Career development for Assistants: 5 common problems and how to solve them

Career development for Assistants: 5 common problems and how to solve them

Recently, the OpenMeet team had the pleasure of participating in the annual Practically Perfect PA Assist Conference 2017, where we ran a few workshops on career development for assistants: 5 common problems and how to solve them. This is the second of three blogs that we are producing based on all the great information and feedback we got from our workshop participants. Read the first one, on what to look for in an event supplier, and watch out for the third and final blog, on how to ensure organisations value PA work!

We wanted to explore what career development in the PA role looks like.

So we asked our attendees what they thought about their career paths, skills development, performance reviews, and any other developmental aspects of their jobs. They then discussed solutions to the 5 most common problems that were raised.

Here’s what they said:

PAs do not have a clear career path

Solution: Create a broad career plan for yourself. This is worth doing regardless of your role or industry, but particularly valuable in a role as variable as that of a PA.

  • Frequently assess where you are in your role compared to your career plan. Don’t be afraid to make changes, as long as you feel you are still moving forward.
  • Consult other PAs, your manager(s), and your organisation’s HR for advice in progressing your career development.
  • Look out for and take advantage of networking events and skills development wherever possible.
  • Consider going into related fields that will use many of the skills you already have, such as Project Management, or a role within your organisation that you have learned about through your PA work.
  • The PA learning curve can be very steep, and the role can be demanding. Recognise your efforts and abilities, and blow your own trumpet!

There is no specific PA skills development

Solution: Always plan your next few steps. Seek career development wherever you can.

  • Research the roles that could possibly become available to you, and how they could fit into a career plan. Think about what skills you would need to fill any gaps you may have.
  • Explore whether your organisation has a mentoring programme or a buddy system of some kind, that could give you exposure to different roles while you are a PA. Would it be possible for you to spend time with all areas of the business, in order to better understand the opportunities within different departments?
  • Ask your manager for any training suggestions they may have, and request training opportunities. Try saying that you want to develop your skills and presenting your manager with clear options to choose from, rather than leaving them with a vague idea of what you want.

PAs are often isolated in their roles, so the responsibility is on the individual to be continually motivated

Solution: If there isn’t a PA network in your organisation, create one!

  • You can also join external networks for more advice and to increase your connections within the industry. Participate in forums and events.
  • If possible, it’s worth trying to train managers to use assistants more effectively and efficiently – this allows everyone to work more productively.
  • Make sure that managers are aware of what PAs can do and are responsible for, in order to increase the chances of recognition for your efforts. Above all, make sure you point out your contributions!

PAs do not take advantage of Annual reviews

Solution: PAs should make full use of annual reviews, as well as more informal ones. They’re an opportunity to redefine your role to be what you want it to be.

  • Encourage more regular check-ins; this can help prevent annual reviews being as intimidating, as well as creating more opportunities to discuss career development.
  • Speak to someone at your organisation, such as HR, about providing more free content for training and career development purposes.
  • See also if internal and external PA networks have evening seminars and other networking opportunities available.

Organisations may not be aware of the benefits of developing assistants

Solution: PAs can sell the benefits of developing assistants to their organisations!

  • Think about how much money a company could save by training current employees, rather than hiring new people for tasks. For instance, PAs could sign up for courses that would allow them to give internal training on software such as PowerPoint.
  • It’s also important to explore what HR has to offer, as it’s possible that there may be career development opportunities already available.
  • Don’t forget that many PAs have a wide skill set even before extra training – it’s worth exploring where else this could be used.

Of course, it is important to remember that every situation will be different, and some of these points may be more or less relevant to different PA roles. The key thing we think you should take away from this discussion is the importance of PAs to communicate with their organisations, put themselves out there, and make their voices heard.

For more information on OpenMeet technology, please contact us here, or visit our blog to read more tips and advice about how to improve audience engagement at your meetings and events. Career development for Assistants: 5 common problems and how to solve them.

Need a fresh start this Easter?

Need a fresh start this Easter?

