Real Careers: Maria Marsh

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’re back to England to visit with Maria Marsh.

Maria Marsh is Executive Assistant to the Director, The University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute. Here’s a look at her world.

Up and out the door as quickly as possible

How does a typical work day start? It varies and I’m lucky that I have flexibility in my role. My routine consists of getting out the door in the shortest time possible; I don’t even make a drink.

My younger daughter started university last September, so I have been rising to an empty house most mornings as my husband works away. After my morning routine, I’m out the door to the train station around 7:10 a.m.  The commute by train is 50 minutes, and then I have about a 10 minute walk from the station in Manchester to my office. It’s in the original University campus we refer to as North campus, right near Manchester’s Gay Village.

Normally I would start work around 8:10, but at the moment it is Summer holiday time and my daughter is home. So, I’m staying up later and the trains are quieter. I’ve been getting the later train, so now I’m arriving around 8:50 most days.

Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? Oprah and Deepak meditation experience, as introduced to me by  fellow PA networker Amanda Reid. But really, I’m stuck in an 80s time warp. Mostly I don’t like listening to music whilst reading or doing emails – so I don’t bother during the train commute. Reading would always be my first choice.

At the Office

Morning Routines: Email, email, email – I manage four mailboxes. I check my own and the Director’s during the commute, so on arrival I have already either dealt with quick urgent tasks or I can be thinking about any changes in priorities. I will then move on to quickly checking the other mailboxes.  Apart from the occasional hot chocolate, I don’t drink hot drinks, so it’s a quick glass of water and I’m away.  Some mornings I will start with breakfast at my desk; it all depends on those emails!

Primary Responsibilities: I am the Executive Assistant to the Director, so ensuring the Director is where he is supposed to be or that he knows what he is doing is my first priority. However, I am also line manager to the other PAs and administrators in the office, so there will also be a morning catch-up chat. My Director is the overall Exec. Director, so whatever he cannot cover will get delegated to another Director or Senior Academic and I’ll support that delegated task or meeting, also.  One of my major responsibilities is looking after all visitors to the Institute. This is frequent and will involve coordinating an itinerary covering a variety of academics and research facilities, which is not as easy as it sounds!

There is never a typical day. There are some similarities in most days such as emails, diary/meetings and event management, but I’m lucky in that there is quite a wide variety in my role. I probably don’t have a traditional PA role, as I oversee but don’t handle the boss’ expenses and I don’t book all his travel, as I delegate some aspects to the admin. team. I am quite precious, though, about what goes into his diary and so I fully manage that aspect. Then, we can have some last minute requests cascading down when VIP guests are visiting the University, so that can be a challenge to drop things or rearrange existing commitments. I also take on project work, which changes the working day considerably. Last month I spent eight separate days interviewing for this year’s intake of Business Administration apprentices; in this Faculty, we are taking on a cohort of 11 apprentices.

How long is your work day? The University working week is advertised at 35 hours. In my first two to three years here, most days were probably 11 hours, including my commute.  I also had a large project between October 2015 and March 2016 that necessitated some late evenings, particularly around Christmas.

Now, though, I’m now aiming for a better work/life balance. Earlier this year I decided to aim to become healthier, and challenged myself from couch potato to 10 km runner in 16 weeks. I completed the Manchester 10k Run for the Alzheimer’s Society in May, and raised over £800 for the Society in the process. To do this, I made a huge effort to finish work at 5:00 p.m. most days, and to go to the gym after work. I still try to go to the gym twice a week, though I’m flexible and stay late when needed. Frequently, I attend network events after work on Thursdays.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? I rarely leave the desk. I am on my pre-holiday diet, so resorting to slim shakes, but it is probably a little too late …particularly as we have cakes left over from yesterday afternoon’s tea! We have three on-site cafes in my area, but I usually just get soup and a roll, or pop in to the express supermarket in the station on the way in.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? Yes. As I live an hour away from work, I do have the opportunity to work from home, particularly when I have appointments. I do check emails out of hours, more so on evenings than weekends. I also split my commute time: first 20 minutes on emails, then 15 – 20 minutes on Twitter, and then 20 minutes reading my Kindle.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? My most recent challenge was the volume of workload I undertook with the last project, overseeing our nuclear education programmes. This was due to the role holder going on secondment elsewhere in the University. The student programmes is not something I’d been involved in before, so there was a lot to learn. Thankfully, it was a short term six-month project, and I coached the programme administrator in to the manager role. It also involved organising a multi-university Winter School conference in January at short notice – all on top of my existing busy role. I did get dark circles under my eyes! But I also got fantastic feedback.

