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 23 countries to date: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mauritius, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, the United States of America and Wales.
Melanie Richardson is Executive Assistant at Bettys & Taylors Group in Harrogate, UK. Here’s a look at her world.
A meditative approach
I get up at about 6:30 a.m. The first thing I do is to go downstairs and make myself a cup of hot water with fresh ginger. Then, I meditate for about 20 minutes, sometimes in silence or sometimes listening to a guided meditation. I drive to work and my journey takes about 25 minutes.
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: I have three main areas to my role. Firstly, I’m the Executive Assistant to Andy Brown, the Managing Director of Taylors of Harrogate (part of the Bettys & Taylors Group), who are tea and coffee manufacturers . Yorkshire Tea is our most well-known brand. Andy is also a member of our Collaborative CEO. We are quite unusual as a business in that we don’t have one individual as CEO, but a group of five key executives from the Group make up the Collaborative CEO. I’m also a member of Andy’s 10-strong Leadership Team, so feel very fortunate that I’m able to utilise the skills I’ve developed over my career to work at a strategic level. The third part of my role is one that is very close to my heart. I act as a one-to-one developer within our business, having undertaken a programme entitled “Coaching & Mentoring with Head, Heart and Soul” about four years ago.
Morning Routines: Normally, the first thing I do when I arrive at the office is make myself a cup of Yorkshire Gold tea; then I review my inbox. I’m trying to be really disciplined at the moment, in not getting constantly sucked into emails and switching them off when I have important tasks to complete. If it’s a Monday morning, I have a weekly catch up with Andy, which usually lasts about an hour and a half. Since we sit right next to each other in an open plan office, though, it’s easy to check in with each other at other times, too. Some days I can be at my desk much of the time, but other days I may have Leadership Team meetings or be working with my one-to-one development clients or on other projects. I also work at home about one day a week. I find this really helps me to focus if I have some writing or thinking to do without the constant interruptions which can happen in the office!
Manage your energy rather than your time
How long is your work day? Our standard working hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and I try not to stay at the office after 6:00 p.m. Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? We’ve recently introduced some standing desks in the office and, in fact, Andy has one. I don’t, but I do sit on a kind of saddle seat which balances on your normal chair to ensure that you are using your core to support yourself when sitting. It does worry me, the amount of sitting I do, particularly at work, and I ensure that I have a walk round the office at least once an hour.
What might be a typical lunch? We’re incredibly privileged at Bettys & Taylors to have all our food provided for us free of charge during the working day. It’s an important part of our culture that everyone leaves their desks to eat lunch in our “staff café”. Lunch will usually be a choice of homemade soup and a selection of salads or sandwiches; sometimes we are thoroughly spoiled with a special hot meal.
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? Because I’ve stretched the boundaries of the traditional EA role, I do have a high workload. I have to confess that there are occasions when I may do some catch up in the evening or during the weekend, but I try and ensure that this is the exception rather than the norm. There are definitely times in my career that I’ve not got this right, but I’m a firm believer that it’s so important to look after yourself and ensure you have balance in your life.
It’s important to look after yourself and ensure you have balance in your life
Are you involved in any employee groups/teams independent of your role? I’m a member of our Assistants’ Group for the EAs and PAs in the business. This year, we have been focusing on the changing role of the Assistant and what skills we may need to develop – both as individuals and for the business – in the future.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Definitely the most challenging aspect of my role is trying to juggle all the different elements!
Melanie enjoys the diversity of the role, and the freedom to develop it
What do you most enjoy about your career? I enjoy the diversity of my current role and the fact that I’ve been given the freedom to shape and develop this to become a member of the Taylors Leadership Team.
On Saying “No”
While I don’t have a problem in saying “no”, I’m not always the best at doing this as I’m often interested in getting involved in different things, particularly if I think they’re going to stretch and develop me. However, I do think you have to be practical and recognise that there’s only so much you can do. It’s important to ensure that you don’t let the wheels fall of the core elements of your role; otherwise, your executive will lose trust in you and that would be a disaster.
I was born in Cheshire in the North West of England, although I moved to Yorkshire when I was five years old – so I consider myself a Yorkshire girl through and through! I’m very lucky to live in the small market town of Boroughbridge in North Yorkshire, which has some of the most stunning and beautiful countryside anywhere in the world.
At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I’m most definitely a country mouse! I’m at my happiest when I’m in the countryside walking through the fields in my muddy boots.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? My big passion in life is horse riding. As soon as I get in that saddle and am riding through the beautiful Yorkshire countryside, I can feel all my stresses ebbing away. I also love gardening and attend weekly yoga and pilates classes.
How long have you been an admin. professional? I’ve been in the profession for almost 35 years (goodness, that makes me feel old!). What was your first such role? My first job was as Partner’s Secretary at a firm of accountants.