I don’t know about you, but I love Easter and not just because of the chocolate consumption! For me, I see Easter as the proper start of the year. The first months of the year always fly by in a blur of dark nights, rain and layers of clothing. When Easter arrives, it is warmer, the days are longer, spring has kinda sprung and I can start to think about the year ahead with a little more focus. Easter is as good a time as any to start thinking about your life choices, what you have going on and what you want to achieve for the rest of the year. If you aren’t on the right path now is as good a time to change it as any, right? Do you need a fresh start this Easter? This blog is all about giving you a little inspiration before you head off on the long weekend.

We all have bad days…

But better days are just ahead… Once you’ve finished that second Easter Egg.

The good thing about fresh starts is that they can start whenever you like.

And if you aren’t too sure, fake it till you make it


Or at the very least

Here’s to fresh starts people and lots and lots of hot crossed buns. Happy Easter from Practically Perfect PA.

Day in the life: Donna Lindsay

Day in the life: Donna Lindsay

Today’s Day in the life is with Donna Lindsay, who is a PA with the Scottish Government. Donna recently spoke at the Assist Conference and had loads of advice for the audience on how to deal with confidential matters and remain discrete. Donna also won last year’s Scottish PA of the Year. Here is a day in the life: Donna Lindsay.  

What are the main aspects of your role?

Supporting Senior Management with PA assistance in helping develop legislation for the Scottish Government.


What is your morning routine before you get into the office?

My daughter has a horse so I help take care of ‘Rosie’ and cover the morning duty. I get up at 5.15 am and pull on warm clothes over my PJs. I drive to the stables, feed Rosie, put him out into the field then muck out her stable.  I arrive home about 6.30 am, have a shower, dry my hair, etc. Then make the packed lunches. I do some housework, laundry etc. As I am getting ready and putting on my make-up. I run out to the car about 7.30 am eating my toast!

What time do you get into the office and what time do you leave?

I arrive at the office around 8am and leave around 5pm, I work Flexi hours so it really is dependent on the work and life needs. Flexi is ideal!

What does an average day look like?

The minute I arrive at work I have a quick look at my calendar, then make up my to do list. Working for Scottish Government requires quite a bit of travel between offices so in one day I can be in Ayrshire, Glasgow and Edinburgh. I can honestly say no 2 days are the same. Like all other PA’s I book lunches, travel arrangements, hotels and meeting rooms.   I currently work in an area that deals with ministerial correspondence and court review work so I am involved in drafting responses to the public, solicitors, MSP’s and accountants.  Before I leave the office, I check over my calendar for the next 10 days to ensure I am familiar with not just what is happening tomorrow, but I am also prepared and reminded of what is happening in the near future.

What do you do for lunch?

Some days I eat my lunch on a train if I am travelling but I like it most when I am in my own office and have lunch in our kitchen area with my friends.  I work in a very social team and once a month we go out for lunch which promotes great team building.

What is the hardest part of your day?

Apart from resisting all the cakes and sweets in the office it is probably ensuring that I am managing my time efficiently

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The variety of work and responsibility I have been entrusted with.

What has been your career highlight?

There are several but the main ones are being recognised as the ACES PA of the Year and some stuff I did whilst working as a Customs Officer before being a PA.

What do you do in the evening with your spare time?

I am happiest when hanging around with my children and husband. The family, excluding me, is very sporty so I spend many hours at football matches and horse shows.  We live by the coast and really enjoy the outdoor life.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to other assistants?

Being organised well in advance is the key role. Do not put anything off until tomorrow wherever possible as you have no idea what tomorrow is going to throw at you!

What would you do if you were not an assistant?

I would like to have been a primary school teacher, but now I would say retired!!

What is the one piece of technology, app or website you could not do your job without?


Can you recommend any events, books, publications, websites, training programmes for other assistants?

The 2 conferences I would highly recommend are Assist ConferenceACES Conference. Regarding training I would recommend every PA undertakes time management, assertiveness and minute taking courses.