Take advantage of any and all training that your company has to offer

What do you most enjoy about your career? I am at the stage now where I have skills and abilities that I can share to benefit others, so I’ve joined the University Gold scheme as a Mentor and I am really enjoying that role. One of my mentees has recently just achieved a PA/EA role. I also enjoy coaching interview skills. Within my own department, it is the variety of my role but also the team I work with that make the day to day work enjoyable.

On Saying “No”

I am known for getting things done, but I can be very good at saying no. Those who know me will be aware I can be very assertive, but sometimes the criticality – the strategic overview or importance – of what you are saying no to is relevant. With my last project, it would have been reputationally damaging to not have made a success of our education programmes. Therefore, at those times, I have to take responsibility and re-prioritise.  I think reliability and flexibility are key skills in the EA role.  Tips: I set my boundaries and make it clear what is achievable and what is not, but I’m lucky that I have team support to fall back on.

Maria’s World

Map of worldI was born, and still live, in Warrington, a town in Cheshire (for those abroad, right in the middle of Manchester and Liverpool).  I had a spell living in London at 20, temping as a PA, but missed family and friends – but I secretly yearn to live somewhere warmer.

I attend networking events several times a month, and hold my own events bi-monthly for UoM-PAs. I have been a member of EUMA for over three years, in their North West group based in Manchester. I like spending time with family and friends, particularly over a bottle of wine and dinner. My husband is a keen cyclist and part of a cycling team, so my birthday present this year was a road bike! As he works away during the week, going cycling together on the weekend gives us a shared hobby.

At heart, are you a city gal or small community person (city mouse/country mouse)? I like both; I like the opportunity in the week to be able to go out straight after work to network events that only a city can provide – but I don’t like the congested commute or being barged by people on the street, which gets particularly bad at Christmas.  I do prefer the fresh air of living outside the city, and there are plenty of green fields in Cheshire, nearby where I live. I aspire to a more outdoor lifestyle that living abroad gives you. We really don’t get the weather; it rains a lot here.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I am really bad at rewarding myself, I do tend to say hello to the fridge and the wine (a nice Marlborough Sauvignon blanc) not long after arriving home on a Friday night. I do partake in a bit of online shopping, but I’m not one for a manicure or facial. My holidays are my rewards; I am off to Hong Kong and Australia this year, and my parents live abroad, so I also visit them regularly.

On time management: Send less email and instead pick up the phone; apply lots of Rules to Outlook

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? I love travelling and am lucky to have been to lots of countries; I try to get away a few times a year. My next aspiration for an adventure is to walk the Great Wall of China for my 50th birthday in two years. If I won the lottery, I would permanently travel.

My best friend moved to the Sunshine Coast in Australia several years ago and my daughter left the UK in January this year to go travelling.  I miss them both so much. My daughter is now staying with my friend in the Sunshine Coast and, since it has been a few years since we visited there, the next family venture is to Australia via Hong Kong.

For our 20th wedding anniversary two years ago, I organised a big US trip to Napa Valley, San Francisco, Vegas and the Grand Canyon. I would happily repeat that for any and every holiday (although I’d skip Vegas – once was enough). It was fabulous and had been over 30 years since I’d last visited.

Education and Professional Development

How have education and/or professional development supported your career development? Hugely. I recognised early on in my career that I didn’t do as well academically at school as I could have. So, I have put a lot of effort into making up for it with continuous training as an adult. I take advantage of every training opportunity on offer.

Professional Associations

I am a fellow of EPAA, the Executive and Personal Assistant Association. I’m also a member of the NW group of EUMA UK (European Management Assistants), where I take a joint leading role with Sheila Anderson and Adam Fidler. The group is currently small, but the people are amazing and have a wealth of experience. Our group was founded by Sheila Anderson 25 years ago. Last year we celebrated that achievement by holding a UK training day, which I helped organise.

