will find a stack of birthday cards and birthday banners, four pair of shoes, my old note books and a few other odds and ends.

Inspirational reads? Heels of Steel by Vanessa Vallely, and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Role models or mentors? I saw Victoria Darragh speak at office* about five years ago. She was the first person I had really seen who spoke so passionately about championing, promoting and developing the assistant role and profession. I am pleased to say that I am a Fellow member of EPAA (The Executive & personal Assistant Association),  of which Victoria is the CEO.  Alongside Victoria and the global PA community, I am keen to change the perception of what it means to be a PA.

Role model Victoria Darragh champions and promotes the profession

Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? A note from Shelagh: Debra’s social media accounts lit up early this week, as she was just awarded the RBS Women Network Opal Award. Congrats!

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I am extremely proud of what the PA network has achieved. It is definitely having a positive influence on the way the PAs work together and support their leaders, and provides better clarity on business priorities. It has been an extremely busy, challenging and rewarding time.

I was selected as part of the 2016 cohort, RBS Focused Women Talent Programme. This involved  attending workshops, meeting with other identified female talent within the bank, and completing and  pitching a project idea on “increasing male engagement in the workplace” to ExCo members.

In February 2017, I was a panelist at EPAA’s (The Executive & Personal Assistants Association’s) Financial/Banking Conference.

What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? To improve my social medial skills

Inspirational reading: Vanessa Vallely’s Heels of Steel and Malcom Gladewell’s Blink


Travel Planning

Travel or travel planning recommendations? At RBS, all of our travel is booked via an external firm.

When booking my personal travel, I always refer to Trip Advisor for reviews on hotels, places to see and useful information, etc. I also love getting a great deal, so will happily spend hours looking through all the holiday comparison sites, and hotel and airline websites before booking.


Lessons Learned

Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Do your research about the company where you have applied to work. Write down and practice in advance examples of what you have achieved in your role and what you would like going forward. Most interviews are now competency based.

The RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) PA Network is a  positive influence on the way the PAs work together and support their leaders, and provides better clarity on business priorities

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career?  To join an external PA network and get the opportunity to network with PAs from outside your company and industry. Share experiences and learnings, make new friends, and create a support network. Be proactive around your own personal development and training; don’t sit back and wait.

Be proactive around your own personal development and training; don’t sit back and wait

Your most effective time management strategy?  To ensure that you have clear and open lines of communication with your leader

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Learn about the following.

  • Who are their key stakeholders?
  • What is the operating rhythm for team/management meetings, etc.?
  • How would they like their calendars to be managed (colours)?
  • Discuss the first and last meetings of the day – timings
  • How would they like support with their inboxes? Fully managed or not at all?
  • Their preferred communication style

For those interested in promotion: Don’t sit back and wait for things to happen. Ask your leader or seek out opportunities to attend training and development sessions – it could be a free webinar or session you find online. If you see a role that you are interested in pursuing but don’t yet have the right experience or skills, find out what you would need to do in order to gain them so that you would be in a better position next time. It could be as simple as brushing up on your Microsoft skills.


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Debra mentioned 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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