Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Lesley Dexter of Barrow Upon Soar, near Loughborough, Leicestershire, England.
Lesley Dexter is Executive Support Manager at East Midlands Chamber (Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire). She is also the Founder of the East Midlands PA Network. Here’s a look at her world.
Dave and the Dogs
The alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m.; I have 15 minutes of cuddles with the dogs and then get up. I make sandwiches/lunch for myself and my partner, Dave, while he feeds the dogs, before sitting down to tea/cereal/toast together.
I can work from any of our main offices – Chesterfield, Derby, Nottingham or Leicester – so my commute can be anything from 20 minutes into Leicester to an hour and 10 minutes if I’m going up to Chesterfield. It depends on traffic, road works, etc. I therefore drive as I carry my “desk” (laptop and wheely box) in the boot of my car. Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? BBC Radio 2 is always on in the car – the Chris Evans Breakfast Show in the morning and Simon Mayo Drivetime in the evening. Otherwise, it’s my country music playlist – The Shires, Kacey Musgraves, Lady Antebellum, Kelsea Ballerini and Ward Thomas to name but a few of my favourites.
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: My role is to provide executive support to the Chief Executive, Scott Knowles, and the Directors and Senior Management Team at the Chamber, as well as being the primary contact for the Board. I also act as Company Secretary for the Chamber’s various companies. In a nutshell, my role is as a “gateway” to and from the Chamber.
Morning Routines: My first priority when arriving at the office is to set up my desk, as I hotdesk, depending on what location I am working from. The second priority is a cup of tea! I will often have already checked my emails whilst having breakfast at home, so I have an idea what needs to be done once my laptop is up and running. I will “check-in” with our Chief Executive by phone/email/in person at least once a day.
The main aim of our East Midlands PA Network is to connect EAs and PAs through training and networking
How long is your work day? I am contracted to work 35 hours a week, but probably do more; who’s counting! I aim to arrive at the office by 8:30 a.m. and will leave just before 5:00 p.m. to try and avoid rush hour traffic. On occasion, I will work from home if I need to concentrate – for example, to work on minutes, or if I have meeting commitments later in the working dayl This saves on travelling time. Both my work and personal phones are Bluetooth connected to my car,so I can take calls hands free if needed. I will occasionally do research in the evening while watching TV but I do try to maintain a work-life balance, if only to spend quality time with my partner and the dogs.
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? My employer has been very supportive of letting me take my new puppy into the office – Finnigan is now the unofficial office dog at all our locations! It has helped me personally because I get up from my desk regularly to take him for toilet breaks, and I have a proper walk with him at lunchtime. It has also helped colleagues in the office, with some of them commenting that just knowing he is in the office has a calming effect! He encourages people to socialise and improves morale, and is a great icebreaker when talking to new people.
What might be a typical lunch? Lunch is a sandwich/wrap/salad from home, followed by a tub of fruit (apple, grapes), mostly eaten at my desk while I’m working. This year, I am actually taking proper lunch breaks as there is the office dog to walk now!
Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role? I lead the Chamber’s Communications Quality and Style working group. Given the Chamber’s position as the leading business support organisation in the East Midlands, it is vital that a high level of quality and credibility is maintained in all communications with members, partners, stakeholders and the wider business community, so we should constantly strive to improve the quality of our written communications. We have introduced a Style Guide and run a series of workshops to educate and improve knowledge, so that staff develop a more defined and consistent approach in their communications.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Probably my own self-confidence! I work and am accepted as a member of our Senior Management Team, but often pinch myself that I have reached that level. That is why I am adamant in sharing my experiences with other EA/PAs through our PA Network in helping them to build confidence within our profession.
My boss is very supportive of pushing me out of my comfort zone
What do you most enjoy about your career? The sheer variety of what I get involved in! From diary management, travel arrangements and minute-taking to coordinating office moves, speaking at Women in Business events and running a PA Network! My boss is very supportive of pushing me out of my comfort zone and encouraging me to take on different responsibilities.
On Saying “No”
I am confident to say “no”, but always aim to offer an alternative, whether it be personally or on behalf of my boss. I see it as an integral part of being a “gateway” for my employer.
I was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and was brought up in Leicester. I worked in London from the age of 19 to 24, before moving back to Leicestershire. I now live in Barrow Upon Soar, near Loughborough, Leicestershire. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? Whilst I am confident visiting big cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham, given the choice I would love to live in a country cottage with some land. Barrow Upon Soar is a happy medium, as we are never more than a five minute walk away from countryside.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? We have four dogs (fur kids!) and I enjoy competing at dog agility/sporting events. We have met some wonderful people at events from over the UK, and it is a complete change to the Monday-Friday 9-5 existence.
