Real Careers: Helen Parker

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 make our way to Portishead, England to meet Helen Parker, who works in Bristol.

Helen Parker is Executive Assistant at The Society of Merchant Venturers. Here’s a look at her world.

Starting at the Gym

My alarm goes off 6:00 a.m. (I try not to snooze it too many times; terrible habit) and I head straight out the door to the gym. I’m not really a morning person, and so my day is really set back if I don’t sweat it out at the gym first thing, be it with a run or class workout.

I’m extremely lucky to only have a 20 minute drive and then parking on site at the office. Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Apple Music or, currently, the Jillian Michaels podcast.

At the Office

Morning Routines: After leaving the gym, I pick  up a coffee enroute to the office. I do check voicemail and email first thing for anything urgent. Providing there are no curve balls, I then crack on with the priority list I prepared before leaving work the evening before.

Primary Responsibilities: I look after both the Treasurer (Chief Executive) and Master (Chair) of the Society, and am the first point of contact by phone or email – as well as for the Hall internal and external event diaries. I’m in the process of finalising the Society’s meetings and event calendar for the year ahead, and am responsible for overseeing the paperwork for the Society’s subcommittees and the Charity Committee applications process.

There is no typical day at Merchants’ Hall! The Society plays an active role in education and care for the elderly and, through its charitable grants, giving assistance to organisations within the Greater Bristol area. As such, the shape of a week depends on what meetings and events are underway, and on the diary commitments my boss has.

How long is your work day? My official hours are from 9:00 to 5:00 … and yes, there is the need to work beyond this at busy times.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch?  I “graze” a lot during the day, so a typical lunch is cold pasta or rice brought from home (leftovers!) with veggies or salad. I try to leave my desk and computer screens for at least 20 minutes with a good book – outside, if it is sunny.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, o”during your commute?  No. I work longer hours during peak times to ensure there is no need to check emails, etc. from home. I firmly believe in a work/life balance, and I think that access to work from home blurs that line. I’ve just put in some 12 hour days, so it isn’t about being work shy!

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Keeping all the plates spinning; staying at least one step ahead and planning and preempting all possible outcomes. Multitasking has recently fallen out of fashion, with a focus on one thing at a time
getting better results. Realistically, though, in a busy office environment, this is simply not always feasible.

No isn’t a word that naturally occurs in the vocabulary of admin. support, but it is one we need to learn to tactfully use

What do you most enjoy about your career? Keeping all the plates spinning! There is so much variety to the role and I love to assist, organise and plan other people, and help make someone else’s day run a little smoother.

On Saying “No”

“No” isn’t a word that naturally occurs in the vocabulary of admin. support, but it is one we need to learn to tactfully use in order to avoid being completely overwhelmed.

I studied Psychology at degree level, and some might say that is an essential qualification for support staff

Helen’s World

Map of worldI was born in London (a genuine Cockney!) but then grew up in south Wales, where I went to school
and learnt to speak fluent Welsh in the process. I now live in beautiful Portishead and work in Bristol, meaning that I get to see the sea every day – very good for my soul.

At heart, are you a city gal or small community person (city mouse/country mouse)? Definitely a country mouse –  who occasionally has her head turned by the bright city night lights.

How do you like to spend your time outside the office? I love to read, am a recent discoverer ofNetflix, and enjoy a catch up with friends over wine. Seasonally, I like to garden in the spring/summer and can be found hunched over my sewing machine in the autumn/winter.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A long, hot bubbly bath, a good book, lots of candles and a bottle of Merlot. Cliché? I’m owning it.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? Paris. Ideally in the 1920s.

I get to see the sea every day – very good for my soul

Education and Professional Development

Education: I studied Psychology at degree level, and some might say that is an essential qualification for support staff. I have no formal professional qualifications, but subscribe to Executive Secretary magazine and go online to keep up to date with the latest.

Peer and Professional Associations: I am Fellow of EPAA, The Executive and Personal Assistants Association.



