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 Surrey, England to visit with Susan Henderson.
Susan Henderson is PA Manager at Laura Devine Solicitors. Here’s a look at her world.
The Morning Train to London
My typical work day begins at 6:15 a.m. with a bowl of cereal and a large glass of water. I am not a coffee drinker. Over breakfast, I usually review my emails and social media before getting ready for work.
I live 12 miles from my place of work and travel into the City of London by train. My journey time is 45 minutes with a 15 minute walk either side, so door to door is (with no train issues!) an hour and 15 minutes. Who is on your commuting playlist? I am a huge Take That / Robbie Williams fan and their songs are always on my playlist but I love all kinds of music, especially RnB and reggae. My favourite artist of all time is Luther Vandross, who I was fortunate to see live in concert many times.
At the Office
Morning Routines: I organise diary packs for my boss a day in advance (or earlier if I am going to be away from the office), so I will only collate papers on the day for an appointment that has been confirmed overnight. My first port of call is my boss’ emails/voicemails, then my own (although I have usually reviewed mine early morning to check for any surprises). I will reshuffle priorities depending on what has landed in the inbox and also have a quick glance at the firm’s social media before starting my daily tasks. I always have a large bottle of chilled water on my desk to keep me hydrated.
Primary Responsibilities: I wear various hats in my role. I manage the support team, a fantastic group of individuals who support each other, the firm and me, which makes managing them a joy. My role as PA to the Senior Partner covers diary management, compliance, meetings, travel, client work, marketing, business development and finance. Another large part of my role is managing the firm’s HR functions, including recruitment, inductions, training, appraisals, salary reviews and contracts, and more sensitive HR issues.
There is no such thing as a typical day! My boss is Senior Partner and Head of our London practice, which means she is involved in all aspects of managing the firm. Being an expert in her field, she is also hugely in demand both internally and externally. Her days can vary enormously from meeting Government ministers to discuss policy issues and giving media interviews, to meeting with ultra-high net worth individuals / celebrities and lecturing at international conferences.
One to one meetings with my boss are essential
It can be a challenge juggling her diary to cater for everyone’s needs, as well as blocking time for her to actually get her work done. Ensuring she is where she needs to be with the relevant documentation is a feat in itself! One to one meetings with my boss are essential to ensure we are on the same page and both aware of changing priorities and approaching deadlines. Emails are a huge part of my day and I am constantly reviewing my boss’ inbox as well as my own, dealing with what I can action or flagging items for her attention – but generally keeping her inbox ticking over as her time is so limited. Aside from looking after my boss, I am also the “tissues and issues” person, who looks after all HR related aspects.
How long is your work day? My working hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. but I often start work over breakfast or on my commute to work. I usually leave the office later than the scheduled end of day.
What might be a typical lunch? Where do you eat? I usually bring a salad or stir fry from home or will pick up a sandwich or soup at one of the many eateries on my doorstep; I am quite spoilt for choice in the City of London. We have a staff room at work but I often eat at my desk when I need to keep working.
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? Yes, I sometimes respond to emails in the evenings and at weekends, but only for urgent matters. Anything non-urgent I leave until the next working day. I think it is very important to try and achieve a good work-life balance and to have down time, especially from technology.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? One of the biggest challenges I face is scheduling time for my boss to complete her work, which can be extremely hard when she is constantly in demand. We are often dealing with many high priority/urgent tasks with tight deadlines and missing a deadline could have disastrous consequences in our line of work.
The next biggest challenge would be managing interruptions. My boss and I share a room so each of her interruptions impacts my day. Last year I set up daily in-house “surgery times” which have helped to minimise interruptions, but they still happen and my boss is too generous with her limited time!
Under promise and over deliver
I like to give my boss fake deadlines (I hope she doesn’t read this!), which are my secret weapon. She can be quite last minute by nature, but with fake deadlines she can deliver the product to the wire (adrenaline buzz), our clients receive their product ahead of time (client satisfaction) and my blood pressure remains intact (happy PA). Win/win scenario. Under promise and over deliver – that’s my motto.
Have a career plan and invest in a mentor
What do you most enjoy about your career? I love the variety of the role, which keeps it interesting. I am fortunate to have fantastic colleagues and bosses who are extremely supportive, particularly in terms of training and development. They really encourage all their employees to be the best they can be.
On Saying “No”
I try to be as helpful as possible but I am always realistic. If I cannot help with a task, I will try to find someone who can assist. It really depends on the importance/priority of the task, but I am happy to say “no” and manage expectations where necessary. I find it is not saying no that can be hard to hear; it is often how you say no. You could be saying no to right now but yes to first thing in the morning. I think the key is to be assertive and positive – learn how to say no and not feel guilty about it, whilst remaining solutions focused. Practice makes perfect!
