Real Careers: Melissa Francis

Exceptional EA showcases Real Careers, in which administrators from around the globe generously share the benefit of their experience. We’ve made virtual trips to Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, the USA and Wales, and now make our way to West Sussex, England to visit with Melissa Francis.

Melissa Francis is Executive Assistant to the Medical Director, Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Here’s a look at her world.

An Organised Working Mum

I usually rise at 6:00 a.m. and start the day with a mug of lemon green tea. As a working mum, I aim to be as organised as I can by clearing a few household tasks before leaving for work. I like to listen to the BBC Breakfast news whilst getting ready and the time checks keep me posted with how much time I have to work with. I hate being late for anything, so tend to take my breakfast with me and get on the road as quickly as I can.

The Trust is split across three hospital sites so my commute can vary between 15 and 45 minutes, depending upon the site I’m working from on any given day. I routinely work from our Chichester site one or two days a week and the remainder of the week I’m based locally at Worthing. Whatever the site, I always drive as even with a short commute there’s usually something or someone to be picked up/dropped off, or I may make personal arrangements for the end of the working day.

Who or what is on your commuting playlist? I like a diverse range of music and enjoy listening to the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on Radio 2 during the drive to work. On the way home, sometimes to break the monotony of a longer drive or slow moving traffic, I’ll catch up with a podcast that makes me laugh such as The News Quiz or I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.  What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? I can’t resist Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman and love a good sing-along in the car to whatever is on the radio, but manage to curtail this to a journey without passengers!

At the Office

Morning Routines: If I’m first in, I like to unlock my Director’s office on arrival and open the window so it’s fresh and ready for the start of his working day. If the Medical Director is already on site, I’ll take in a mug of tea and let him quietly start his day. I then check for any voicemails and go through my inbox to see if there are any changes to the day’s planned events and update my Director accordingly. My email inbox is colour coded so my Director’s emails easily stand out in colour and a larger, bold font so they can be cleared first. I also check my “bring forward” folder to be assured that any final papers to support the day’s meetings have been received and are ready to go. My Director and I are both aligned to a paper free environment so between us we do our bit to save the trees. We try to print less and, to support this ethos, the Executive team use “Boardpad” to upload and securely hold papers for a range of corporate meetings. After setting up the day, I’m usually ready for breakfast, which I eat at my desk.

I see myself as an enabler

Primary Responsibilities: I see myself as an enabler; therefore, whatever the planned diary commitments for the day, any challenge presented to the Medical Director is cascaded to me to work some creative magic in the diary. The Trust is committed to placing patients at the heart of everything they do, so creating space in the diary to enable my Executive to facilitate this happening is incredibly important. Like many busy Execs, the diary can be pretty full many weeks in advance and from time to time operational and strategic needs mean that my EA colleagues and I need to work together at short notice to fit things in; it’s like a never ending jigsaw puzzle! I also coordinate a range of meetings, engagement events and teleconference calls. Whenever my Director attends a conference, event or training and development opportunity I also arrange local/overseas, rail/air travel and accommodation as required.

The lovely thing about my role is that there isn’t really a typical day. The Trust is incredibly busy so I spend a good amount of time clock watching to ensure that my Exec stays on track with his appointments and to minimise unnecessary delays for colleagues and visitors waiting for meetings.

I’m a highly motivated person but my Executive quietly inspires me to experience and take on new opportunities

In addition to a busy EA role, I became a Staff Ambassador toward the end of last year and this provides plenty of opportunities to support the Trust. Being an Ambassador is all about the person you are, the way you work and your approach to the people you meet every day. We meet regularly with our Chief Executive to share views, ideas and are active in promoting events and opportunities in our teams and across the organisation.

The Ambassador role was the catalyst to me joining the “Sit and See” Care Observation Team. This is a tool designed to support staff and see care through the patient’s eyes, which is fed back to teams about the experience of patients within their ward. I’ve also recently been paired with a fantastic Dementia Nurse specialist to support in-patients during lunchtimes on the wards as part of the Trust’s “Dining Companions” initiative. I’m new to this, still learning and gaining confidence in this area but it is a great opportunity to get out and chat to patients whilst gently encouraging them to have something to eat. There’s so much more to lunches on the ward than I’d imagined. It’s also enabled me to support the Trust at the Careers Fair at one of our local high schools. It is lovely to talk with young people and their parent/carers about what the Trust can offer them as potential future employees.

Overall, there are so many positive opportunities to contribute and support colleagues, patients, visitors and the community if you want to expand the parameters of your day to day role; it’s really exciting to be a part of the Trust.