Using networks to get stuff done

Using networks to get stuff done

Just last week I was reminded how brilliant PAs are at using networks to get stuff done. I’m lucky to be a member of a direct messaging group on Twitter made up of some very awesome and proactive assistants. I was on the website the other day and noticed that I had a load of new messages flashing away. When I took a quick peek I saw that one of the PAs had messaged the others to ask if they knew any courier services that could deliver to Germany over the weekend. It was a bit of a tricky and really urgent request. Within the space of an hour the assistant had the contact details for a courier service and had resolved the issue. I can only imagine how impressed her boss was! It showed me how powerful assistants can be when they tap into their networks. We don’t have the answers to everything (although often our organisations think that we do!) but with the help of other assistants we can basically rule the world! So how do we ensure our networks are there to help us get stuff done? Here are a few tips:

Top tips: Using Networks to get stuff done

Get to know your network

Assistants have access to many networks that can help with various aspects of the role. It is important to get to know the people within the networks. If you can all put a face to a name it really helps. If you can get out and about, attend networking events and get to know other assistants this really helps. If you are more of a social network kinda assistants ensure you like, share and comment on other assistant’s posts. Simply getting to know your contacts will make it easier for you to help each other out.

Give and take – networks need to get stuff from you 

This is really important. If someone in your network asks for help and you can help – do! If you have a great supplier that you can share with your network or any advice, training suggestions or something that you have implemented that works sharing this knowledge don’t hold back from sharing the information. Your network might not need that contact now, but it might come in handy another time. Giving back is the number one rule to networking!

Don’t beat around the bush – get stuff done quickly

We are a busy bunch and I think most assistants would prefer a straightforward conversation. If you need help, ask for it up front. This is one of the reasons we network in the first place! We get asked questions a billion times a day from colleagues so we are pretty used to sharing our knowledge and helping other people out. Don’t be shy! Your network will have the answers and if they don’t, they probably know someone who does!

Don’t rule people out – they have networks too! 

Assistants deal with all manner of issues so actually our knowledge is pretty widespread and our networks can be really big. So don’t rule people out because you don’t think they will be able to help – you never know and it is always worth asking the question. It is also well worth being a little creative with your networks. Try to network with people who might be able to help in certain areas. For example, I always found the post room staff to be incredibly helpful when I needed details for a new supplier – they see parcels, packages and couriers bringing new products in and out of the office all day long. They knew all kinds of stuff!

Assistants are naturally good networks, you might not think it, but we are! The nature of our role means we come in contact with lots of different people, companies and suppliers and we generally are pretty helpful types! So next time you need something remember using networks to get stuff done will help no end.

How to make a bad first impression better

How to make a bad first impression better

Last year I wrote a blog about how assistants should always try to make a really great first impression. You never know who you will end up working with, or for, so it is important that you take the time to make that first contact memorable for all the right reasons. Saying that, everyone has their off days and you can’t be ‘on’ 24/7. We’ve all made bad first impressions. But it is important, especially in business, to be able to make a bad first impression better! Here are a few tips:

Opinions are pretty fluid

People change their mind all the time. Try not to worry too much if you messed up the first time you met someone just try to be a little more like your amazing self the next time you meet them…. And a few more times after that. According to a Harvard study, it will take eight subsequent positive encounters to change that person’s negative opinion of you. So if you really do need this person to think well of you be on tip top form every chance you get in their company. 

Fess up

If you did something really bad when you first met someone then honesty is probably the best policy. Take the person aside, hold your hands up and tell them that you weren’t having the best day and that actually you are pretty ace once they get to know you. Honesty goes a long way so don’t avoid the person for the rest of your professional life. Have a quick conversation, nip it in the bud, fess up.

Follow up with an email

The saying goers ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and in this case you might find it easier to email your way into a better relationship. I can have bad days where I am socially awkward, I think most of us can, but I can be incredibly gregarious over email. Follow up any bad first impression with a lovely email expressing your joy in meeting that person and you might just save the day.

Accept that not everyone is going to like you

Losers! No, seriously, not everyone is going to realise how great you are. Sometimes you have to accept their opinion and move on. They may change their mind once they realise you know everything there is to know about the running of your office, but until then deal with them on a basic level.

Technology of the week: Slack

Technology of the week: Slack

Technology of the week: Slack

What is Slack?

