Real Careers: Kerry Dawson

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, Canada, England, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa and the USA, and now make our way to Yorkshire, England to visit with Kerry Dawson.

Kerry Dawson is PA to the Director of IT Services, Leeds Beckett University.  Here’s a look at her world.

Care of Horses, and Off to Campus

My alarm is set for 5:30 a.m. and after some fruit for breakfast and a quick shower, I’m out of the door by 6:30 to travel to the next village where I keep my four horses. They get their breakfast and a hay top up as necessary, and then it’s on the road for 7:10 to get to work for 8:00.

I have a 17 mile (approximately 27 km) car drive to work, as I am located at Headingley Campus. This means I need to cross central Leeds to reach my office, and I like to avoid the traffic that builds up during rush hour. The journey usually takes me around 40 minutes depending on traffic.

What musicians/composers are on your playlist for your commute? Currently I am listening a lot to Daughtry’s album Baptized. I love music and would say I have eclectic music tastes, so it very much depends on what mood I am in. I have a vast array of CDs in the car but I especially love country music, and therefore Tricia Yearwood and Dixie Chicks get a lot of airplay.

What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? Dare I say that I’m a musicals fan? On my Own from Les Misérables, Defying Gravity from Wicked, and It’s a Hard Knock Life from Annie.

At the Office

Morning Routines: I’m trying to stay off coffee as I had a major addiction, starting the day with a four-shot espresso with honey. As it’s not good for blood pressure, the first thing I do is get myself a large glass of water before turning on the PC and checking both my own and my boss’ inbox for anything urgent that may have come in since the previous day. I prioritise the work and signpost (redirect) as necessary, updating my task lists with the relevant deadlines for response, giving myself and my Directors a four day cushion to ensure each one is met in good time.

Primary Responsibilities: My role is to organise all the administrative activities that facilitate the smooth running of the IT Services offices and to take ownership of the “customer journey” so that anyone dealing with the IT Services department has an excellent experience from entrance to exit.

My role is quite varied in that I provide full administrative and PA/secretarial support to the Director of IT Services, indirectly to the three Associate Directors and – by extension – the Senior Management Team. I do so whilst also supervising the reception function, overseeing the full office function and line management of two Senior Secretaries.

My main role is to assist the Director in creating and monitoring his list of priorities, resolving various administrative tasks in a timely and precise manner, and supporting the Director in carrying out his duties. I manage electronic diaries and calendars for the Directorate, organise all meetings for the Director, interface with colleagues, coordinate travel and accommodation, manage and provide asssistance for office reorganistions, develop and implement new administrative systems, organise Senior Manager Strategy Days, and more.

I see myself as a juggler, keeping all the balls in the air so that others can maintain focus on their deliverables.

How long is your work day? I try to arrive at the office for 8:00 a.m. so that I can have a bit of quiet time to focus on the day ahead. I am also lucky in that my role at Leeds Beckett University supports flexi-time, which means I can start any time before 10:00 a.m. if I have personal appointments I need to attend to before starting work. Most days my schedule is from 8:00 to 4:00 (though I rarely leave at 4:00 p.m.), unless have something exceptional to do before work.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? I try to eat away from my desk every day and have an hour for lunch. There is a very good selection available within the campus restaurant at the Headingley Campus of Leeds Beckett University, so I tend to have a fresh cooked meal of a meat or fish main with vegetables and new potatoes. I have lunch with several of the other secretaries and administrators based within other services and faculties. It’s our unofficial networking time.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? I am very precious about my personal time as I have several activities I am passionate about outside work, so I don’t work from home or check on work in my “off” hours. That is time for me to focus on myself and my family. I also drive to work, so do not check on work during my commute.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? The most challenging aspect of my day is definitely trying to manage the various interruptions whilst trying to maintain focus on the task in hand. It is extremely difficult to not get side-tracked by the various requests that come in from colleagues and externals who want to set up meetings or showcase their products to the Directorate.

Under commit, and over deliver

What do you most enjoy about your career? It really is very clichéd, but I really do enjoy the fact that every day is different. Although I have a to-do list, I never quite know what I am going to be asked to get involved in. I like that it is a role that is not routine.

