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 off to Sheffield, South Yorkshire to visit with Megan Williamson.
An organised, early riser
My typical work day begins with always waking before my 6:00 a.m. alarm, which gives me the opportunity to have 10 minutes in bed to wake and check my emails/ messages before showering and heading to the kitchen for my first cup of hot coffee! I prepare my outfit and bag the night before so I’m ready to leave with my travel mug in hand!
As I rise and leave reasonably early, I miss most of the rush hour traffic. On average, my drive in to work takes around 20 minutes, depending on which route I take. I do like to make the most of the quiet roads and have my favourite radio station on to start my day!
Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? Often I listen to the travel first, in case there have been any accidents or roadwork delays that might prevent my journey from being as smooth as normal, but I then tune into anything that makes me laugh; it’s amazing the effect it has on your day! If I go to the gym in the morning, I like to listen to something upbeat and motivating!
At the Office
Morning Routines: I usually arrive around 7.20 a.m. and spend the first 10 minutes making a hot drink, checking my notebook and ensuring I have everything to hand on my desk whilst my laptop loads. I also use this time to check my notebook in which I enter all my priorities and to-dos! I carry this everywhere with me at all times! I often have a print out from the night before of key appointments for the upcoming day, and attach meeting papers too, so I ensure I have the most up to date version (as well as relying on my laptop or tablet device for the electronic copy).
Once my laptop has loaded, I always check the diary first to I can establish the plan for the day, before checking my own email inbox and that of the senior management team, flagging any important emails or clearing actions as I go. There are often emails that are “quick wins” and don’t require any follow-up, but I always reply to acknowledge the emails and file them.
I always then have a daily catch-up with Nicola (IMST Director) to establish the day’s commitments and ensure she is prepared, along with discussing any tasks for both of us. I use the morning time to make any phone calls or arrange any follow-ups for the afternoon. My lunch break varies, so I always make sure I have something ready as well as a sneaky sweet treat or two in my drawer. I use the afternoons as tidy up time. This includes typing up any notes from meetings, chasing/completing any outstanding tasks and preparing for the next day.
On job interviews: Think about the answer before you say it
Primary Responsibilities: My role requires to me to be flexible, as one day is never the same as the next. My main priorities include diary and mailbox management, whilst always on hand to take incoming calls and establish follow-up meetings and scheduling appointments with internal and external colleagues. I produce and circulate meeting papers and attend to note minutes, as well as ensuring everyone else is prepared and on time. As part of my role as a personal assistant, I am also a portfolio officer, assisting the project management team and supervisor to a business and administration apprentice.
How long is your work day? My work day begins when I arrive in the office around 7:20 and finishes at 4.00 p.m. My official start time in the office is 8:00, but I utilise (and enjoy) the first 30 minutes of quiet time for me to set myself and get organised for the day. When required, if it has been “one of those days”, I may leave the office around 4:30 to make sure everything is finished.
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? Nicola and I very often try to have lunch together every week, or at least a coffee each day, as staff are encouraged to take regular breaks. We use this time to catch up, informally, and take a break from the computer and meetings. As I work in the IT department, I always have a helpful colleague on hand if I’m having problems with my monitor or PC settings.
A healthy mind involves eating well, drinking plenty of water and making time to have a break
What might be a typical lunch? I like to have snacks at my desk as, personally, I eat little but often. Sometimes, you just never know! I occasionally have a late breakfast and opt to have brunch. I eat regularly and healthily, so allow myself a treat, which is usually a bar of chocolate in my drawer or a packet of my favourite biscuits. Nicola and I often decide together on what lunch we’re having, or on our meal plans, which motivates me to eat well. I’m a firm believer that a healthy mind involves eating well, drinking plenty of water and making time to have a break.
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? I do take my laptop home with me every evening and my personal phone is my work phone, so I can be contacted when required. I have the attitude that you never know, so have it handy just in case – and it’s by choice. I appreciate this may not work for everyone, but I also can make the decision as to whether I am able to take the call or whether I need to contact that colleague at a later time. I rely on my phone for networking and communication and use the Whatsapp groups for urgent updates, and also use it out of hours or to chat socially together over the evenings and weekends.