How long have you been in this career? Since I left Secretarial College in 1983! What was your first such role? My first role was as a Professor’s Secretary in the Department of Chemistry at Loughborough University. There were two things I wanted to do when I left that role: pull one of the emergency showers in the corridor on each floor, and tell a certain Senior Lecturer exactly what I thought of him. I am glad that I did neither!
What might we find in your desk drawer? I don’t have a desk drawer as I don’t really have a desk! I hotdesk in most of our offices, although I do have a desk in Chesterfield. However, we have a clear desk policy so there are no drawers or wastebins – it makes for a lovely, tidy looking office! I do, however, carry a small bag in my wheely-box, the contents of which include a lint roller, paracetamol, plasters, hairbrush, mirror and emergency sewing kit! There is also a clip-top box in my wheely-box which has everything you could ever need stationery-wise – I am a bit of a pen hoarder!
Trying something else reminded me where my strengths and knowledge really lay
How did you learn about the opportunity that led to your current role? I worked for the Chief Executive at Leicestershire Chamber of Commerce for about eight years and then left to try something completely different. Three months down the line, I knew it wasn’t for me. Leicestershire Chamber was going through a merger with the Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire Chamber and the CEO of the new company was recruiting for a PA. I was encouraged by my ex-boss to apply, given my knowledge of Chambers of Commerce. I applied and got the job. Trying something else, even for just three months, reminded me where my strengths and knowledge really lay.
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A glass of wine, best served with a smattering of like-minded friends and a couple of dogs at our feet
Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? Me, my partner Dave, our four dogs (two border collies and two small crossbreeds) and our VW van, Scotty – as long as those things are all together, any holiday is an adventure! Recent trips have included Portrush in Northern Ireland and Falmouth in Cornwall, both raising money for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution). Dave and I did spend a week in Lanzarote in January of this year, as a surprise for my Mum’s 75th birthday.
Education and Professional Development
Education: I left school at 16 and completed a one-year Secretarial course before starting work. Education from then on has been in the form of evening classes and employer training courses for personal development. I am very proud to have achieved the grade of Fellow of the Executive & Personal Assistants Association (EPAA) in 2016, and actively participate in their CPD programme.
Peer and Professional Associations: I am a Fellow of the Executive and Personal Assistants Association (EPAA) and the Founder of the East Midlands PA Network. They help in keeping me up to date with issues within the EA/PA profession, and raising the profile and confidence of EAs/PAs.
Do you hold (or have you held) a leadership role in such an organisation? I have recently been appointed to EPAA’s Regional Committee, and I look forward to representing the views of EA/PAs in the East Midlands in promoting our profession.
I am very proud to have achieved the grade of Fellow of the Executive & Personal Assistants Association (EPAA)
Have you earned any certifications earned through the association? I am working towards EPAA CPD Practitioner.
Tell us about the positive benefits your EPAA and East Midlands PA Network have had for you and for your employer. It has raised my personal profile and made me feel a much more confident ambassador for my employer. The East Midlands Chamber is primarily a membership organisation for businesses in the East Midlands, and I have recruited new members through the PA Network.
What are the primary means of communication for members of your network(s)/professional association(s)? The East Midlands PA Network has a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a LinkedIn Group (note from Shelagh: It now also has a website!). We also use email to circulate newsletters and details of our events.
Inspirational reads? I’m not a huge reader – open a book and I fall asleep before reaching the end of the first page! I have, however, enjoyed dipping in and out of the following: Bonnie Low-Kramen’s Be the Ultimate Assistant and Lindsay Taylor’s A-Z Pearls of Wisdom for Executive PAs – bite-size words of wisdom!
Recruitment is often competency-based. Which of the competencies you bring to the role are most relevant to success in your current position? Probably the ability to communicate effective and efficiently at all levels, along with extensive organisation skills and the ability to work under pressure and with autonomy.
My employer has been great in recognising my potential before I did
Role models or mentors? There have been various people I would call a role model/mentor at various stages in my career, but my current mentor is my boss – who believes I can achieve far higher than I sometimes believe myself!
Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? My employer has been great in recognising my potential before I did! I went in to my last appraisal wanting to work at home more and to have a better work-life balance; I came out with a promotion, pay rise and a new assistant!
I have not felt confident in putting myself forward for industry awards in the past; like many other EAs/PAs, I am not good at singing my own praises!
Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. I spoke for the first time about my career path and influences at our PA Network events in early 2017. I wouldn’t have called myself inspirational, but that was what some of the feedback said! I enjoyed sharing my experiences and giving others the confidence to think, “I can do that too”.
I also attended a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in May 2016, which was absolutely amazing – I even hired a posh hat for the occasion!
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? Research the issue/task and break the large things down into manageable steps to help with planning.