I am also a member of Manchester PA Network (MPAN), CityCo PA Network, and the founder of my own University network (UoM-PAs), so I’m always either organising or attending events. They help in terms of peer support and confidence to go beyond your personal boundaries, and you meet some really inspirational people.

I am at the stage where I have skills and abilities I can share to benefit others




Preferred form(s) of social media? Mainly Twitter, and occasionally LinkedIn. I am a bit late to social media and have only recently joined Facebook – which is historical as, due to my last policing role and security clearance, I was advised against it.  I’ve been out of that role for a few years, so I had no excuse other than I’m quite a private person. I decided, though, that keeping up with my eldest daughter while she is travelling is essential.

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? I’d love to be able to design it, as I still can’t find the perfect productivity aiding app. There are plenty out there, but all have shortcomings. There are a few that we all know and cannot do without, such as MSoffice for the iPad and iPhone, DropBox, and Google Maps. I also use Trello for project/task management, OneNote for all sorts of purposes, and Swiftkey for quicker typing. I’ve started to use voice commands more, and really like trying out new technology – although there will never be an app that can replace an Assistant! In the office, I’m project managing the build of our SharePoint team areas. It is a time consuming process, and we are hoping that will introduce some efficiencies.

Set boundaries and be clear about what is achievable and what is not

Awards and Recognition

I was shortlisted to the final three for the inaugural Manchester PA of the Year Awards held in Autumn 2015, for Best Event by a PA. I did not win but it was an honour to be recognised and to be a finalist since – although  I have an extensive administration and managerial background stretching back nearly 30 years – I’d only been in an EA/PA role for just over three years. The whole shortlisted group were amazing, and the support for each other at the event was outstanding – so a shout out to you all for #PApower.  I’ve recently been nominated and interviewed again for the 2016 awards, so fingers crossed.

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? A dress, jacket and heels, or a two-piece trouser suit on important days, but it depends on how much running around I need to do. But I do like my jackets and blazers. Generally, the University is a casual dressing environment.

What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? I can’t go anywhere without my BareMinerals powder, and hand sanitiser – I’m a bit obsessed with hand cleansing/washing.

Heels or flats in the office?  Flats, mainly, but heels when we have visitors or I’m attending meetings or events. For your commute? Flats, or mainly trainers. Sketchers are amazingly comfy and light to slip into your bag. Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? I really don’t covet shoe brands. If Louboutins were really comfy, then maybe I would – my sister-in-law has several pairs. I’m happy in high street, but it has to be leather.

Preferred scent: Hate the name, love the scent – at the moment, it’s DownTown by Calvin Klein.  I’ll look for something new in the airport Duty Free shop.

What might we find in your desk drawer? I actually have four sets of drawers in my office, but the left pedestal to my desk has a top drawer full of business cards and stationery. The middle drawer has my notepad and papers on which I am working, and the bottom two drawers contains personal items, toiletries and food!  It gets tidied when a #Debsdrawers Twitter comp comes around!

If you don’t ask, you won’t get

Travel or travel planning advice? It depends on the Executive; my previous exec was very tech savvy, so he would need very little paper but did require really good, detailed diary information and attachments.  I am a detail person, so everything will be in the diary: tickets, confirmations, transfers and emergency numbers for doctors, etc. Some execs still prefer paper travel packs, which can be great in an IT emergency.  For me, time and then cost are critical factors. Although we have to be very cost conscious as we are a university, there is no point booking a cheaper flight only to have your traveller then wait several hours for a connection.  I’ve used the app Tripit in the past, and am just experimenting with Travo.

When interviewing PAs, I’ve frequently asked what they would consider for a travel pack when arranging travel. Most don’t consider that a visa is the starting point to many trips abroad, or that many train stations outside cities don’t have taxi ranks. There is a little more to planning complex trips than the travel ticket itself.

Inspirational reads? Too many; I have a book shelf on the end of my desk. It contains Sue France’s PA & Secretarial Handbook and the EA and Managerial Handbook. I also have Heather Baker’s Speed Writing and Minute Taking, and Vickie Sokol-Evans’ 100 Tips series. I haven’t read Lean In yet, so that’s next on the list.

Role models or mentors? In my early career, two Police Inspectors mentored me and were life savers with their advice and guidance – particularly with difficult staff performance issues as I managed a mixed team of police and civilian staff, and faced every managerial issue possible.

