Real Careers: Leeanne Graham

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 London, England to visit with Leeanne Graham.

Leeanne Graham is PA to a CEO. Here’s a look at her world.

Exercise to Start the Day

The day for me starts at around 5:30 a.m. with a gym, swim or run session to wake me up. I try to exercise around four times a week, and mornings suit me better than evenings. An hour in the gym or 1,000 meters in the pool wakes me right up!

I live around 10 miles (approximately 16 km) from the office, so my commute is a 15 minute walk to the overground train station and then the underground (the Tube). Luckily, the office is based in a train station so there is virtually no walking at the other end. On a good day it takes me an hour and 10 minutes door to door.

Who or what do you have on your commuting playlist? I have a Spotify premium account which I keep on shuffle, and I have quite eclectic tastes. The main artists/genres I listen to are Jessie Ware, SBTRK and a mix of 70s/80s Funk. What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? Anything Disney, any time.

At the Office

Morning Routines: I can’t eat at 5:30 a.m., so the first port of call when I get to the office is breakfast – which is a yogurt and banana and a cup of green tea whilst the computer boots up. I also distribute the letters my CEO signed overnight and check all the relevant emails which have come in overnight.

Primary Responsibilities: My main responsibility is to manage my CEO’s time and help with his workload. As we are a charity, a lot of our work is building relationships with our supporters. I gate-keep and spend time fielding enquiries for him and the charity,  from sales calls to people who want to help us raise money. Of course, diary management and generally being organised so he is organised are key, too. I also do general office management to ensure staff are able to get the best out of their working days, as well.

On the 16th October, after a fantastic 15 months, I will be leaving Starlight and heading off to a new venture working as a PA and Office Manager for a national sporting charity which seeks to encourage girls and women of all ages to engage in sport both recreationally and professionally. I am looking forward to all the new challenges it brings, and to updating the Exceptional EA community on my progress and challenges.

How long is your work day? My working hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I like to arrive in the office at around 8:45 to make sure I am set up for the day, and I tend to leave when the work is done. That’s usually not later than 6:00 p.m., but sometimes a later evening is required and that’s fine.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? Trying to stay as healthy as possible, because I know how easy it is to eat bad food when you are at a desk all day, is really hard. Lunch is usually a salad with chicken or turkey, maybe some tuna or mackerel, avocado and a bit of cheese, followed by an apple or some other fruit. I am currently sugar-free, so most of my snacks are either savoury or homemade, using lots of peanut butter and oats.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? If we are in a very busy period or have a big event coming up, I will check my emails from home but I have a great work/life balance and generally can switch off outside the office.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? I think managing the day to day expectations of colleagues is very challenging. Someone always wants something from you, be it your boss, a manager or someone in another department. The demands on my CEO’s time and therefore my time are very high, and this means saying no and occasionally disappointing someone. Being a PA is all about building and maintaining relationships, and if you are struggling with that in the office, it can make your day every hard indeed.

Loving the worldwide sense of community we have in the PA industry

What do you most enjoy about your career? Being the go to person in the office. As distracting as it always being called on, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being indispensable and knowing people trust me to get things done is a great feeling. I love the sense of community we have in the PA industry; there are so many people I can call on for help and advice. And it is worldwide; never have I had so many contacts and people I enjoy getting to know across the world.

How Readily Do You Say “No” to Others?

All the time! It’s how you say no that counts. If I can offer a solution along with the no , then I do. Sometimes it can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry; I can’t get to that right now, but can I come back to you a little later once I have got A, B and C out of the way?” In our busy roles, people can often get offended by the word no , but my biggest tip is to stay professional in the face of other peoples’ grumpiness and give as full as possible an explanation. My favourite line is, “How you behave is your problem, but how I respond to that behaviour is mine.”

Reluctant to look like you don’t know what you’re doing? Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Leeanne’s World

Map of worldI was born in West Berlin, Germany. My dad was an army man and that’s where my family was stationed at the time. I grew up in many places across the UK, from Northern Ireland to Kent, and finally settled in London at the age of 12. I currently live in South East London with my fiancé.

Having lived in the various places over the years, I think I am very much a city mouse. I like being able to get to places easily, and having lots of choice of activity and everything I need right on my doorstep.

Outside work, I like to try and keep fit with running and swimming or at the gym. I am also planning a wedding for next summer and that takes up some time as well. I spend a lot of time with my best friends; we might go for dinner or a night out. Spending time with my partner and family are also high on the agenda. I also write two blogs: one about health and fitness and the other about my PA adventures, although I don’t update either of them as much as I should.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A nice dinner, a nice relaxing bath and then my comfy pyjamas in front of the TV with my favourite shows. I’ve recently discovered Lush Cosmetics, who make lovely natural smelly things. My house smells amazing and their products are an ultimate treat.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? When it comes to holidays, I love anything hot. My dream holiday would be a tour of all the Caribbean Islands, drinking lovely cocktails and eating amazing food whilst learning about the histories and cultures of each island.

Education and Professional Development

Education: My highest education was secondary school and I didn’t do that great in my GCSEs. I fully believe that, for some people, the route into their chosen career isn’t always through university and education, but we should always be striving to grow and educate ourselves as much as possible. CPD is a great way to advance you skills day to day, and I believe we should occasionally self fund training if we know it’s the best thing for us but perhaps our employers are unable to fund it.