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? Developing and achieving the budget for our PA Network, including securing sponsorship
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? To continue to be as happy and challenged in my role as I am today
The Digital Age
Do you publish to, and/or monitor social media as part of your professional responsibilities? Yes, both in promoting employer events, opportunities and new items, and to our PA Network. Describe any impacts social media has had on the role you hold within your organisation. It has been positive in raising my profile, both within our organisation and externally.
What are your preferred forms of social media? Facebook for personal use, although our PA Network does have a FB page. I also use Twitter and LinkedIn, both personally and for our PA Network.
- LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/groups/4296287
- Twitter – https://twitter.com/EastMidsPA
- Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/groups/EastMidsPANetwork/
Do you maintain, monitor and/or publish to a website as part of your professional responsibilities? Not yet, although our PA Network will have a page on the East Midlands Chamber’s new website soon!
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? I don’t really use any apps to any great extent as part of my professional life. However, I would be lost without my Outlook account for diary, contacts, tasks/reminders!
If you ask a question, listen to the answer and learn from it
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Yes, an iPhone on which I can view my email and calendar, etc. Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability via smartphones, etc. may have had on your quality of life. I don’t feel under pressure to check my phone for messages/emails out of working hours, but the ability to do so is there if I need access.
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital (relying on portals and/or PDFs of meeting materials), or paper-based? As of the beginning of 2018, our board packages are paperless. They are produced in PDF format and emailed to Directors, as well as being uploaded to a Board Hub portal.
Does your organisation make use of a portal for any of its bodies/committees? We implemented a Board Hub portal in 2016 so that Board members could access current and past Board items at their convenience. We use Microsoft SharePoint for this purpose and it seems to work well, although it is clear that not all Directors use it to its full potential.
Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint or other web portals? We have an internal staff SharePoint site which includes sections for useful documents, guides and links. Launched in January 2018, it is still in its infancy and staff still need occasional nudges/prompts to use it!
Digital Innovation and Disruption
Let’s talk about the pace of change in the admin. world in general. Do you see variations in how people adapt to change? We are in the throes of introducing a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system and website across the organisation. The two systems are to be linked and there have been some teething problems with how they will “talk” to each other, which has meant the launch has slipped. It is, however, important to get it right to ensure that the customer journey, both internally and externally, is fit for purpose.
It’s not unusual to read that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will increasingly impact employment prospects across a range of occupations. What forms of professional development would you recommend to assistants who want to ensure their roles remain relevant and rewarding in this digital age? There are many ways of keeping up to date with professional developments, not least networking and meeting other EA/PAs, either in person or by linking on social media. The main aim of our East Midlands PA Network is to connect EAs and PAs through training and networking opportunities to share best practice, inspire each other, and develop collaborative relationships.
Travel or travel planning recommendations? Good geographical knowledge of the East Midlands is essential in my role when planning to get people from one meeting to the next -that, and a sixth sense for how roadworks will affect their journey! For those who don’t arrange travel further afield very often, PA networks are invaluable in asking advice from our peers.
What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and expense tracking? I don’t really use any apps or programs for travelling/expenses.
You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. Briefly outline the approach you’d recommend. I would advise them to network with people from their chosen profession as much as possible, and to follow issues raised and discussed within their chosen profession on social media groups.
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Check your prospective employer’s website and research current issues/projects they are involved in. Keep in mind that interviews are as much about you getting to know them as they are about the prospective employers getting to know you!
Get to know some of the people with roles you aspire to, to see what their career path has been
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Don’t think that you can’t get to the same position as people who inspire you; their career paths are probably not that different to your own.
What are a couple of suggestions you’d offer that new assistant on the block, in terms of how to build effective business relationships within the office? Again, be yourself. If you ask a question, listen to the answer and learn from it so you don’t have to ask again. Spend some time shadowing different people/teams to understand what they do and how you/they fit into the organisation as a whole.
Your most effective time management strategy? Plan in time to do what you know is happening – e.g., agendas and papers for meetings – but also leave free time for the unexpected tasks that come every day. If you know what needs to be done and by when, it makes it easier to say, “I can’t do that at the moment but may be able to help at …”
Advice for a new parent returning to the workplace? Don’t expect too much of yourself – it’s stressful enough leaving a new baby with someone else without putting pressure on yourself, too. Things will have changed, so make it known that you know there are things you will need to update on, and that that will take time.
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Be open and honest with them – be yourself. Ask what are their priorities, and how they see you helping them to achieve them. Ask them to treat you as their “right hand man” in bouncing ideas off you and delegating, so that they can go on to add higher value to your organisation.
For those interested in promotion: Get to know some of the people with roles you aspire to, either personally or via social media, to see what their career path has been. It may not be too different from your own, and in most cases will not be straightforward!
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Lesley mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- East Midlands PA Network
- EPAA – Executive & Personal Assistants Association
- Low-Kramen, Bonnie – Be the Ultimate Assistant
- Taylor, Lindsay – A-Z Pearls of Wisdom for Executive PAs
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