How long is your work day? My core working hours are 8:30 to 5:00 but I aim to get in to the office before 8:00 for some quiet time and to catch up with colleagues who are more difficult to track down throughout the busy working day. I generally leave the office by 5:30, but am always happy to work around the business need. Working in a busy Trust that is open 24/7 means that the Medical Director’s hours can be non-standard, so an element of flex is required and appreciated.

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch?  Often it’s a flask of homemade soup and a salad with lots of colour and flavour to keep it interesting and tasty. If I’m pushed for time in the morning, I’ll grab a lunchtime sandwich or salad from one of the Trust’s restaurants. I usually make time to be away from my desk at some point in the day but fit this in around the Medical Director’s schedule and keep my mobile with me in case of need. I always feel refreshed for having taken a break and ready to tackle whatever the afternoon brings.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? My Exec values a healthy work/life balance and therefore I don’t usually work once I’ve left the Trust at the end of the day. I can always be contacted by phone but generally this doesn’t happen.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Time; there never seems to be quite enough of it in the day.The Medical Director has overall responsibility for the Trust’s Doctors and Consultants so it can be quite a challenge to prioritise all the demands on his time with his executive, strategic responsibilities. I often have to gently push back at the number of short notice requests to meet with him but am forever mindful to understand what’s behind a request in order to best manage expectations. All requests present a great opportunity to have dialogue with colleagues in a wider context, putting faces to names and building relationships with individuals whom I might not otherwise have an opportunity to meet or engage with.

Nothing is impossible, but only you can make it happen

What do you most enjoy about your career? Having worked within the Finance and Further Education sectors prior to joining the NHS, I’ve enjoyed an interesting and diverse mix of PA experience and learning possibilities. I’m thankful to have worked alongside some interesting and inspiring individuals who have really enriched my working life. Whenever I move on to a new role or organisation, I’m always sad to be leaving some wonderful colleagues behind but excited to begin the next chapter in my career.

 Be brave when looking at job opportunities, and put yourself forward for as much training and development as you can comfortably take on

Melissa’s World

Map of worldI was born in Hampshire and now live on the West Sussex coast. I actually like both the country and city for different reasons – the buzz, excitement and pace of city life sit well with my desire for travel, new sights and sounds, but the peace and tranquility of the country satisfies my need for family time. So, in an ideal world, I’d have a crash pad in the city and a family home in the country.

I love live performance, whether it is stand-up/comedy, gigs in Brighton or a trip to the theatre. I’m fortunate to live reasonably close to the excellent Festival Theatre at Chichester but equally love a long weekend in London to take in shopping and a show, usually with family.

I try to unwind and not be too busy at weekends but whenever the opportunity allows, my family and I like to watch Fulham FC play at Craven Cottage.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I tend not to read enough fiction so I’m looking forward to making some time to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the follow up to one of my favourite books, To Kill A Mockingbird.  I also love anything written by Peter James or Linwood Barclay, so the luxury of curling up with my Kindle is perfect for me.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? I enjoy travelling and would love to visit Australia again, maybe the East Coast or Melbourne, and I’m keen to revisit New York so would gladly spend more time overseas.

Education and Professional Development

Education: Education was less important to me as a teenager, and underachieving at that age gave me a huge wakeup call. I had my light bulb moment at college, turning an educational corner by playing catch up in my first year, and taking an intensive secretarial course in my second year as a “Plan B” where I subsequently won a college prize.

After starting a family, I took my ICSA Certificate as a prerequisite to a Team Leader role at the Bank; at the time, not having the qualification meant not being eligible to step on to the managerial ladder. From then on I made a commitment to invest in me, my learning and development – and actively looked for opportunities to develop my knowledge of the business I work for in order to enrich my working day. I’ve since completed a CIPD qualification and core module “Leading and Managing in Further Education” at the University of Brighton. Prior to leaving my role at an FE (Further Education) college, I actively participated in the FE Sussex PA Network and began to see the benefits of collaborative discussion with peers across the region.

More recently, I’ve signed up for the office* Show (October 2015), EUMA Personal Development Day in Manchester (November 2015) and the EXECSec Live in London (April 2016).  I am still looking for educational and learning opportunities now!

I made a commitment to invest in me

Peer and Professional Associations: I’ve been an Associate member of the CIPD for several years and, following the closure of the Association of Personal Assistants, I joined the Global PA Association as a Fellow member last year.  I’ll also be joining the Executive & Personal Assistants Association (EPAA) when it launches in January 2016.



