Real Careers: Helen Rees

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, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa and the USA, and now make our way to Hampshire, England, to visit with Helen Rees.

Helen Rees is PA to the Chief Executive, Marwell Wildlife. Here’s a look at her world.

Family and A Countryside Commute

I wake up around 6:30 a.m. and get our two children, Daniel and Erin, up and ready for school. I’ll check in on the news and weather on TV. As a zoo attraction, Marwell is very dependent on the weather, so it’s good to know how the day is likely to pan out. We have breakfast and, if I don’t need to get an early start at the day, I get to drop the kids at school.

I am very lucky that my commute is only about seven minutes by car, through beautiful Hampshire countryside lanes. I am so fortunate not to have to endure the M3, the M27 or other notorious stress-inducing roads on my way to work. I enjoy it most in the summer when I can get the roof down on my car; it puts a huge smile on my face and sets me up for a sunny day.

What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening?  I’ll generally get through only two tracks on my short commute! But top of my playlist at the moment is Sugarland’s Incredible Machine album. Their lead singer Jennifer Nettles has the most amazing powerful voice, and the songs are uplifting and a great opportunity for me to sing at the top of my voice (which I do, and have done, all my life). The kids love these tracks, too, on our way home at the end of the day.

At the Office

Morning Routines: By far the best bit of arriving at work is walking past our white rhino every day,  on the way up to the office from the car park. It reminds me every day of our beautiful environment, and what a privilege it is to work with such amazing animals and the people who care for their wellbeing and their future.

Once I can tear myself away from talking to them, or watching them graze in the paddock, I’ll get in to the office, make a cup of tea (for myself and for the Chief Executive and Finance Director with whom I share a suite of offices) and fire up the email to check on incoming messages and diary commitments for the day. It’s usually a mixture of internal meetings, project planning, desk time and sometimes meetings with external visitors.

Primary Responsibilities: My main responsibilities are to support the Chief Executive and the Board of Trustees (primarily via the Chairman). There are usually some Board-related tasks for me most weeks. I also support the Finance Director, and our Conservation Director – whose remit includes leading our large team of Animal Management staff (keepers and Curators), our Conservation specialists (including biologists working in the field on conservation projects in Kenya, Tunisia, Zimbabwe and other countries), and our Education team. It’s a fascinating area, and it’s where I have probably learned the most about our business.

I coordinate internal and external meetings, organise Board & Exec level events, manage the diaries of the Chief Executive and my two other Directors, and liaise with the other PA in the organisation, Carol, who looks after the remaining three Exec Directors, of Marketing, HR and Guest Services. Carol and I are also part of a five-person team who developed and now manage our new intranet. Other than that, I am generally the main point of contact for executive queries, and a channel of communication between the Chief Executive and the staff, although he has a genuinely open door policy.

We do have a saying here at Marwell that no two days are ever the same, and we’ve long since given up trying to define the term “normal”.  That’s the beauty of working with animals and children, as well as the variety that any multi-facted organisation offers. Every season is different, and every week has different challenges and milestones.

How long is your work day? I work from either 8:30 or 9:30 through til 5:00 p.m., Monday to Friday. IMG_9639 What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? Confession time; I tend to have lunch at my desk. I try to eat healthily – smoked mackerel salad being one of my current favourites – but occasionally the lure of the delicious fresh dishes we offer in our main guest restaurant do tempt me to take a stroll around the zoo and sample their mouthwatering wares.

However, Wednesday lunchtimes are the real highlight lunch moment of my week. It’s when our very own workplace choir, Marwell Choir, rehearses. Up to 25 members of staff, volunteers, student interns, and even members of our Trustees’ Board comprise the choir. It’s a fantastic initiative to be part of, and we sing at zoo events and further afield. We have also produced videos as part of Marwell’s promotion of various projects, and one video alone has had over 14,000 views already. Marwell also provides opportunities for other extracurricular activities such as Pilates, hula hooping and woodland walks, for staff’s health and wellbeing.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? For the vast majority of the time, I don’t need to work from home at all – and certainly there’s not much need on the seven-minute commute!

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Managing multiple people’s priorities (and diaries!) is a constant challenge but there is always a way of making it work, as long as you are positive, resourceful, and charming to all those involved!

Always bring your A game; make yourself indispensable and always be positive

What do you most enjoy about your career? It’s hard to single out one thing, but perhaps I’d have to say it’s the people I work with every day; we have a fantastic team here.  Then again, there are the Humboldt penguins, the otters, the snow leopards, the Amur tigers, the rare sand lizards, the secretary birds (a particular favourite of mine), and the chameleons … and the important conservation work we do overseas …so please don’t make me choose. And no, you can’t have my job. I am here to stay!

On Saying “No”

Ah, this is always something I have found challenging. I do have a tendency to get involved in lots of projects and sometimes that can lead to me feeling over-committed. I have to manage my time and make decisions – sometimes tough ones! – to ensure I don’t take on too much or burn out.

Helen’s World

Map of worldI was born in Chertsey, Surrey, but grew up in Reading. I studied Music at Southampton University, and have stayed in Hampshire ever since. The big city is too much for me, but I do love having family and friends around me and things to do. I am lucky to have the best of both worlds, living in a village that’s only a few miles away from Southampton and Winchester. London is only just over an hour away on the train, and yet we have the glorious south Coast, the South Downs National Park and the New Forest within a short distance as well.

Music is my biggest passion. My mother is a singer and pianist, and I have played piano and flute since childhood. I  have been in choirs most of my life, and conducted one or two as well. I am Assistant Musical Director of Winchester Military Wives Choir, and a charity Trustee for Winnall Rock School, a young people’s music project. If I do get any free time, I love to spend it at the allotment, tending my crops and just taking time out in the quiet surroundings of nature.