Preferred form(s) of social media? Ever late to the party, I am just discovering the world of Twitter.

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? Old school, but I don’t know where I would be without PDF Binder for distributing electronic papers in one file rather than a medley of several Word, Excel and PDF attachments! Apps-wise, I lose hours to Pinterest.

The role can be quite an isolated one, and having a peer group to turn to is invaluable

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh Donnelly

Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? Sophia Webster – a girl can dream.

Preferred scent: Escada – I always pick one up at the airport after my annual girls’ summer holiday, and it keeps me going through the dark winter months.

What might we find in your desk drawer? Food …

Travel or travel planning advice? While I  don’t have a lot of travel arrangements to make in my current role, I have previously done so on both national and international levels. The latter put me in good stead for planning my annual gals’ holiday with my bezzie! The internet has completely opened up the ease of arranging a good trip with the ability to read firsthand reviews and see traveller photos on TripAdvisor, meaning you get to know what is behind the gloss of a corporate website.

Google maps are great, too,  for having an inkling of where you are going before you arrive. A bullet point itinerary summarising all the aspects of the trip is essential to minimising the amount of paperwork your executive (or holiday partner!) has to wade through to know what, where and when.

Inspirational reads? Sue France, Laura Bates and Adrianna Huffington, with Sheryl Sandberg next on the list.

On travel planning: Firsthand reviews and photos on Trip Advisor mean you get to know what is behind the gloss of a corporate website

Role models or mentors? I attended the Marie Claire @work event earlier this year and was blown away by the lineup of presenters. In particular, my eyes were opened to the Everyday Sexism Project by Laura Bates and my mind was blown by the authentic passion shown by Kathleen Saxton around personal branding and career strategy. From this, I have been pushing myself to network more both within the Bristol PA Network (shout out to Debs Eden for all her hard work!) and now UK-wide as a proud Fellow of the EPAA.

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. My current role is the most varied I have ever had, with Charter Day being one of the biggest annual events to organise. Essentially, this brings together some 850 children from our schools to a Bristol Cathedral service that is also attended by the Master, Wardens and Commonalty. This is followed by lunch and the annual meeting , whereby the Master hands over the reigns after a year at the helm. We are a unique institution, with our first Royal Charter granted by Edward VI in 1552, and the most recent Charter granted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I will continue to network and see where that takes me on my path to continued personal and professional development. I have begun this in earnest only over the last year, and wonder why I didn’t start sooner. There are so many wonderful PAs out there, ready to network and share friendship as well as knowledge. The role can be quite an isolated one, and having a peer group to turn to is invaluable.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? To not be afraid of trying more, and pushing one’s comfort zone.

 I will continue to network and see where that takes me on my path to continued personal and professional development

If you could offer a new executive advice on how to best capitalise on having an assistant, and working together, what would that be? Trust them, get to know them and build a relationship with them. You will work very closely together, so respect their ability and what that can bring you -not to mentioned time saved, if you utilise that properly. Be inclusive, share your priorities and workload, and let go of what you can hand over.

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? My new boss took up post last year, so I have just been through this exact scenario. Opening up frequent dialogue early on is key to understanding each other’s style of work and to gain an insight into your executive’s priorities and methods of working. As the assistant, you need to adapt to their wants and needs, but don’t be afraid to offer your own ideas and suggestions.

Opening up frequent dialogue early on is key to … insight into your executive’s priorities and methods of working

Your most effective time management strategy? My todo diary. Each year I input all the Society’s events and then backdate crucial actions from there – e.g., issuing invitations, requesting menus, formalising guest lists, seating plans and so on. This
also applies to issuing committee papers and chasing other important deadlines for myself and my boss, and it means that key actions don’t get lost in the melee of every changing daily needs and priorities.

For those interested in promotion: I touched on it earlier – get out there and network. Share knowledge and learn from others, utilise online tools and websites, harness the amazing power of social media, and join a professional body such as the UK’s EPAA – set up by the inspiring Victoria Darragh.


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