Both Lucy (Brazier) and Susie (Baron-Stubley) gave me the confidence to take this seriously as a profession

In my EA career, I was lucky early on to meet the late Susie Baron-Stubley and Lucy Brazier whilst attending Susie’s Exec PA retreat. There, I was in transition after having just been made redundant from my Police Authority Manager role. Both Lucy and Susie gave me the confidence to take this (EA) seriously as a profession and how and where to pitch my capabilities.

Since then, Victoria Darragh helped when I was first setting up the UoM-PA network; she came to speak at our first event. The Hays PA events Victoria organised represented my first step into national networking and meeting inspirational speakers, so we are all looking forward to seeing how EPAA develops.

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I’ll mention a couple.

  • Undertaking my criminal law training whilst my youngest daughter was still in nappies was a challenge. I had to change from part-time to full-time employment, and this involved several periods away on residential training. I was lucky in that my company paid for full-time child care during those periods – but I had to ask for the support.
  • Networking – I am the founder of UoM-PAs (The University of Manchester PA/EA network). I am one of the leads for EUMA-UK north-west, and a member of the Manchester PA Network and CityCo PA Network. Networking was completely alien to me until 2012, as my background is in policing and confidentiality. I was shortlisted last year for the inaugural Manchester PA of the Year  award, and have just been advised I’ve been nominated again this year, which is exciting.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I am lucky that this role continually changes and develops. Just as I start to get itchy feet, something crops up – such as the management of the education programmes late last year, and mentoring this year. I’ve been enjoying the mentoring role and will increase that going forward. I also manage events and we usually have quite a few every year that I really enjoy, so that would be where my next aspirations lie.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Dream bigger and reach higher. No one really ever told me I could accomplish more; I did a year at college studying business, economics and secretarial skills, and then left to start an office junior job.  After having my first daughter, I successfully applied to a police training establishment and I quickly recognised the power of CPD (continuous professional development) and then I was off, successfully applying for training and subsequently gaining promotion. So, all the higher education I’ve achieved as an adult  has been done whilst being a working mother.

Dream bigger and reach higher

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? I do the induction and training for our PA and admin roles. The most important aspect is to get the communication correct from the beginning, and adapt styles where necessary. Find out all those likes/dislikes and the executive’s preferred style – and then work to that style.  It is an ongoing and developing process that requires regular check-ins. Also, find out more about the operational plan or strategic objectives and where your boss/executive and you fit in.

Find out about the operational plan or strategic objectives and where your executive and you fit in

Your most effective time management strategy? Click and Drag (in technology terms). I have the benefit of my own office and multiple screens, and I’m always doing two things at once – but being able to click and drag an email into the diary, or drag contact details over is ideal. Even having two documents open for cutting and pasting is so much quicker than working on one screen; I could never go back. I’ve also just started to use Trello, a project management application that straddles several platforms.  It doesn’t give the fine detail of tasks that I would prefer, but it does let me list and keep up to date with all that is going on in my work and home life.  Also, send less email and instead pick up the phone, and apply lots of Rules to Outlook.

Advice for a new mother returning to the workplace? Things change so quickly in the work environment, so don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for a little retraining or time to adjust.  If I could go back now, I think I’d put more emphasis on my family; I think you can still achieve success without having to work the long hours that I did when building my career. I think employers are also improving, with flexible working hours and recognising work/life balance.

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Trust the assistant; communicate wants and needs; mentor and build her/his capability, and let go. Also, find out about the assistant’s career aspirations and try to offer work that fits the aspirations – and reward the assistant even if that just means saying thank you.

For those interested in promotion: Take advantage of any and all training that your company has to offer, and ask; if you don’t ask, you won’t get.

Join an association. I am a Fellow of EPAA UK and have a Diploma in Personal Assistance. As well, there is also a plethora of free online training available online from MS Office Help. There are PA-related webinars, from Joan Burge/Office Dynamics to Ted Talks, to Admin chat, which is hosted on Twitter by Executive Secretary magazine.  Read articles posted to LinkedIn groups. There are so many resources now to draw upon.

I have always negotiated my training at interview/recruitment stage. I don’t think I could work for a company that did not support my development. You are never too old to learn, and I still enjoy going to conferences and trying new things.


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

%d bloggers like this: