Real Careers: Catherine Thomas

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, Turkey, the USA and Wales. Today, we make a return trip to Wales to visit with Catherine Thomas.

Catherine Thomas is a PA at Public Health Wales NHS Trust. Here’s a look at her world.

Sometimes Commutes With Sheep

I wake up with Chris Evans on the Radio 2 morning show at 6:45 a.m. I always hit the snooze button once, shower, have some breakfast (I go to work on an egg most days), check on my daughters (they are 17 and 15 so don’t need much checking), then leave for work just after 8:00 a.m.

I have to drive to work, otherwise it would take me hours over mountains and down valleys. It’s a beautiful 20 minute drive however, delayed only if the sheep are on the move!

Catherine's Commute

At the Office

What I love about my job is that there is no such thing as a typical day – every day is totally different.  Once I’ve logged on and got the morning’s decaf coffee, the day can pretty much take any direction it wants.

I am currently part of a large project in which we will move 500 people from seven sites into a new building; it has been a steep learning curve for me, but I have really enjoyed every minute of it. Apart from making sure that I have got my Director in the right place, at the right time with the right stuff,  I’ve been on a building construction site in a hard hat, written  papers, acted as tour guide to show staff around the new building, and attended and chair meetings – amongst a whole load of other duties, including minute taking (never escape those!)

My Director and I have been together 10 years on and off, so we know each other pretty well.  I think I am pretty good at predicating the mood!

IMG_9639What might be a typical lunch? Typically, lunch for me is a salad, brought from home.  My office is based in a village with a ropy Spar and a fish and chip shop and so, unless I bring lunch with me, I don’t eat. I have to confess I normally eat at my desk, but thanks to a new Fitbit I got for Christmas, I am trying to walk at lunchtimes to increase my daily steps.

How long is your work day? Normal hours are from 9:00 to 5:00. However, I am typically in by 8:30 and leave once I have spoken to my Director (which I do every evening), which can be anything between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? Along with the day job, I am the founder of the NHS Wales PA Network, which is in its ninth year.  The majority of the planning, conference organising, and newsletter writing is done at home during the evenings or weekends.

The PA network is a passion of mine; it is a labour of love.

On Saying “No”

I have learnt over the years that, if you are honest and tell people that you aren’t able to do their work immediately but you will be able to do it within a suitable time frame, people respect your honesty. I find that, in most cases, that urgent piece of work doesn’t become quite so urgent when they realise you can’t drop everything – and in the majority of cases, they either find another method or do it themselves.

People respect your honesty

Catherine’s World

Map of worldI’ve been lucky enough to live in some spectacular places. I was born in Reading to Welsh parents. My father was a civil servant connected to the army, so we had a number of overseas postings; I was in Cyprus from eight months to three years, and then Hong Kong from eight to 12 years of age. I lived and worked in Surrey/Hampshire until moving to London around 1994-5. In 1996 I moved to Barbados with my ex-husband’s job for an 18 month stint, then to Bermuda where we lived for three years.  2001 took me back to the UK and, finally, 2003 saw me return to Wales.

At heart, are you a city gal or small community person (city mouse/country mouse)? To be honest, I am a country girl, but like to dip in and out of the city every so often. Having lived and worked in London for a number of years, there is nothing I enjoy more than a wander around Harrods. However, it is pure luxury to be able to get down to the beach after work in the evenings for a walk to clear the head. The beach is where the majority of my ideas are born.

The beach is where the majority of my ideas are born

I was an active member of a local gym until recently, but I had to stop as my knees gave out! I’ve developed a love of weight lifting and like nothing more than flipping tractor tyres and lifting weights. I hope to get back to it soon.

How do you pamper or reward yourself after a tough day or week? I treat myself to a massage every other month – being a mum with a full time job means that I rarely get any “me time”. A massage means I am locked in a room for an hour and can’t do anything else other than lie there!



Preferred form(s) of social media? Twitter – I am always on it!

Awards and Recognition

I was runner up in the Times Crème/Hays Award in 2009 , which was a major door opener for me into the PA networking world.  In 2014, I was thrilled and totally surprised to win the PA Contributor of the Year at the Office event.

Style and Substance

Toronto Style Copyright Shelagh Donnelly

Preferred scent: Beautiful, by Estee Lauder

What might we find in your desk drawer? 

I hesitate to answer this as  joined in the #DebsDrawers * competition on Twitter recently, and won – I won because my drawers were in such a state!  I was shamed into having a tidy up and a clear out and now, I am pleased to say, they are much better.  You will find pens (personal favourite are black Bics), highlighters, Nurofen, staples, sellotape, pinboard pins, elastic bands, a wodge of Post-it notes and some wipeboard pens in various colours.  We use a lot of Magic Whiteboards in our office, and we are always on the hunt for pens!

I owe a lot to Susie Barron-Stubley

Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. The NHS Wales PA Network is something I am very proud off. It came to life after a conference 10+ years ago, where Susie Barron-Stubley spoke about the value of PA networks. By the time I had commuted back to Wales from London, I had written a business plan illustrating how we were going to implement a network in my organisation. My Director didn’t bat an eyelid at my idea. She did, however, challenge me to implement the network across NHS Wales and not just the six PAs reflected in my business plan!

The NHS Wales PA Network: 420 EAs, PAs and Admin Assistants strong

Nine years later, the NHS Wales PA network has 420 EAs, PAs and Admin Assistants registered.  Every other month (work permitting), I issue newsletters about the wider PA world and I organise two NHS Wales PA conferences per year.

In my mind, 2016 is the year for PA development and I am really keen to get PA trainers/magazines and conference organisers to think about the PAs based outside the London area.  #PAsarebasedeverywherenotjustLondon is gathering momentum, and trainers have already been in touch to talk dates and venues.

I owe a lot to Susie Barron-Stubley. I will always be grateful to her for her encouragement to start to network and to my Director Sally Attwood for the push.

Lessons Learned

If you could offer a new executive advice on how to best work with an assistant, what would that be? My advice to a new executive would be to talk to your assistant all the time and, if possible, have a morning catch up and an end of the day one.  I always call my Director in the morning if she isn’t coming into the office, and at the end of the day before I leave, to find out what has happened in the day that I need to be aware off – it’s invaluable.

2016  is the year for PA development

As an executive you need to share what’s happening and when. What and when are the pressure points? What are the things to look out for?  How do you as an executive work? Do you like to take your time to write papers or work up to the wire? If you had a fab assistant in the past, what did s/he do that was so good? Would you allow your assistant to attend meetings with you as an observer? How do you like your minutes taken? This is a major one for me, and why the majority of PAs struggle with minutes. If you don’t know how your Chair likes them done, you will never get it right – always ask the question.


… and now, a  couple of notes from Shelagh.  

* #DebsDrawers was a lighthearted competition I hosted on Twitter, inspired by Debs Eden’s inclusion of a photo of her (immaculate and all-encompassing) desk drawer for her Real Careers interview. The submissions were great fun, and readers and their employers hosted a couple of great prizes. Watch for another challenge in the weeks ahead.

Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Catherine 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.

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