On Saying “No”

Saying “no” doesn’t come naturally as I am a “people pleaser personality” and, as is the case with most PAs I’ve met, feel that I am there for the purpose of helping others. I do feel, however, that it is very important to look after yourself and not take on too much.

I always negotiate when taking on a task, taking into account what is already on my to-do list. I will always try to set realistic deadlines for any task I take on, and give myself a four-day deadline cushion to make sure that I take account of any unforeseen requests which may come in.

I try to live by the “under commit, over deliver” mantra and, if there is someone who is better positioned to complete the task required, I will signpost my colleague to someone who would be more suitable to help.

Kerry’s World

Map of worldI was born in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, United Kingdom. I’m a real country girl. I need my wide open spaces and don’t do well in big cities. They are nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there, and I start to twitch if I’m away from Yorkshire too long.

I am passionate about long-distance horse riding and am a Director of the Board of Endurance GB. I am also a keen open water swimmer and take part in several events over the year, raising money for the Alzheimer’s Society and Macmillan Cancer Research.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I get out into the countryside and spend time with my horses and my family.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? I’d love to go on a horse riding safari in South Africa.

Education and Professional Development

Education: Throughout my role as a PA, I have always learnt something new or a different way to do something. I learn from my colleagues, through attending professional development courses, and networking both online and face-to-face on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Development doesn’t have to be a professional course; it can be as simple as having a conversation with a friend over coffee, and the very best development you can have is learning how to adapt your working style to best fit with your boss.

Professional Development: Where there’s a will, there’s a way

I would also say that I have never let a lack of budget for secretarial and PA training stop me from learning. If I hadn’t taken control of my own personal development, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Our roles can be very isolating, but all we have to do is look outside the office walls to find a world of experience at our fingertips.

Office*, which is held in the UK every October, is free to attend and enables you to network for two days with thousands of other PAs, secretaries, office managers and administrators. I didn’t have a budget to attend in the first year so took two days’ annual leave, booked return train tickets to London months in advance, and found a cheap B&B local to the event. It cost me less than £100 for the two days of training, and I met fabulous people who have since become friends and unofficial mentors. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Get on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, and network with your peers

Peer and Professional Associations: I am an active member of The PA Hub which was set up by Marion Lowrence in Leeds, West Yorkshire and has rapidly expanded to now offer networking and development opportunities to PAs in York and Liverpool.



Preferred form(s) of social media? I love social media. I am on various platforms, but I’m most active on Twitter (@UnflappablePA), Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? A GPS boss tracker so that you can see where your boss is at all times. I would like to be able to send traffic light messages: green = you have plenty of time, amber = you have 30 minutes left before you need to be back at the office, red = your next appointment is imminent or you have an important deadline to resolve.

An interactive map which shows you where networking and development opportunities are taking place in your immediate area would also be cool.

Taking on additional tasks? Negotiate realistic deadlines

Awards and Recognition

Multi-category Finalist, The Yorkshire PA Awards, The PA Hub, July 2015

  • ​Yorkshire’s Best Team of PAs – Category Winner
  • Employer of the Year – Category Winner
  • PA Contribution to the Community – Finalist
  • The PA Hub Member’s Member Leeds – Finalist

Nominee, We Are The City Rising Stars Personal & Exec Assistants Award 2015, sponsored by Barclays

Finalist, Leeds Beckett University’s Achieving Excellence Awards; Team Colleague of the Year,  2014

Finalist, SecsintheCity Social Networking PA of the Year, 2013

 You don’t have to be isolated; look beyond your office walls

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? A smart business dress, a jacket, heels and a statement piece of jewelry

Heels or flats in the office?  Both – it depends on the activity I am undertaking at the time. For your commute? I usually wear flats for driving. Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? Irregular Choice. I have an addiction.

What might we find in your desk drawer? Various items of stationery, all of the books outlined below, an Oxford dictionary, a thesaurus, spare batteries, a screwdriver set, letterhead, compliments slips, envelopes, expenses claim slips, stationery order forms, makeup, perfume, headache pills, plasters, comb, travel toothpaste set, shoe polish, string, measuring tape, sewing kit, wrench, etc.