Having my laptop at home does result in me logging on to emails or to respond to a message I have received past my usual office hours or over the weekend. Whether I am completing this from home, or staying in the office a little later, I feel better knowing I have finished a particular task and tied up loose ends rather than leaving something unfinished. Although, I am strict when I need to be to ensure that I have a healthy work/personal life balance.
Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role? I am currently liaising with the Director of Corporate Standards to implement an in-house PA network for colleagues to share good practices, provide updates and build stronger communication channels between all. I hope to be leading on this.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? A challenge all depends on how you view a situation and approach it; I thrive on being busy and love getting my teeth into a task – and the rewarding feeling gained once it’s completed keeps me motivated and ready for the next one. A challenge for me is that I’m a “yes” woman and struggle to say no to people, but it’s a trait I’m very much aware of and working on.
I thrive on being busy and love getting my teeth into a task
What do you most enjoy about your career? I love the interaction I have with so many people from different organisations and backgrounds. I get the opportunity to meet some incredible people and have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend conferences and meet many of the people in the flesh. A large part of my job involves communicating with people over email and phone, so meeting them in person is such a good feeling. I also enjoy the organisation; my job allows me to have an excuse for my stationery obsession!
On Saying “No”
I would say this is one of my weaknesses, but I do accept this. I like to help whomever I can as much as possible, which sometimes results in me completing the task. As this is something I am addressing myself, I would say continue to be open and helpful, but offer to show the individual how to do it and take them through it. That way, they learn and can pass knowledge on to others. Also, honesty is key; if you really don’t have time to complete that particular task to its requirements, then being truthful in the first instance is always the best option.
I was born in Rotherham and reside in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Are you a city mouse, or country mouse? I love the business and mixture of people in a busy city. The diverse range of culture and fabulous range of personalities are incredible. I like to be busy and I like to always have someone to see or somewhere to go, more than I love my relaxing “me time”. I would definitely say I’m a city mouse.
How long have you been an admin. professional? I have worked in the admin. sector since I was 16 years old and it’s had me hooked ever since! What was your first role as an admin. professional? I was first employed as a business and administration apprentice, before working my way through various roles and gaining invaluable experience along the way. Without my first employer giving me the opportunity, I do wonder what I would have been doing today, but I’m so thankful; not everyone gets to do what they love.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I love duvet days in front of the television with a film and bar of chocolate, but it’s very rare that I can sit still for five minutes. I usually find myself at the gym followed by an afternoon of shopping or moving furniture and decorating our house.
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? A bar of chocolate or my favourite Chinese takeaway, every time. My partner knows what works as the perfect pick me up and no longer asks me what I want to order from the takeaway, as it’s the same every time! Feel good food always works!
A dream holiday or travel adventure? Ooo, I love sunshine and beaches, but as we’ve got a holiday to Thailand booked in a few months, I have my boots ready to explore! I’m a firm believer that there is nothing worse than saying, “I wish I had … ” or, “… if only I had done …” I love trying everything once, including getting lost on purpose and seeing what’s out there, even if only for a limited amount of time and I have to try and think practically!
Education and Professional Development
How have education and/or professional development supported your career development? Recently achieving my Managing Successful Programmes qualification has given me a real confidence boost as well as opening other doors and possibilities. I don’t think you can put a price on education, but I also believe it shouldn’t hold you back; if you want something bad enough, you will dedicate the time to do it. If a course or qualification is optional, I feel that you work harder and aim to do your very best.
The Digital Age, and Evolution of the Assistant’s Role
Do you publish to, and/or monitor social media as part of your professional responsibilities? I use my Twitter account to network and communicate with other PA/EAs and colleagues and couldn’t live without it. I find it incredible connecting with others and seeing what’s out there. What are your preferred forms of social media? In order of which I use the most, I would say Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and then Facebook. I do have Snapchat as a personal account but I’m always ready to use the latest app!