Learn to say no and manage expectations where necessary, without feeling guilty; remain solutions focused
I was born in Brixton, South West London and lived there till I was 10 years old. After a short move to Putney as a teenager, we then settled in Surrey, which is where I am based today. I am definitely a city girl. My friends often tease me about being the “convenience queen” and, whilst I am organised, I do worry how I would cope without shops being open 24/7!
Outside the office, I catch up with friends/family and my Godchildren (whom I am immensely proud of), attending music concerts and horse riding. I also enjoy raising money for charity and have completed various challenges in the last few years, including a parachute jump and the Shine half marathon, raising over £2,000 for good causes.
What song or two are we likely to find you singing along to when driving, or if no one’s listening? Valerie by Amy Winehouse is probably the song that’s guaranteed to get me singing (especially at karaoke nights). I will sing along to most things, and the car is the best place as no one can hear me! It is always slightly embarrassing when you are in full voice at the traffic lights – sometimes you just have to give in to those fake microphone moments!
How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I like to treat myself to beauty treatments, a nice meal out or a new handbag.
A dream holiday or travel adventure? I have travelled to lots of wonderful places but Australia and New Zealand are still on my list.
Education and Professional Development
Education: I have always taken responsibility for my own development and have never been afraid to ask to attend appropriate training. What’s the worst your boss can say? In my current role, I am fortunate that our managing partner actively encourages staff development and training and is keen for everyone to reach their potential.
Always show willingness to attend appropriate training; ask your firm to support your career development.
Peer and Professional Associations: I hope to join the Executive & Personal Assistants Association (EPAA) in 2016 when it is launched by Victoria Darragh.
Preferred form(s) of social media? Facebook (personal), Twitter for business/social, and LinkedIn for business
Get on social media and enhance your networking skills
Your dream app, or software, to help you in your career? I love Hootsuite as it saves me lots of time and allows me to schedule tweets/articles of interest to share with followers ahead of time. A dream app would be a personal GPS tracker for my boss – although I am sure there’s already an app for that!
Style and Substance
What one or two cosmetics would your purse or travel bag be empty without? Mascara and nail varnish
Heels or flats in the office? Both; it depends what’s on the day’s agenda. For your commute? Flats / trainers Favourite brands of shoes, whether you wear them or they’re on your wish list? I wouldn’t mind a pair of Louboutins!
Preferred scent: No.8 by Abercrombie & Fitch
What might we find in your desk drawer? Everything from business cards, headache tablets, shoes and spare tights plus the usual stationery and snacks. My colleagues tease me for having the tidiest drawers in the office.
Travel or travel planning advice? Discuss the trip and budget in detail with your boss and ask questions about the presentation remit, intended audience, the networking potential, the goals of the trip, the dates of travel, any accompanying family members, etc. Other things to bear in mind: personal commitments around the time of planned travel (kids’/parent birthdays), religious holidays, visa timescale logistics (you would not want your executive to be without their passport for any length of time, particularly if they are a frequent traveller), promotional material/business card supplies.
Travel planning: Have advance discussion with your boss on budget, any presentation and audience, networking potential and more
Book hotels (but read the reviews first!) and flights well in advance as you will often achieve the most competitive prices, as well as travel insurance (most executives have annual insurance but a good point to check if it is the first trip you have booked) and transfers.
Maintain travel checklists, which can be handy when you need to arrange last minute trips
Bigger firms have trusted agents they use, which can be great for last minute adjustments. We manage everything internally and have checklists for travel which are helpful, as some trips can be sprung on you at the last minute. As well as an itinerary pack for my boss, I also scan all relevant information and documentation into the diary entry, which saves her carrying unnecessary paperwork whilst travelling.
Inspirational reads? My favourite authors are Jill Mansell and Syliva Day, but for an inspirational read it has to be Katie Piper (http://katiepiperfoundation.org.uk), who truly is an amazing young woman. I saw Katie’s keynote speech at the office* show in 2013 and was very moved by her story, her strength and her passion for helping others.
From a career perspective, Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy, a book on time management, Executive Assistant & Managerial Handbook by Sue France and Heels of Steel by Vanessa Vallely. I clearly remember tweeting Vanessa back in 2014 from my sun lounger after I read her book on holiday and I also signed up to her website We are the City (WATC) on my return. I also like Nicky Christmas’ Practically Perfect PA blog.