Let your boss and colleagues know of awards for which you’re eligible

Peer and Professional Associations: I am not currently a member of any professional associations, but I am extremely excited about becoming a member of EPAA (Executive & Personal Assistants Association) when it launches in 2016. EPAA, which is being set up by Victoria Darragh, will be a leading light in professional Associations for PAs and will be run by PAs. This will be industry changing.

I also run a network for Charity PAs, The Charity PA Network. We are based on LinkedIn and it is a chance for anyone who works in admin. in the charity sector to connect and meet other charity PAs for growth and development.



Preferred form(s) of social media? Twitter for business use – @Specialee; it is great to catch up with what’s happening in the industry – and SnapChat for social fun. Also, my two blogs on WordPress, which show two very different sides to me: Diary of An Award Winning Personal Assistant and From Fat to Phat Blog.

Awards and Recognition

In 2013 I was nominated by a colleague for Executive PA Magazine’s PA of the Year award. I ended up winning this award, which was a great surprise to me. It changed my entire career, and I encourage every single PA out there to let their bosses and colleagues know of any awards they are eligible for.

Being a PA is all about building and maintaining relationships

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? My favourite go to outfit is a black dress I purchased to do my talks. It fits me very well and I always feel confident and powerful when I wear it.

Heels or flats in the office?  At six feet tall, flats are a must. For your commute? Flats or trainers, as I tend to power walk everywhere.

Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? I like New Look’s range of shoes as they are affordable but very stylish and have a great range.

Preferred scent: Candy by Prada. It smells divine and like a sweet shop.

What might we find in your desk drawer? Food and non-essential filing. I always like to keep some snacks on hand, and it is a long running joke between my boss and me about how much I eat. Fruit, nuts and sugar free snacks all make a regular appearance in the drawer. I also save any non-essential filing for the times when work in the office might be a bit slow, or I need a break from looking at a computer screen.

Travel or travel planning advice? Book it all in advance where possible. The discounts you get from forward planning are plenty. If you are a female traveller, then use sites and communities such as Maiden Voyage who are there to support women who travel in business or their personal lives.

Inspirational reads? Heels of Steel by Vanessa Vallely is a fantastic book for anyone who wants to look at ways they can push themselves to be the best they can be. It details her personal and career history and is inspiring as well as informative. A must for everyone.

Role models or mentors? Over the years there have been some amazing influences in my careers. She has been mentioned here many times, but Victoria Darragh has been someone I have always looked up to and admired. I feel very fortunate to be able to call her my friend as well as one of my role models. She has pushed herself to the top of our profession, is highly respected and doing amazing things in the industry. I don’t think I would have had as many of the opportunities that I have had without her input.

Victoria is closely followed by Lucy Brazier of Executive Secretary Magazine. Lucy has also been a solid role model for me and many others. Championing all PAs and providing education and training (often free, in the form of #AdminChat every week).

My final PA role model is Bonnie Low-Kramen who, as well as encouraging PAs and admin. professionals to be the best they can be, encourages us to speak out and up about issues in the work place, including bullying and inequality. All three ladies have helped me grow and enabled me to push my own professional brand and hopefully help other PAs.

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. In 2013 I won the Executive PA Magazine PA of the Year award. It was a great achievement for me as I didn’t expect to win at all, but it showed me how much I had achieved during my career. It also gave me an opportunity to talk to people about the things I have been through which helped make me the person I am today. Following on from that, I have had the opportunity to speak across the UK to hundreds of PAs on various topics such as defining success, workplace bullying and setting your goals. A truly amazing experience.

August 2015: A PA’s voice (and face) on BBC News

In August 2015 I was very lucky to be able to speak on the BBC News network about my experiences as a PA, in the face of a news story about a celebrity who was searching for a new PA. This was my first time on TV, and it was a great accomplishment for me to help build my profile and that of the PA industry.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? Going forward, I can see myself working as a freelance PA and in an ideal world I would like to progress to a job which allows me to manage and train other PAs in getting the very best out of their roles – to allow them to have confidence in what they do and push themselves to achieve all they want from their careers.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? To not be afraid to ask for help. I spent a lot of my early career not wanting to look like I didn’t know what I was doing … I didn’t! If I had asked for help, I might have had some better experiences back then. Also, that is okay to say no. It’s all about how you say it.

It’s okay to say no; it’s all about how you say it

Your most effective time management strategy? To-do lists. It sounds so simple, but I am most effective at getting things done when I make sure I write it all down. When we are super busy, it is very easy to scribble something on a Post-it note or the back of a scrap of paper, and then it gets lost. Have a designated notepad specifically for your to-do list and write every little task down. I also like to use the Urgent/Important Matrix. I use that to prioritise tasks.

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Take time to understand exactly what you want to get from your assistant. Why have your hired her/him? Build a real relationship with your assistant and help her/him to understand exactly what you need from your assistant in order for you to be the best you can be at your job.

For those interested in promotion: If you don’t ask, you don’t get … but before you ask, make sure you have all your ducks in a row.  Write down all your achievements and your goals. Show your evidence and have the facts on hand.

Have a business case to reinforce your ask; keep a running log of your successes and wins

When you approach your employer, don’t give them any room to doubt why they should give you the promotion. If you have it all written down in a factual and logical way, then it will be much harder to ignore. Of course we all want to feel valued and hope our bosses see it without our input, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Business cases are important for you to remember your value and also to help your employer remember. Keep a running log of all your successes and wins, and you can’t go wrong.


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