Preferred scent? I like the range of fragrances by Ghost, with Sweetheart being the one I most wear at the office, and the fragrances by Christina Aguilera, especially By Night.

Inspirational reads? There are so many:

  • My current desk bible is Brave PAs: The ultimate guide to being outstanding in a tough job by Angela Garry as it is aimed at PAs working in Education. The book’s advice is applicable, though, to all PA, secretarial and administrative roles.
  • My technical bible is 100 Tips using Windows 8.1 & Office 2013 by Vickie Sokol Evans.
  • The Definitive Executive Assistant and Managerial Handbook: A Professional Guide to Leadership for all PAs, Senior Secretaries, Office Managers and Executive Assistants by Sue France
  • Create a Business-Busting Partnership with your Assistant by Susie Barron-Stubley
  • Be the Ultimate Assistant by Bonnie Low-Cramen
  • Speed Writing Skills Training Course: Speedwriting for Faster Note Taking, Writing and Dictation, an Alternative to Shorthand to Help You Take Notes by Heather Baker
  • Teeline Fast by Ms. Ann Dix
  • Inbox Detox by Masha Egan

There are also several blogs which are must follows for me:

  • Nicky Christmas’ Practically Perfect PA
  • Kemetia Foley’s Admin Renegade
  • Musings of a High-Level Executive Assistant

Role models or mentors? My previous Director, Hugh Lavery, is my career mentor. Hugh encouraged me to find my voice, work as a true PA, and attend networking events and focused PA development opportunities external to Leeds Beckett University. His support and trust in my abilities then allowed me to expand my role and take on new responsibilities to the benefit of the department.

Hugh saw more in me than I saw in myself and reminded me daily that I was more than “just a secretary” – and he still does even though we no longer work together. Hugh mentored me and invested in my development; he gave me the confidence and autonomy to stand up and be heard. He is my person if I need a listening ear, and he is my professional cheering section. It is because of Hugh’s support and guidance that I am the professional PA I am today. I am committed to paying that encouragement forward and helping others find their voice in the profession, supporting and mentoring others to be the best PAs that they can be.

It is also through Hugh’s encouragement that I am now fortunate enough to count several of the world’s most influential PAs and Secretarial training professionals as friends and unofficial mentors.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career?  If you have an issue, somewhere in the world is someone who has had the very same problem and has worked through it. Ask for help on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. The PA profession can be isolating, but it doesn’t have to be.

Network, network, network. The whole world is at your fingertips. It has never been so easy to network with subject matter experts and you don’t even have to leave the house to do it. Make social media work for you if you can’t network face-to-face.

Attend career focused training events such as Office* Show and Executive Secretary Live as much as you possibly can. It is beyond arrogant to think that you know everything there is to know about the profession; you never stop learning new skills. It is more important than ever to stay current in our roles in order to support our professionals to the best of our abilities. Always keep learning.

Never stop learning; it is beyond arrogant to think you know everything about the profession

Your most effective time management strategy? Put up a “Do not disturb” sign when you absolutely have to get work done.

Take the last 15 minutes of your working day to reflect on what you have achieved during the day and then email it to your boss so that they are aware of what has been completed and then write down what you need to do to complete your top five must do tasks for the next day.

Advice for a new mother re-entering the workplace? Although I don’t have children myself, I would say, be kind to yourself. You are not alone.

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Communicate, communicate and then communicate some more. We do not bite; we are there to help and support you in achieving your aims. Let us support you in the best way we know how, by being awesome support for you. Have your PA involved (even if it’s just on the fringes) in everything you are working on, and you’ll have a cheerleading section with you at all times.

For those interested in promotion: Never stop learning. There are loads of free learning opportunities if you know where to look. Get on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, and network with your peers.


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Kerry referenced may be interested in checking the following links. To explore a range of resources recommended by our readers, click here for Exceptional EA’s Resources Page.


One Comment on “Real Careers: Kerry Dawson

  1. Pingback: Day 12: 2021’s 12 Days of Real Careers | Exceptional EA

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