Real Careers: Paula Harding

Join me for today’s Real Careers interview with Paula Harding of Liverpool, England.

Paula Harding is Executive Assistant to Dean of Education and Senior Management Team at  Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). Here’s a look at her world.

Paula’s day

I like to be at my desk at least half an hour before the day officially starts, like most EAs, to catch up on emails and review changing priorities.

What are your primary responsibilities? I have recently begun working with LSTM’s first Dean of Education, Professor Phil Padfield.  LSTM recently announced its new five-year strategic plan and, as a major part of that, Phil will lead the expansion of LSTM’s teaching provision.  Phil and I are excited to be working together to make a difference.

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Most recently, the biggest challenge I have faced is time.  Working with a new executive is obviously time consuming and, in addition, I am also supporting my previous executives until a replacement is recruited. However, I thrive on challenge and am excited to be part of this new journey.

Relationship building is a key skill for assistants

What do you most enjoy about your career? For me, the reason I come in to work each day is to be there for my executives. I hold this role because I make a difference in my executives’ lives. In my organisation, the people I support are making a difference in the world, saving lives, and that makes me very proud.


On Saying “No”

Over the years, my confidence and ability to say no have grown. I have realised that, whilst I can do anything, I can’t do everything. I know I am the most organised that I can be, I know I work as hard as I can, and I know that I work as many hours as I need to get my work done. That gives me a real confidence when saying no.

Sometimes the answer isn’t a straight no. It is more about managing expectations. Relationship building is a key skill for assistants, and this is crucial when managing an ever-changing workload and priorities.


Paula’s World

Map of worldI am very proud to say that I was born in the Isle of Man, where I lived until I was 28. I now live in Liverpool and I love to promote and champion this amazing city whenever I can. At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I travel back and forth between the Isle of Man and Liverpool, and I enjoy being able to spend quiet time on the Island and then get back to the hustle and bustle of the city. I have made special friends and connections in Liverpool.

How long have you been in this career?  Since leaving school in 1990  What was your first such role? My first role was Office Junior and, since that time, I have held positions which gave me knowledge and experience I’ve transferred into my current role.

Your ideal holiday or travel adventure? Apart from visiting the Isle of Man, I love another island, Jersey. I have been a few times and I adore going there. I’m not somebody who can go on a beach holiday; it just doesn’t appeal to me. I like to get out and explore. If I had more time, I would love to go to all around the UK. Foreign holidays aren’t my thing.


Education and Professional Development

Peer and Professional Associations: I am a member of the PA Hub in Liverpool, created by Marion and Jon Lowrence. For a long time before Marion and Jon started coming to Liverpool, I didn’t network. There were not many opportunities  for PAs to attend events in Liverpool. I was very shy at my first event, and Marion was very supportive. Since that time, my confidence has grown enormously and I now attend many business networking events. The connections you make really do make a difference and I love being able to connect people.

I am grateful that the PA Hub invest their time and energy in bringing events to Liverpool, and I feel that EAs and PAs should support local groups if they can. The saying, “use it or lose it” is very relevant.

My confidence has grown enormously and I now attend many business networking events

Have you earned any certifications earned through your professional associations? I am a Fellow of EPAA , the Executive and Personal Assistants Association.  Through EPAA I have been able to attend many development events, and I have met many amazing peers. I started their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme last year.  When I complete my CPD credential this year, I will attain practitioner status. I am very proud to be an Executive Assistant, and having the opportunity to evidence my development is very important to me.

Having the opportunity to evidence my development is very important to me

I am a Member of the Institute of Administrative Management (IAM). After attending a few of their development events in Manchester, I worked with Andrew Jardine, General Manager, to bring an IAM event to Liverpool. My organisation hosted a successful IAM event recently with world-renowned EA trainer Adam Fidler presenting Leadership, Management and the role of Executive Support.

How have these networks or associations helped you? As part of building my business acumen, I signed up to the International Coaching Academy Master’s programme with John Haynes. This has changed my life. John is like no one else you have ever met. He is inspiring, motivating and dedicated to his mission of developing one million people to achieve their full potential. The people I have met during this time are the most positive, supportive group of people.

It is important to be assertive but not aggressively assertive

Tell us about a career accomplishment or two of which you’re particularly proud. Whilst working at LSTM, I was tasked with organising a two-day faculty event.  Organising events is part of an EA role. However, from attending development events with the PA Hub, IAM and EPAA, and from listening to John Haynes at his academy, I had the confidence to make the event my own.

Following the event, my line manager received this feedback: “I wanted to officially record my appreciation for the excellent support she has given to the joint departmental meeting. I won’t go through every aspect of her contributions, but in addition to the standard support one might expect, Paula has contributed new ideas to the design of the meeting, produced materials for it, arrived ridiculously early at the venue to ensure that everything would be just right, pro-actively managed the academic leads and negotiated a rate that allowed us to use really good facilities in the centre of Liverpool. Her work has not just been good, it was exceptional.” Receiving this feedback makes all the hard work and commitment worthwhile.

What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I will be working on projects with the Dean of Education and I recently undertook an Introduction to Project Management course. This is an area I want to develop further.

As the role of Executive Assistant has progressed to a more strategic role, I am watching, listening and learning from all the industry experts to develop management and leadership skills.


The Digital Age

What are your preferred forms of social media? My preference is LinkedIn. I enjoy being able to scan through, reading short articles from all different types of professionals and influencers. I use social media to promote the EA profession, to promote my peers and the city of Liverpool, and to share knowledge and skills with a plethora of connections world-wide. I use Twitter too, although not as much as LinkedIn.

With social media you can make connections with people you wouldn’t ordinarily get to meet. You can’t just walk into a random office and start chatting with someone who takes your interest, but on social media you can. It opens so many doors and opportunities.

Describe any impacts social media has had on the role you hold within your organisation. I look at in terms of the EA profession; it gives EAs credibility. This role is unique and, unless you’ve done it, it is hard to understand the complexity. Executives and people we work with get to see a glimpse of who we are, and see the passion we have for the people and organisations we support.

With social media you can make connections with people you wouldn’t ordinarily get to meet

Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital (relying on portals and/or PDFs of meeting materials), or paper-based? My current executives are very tech-savvy and use their iPads to view their papers at meetings. My colleague at LSTM manages the organisation’s Board meetings and I know that they are very keen to move away from papers and adopt a portal. LSTM uses a combination of Dropbox and Sharepoint to share information, and our IT department monitors all the latest technology.

Let’s talk about digital disruption and tech advances. When I started reading articles about AI, I did feel a bit concerned. When you look back, though, the world is changing all the time. There were no mobile phones when I was a teenager. I had to sit in the kitchen to use the house phone plugged into the wall, chatting with my friends – and with my parents listening in. Developments in AI and IOT will generate many unique opportunities. I feel excited about the future.


Lessons Learned

You’re talking to a counterpart embarking on a job search. What approach do you recommend? There are so many options out there. If it was me, I would create a mind map to brainstorm all my options. I would look at the websites of organisations that interested me, review job sites, contact recruitment agencies and use the contacts from networking. I’d upload my CV online for organisations to view and change the option on my LinkedIn settings to let organisations know I was looking. Once I had all my options written down/typed up, I would start making the connections and then record my progress to keep on top of it.

Ask for feedback and constructive criticism

Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. My interview style has changed immensely over the years. What I have come to realise is that the most important thing is authenticity. I don’t religiously rehearse replies to anticipated questions any more; I go with my gut and answer the questions I am asked in the moment.

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Relax, listen and learn and you will develop and progress over time.

Your brand is what people say about you when you are not there

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? Build a relationship with everybody and be polite, respectful and professional. Once you have been in a role for a while, you start to know where you can use a bit more weight or where you need to be a bit more delicate. It is important to be assertive but not aggressively assertive. The behaviour of assistants reflects on both their executives and their organisations. Your brand is what people say about you when you are not there; what do you want them to say about you?

Your most effective time management strategy? I use Microsoft Tasks to record, plan and monitor all my activities. I spend the mornings carrying out more of the reactive tasks, such as replying to emails, and then in the afternoon I will concentrate on project work such as planning events.

What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? The Dean of Education at LSTM started on 21 May this year. Ahead of his commencement, I initiated contact with him to start the ball rolling. I introduced myself and asked how I could assist with his transition. Over the following weeks our relationship started to build and we decided to meet for a coffee a couple of weeks before he joined. During that meeting there was no formal agenda; we just started with a coffee and chatted for ages. We both came away from the catch up feeling very positive about the journey ahead and we looked forward to working with each other.

Emulate those who inspire you.

What is it you like about them?

For those interested in promotion: Review websites and articles, books, newsletters and magazines. Make notes of the advice suitable and relevant to your aspirations.  Put into action any learning or recommendations. Attend development events/conferences/networking events. Watch and listen to webinars/podcasts/YouTube videos.

Ask for feedback and constructive criticism. Look for a mentor or a career coach. Ask if you can job shadow someone who is in a position that interests you. Emulate those who inspire you. What is it you like about them?



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

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.

%d bloggers like this: