Real Careers: Ruth Hargreaves

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 make our first stop in Beverley, East Yorkshire, England.

Ruth Hargreaves is Executive Assistant to CEO and entrepreneur Sean Ramsden of British Wholesale Export Company, Ramsden International. Here’s a look at her world.

Early Morning Email Review

I’ll admit it; the first thing I do after turning my alarm clock off is check my emails. Sean can be working across various time zones, so it’s key I’m on the ball and up to speed with anything that’s come in throughout the night. After making myself look presentable and feeding the cat, the next very important task is to make a coffee (black, with one sweetener) to help get the cogs going. I have a number of cheerful travel mugs to brighten the commute!

Thankfully I’m an early bird so I tend to miss most of the traffic; on a good day, door-to-door the drive is between 50 minutes and an hour. The new automatic toll lanes on the Humber Bridge have been very welcomed. Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast?  If I’m not listening to music/catching up on the news, I make use of my free time making calls to family and friends – on hands-free, of course!

At the Office

Morning Routines: In addition to providing day-to-day business and personal support to Sean, I have specific responsibility for all things relating to travel and office management. I also manage the Administration team who provide departmental support throughout all business functions, including manning the Reception desk.

Primary Responsibilities: I don’t think I’ve ever come across a “typical” day. I’ll often have a handful of things I intend to rattle through but, throughout the day, priorities have to be adjusted as new tasks filter through. One minute I can be writing a letter of invitation for a customer in Egypt, the next scheduling an Advisory Board meeting while proofreading an Entrepreneurial award submission for Sean and fielding telephone calls for the Executive Team. The pace at which the business and Sean’s diary move certainly keeps me on my toes; there is often a lot of “un-picking” and “sticking” to be done, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

How long is your work day? Dependent on my workload I arrive at the office anytime between 7:45 and 8:15,  and usually shut the laptop down between 5:30 and 6:00. When my workload peaks or I have something important to turn around within a short time frame, I have been known to arrive as early as 6:30 and leave as late at 8:00, but that is very rare and mainly when I must have access to the printer/various hefty folders. I’m pretty much available most of the time, and my laptop and mobile phone travel everywhere with me – technology has a lot to answer for, although how would we manage without it? IMG_9639

What might be a typical lunch? Something colourful and tasty, usually a salad! If I’m not in our newly refurbished staff kitchen catching up with my coworkers, I’ll be hiding out at Grimsby’s Fishing Heritage Centre. Their toasted sandwiches are delicious and the café is lovely and peaceful. Some days, however, I’ll be so absorbed in what I’m doing that I’ll work through and eat at my desk.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? Meetings permitting, I work from home at least one day per week. Whilst the coffee’s brewing, I take advantage of gaining the extra hour in the morning I save on the commute. I’m known for occasionally checking my emails out of hours. For example, if Sean’s travelling across the weekend, I often scan my mobile to ensure everything has gone to plan.

Dealing with Challenges

What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Due to the complexity of my role, I often have to break away from my zone of concentration to support ad hoc requests, and remaining focused whilst thinking on my feet can be a challenge. Adding a degree of humor throughout the day helps.

Adding a degree of humor throughout the day helps

What do you most enjoy about your career? I enjoy having the freedom to manage my own time whilst working with a great bunch of people from every corner of the world. I gain a great sense of fulfillment knowing I have contributed to the smooth running of the office, got people where they needed to be, and planned the diary effectively to maximise Sean’s time. I also enjoy (it goes without saying) the variety – no two days, weeks or months are the same, and I thoroughly enjoy a challenge!

On Saying “No”

I’m happy to support the majority of requests I receive. However, not everything is always possible, and time and resources can often be limited. Sometimes smaller tasks have to “give” in order for me to maximise my time and concentrate on something more pressing. I usually make a note of what is expected, ask the relevant questions and go away and begin reviewing my workload. If I feel I have to say no, I’ll make suggestions to negotiate other priorities. Saying “yes”, on the other hand, has opened many doors of opportunity  – which has added to my experiences and knowledge. Also, Sean relies on me heavily, so more often than not if I can’t support him with something, no one can.

