GleeTalks: Top Tips on Becoming a PA with Bianca Fowler
How did you get into the role?
Previously, I worked as a Design Review Manager for a non-profit architecture centre. Proposed schemes would be put in front of a panel of experts and it was my job to coordinate that panel. I would gather the appropriate documents, do site visits, negotiate multiple diaries… even though the roles are completely different, I honed in on a lot of transferable skills. I was in that role for over 8 years, from the formation of the division to the bitter end. Funding got cut, so I was made redundant and it was a pretty daunting time for me. I had to start all over again. I had never been a PA before but knew that I had gained all the relative skills in my last role to be able to perform to what was expected. You can only put so much on a CV, and meeting the Directors gave me the opportunity to elaborate on what I could bring to the role. I think referring to myself as a ‘Monica’ (from Friends) type of PA won them over.
What are the key skills required?
Time management and Organisation
Time management is non-negotiable. You are there to coordinate and bring order to the (sometimes hectic) lives of incredibly busy people - that is your main purpose. There is no room for tardiness. Your role will include a lot of scheduling, appointment making, handling calendars and passing on messages – to stay on top of it all, you need to be incredibly organised – so, develop a system that works for you. Write things down, on paper or on screen. You can only remember so much, so having a physical reminder will make sure nothing gets forgotten. Make a list and order it by priority. Having smaller more achievable goals and setting time limits, really encourages productivity (plus, documenting almost everything may save your ass one day, trust me).
Interpersonal and Communication
You will often be the first point of contact on behalf of your employer so you will need the interpersonal skills to communicate clearly with all different kinds of people. Whether you are talking on the phone, via message or email, you should always be polite, clear and concise. Bear in mind that you are speaking on behalf of your employer and making a good first impression will go a long way in building and maintaining amicable relationships with your employer’s key connections.
The confidence and the experience to tackle any challenges thrown your way. It’s not your job to find blame, but to have the initiative, tenacity and the pragmatism to find solutions. That being said, prevention is the best safeguard - to be prepared for anything you need to be constantly double checking, cross referencing and keeping an eye out for any changes that could result in problems. You should plan ahead, ensure accuracy and maintain the flexibility needed to adapt to change quickly.
As a PA, you’re more than likely to be privy to all kinds of sensitive information about your boss and your company, so handle it with caution. In order for your employer to rely on you, they have to trust you. So be professional, be loyal and be discrete.
What do you enjoy about this role?
The variety. No two days are the same. There are tasks which need to be done on a daily or weekly basis, but I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in / take ownership of some more exciting projects – not just booking restaurants or taking dry cleaning but being involved in office fit-outs to organising annual incentive trips!
What are the most challenging aspects of the role?
When you’re starting out, you really need to get to know the industry you’re working in and the employer that you’re working for. Chances are, they’re used to things being done in a certain way so you need to make a conscious effort to understand their specific needs – establish their likes, dislikes and the elements of your role that they may prefer to manage themselves. It may take a while to adjust to but having a proactive approach will help you to make informed decisions, to anticipate what’s expected from you and to prioritise your task list.
Also, time – not my own, but those of the Directors. Their diaries get full very quickly and when booking meetings, you need to take into consideration travelling times, traffic etc. The last thing that you want to do is book a meeting leaving them 10 minutes to potentially travel 5 miles – they aren’t The Flash! You should also try to anticipate what’s going to be asked of you and get it done before they have even asked, you need to be reliable – get sh*t done early and get it done properly.
What have you learnt that you wished you knew when you started out?
You may have a million and one things on your plate, and some projects will be more important than others, buts sometimes it’s best to get the little jobs out of the way. If there are small things that you can turn around quickly, don’t put them off or else they will creep up on you. I think one of the most important things that I have learnt is to know when to slow down and take my time. You can’t be laid back in this role, but you do need to make sure you work at a reasonable/sustainable pace – trying to do 10 things at once can lead to mistakes – focusing on one thing at a time is much more efficient.
What advice would you give to people considering this role?
To be a PA, you need to have thick skin and try your best to remain positive. Don’t take things personally or you won’t last 5 minutes. Your job is to organise the business lives (and sometimes personal lives) of your bosses, and they are there to lean on you when needed – they are busy people, why else would they need a PA?
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Expect the unexpected!
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