Real Careers: Donna Olliver

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, the USA and Wales, and now make our way to Guernsey, off the south coast of England, to visit with Donna Olliver.

Donna Olliver, CIPD, is Personal Assistant to the Partner, Director and Guernsey Advisory department. Here’s a look at her world.

A Productive Start to the Day

I usually get up at 6:00/6:30 a.m. I prepare lunch for my partner and I, feed our cat and rabbit, shower, dress, put washing on and tidy up before I leave for work at 7:45 a.m. Sometimes I feel like I’ve done a day’s work before I actually leave home for work

I’m ashamed to say that I drive to work, and it takes about five minutes.  I could walk and I do plan to, but most lunch times I’m dashing around collecting things, dropping things off or shopping, etc.

At the Office

Morning Routines: When I arrive at the office, I get out all my files (we have a clear desk policy, so everything goes away at night). I turn on my computer, that of my colleague opposite and also my two bosses’.  At least that way, I feel that everything is ready for them. I then get drinks ready and, by that time, my computer is up and running so I log in and check emails first. I already have a to do list waiting from the end of the day before, so I make a start on that. I find that getting in early before the rest of the team helps. I can find my feet before anyone else arrives, and deal with anything urgent.

Primary Responsibilities: I’m sure most of the work I do is the same as any other PA. I also arrange events for the team and office – golf events, seminars and dinners, as well as assisting with staff events. The team is currently 13 in Guernsey, but we are recruiting all the time as we are growing so fast. There is never a dull moment and someone is always travelling. I book the travel for the team, arrange meetings, diaries, conference calls, team meetings etc., etc.

There is no such thing as a typical day. There are some tasks that I have to do each week but, apart from that, there is no structure to my day in that I can be asked to do anything at any point.  For example, today I have been setting up a conference call, covering reception and making up goody bags.

How long is your work day? As I say, I arrive into the office at around 8:00 a.m., and I leave any time from 5:15 – 6:15 or later. If we have a breakfast seminar, I could maybe start at 7:00 a.m. It really does depend on the day and what is happening.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? It depends; it’s usually a salad or a sandwich.  I try to take lunch, as I know when I did my HR training they were always stressing that it’s best for people to take a lunch hour as you are actually more productive when you come back from having a break. As we all know, in our job, it’s not always possible.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? I think the most challenging aspect is changing the perception that a PA just sits drinking coffee and filing her nails. I don’t know any PA who does that. We are lucky that KPMG value their PA team and they value our ideas and input. If I have an idea, I feel that I can voice it at the team meeting just like any other member of the team.

In my early days as a PA, I remember being at a client event and caught myself saying to a client, “Oh, I’m just the PA.”  The client turned to me and said, “There is no such things as ‘just’ anything.” That has always stayed with me and I’ve never said it since, because I know that PAs bring value to their teams and workplaces. We now plan events, get involved in marketing, have parts in HR and recruitment, manage bosses’ time and take the pressure off – but, most of all, we are ambassadors for the firms we work for and ourselves. We speak to the clients of our firms, and after all that is the most important job of all.

We help everyone else survive their working day by making things run smoothly and efficiently.

Sometimes support staff can be overlooked.

A worthwhile challenge: changing the perception of PAs

What do you most enjoy about your career? No two days are the same. The role is varied and even the job descriptions can’t cover the breadth of work we do. If you have the right PA and s/he is fully supported, then your PA will go out of their way for you and will revolutionise the way that you work.

On Saying “No”

I used to be really terrible at saying “no”. I think most PAs are as it’s the kind of nature that we have. There comes a point where you have to; otherwise you will be swimming in work. It’s very important to say no if you work in a large team, as you have work coming from every angle. The best thing to say is, “I can’t do this right now but I come back to you later” or, “I have this to do for XYZ, but if you would like, I can speak to XYZ and see which piece is more urgent and I can do that one first.”

Donna’s World

Map of worldI’m proud to have been born in Guernsey, and that is where I have spent all my life. For those of you who don’t know where Guernsey is, we are off the South coast of England and are near France. We have a population of approximately 62,711. I have also spent a fair amount of my life in the Lake District, as my mum was born there.

At heart, are you a city gal or small community person (city mouse/country mouse)? I guess that, because of where I’m from, I would have to say a country mouse. I’m not sure you could call Guernsey’s main town a city, that is for sure. After all, Guernsey is probably smaller than most villages in England. If you have not visited Guernsey look it up. It’s a lovely place to visit.

When I’m not working, I like to walk. We have so many places where we can walk here: beaches, cliff paths, coastal walks. We can even hop over to a neighbouring island and visit. I also volunteer as a mentor for young adults in Guernsey who need someone to talk to about whatever is an issue in their life. I love doing this and seeing the difference you can make just by giving up a few hours of your time to listen to someone else’s problems. KPMG also goes into a local school to help the children with their reading, and I help out.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A pamper day is always a nice treat, but going out with the girls never fails to cheer you up. I’m still in touch with the girls I completed my HR qualification with, as well as my friends I have known most of my life.

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. In February 2015, I set up a local PA network in Guernsey called Guernsey PA Connect. Our first PA speaker was Victoria Darragh, whom I met at office* 2014.  We now have over 180 Guernsey PAs on our data base and this is still growing. We hold four events a year: one with a speaker, one for training, one networking event, and the other is ad hoc as we see fit. My best friend decided to come on board before the first event and we have run the network together ever since.

We don’t have any awards for PAs in Guernsey currently, although this may change. Therefore, I was very proud to be nominated, shortlisted and then win the We are The City Rising Star award for PAs and EAs. This is a great achievement for someone from Guernsey, not coming from a big city. It’s great for Guernsey and also for Guernsey PA Connect. Caroline, who runs the network with me, was also a winner in the Insurance section. We would like to thank all those who took time out of their days to vote for us. Thank you.

Education and Professional Development

Education: I wasn’t very good at school. I struggled a lot. It always took me longer than my friends to grasp things. The only subjects I liked were Sport, Cooking, Humanities and Geography. I stayed for my GSCEs, but that is as far as I wanted to go.

I completed the first PA qualification in Guernsey, completed my HR qualification as mentioned, and also qualified as a legal PA. I always wanted to be a legal PA, but I was told that I needed experience even after taking the qualification. I’m glad that I found the role that I’m in now. I have to say it’s the most enjoyable role that I have had and I feel fully supported in all I do. They have more than embraced Guernsey PA Connect, and I can’t thank them enough for that.

Have a mentor, even if you don’t feel you need one

Peer and Professional Associations: As I’ve already mentioned, I’m part of Guernsey PA Connect and I really hope this goes from strength to strength. There will be opportunities for our PAs to take the lectern and practice anything they wish. The whole part of doing this is that we all grow and feel fully supported, and that it is a safe space to do so.



Preferred form(s) of social media? Caroline will tell you that I’m not great on Twitter – I have sent my first tweet and have re-tweeted, but I’m much better with Facebook. I also have a Linkedin profile and Guernsey PA Connect has a group page.

Awards and Recognition

What I love the most is that each quarter we have an internal KPMG staff award for someone who has gone the extra mile. I was awarded this last quarter for my work on Guernsey PA Connect, and to know that my colleagues voted for me was very special. I was also recently awarded the We Are the City Rising Star award in the PA and EA category.

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh Donnelly

Heels or flats in the office?  Both – flats into the office and, once through the door, heels on and business ready. Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? I’m a size 8, so I don’t get the luxury of choice most women have.

What might we find in your desk drawer? We don’t have desk drawers. The boys on my team will tell you, I was not impressed with this idea when we moved into the new office. I was really panicked on how I was going to cope – a PA with no desk draws for keeping things safe and storing things. You know what, I don’t even miss them.

I have a filing rack with all the monthly travel and invites in, a paper stand for typing and a set of trays on my desk as well as a stapler, pen pot and stampers on my desk. We also have no bins, as we are encouraged to recycle.

Inspirational reads? I recently finished reading Eat, Drink and Succeed by Laura Schwartz, and there are a lot of great tips in there. I’m currently reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, which is equally amazing; I’m not even a quarter of the way through it yet.

Role models or mentors? I think that, if you have heard Victoria Darragh speak, you will just find something about her that makes you want to do better in your job. Cath Thomas and Marion Lowrence were also of great help when I initially set up Guernsey PA Connect. I’m sure that I will meet many more inspiring PAs along the rest of my journey.

There is no such thing as “just” a PA

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I’d like to see Guernsey PA Connect grow so that as many PAs/EAs/Secretaries join as possible. We would like to be seen as the go-to people for assisting PAs/EAs/Secretaries to get where they would like to be in their careers. We help with training and networking, and even assist with finding venues and putting people in touch with those who can help them find out what they need to know. We really are a support network, and I’m very proud of every PA we have on our database as they are all committed to not only their personal brand but also the PA name and role.

Lessons Learned

Your most effective time management strategy? My saying is, don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today. If it’s only going to take a few minutes – get it done. It’s one less thing to come in to tomorrow.

Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today

A to do or to dah list is great. I write one before I go each evening. The other thing I do from when I worked for a doctor’s practice is that I date sticky notes with what is happening and attach it to each piece of my pending. That way, if I’m out of the office and someone needs to know what is going on, they can pick it up and handle it as all the notes are there.

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: First you have to build the trust. Give your PA something that you are too busy to do and then let her/him do it. If you would like it changed to your style, explain how you’d like it changed. Next time, s/he will be able to hit the target first time, and it will save time.

Don’t be afraid to ask.

Learn what things both of you are good at and you can work from there. Ask what s/he is struggling with time wise or in general, and start with that.  If you can take the burden off, then you are half way there.

No one knows everything, no matter how long you’ve been in a role; you can always learn

For those interested in promotion: Learn. Have a mentor, even if you don’t feel you need one. It’s great to become a mentor and to be mentored. You learn so much.

Go on as much training as you can, and pass the knowledge on. No one knows everything, no matter how long you have been in the role. You can always learn. It may be something that you have done a certain way for years, but maybe now there is a different way or an App for it.


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

Olliver, Donna

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