Ruth’s World

Map of worldI was born in the historical city of York but spent most of my younger years growing up in the beautiful market town of Beverley, East Yorkshire.  At heart, are you a city gal or small community person (city mouse/country mouse)? Visiting London and Edinburgh once a year is just as important to me as getting out in the open countryside. Beverley is the perfect compromise, with the coffee shop culture and glorious pastures of the Westwood just a walk down the road. Whilst I love visiting the bustling streets of cities, I’m always happy to return home to familiar, quieter territory. In years to come, I’d love to move to the countryside!

How do you like to spend your time outside the office? My grandparents are very special to me (they recently celebrated 60 years of marriage and received a telegram from the Queen), so I often like to drop by to see them at least once a week. Catching up with friends is also high on the agenda, as are exploring the countryside on long walks and visiting art galleries.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? Every now and again, I’ll book a deep tissue massage to loosen the shoulders.

 A dream holiday or travel adventure? I’ve been fortune enough to visit some wonderful places, and still have many on my bucket list – from Canada to America, and back to Thailand. My ideal trip, though, had to be my most recent holiday to Cyprus. My partner surprised me by booking everything and telling me only after it had been done. I’m constantly planning trips and travel itineraries for other people, so this was absolutely perfect!

Keep on top of the latest industry news associated with your company and CEO

Education and Professional Development

Education: I finished university with a BA Honors in Fine Art. Obviously I’m not applying my creative flare to my day-to-day work with splashes of paint and Damien Hirst style installations, but I do find myself applying my event planning and portfolio management skills to my role.

Since progressing into a career as an Assistant, I have absorbed and learned new skills; I’ll often take part in an online webinar and attend seminars. I recently attended the Travel Assist conference arranged by Practically Perfect PA, and I’m also due to attend the North of England’s PA Expo in Liverpool in November.

I’ve been very fortunate to have good employers who are willing to invest in my development. I’ve attended internal learning and development courses, including Personal Awareness and Impact training and Management Development programs.

One of my first objectives in this role was to write a travel policy



Preferred form(s) of social media? Twitter for keeping up to date with developments on the go, LinkedIn for general business information / networking events, and Pinterest for adding creativity to my everyday.

Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? I’ve recently been introduced to Tripit, an application that will automatically generate travel itineraries. I’m hoping this is my dream come true, but ask me later! On a personal level, I love how I can sync important events and birthdays to my address book and calendar on my iPhone.

Take ownership of your own development

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWhat is your go-to outfit to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? A sharp dress, blazer, heels and discreet jewellery – always with a splash of colour.

What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? Lipstick and mascara are my two best friends.

Heels or flats in the office?  I’d definitely say heels although, since using my new sit/stand desk, I find myself switching between heels and flats for comfort. For your commute: Flats for driving, and flats for walking long distance. I’ll carry my heels in my handbag when navigating the likes of London.

Preferred scent: My scent has to be Daisy by Marc Jacobs, although my handbag currently holds Eternity by Calvin Klein.

What might we find in your desk drawer? Stationery, greetings cards, tissues, hand cream, business cards and my expenses

Travel or travel planning advice? Travel planning is a key part of my role. With a 14+ strong sales team and Sean travelling worldwide on a regular basis, it is imperative that attention to detail is applied on all levels. My advice would be to plan ahead as much as possible, work quickly to secure advantageous early rates, and sign up to as many individual- and business-related reward plans as possible.

One of my first objectives in this role was to write a travel policy. The policy sets clear guidelines and boundaries which in turn support both the travel booker and the individual. It covers everything from classes of travel, preferred hotel rates and general traveller safety. An invaluable accompanying document which we wouldn’t be without is a personalised frequent traveller profile. Profiles are stored securely, and referred to each time a booking is made. We use them to cross-reference passport names, visa expiry information, and individual preferences, such as automatic hire car vs. a manual hire car.

Visas are something I process for Sean on a regular basis, and no two are ever the same. The level of required documentation can be very complex, and more often than not his passport has to be sent away for an official stamp of approval from an Embassy. After a year of worrying Sean’s passport wouldn’t return in time for his next trip, I decided to arrange a second passport; this is something I wish I’d arranged a lot earlier.

In summary, get to know your frequent travellers. Plan ahead and do your research; the UK Government’s Foreign Travel Advice website is invaluable.

My first Line Manager, Lottie, was incredibly influential during my first role as a PA

Inspirational reads? My very first reference book was “The Definitive Personal Assistant and Secretarial Handbook: A Best Practice Guide for all Secretaries, PAs, Office Managers and Executive Assistants”, by Sue France. This is a must-have, go-to book for anyone starting out as an Assistant – I’ve since loaned this to a member of my team!

“Strong Women” by Karen Brady is a fantastic, inspirational read. Her story will resonate with many women, from those just starting out in their careers, to those who are comfortably established.

Most recently, and upon Sean’s recommendation, I’ve purchased “The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximise Productivity and Effectiveness” by Jan Jones. I’ve yet to get started.

Role models or mentors? My first Line Manager, Lottie (A Senior Personal Assistant), was incredibly influential during my first role as a Personal Assistant. Lottie opened many doors of opportunity for me, and listened and invested in my development as if it was her own. I often reflect back on where I am now, and know I have her to thank for providing me with the foundations of my career.

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

  • Project managing Ramsden Internationals’ £600k+ office renovation project! Leading such a momentous project from the forefront has provided me with vast amounts of experience and knowledge in a variety of areas. The biggest reward is knowing just how much of an impact the improved environment has had on staff – it’s likely our offices are now the most attractive in the Grimsby area.
  • Before life at Ramsden International, I worked at Centrica Storage Ltd., assisting the Major Projects Director and Project Managers. A huge personal achievement for me was completing my offshore survival training; it was both physically and mentally tiring. I cried when I swam to the life raft, as all my hard work had paid off – I’d officially earned my North Sea Tiger stripes!

Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? Everything moves so quickly nowadays, there is always something new to keep on top of – including apps, gadgets and software updates. I’ll always be thirsty to improve my current skill set, and I’m always open to new opportunities. I’m also passionate about supporting people, both at work and in the community. If I had more time, I’d volunteer again.

Lessons Learned

What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Write lists, set diary reminders, and always be prepared for your one-to-one (121) or catch up with your executive; try to be one step ahead. Finally, get yourself out of the office every now and again. There are so many Assistant-related events out there, from the London OFFICE Show to events run by Practically Perfect PA’s Nicky Christmas and the PA Hub’s Marion and Jon Lowrence.

Always be prepared for your 121/catch up with your executive; try to be one step ahead

Your most effective time management strategy? My bring forward files and email colour categories keep me on track. I actually don’t think I could live now without Outlook’s categories? Also, as with any executive, time is precious and planning ahead is crucial. The diary is almost always planned three months ahead and, to ensure both Sean and I can keep on top of appointments, meeting and travel commitments, I ensure I populate the subject fields of diary entries as either “pending” or “confirmed”. I also drag and drop the most recent email or note to the diary entry, so that I can easily make reference to a re-confirmation or agenda item.

Populate the subject fields of Outlook entries as either Pending or Confirmed

Advice for a new mother working to the workplace? This isn’t applicable to me; however, due to a routine operation I did have to take a couple of months off work to recover. I’d say pace yourself, be patient and remember to invest as much energy into yourself as you do into getting back to supporting others. It’s amazing how quickly things can change so, more often than not, there is something new that has to be learned.

For those interested in promotion: Keep on top of the latest industry news associated with your company and CEO, ask for feedback on your performance, and take ownership of your own development. Finally, get yourself out and about to share best practice with other likeminded PAs/EAs/Office Managers. You’ll gain confidence at the same time as making new friends.


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