Do you maintain, monitor and/or publish to a website as part of your professional responsibilities? I don’t complete this myself, but work closely with colleagues in the communication department for the content. They do a great job and we work with each other to achieve the end product.
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? I use Twitter and LinkedIn, and couldn’t manage without! They’re a hub of information and brilliant people. Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? I have already spotted it and it is on the next Christmas list … the Livescribe pen.
Describe any impacts social media has had on the role you hold within your organisation. When I first started my role as a PA, I was clueless as to the amount of information that could be obtained on social media. I believe this has been a huge part of my development and provided me with a helping hand if I’ve needed it. I always fall across a tweet, post or article I can relate to or am dying to read.
I thrive on seeking opportunities to improve systems
Have you used technology to digitize processes or materials in your workplace? As much as I stand by the statement, “don’t fix it unless it’s broken”, I do thrive on seeking opportunities to improve systems, which helps everyone. Many of the processes I worked with had a way of working that always had been. I keep an electronic version of paper documents. For example, for the department’s absence records, which were previously paper based, I have created an electronic spreadsheet that mirrors the same information and this means that the programmes do most of the work for me at the click of a button!
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? I have my own smart phone which is a combined personal and work phone. I have been offered a work phone previously, but I’m very attached to mine!
Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability via smartphones, etc. may have had on your quality of life. The positive impact is that I can be contacted anytime if required; the adverse impact is that I can be contacted any time if required. It can be a pro and a con, but as long as you have a healthy work and personal life balance and can make firm decisions, it shouldn’t get in the way of your personal life, unless you allow it.
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital (relying on portals and/or PDFs of meeting materials), or paper-based? Do you continue to produce hard copy meeting packages for participants? As I work in the IT department, paper is a bad word! I, however, like to rely on a paper back up, just in case. The amount of time spent rummaging for a document in files, only to find there’s a technical fault and you’re unable to access it, is unreal. Both paper and electronic versions come with their positive and negative points, but it’s important to be prepared. I keep the hard copy electronically or scan the paper copy if any notes have been made.
Does your organisation make use of a portal for any of its bodies/committees? If so, how long ago did the organisation make such a shift? Each director, department and team has their own preference on how and where documents are saved. This will be an ongoing piece of work with the Director of Corporate Standards to ensure we’re all on the same page. Like anything else, you can’t please everyone and there will be teething problems, but what doesn’t?!
Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint or other web portals? Our intranet page is constantly updated with the latest information and we, as a department, work very closely with the communications team to look at new ways to improve, including getting our SharePoint site up and running. SharePoint will really enhance our systems and processes once it’s in place properly.
I feel empowered and supported when new initiatives are introduced
Digital Innovation and Disruption
Let’s talk about the pace of change in the admin. world in general. For example, is it fast and furious when it happens, or introduced in a planned and logical manner? Do you see variations in how people adapt to change? I would say this depends on whether you embrace change and new ways of working. If you allow it to be, it can be fast and furious as there is always a new app or new gadget out there that you’re itching to use. However, I feel empowered and supported when new initiatives are introduced. It’s important to establish that support of who can help and when – and work through as a team. For many of our processes, we have allocated IT champions who assist other colleagues with various devices and share good practices and new ways of working.
What about the impact of Digital Assistants/AI (Artificial Intelligence) resources such as Siri and OK Google, which we can use for voice/other searches, task reminders, etc., and meeting-scheduling bots that can correspond with actual assistants? I think this is brilliant. Nicola often sends me voice notes or uses her device to communicate with me, in so many different ways. Anything that helps her, helps me.
What do you think of IOT (Internet of Things) devices used for smart lighting, security and air conditioning, etc.? Again, I embrace this. Everyone is so busy in life that I welcome the little things that can make a difference.
If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it
Your experience and thoughts on data security practices? Be sensible. Always consider what information is accessible, its purpose and associated risks, and who can see it. With any information, anywhere, I stand by the rule, “If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it.” Once something’s out there, it can’t necessarily be retrieved.