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? By doing all the things mentioned above and meditating. I have to say that a large gin and tonic also helps after a particularly manic week!
A dream holiday or travel adventure? I was lucky enough to go on an Ayurvedic Yoga retreat to Kerala in India earlier this year. It was my first visit to India, and I absolutely fell in love with the country and the people. I’ve been fortunate to have done quite a bit of travelling in my life, but the two countries that are still on my bucket list are New Zealand and Canada.
More often than not I’ve just said “yes” to new things and then figured out afterwards how do to them
Education and Professional Development
Education: I obtained all my formal secretarial qualifications at college, when I obtained a Diploma for Foreign Correspondents prior to the start of my career. I have also this year received the ACEPA (Advanced Certificate for the Executive Personal Assistant) accreditation. I’m very fortunate in that, a few years ago, I was able to participate in our internal leadership development programme. This, together with the Coaching & Mentoring programme, has been pivotal in my professional development.
Peer and Professional Associations: I’m a member of The PA Hub, which is a regional PA networking group run by Marion and Jon Lowrence. I’m also a Fellow of the UK’s Executive & Personal Assistants Association (EPAA) run by Victoria Darragh.
How have these networks or associations helped you? Hugely. It’s so important to ensure you are maintaining connections with the external world, to keep abreast of industry developments. There’s no better way to do this than through networking and attending development days and conferences, which both these organisations provide.
What are the primary means of communication for members of your network(s)/professional association(s)? To my knowledge, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
One of the biggest challenges facing the industry is making the role of the Executive Assistant more widely understood
The Digital Age, and Evolution of the Assistant’s Role
Melanie’s role does not involve publishing to, or monitoring, social media or a website. What about her preferred forms of social media? I’ve come late to the social media party, but I use Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. What apps do you make use of in your professional life? I mostly use Google, Google Maps, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, and I also have a number of meditation apps on my smartphone.
Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? One of the biggest challenges of my role is juggling and prioritising everything, so I’d love it if there was an app that would work out what needed to be done next at any given time!
Describe any impacts social media has had on the role you hold within your organisation. From an organisational aspect, social media has had little impact on my role. Since winning the Yorkshire PA of the Year Award, though, I’ve had some great opportunities come my way through using social media, including this interview request!
You are the person who is in control of how much impact 24:7 availability has on your life
Have you used technology to digitize processes or materials in your workplace? I haven’t personally in my role. I’d love to use a digital boardroom programme for producing meeting papers – still working on that one!
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? Yes. 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 firmly believe that you are the person who is in control of how much impact 24:7 availability has on your life. It’s all about being clear of the requirements of the role, what’s acceptable to you and how you hold the boundaries with your executive.
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital, or paper-based? I produce digital PDFs of agendas and papers for our Leadership Team meetings, although I have to say that I usually have a paper copy to hand for my own use. That always helps when you’re the recorder of actions. Does your organisation make use of a portal for any of its bodies/committees? No, but I’d love it if we did.
Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint or other web portals? We have a company intranet. It has been in place for the 15 years I’ve worked in the business, but the company has greatly developed it in more recent years. SharePoint is on the cards, and will hopefully be introduced next year.
It’s essential to adapt to change, be it digital or otherwise, if you want to survive in the profession
Digital Innovation and Disruption
Let’s talk about the pace of change in the admin. world in general. As you can imagine, in a career that’s spanned almost 35 years and for someone who learned to touch type on a manual typewriter, there have been huge changes in technology – and so I’ve had to adapt constantly. I think it’s essential to adapt to change, be it digital or otherwise, if you want to survive in the profession.
What about the impact of Digital Assistants/AI (Artificial Intelligence) resources such as Siri and OK Google? As I work in a business that very much has relationships and people at the heart of all it does, I can’t see that this would take over in our own business in the foreseeable future. I do think that it’s important to embrace such technology where appropriate for efficiency purposes, but I would never see that this would (or should) replace assistants.
Your experience and thoughts on cyber security/data security practices? I think a focus on data security is only going to become more prevalent in the future, and that certainly is the trend in our own business.
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? I’ve realised by answering these questions that I don’t feel I know enough about what may be coming towards us in this area – I think I need to find out more! As mentioned above, though, I would never see AI or Digital Assistants replacing an Executive Assistant.
I did see some stats from the US recently that suggested the number one attribute that executives would be looking for in their assistants in the coming years would be technology skills. Whilst I agree that they are hugely important, I don’t agree that they should be the most highly-sought after skill. That demonstrates to me a lack of understanding of what the role, certainly at a higher level, is all about. I’d have loved it if they had identified leadership at the top of their list!
Travel or travel planning recommendations? Andy travels all over the world to the origins from which we source our tea and coffee, to meet our overseas distributors and to attend conferences. We’re very lucky to have the support of an excellent travel company who research alternative travel options – so my advice would be to find someone else to do all the leg work for you! It saves you masses of time.
Style and Substance
Name a go-to piece or two from your wardrobe to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? If I have a presentation to make, or want to feel particularly confident, I always wear a dress and high heels.
What might we find in your desk drawer? I’m a bit of a grazer so, as well as all the usual stationery items, you’d most likely find some healthy snacks such as wholefood bars, bananas or nuts.
Inspirational reads? One of my favourite books ever is “Daring Greatly” by Brené Brown. Brené states that “authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we really are”. In an age when we’re constantly under pressure to conform and fake it till we make it, that’s so important to remember and I’d encourage us all to dare to be our unique selves.
Role models or mentors? I think I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked with some amazing executives during my career – all of whom who have been massively supportive to me in my development. Within the profession itself, I always love reading Melba Duncan’s articles. Closer to home, I’ve huge admiration for the way Adam Fidler has been able to so clearly articulate the assistant role and the value that it adds.
Ensure you’re remaining connected with the profession in the external world
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. In 2016, I won the Yorkshire PA of the Year Award. It was a very proud moment, knowing I’d been nominated by my colleagues. I’ve had the chance to do some presenting at networking events and conferences since then, and the feedback I’ve received has been great; I’ve discovered that I really enjoy it.
What steps do you take when you recognise that you need to move beyond your comfort zone? I’m a big believer that you need to be constantly evolving, developing and moving out of your comfort zone. I see this as just as important for me even now, after so many years in the profession. Over the years, more often than not I’ve just said “yes” to new things and then figured out afterwards how do to them! That’s required me to call upon my personal courage many times, to face my fears and to have to change deeply-entrenched behaviour – which isn’t easy.
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I want to continue to build my self-belief. I’m immensely proud of all I’ve achieved in my career, but I’m not inherently blessed with bucket-loads of self-belief, and I have to constantly work at this.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I’d love to further my one-to-one development work, as it’s so rewarding seeing individuals working things out for themselves and experiencing those “light bulb” moments. I’m a firm believer that everyone has their own answers inside them, and my job is to help them discover those answers. One of the most unexpected aspects of becoming a one-to-one developer is just how much the skills I have developed have supported me in my wider role.
I’m a big believer that you need to be constantly evolving, developing and moving out of your comfort zone
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; 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? I’d put Adam Fidler’s “What I Am” EA Manifesto in front of them – he’s got it spot on.
One of the biggest challenges currently facing the industry is making the role of the Executive Assistant more widely understood. That’s down to the assistants themselves. If there was one area that I’d like to see assistants focus on, it would be to develop their leadership skills. I’m convinced that there will only be an ever-growing requirement for more of us to step up as leaders to meet the future requirements of the role, and my wish would be to see Executive Assistants being an integral part of leadership teams in all businesses.
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Do your research, be yourself at the interview and make sure that the culture of your prospective employer fits with your own personal values. I think it’s also vitally important to assess whether you think you can work with the executive who will be your “boss”, as you’ll be spending an awful lot of time with that person.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Believe in yourself (something I still have to remind myself of after 35 years!).
Make sure that the culture of your prospective employer fits with your own personal values
Your most effective time management strategy? One thing I’ve learned as I’ve become more experienced is the importance of managing your energy rather than your time. So, make sure you’re doing your most intricate tasks that require greater focus at the times when you have most energy. Save catching up on your emails for those times when you have an energy slump.
Advice for a new parent working to the workplace? I’ve never had children so I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer this, but I think my advice would be to be kind to yourself.
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive / principal? It’s essential that any early conversations focus on the executive’s expectations of you in the role, but of equal importance is that you also need to have an upfront conversation about your expectations of them. I think this is often something assistants fall down on, as in many cases an executive doesn’t know how to extract the most value from their assistant. If this is the case, then you need to educate them.
Find yourself a mentor or coach
For those interested in promotion: If I could recommend only one thing, it would be to find yourself a mentor or coach. I believe that can help massively in gaining clarity on where you want to get to and next steps. It’s also valuable to be realistic about what skills you need to develop for the future, and asking for some feedback from colleagues or your executive can help. Finally, ensure you’re remaining connected with the profession in the external world; there are so many ways that you can do this.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Melanie mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- ACEPA – Advanced Certificate for the Executive Personal Assistant
- Adam Fidler – Adam Fidler Academy
- EPAA – Executive & Personal Assistants Association
- Melba Duncan
- The PA Hub – Marion and Jon Lowrence
- Yorkshire PA of the Year Award – The PA Hub