Role models or mentors? Aside from my parents, my personal role models, I would say our managing partner Laura Devine. Laura is smart, sassy and inspirational and her generosity and thoughtfulness as an employer are second to none. She has won many awards, including CityWealth’s Entrepreneurial Women of the Year in 2015 and is hugely regarded in her field of expertise (immigration law) but remains supportive of her staff and encourages them with further study, training and travel, which is a passion of hers.
My second mentor is my friend and colleague Anna Robinson, who trained as a solicitor but more recently qualified as a psychotherapist (www.annarobinsontherapy.com). I am very proud of Anna’s achievements and her commitment to helping others. She always makes time for me and offers great advice and encouragement for me to push myself forward – thankfully she does not analyse my shortcomings!
Don’t be afraid to ask to attend appropriate training – what’s the worst your boss can say?
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. In 2007 I was seconded to New York to recruit and train support staff for our new office, a little daunting initially as HR in the States is very different to the UK. However, after spending four weeks advertising, reviewing CVs and interviewing candidates, I was pleased to secure excellent candidates for the firm. I was also able to train them on our practice management system.
In addition, I successfully implemented transfer of the firm’s HR systems to Octopus HR in 2014, creating an online self-service system, which staff can access from anywhere in the world. I am currently reviewing additional modules for appraisals/recruitment which will further streamline our HR processes.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? As a large portion of my role involves people management, I would like to undertake a formal CIPD qualification in HR. Following inspirational presentations by Vickie-Sokol Evans of Redcape and Paul Pennant of Today’s PA, I would also like to become a Microsoft Office Specialist.
What bit of insight would have been most helpful to you in the early stages of your career? Have a career plan, invest in a mentor early on in your career and study further in the subjects that you are passionate about.
Email time management: incorporate quick steps and rules
Your most effective time management strategy? I have a few: Fake deadlines work well for me and my boss for delivering the product on time. My internal emails are automatically categorised and a copy automatically files in the senders’ folder, which allows me to whizz very quickly through my inbox and delete messages that do not need a reply as the copy is there for my record. Quick steps are amazing as you can do so many steps with just one click; these save me enormous amounts of time for repetitive processes. I also have various rules set up to clear non-urgent emails and junk from my inbox, allowing me to focus on the priorities.
Advice for a new mother working to the workplace? Know your rights, particularly around flexible working. Take your time, do not put unnecessary pressure on yourself, and seek support from social media groups and forums.
Advice for new executives on how to best work with an assistant: Communicate effectively and meet regularly. An assistant needs to download her/his executive’s brain at least weekly to be sure s/he has everything on their radar and is aware of developments and changing priorities (some may have occurred outside the office).
Respect that your assistant has a job to do and work in partnership with him/her. Do not constantly cancel meetings with your assistant; it’s probably one of your most valuable meetings of the day, and it will make your assistant feel undervalued. You are your assistant’s priority, and s/he should be yours. Make the time and it will pay dividends. Listen, support, value, appreciate, respect and help your assistant be the best they can be.
Prepare ahead for performance appraisals: regularly update your CV or a separate document with your accomplishments
For those interested in promotion: Ensure you have a career plan and work on developing this with your boss to ensure your growth. Know your worth and value yourself. Join online groups/networks via LinkedIn or pa-assist.com, and subscribe to magazines such as PA Life, Executive PA or Executive Secretary with Lucy Brazier.
Definitely get on social media (there is a whole community out there who will support you) and enhance your networking skills. Always show willingness to attend appropriate training and keep your IT skills up to date – there are always new tricks to learn.
Update your CV regularly with your accomplishments, or keep a separate document which you can refer to at appraisal time. If you do not keep a note, you are likely to forget something crucial which could cost you a promotion or a salary increase. Ask your firm to support your career development and invest in your training. Events like the Office Show in London have great speakers/topics and are reasonably priced, and you can make lots of useful contacts.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Susan 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.
- Eat That Frog (blog) and Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time -Brian Tracy
- Executive and Personal Assistants Association (EPAA) and PA Power With Victoria Darragh
- Executive PA
- Executive Secretary Magazine – Lucy Brazier
- Heels of Steel: Surviving & Thriving in the Corporate World and WATC – We Are The City – Vanessa Vallely
- office* show 2015
- PA Life Magazine
- Practically Perfect PA – Nicky Christmas
- Red Cape Company – Vickie Sokol Evans
- The Definitive Executive Assistant and Managerial Handbook: A Professional Guide to Leadership for all PAs, Senior Secretaries, Office Managers and Executive Assistants – Sue France
- Today’s PA – Paul Pennant