New legislation has been introduced in a number of jurisdictions, with some of the legislation taking effect only in 2017. Let’s talk about disclosure requirements associated with instances of data security breaches. I always implement the Caldicott Principles. These are rules to live by and adapt and enforce in to my role.
The Caldicott Principles: rules to live by
AI, Digital Assistants and the IOT: Their Impacts on this Career
What impact(s) do you think AI (artificial intelligence), Digital Assistants and IOT (the Internet of Things) will have on the admin. professional of 2020? It will require people, myself included, to be far more open minded. If there is something out there that can assist or complete a function for us, it enables us to get on with another task … but I would say it presents a risk that we might stop speaking to each other properly all together! Before you send an email, think, does this really need to be an email, could I speak to this person on the phone or walk down the corridor and see them face to face?
Travel or travel planning advice? My first action for business travel would be to list all of the requirements. Do you have all of the details you need, and how well do you know the colleague you’re planning this for, if the travel isn’t for yourself? Check your check list against theirs and leave nothing to chance.
I always start with a draft itinerary, clearly stating the crucial information such as destinations, timings, contact information and key notes the traveller needs to be aware of. This can always be edited until you reach the final version and confirmation, but it’s always helpful to include any tickets, print outs and relevant documentation. For both personal travel and business travel, my tips would be to always be punctual, always carry a pen, paper and device charger, and always let someone know where you’re going.
A reliable travel system where you can review your booking if required. Your organisation may have a contract with a travel supplier so always check, but to be on the safe side, always keep your own records and print for your travel file! Keeping a record of previous travel and hotels is always useful for future bookings.
What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and for tracking expenses? Nicola is constantly on the move, so I track her travel and any spending on a spreadsheet. This allows us to claim back any money spent on parking or travelling. Also, back to basics with Whatsapp, I can always get an urgent message to Nicola when required when she’s travelling and it doesn’t cost a penny.
Style and Substance
Name a go-to piece or two from your wardrobe to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I always prepare my clothes the evening before so that, in the morning, I’m ready to get dressed and out the door. I do take into consideration the appointments for the day, so that I feel comfortable throughout. I travel in comfortable flat shoes, but always leave two pairs of heels at work – one black and one nude- so that I can slip them on for any last minute meetings. I would say my go-to outfit has to be the reliable little black dress with black tights and a blazer.
What might we find in your desk drawer? Lots of stationery and emergency supplies! I have a drawer dedicated to notebooks and a pencil case full of pens and pencils, along with batteries, an address book, phone charger and a supply of snacks.
Inspirational reads? I would say the book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High or alternatively, or How to be a Productivity Ninja. These provided me with tools to use in my role and the skills are transferable. Although not a book, I always scan and check updates and tweets on Twitter and Linked in from EEA and PA/EA groups.
I try and take skills and knowledge from each of my colleagues and use them to develop myself
Role models or mentors? I try and take skills and knowledge from each of my colleagues and use them to develop myself. Each of them works very differently and it’s important to recognise that. I would say my mum is my biggest role model; she’s successful and independent and I can always rely on her if I need advice, whether it’s what I want to hear or not.
Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? I haven’t received any, as I usually assist with organising them for others (ha!), but I do feel very supported and appreciated by my employer and colleagues!
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I recently completed and passed an exam in Managing Successful Programmes. The majority of my study was completed after work with a text book, some flipchart paper and trusty Sharpie pens, but, after two months of studying, I passed my exam and couldn’t be more pleased with myself. It was a reminder that hard work does pay off! I constantly aim to push myself and look at ways I can develop myself further, whether it’s an exam, some swatting up on a particular area of work or shadowing a colleague. If you have an interest and this will enhance you or your role, go for it!
Moving beyond your comfort zone: I do some self-reflection and ask myself questions
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I assess the situation and how I may approach it. I do some self-reflection and ask myself questions, although I already know the answer. Why is this beyond my comfort zone? Have I done anything like this before? What do I feel confident about? What do I feel concerned about? I always make sure to document this also; it really helps to reflect and see what I could have done differently if needed.