Preferred form(s) of social media? Twitter and LinkedIn for networking, Facebook for family and friends.

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? Normally a trouser suit but I like statement accessories in the form of an unusual necklace or large flower on my lapel; both are good ice-breakers for conversation.

What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? My MAC mascara and lipstick

Heels or flats in the office?  Usually flats, so I can whizz off quickly wherever I’m needed. For your commute? Always flats for driving. Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? I’m more of an accessories girl, so am not particularly drawn to a favourite brand of shoe. Comfort is important, whatever the occasion.

Preferred scent: Chanel Allure Sensuelle is always on my Christmas and birthday lists.

What might we find in your desk drawer? Stationery aside, I keep my preferred brand of tea and a stash of supplies which include emergency safety pins, clear nail varnish, a clothes brush, toothbrush/paste, mouthwash, shoelaces, needles and thread in various colours, nail files, makeup wipes, shoe shine, hand cream, hair spray, batteries, plasters and – to minimise being caught out of most situations – a range of greeting cards.

On travel planning: I usually undertake a virtual walk through

Travel or travel planning advice? Make time to plan effectively and with a long lead-in time where at all possible. I usually undertake a virtual walk through to ensure that timings and transport are suitable, cost effective and fit for purpose. For example, what would I want/need, how and by when? For more complex travel, a spreadsheet helps me to keep a note of what I’ve booked, when, and the organisations and individual contacts I’ve used. I recently coordinated a trip to Japan on behalf of the Trust and utilised some great apps including Addison Lee and FlightChecker to help support the arrangements.

Inspirational reads? I’m currently reading Sue France’s The Definitive Executive Assistant and Managerial Handbook and I’m also really enjoying listening to the Be The Ultimate Assistant podcast series delivered by Bonnie Low-Kramen and Vickie Sokol Evans. Working on the continuous improvement theme, I will shortly start Kim Barnes’ Beyond Heroes: A Lean Management System.

Role models or mentors? I’m a highly motivated person but my Executive quietly inspires me to experience and take on new opportunities that enrich the EA role. It’s wonderful to work alongside someone who recognises the value of personal development and learning opportunities.

Professionally within the sector, I’ve found reading the blogs and articles of Victoria Darragh, Bonnie Low-Kramen, Lucy Brazier and Executive Secretary Magazine really helpful – all are fantastic role models and a key source of knowledge and information.

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I am really proud to have joined the Trust’s Staff Ambassador team. It’s a pleasure to help and support others in and around the Trust and I’m very much aware of the opportunities the Ambassador role has offered me. I believe it has positively contributed to the personal growth and development within my EA role.

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I would love to progress, taking on a line management responsibility once more and maybe mentoring junior or less experienced colleagues. I’ve recently refreshed my coaching skills and am seeking new academic opportunities to continually develop. It would also be fantastic to see an EA/PA network within the Trust and/or local community. A barrier to many networking opportunities for EA/PAs can be the travel time involved in getting to/from events and the impact that has on their working day, so it would be lovely to be a part of something driven by and for our local community.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Nothing is impossible but only you can make it happen.

I plan and set myself reminders and pop ups to keep me on track with tasks and meetings

Your most effective time management strategy? My diary and my mobile. I plan and set myself reminders and pop ups to keep me on track with tasks and meetings throughout the day. I also keep a “to do” list so that I can continually prioritise as my day evolves.

Advice for a new mother working to the workplace? Remember to look after yourself. A healthy work/life balance is incredibly important, particularly when you’re balancing sleep deprivation, a young family and busy job. I’d give exactly the same advice to a new father, too!

Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Commit to building a strong working relationship with your EA; really value her / his efforts to make your day a smoother, less challenging experience and recognise your EA’s skillset – you’d be surprised at what skills from previous roles and knowledge s/he can bring to the table. Treat the Exec and Assistant roles as an alliance and be mindful of your EA’s need, as well as your own, to grow, learn and develop inside and out of the organisation. As a result, you’ll both reap the benefits of an honest and supportive partnership.

Treat every day as a learning opportunity, and be kind and respectful on your way up the promotion ladder

For those interested in promotion: Be brave when looking at job opportunities, and put yourself forward for as much training and development as you can comfortably take on. Treat every day as a learning opportunity and be kind / respectful on your way up the promotion ladder; this in turn is usually reciprocated. Networking is incredibly important and can really help to build your personal brand.


… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Melissa referenced may be interested in checking the following links. To explore a range of resources recommended by readers, click here for Exceptional EA’s Resources Page or click here to see all professional associations and networks recommended by peers.


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