What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? Anything in our choir’s current repertoire, such as Clean Bandit’s Rather Be, or Uprising by Muse, one of my all time favourites.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? At the end of the work week, my husband and I try to have a lovely meal (he is an amazing cook) with a nice bottle of wine, and catch up on everything.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? I have three favourite places – San Francisco, which we’ve visited a number of times, St. Lucia (the ultimate relaxing Caribbean beach destination), where we spent our honeymoon, and we are travelling to Tuscany this summer for our family holiday. It’s incredible that I hadn’t yet ever been to Italy, despite loving its music, culture, food and wine! So I am really looking forward to that.

Volunteer for as many different projects as you can

Professional Development: Peer and Professional Associations

I have just begun establishing a PA Network for the southern Hampshire region, from Lymington to Portsmouth and north as far as Winchester, and everywhere in between. I’ve had a fantastic response so far; we have over 300 Twitter followers and a mailing list of over 80 potential network members, and our presence  on LinkedIn and Facebook is growing all the time. I have a fabulous team of six or seven fellow PAs on board to help with planning our first networking event in September.



Preferred form(s) of social media? I am an avid user of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, which I use for different purposes and situations, and I also love Instagram.

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? My favourite app at the moment is Cozi. Not  specifically for my career, but it enables my husband and me to independently add social and business appointments and children’s commitments, too.

Time management: anticipate hotspots, potential conflicts and moments of calm in the day ahead

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyHeels or flats in the office?  Oh, flats (or low wedge heels) for sure, and boots in the winter. It is one of the first things you learn when working at the zoo, even in an office job: keep your best heels at home. I do keep a half decent pair of heels under my desk though, just in case of a formal Board meeting. For your commute? I tend to wear whatever shoes I’m going to spend the day in, for my short commute. I’m not a huge fashion follower, so it’s never been a particularly high priority for me!

What might we find in your desk drawer? Post-it notes, spare pens, a calculator, marker pens and highlighters, my address book, keys to my “Cupboard of Requirement” (a storage room opposite my office) and a packet of Vocalzones – amazing throat lozenges for singers and speakers. Brilliant for Wednesday afternoons after choir practice!

Travel or travel planning advice? I would certainly advise asking for help when you get stuck. The most useful piece of advice I had recently was from a Travel Counsellor regarding a particularly complex process of visa application for a trip to India. Other than that, shop around, get the best deals, compare like for like, and follow a checklist so you don’t forget contact details, airport transfers, luggage allowances or visas.

Don’t promise what you can’t achieve or deliver

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. In my current role, I am very proud to have brought the organisation’s admin systems more up to date, particularly with regard to the Board. The irony of us being a conservation charity, and yet printing off whole forests’ worth of Board papers every other month was not lost on me. We now have our Trustees weaned off paper packs and onto electronic distribution, which has saved us a huge amount of resources and money, and makes the whole operation much more efficient and effective. They also have access to the intranet, which makes communication and information sharing much easier.

I am proud every time I see a meeting or event running smoothly and meeting objectives, and the zoo choir also remains a huge career highlight, although not part of my core role.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? At the zoo, we are two years into our 10 year business development plan which will see a number of key capital exhibit projects and major initiatives for the zoo. All our departments are working hard together to bring these projects to fruition, and I am privileged to be part of that in my own role.

Also, as mentioned above, I’ve begun establishing a PA Network for the southern Hampshire region, and am really excited about what the network can do for PAs in the region.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Volunteer for as many different projects as you can. Always bring your A game – make yourself indispensable and always be positive. Always learn and be open to new ideas and experiences.

Allocate specific blocks of time to email rather than responding throughout the day

Your most effective time management strategy? Plan ahead. Look through your day at the start and identify hotspots, potential conflicts and potential moments of calm. Don’t keep checking email all the time; make specific time slots where you tackle emails so that you can get your other work done. Don’t promise what you can’t achieve or deliver – if you are asked to take on a task, people would usually prefer an honest answer that gives a realistic timescale for completion (or reasons why it’s not possible) than for you to say yes and then not be able to deliver.

Advice for a new mother working to the workplace? I’ve been there and done this. It’s difficult! I would say, take your time to get back on the “roundabout”, try not to feel parental guilt (you can’t do it all), and enjoy as much as you can of both your work life and your new family life. Life changes completely when you become a parent, but you can have the best of both worlds. Oh, and a good child minder is worth their weight in gold. I couldn’t do what I do without mine; she is an angel.

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Have an open door; include your assistant in as much as possible. Develop a healthy respect for each other, and also respect each other’s responsibilities. If you have an assistant, let her/him manage your diary and (if you both agree) your email inbox. Avoid duplication; always let your assistant know when you have responded directly to something that s/he may usually handle for you.

Listen to your assistant; s/he may be your eyes and ears in the organisation. An assistant may bring you information you won’t otherwise learn, or observe things you don’t get to see. Work as closely with your assistant as you can – s/he could be your greatest asset.

For those interested in promotion: I suggest the same insights that would have been helpful early in my career: Volunteer for as many different projects as you can. Always bring your A game – make yourself indispensable and always be positive. Always learn and be open to new ideas and experiences.


… and now, a note from Shelagh. You’ll find links to the South Hampshire PA Network’s social media sites below.  To explore a range of resources recommended by our readers, click here for Exceptional EA’s Resources Page.

  • South Hampshire PA Network: on LinkedIn
  • South Hampshire PA Network: on Twitter
  • South Hampshire PA Network: on Facebook