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I would like to develop further with my knowledge and skills as a personal assistant; you can’t buy experience. Obvious? Maybe, but I am incredibly passionate about my job and do feel I have so much more to learn, which comes with time.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I do have a 5-10 year plan and also envy those people who don’t and enjoy the spontaneous possibilities. I would like to grow as a person and as a PA. The opportunities out there are endless, but I am incredibly happy with where I am and have my career ahead of me. With the ongoing support of my partner, family and colleagues, and the motivation I have myself, I will continue to develop but I am passionate about being a personal assistant.
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Be prepared and be you; being yourself will make you stand out more, we’re all unique! You’ve been shortlisted for an interview, so think positive; you’re half way there, so don’t doubt yourself. It’s you they want to see and there are no trick questions; answer as you would and with the knowledge you have. It’s easier said than done, but the panel are prepared for nerves. Keep calm, take a drink if you need to and think about the answer before you say it; it’s normal to hear a voice and then realise it’s yours and you’re talking. If you’re unsure or didn’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask!
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? If you make a mistake, it’s okay; it’s all part of learning. I was really hard on myself if I accidentally made an error; I really punished myself, unnecessarily. It turns into a cycle and the negativity doesn’t help. We’re all constantly learning, and it’s normal. If it continues to happen, maybe think about why and what support/mechanisms would help?
Be at least five minutes early for anything
Your most effective time management strategy? Be at least five minutes early for everything. Arriving on time is great, but to get yourself settled and ready, it often takes another five minutes … those papers you were looking for? They took five minutes to find and the meeting has started, eeek! I manage this by leaving sufficient gaps in between commitments to allow travel to and from, and for any preparation that needs to be done.
Advice for a new parent working to the workplace? I don’t have children myself, but I would say that we’re all here for you. I can imagine it’s normal to have forgotten every log on and every possible door code on site. No one expects you to jump straight back in; take your time and ask if you’re unsure. Things can change in a short space of time, so get yourself up to date; it’ll help.
If you have aspirations for promotion, do your homework and discuss them with your exec at appropriate times
For those interested in promotion: Communicate this; if you don’t ask, you don’t get. If you have aspirations, make sure to make sure to make time to discuss this with your exec at the appropriate times and keep a log of what you want to develop and how you would do this; doing your homework makes the conversation a lot more productive. Although they might not act straight away, showing you’re keen and driven will ensure they consider you for opportunities that arise.
Talking to Executives
Imagine that a cohort of executives invited discussion of the business case for working with (or without) an executive assistant. Anticipate that they’re tech savvy, and that some may have dated perceptions of what a skilled assistant can bring to the table. How do you make the case for having an EA, MA or PA on the payroll to enhance the success of the executive and the organisation? Duties performed by a personal assistant include everything from booking appointments to returning telephone calls and, in some cases, even assisting with personal commitments; this gives the executive permission to “let things go”. As most personal assistants are required to have computer skills as well as their own computer equipment, they act as IT champions, solving the most complex tasks with ease. Reliable, punctual and organised, they effectively create time for you to complete the tasks you didn’t think you could and they will be your most dependable source of information.
How would you advise these execs on building an effective business relationship with an admin. professional? Loyalty is paramount in any working relationship, but the relationship between an executive and their PA/EA is like no other; trust each other, be honest and open. An executive should allow a PA/EA to do their job without micromanaging, but be there if required and keep the communication channels open it is a case of letting go. The significant aspect is Personal Assistants/Executive Assistants have a personal life too, so don’t be afraid of taking an interest and asking. Getting to know each other is key; building a professional relationship will help you understand each other.
I constantly aim to push myself and look at ways I can develop myself further
What are a couple of early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? Always, always, always ask; how can you adapt your style of working to help them if you don’t know? Your executive will be aware you need this information and, step by step, you’ll get more comfortable and pick up their way of working. Always check: What are their priorities? What is their preferred method of contact? In addition, get to know each other; I used the ice-breaker of asking when their birthday is!
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Megan mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- Caldicott Principles – click here or here and also do your own searches for further research
- Livescribe smartpens
- Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler – Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High
- Allcott, Graham – How to be a Productivity Ninja