Slack is the fastest growing office application in history. Only in its second year it has over half a million users and is currently doubling its numbers every 3 months. That is a lot of users! Slack is an instant messenger service that allows teams to communicate with each other over a number of platforms (website, phone, tablet etc.)

What does it do?

Organise your team conversations in open channels. Make a channel for a project, a topic, a team, or anything—everyone has a transparent view of all that’s going on. For sensitive information, you can create private channels and invite a few team members to have access. Users can send messages directly to another person or to a small group of people for more focused conversations. You can also take a conversation from typing to face-to-face by starting a voice or video call in any Channel or Direct Message. Make one-on-one or group calls right from Slack without needing to open another app or share invite links. Lastly, users can drag and drop all types of documents to share with other members of staff and colleagues.

Why does it benefit assistants?

Slack is a great addition to email (not alternative) in that it can be used to send quick messages and updates to colleagues, Executives and other members of your team. It integrates with lots of other platforms, including social media, marketing, productivity, CRMs and many others. Users can easily search their archives to find past messages and the app can be downloaded onto your phone and tablet. This is a great way for assistants to keep in touch with their Executives while working remotely and it can be a great way to communicate when working on a team project.

Why is it Practically Perfect PA’s tech of the week?

I have just signed up to Slack to use in the Practically Perfect PA office and so far so good. The Slack blog is also quite helpful for workflow and time management tips.

Managing your boss’s schedule like a mega star

In my mind, the single most important aspect of our role is to save our Executive’s time. Saving our Executive time means they can spend that time on making the organisation more successful. There are loads of different ways we can save our Executive’s time, but I think it all starts with the fundamental task of diary management.

Most assistants manage their Executive’s schedule and most Executive’s live by what is in that schedule. So, if we can take control of our Executive’s diary we can really add value. Here is the Practically Perfect PA guide to managing your boss’s schedule like a total mega star!

Create a routine for your Executive

Who doesn’t love routine. Children absolutely thrive on it and Executive’s are not that dissimilar (*ahem*). It is really important that your Executive starts each day knowing what they have to achieve. If they have a familiar routine each day it means that they can start achieving stuff pretty quickly. I really like the do / build method outlined in this article. Basically, the do / build method means that you block time for ‘doing’ tasks, such as answering emails, attending meetings or writing reports, and you block time for ‘building’ tasks such as training, brainstorming, networking or strategic thinking. Every day your boss should have time for doing and time for building. Ideally, it should be the same time every day.

All well and good you might say, but what happens when you need to schedule an important meeting outside of your Executive’s ‘doing’ hours? Obviously, with any routine you have to be a little flexible. If there is a board meeting that has to be at a certain time you will have to adapt your Executive’s schedule but this should be the exception. You are the gatekeeper of their diary and your job is to aid their productivity so try to stick to the routine as much as you can. There is so much research that suggests routine is the key to good time management. Creating a routine will certainly keep your Executive focused and productive.

Blocking time for specific tasks

Within your Executive’s day to day schedule you should block time for specific tasks. This should be reviewed on a fairly regular basis. For example, they should have time in the morning to review their schedule, this could be on the train into work or it could be over coffee in their office with a do not disturb sign up. This time should be blocked in their diary. They should have time each day to review emails, prepare for meetings, catch up on reading and importantly some time for them to have breathing space (for lunch or just to think things through). These blocks will be at the same time every day so that they do become routine.

Keep meetings to a specific time

Meetings are a necessary part of your Executive’s day, but they should be completely necessary. Before accepting any meeting it is important to understand what the meeting is about. Would a call or email exchange be more time effective? If the meeting should go ahead schedule it in the ‘doing’ block and then specifically in the meeting block. External meetings should be blocked together (one morning per week perhaps) with time added for travelling.

There are recurring meetings your Executive will have throughout the week. Make sure they are at the same time each week and try really hard not to move them. Most meetings should last no longer than 30 minutes. Your Executive’s time is precious, so do try to bear this in mind when people are asking for longer meetings (you know who I mean!) You could introduce stand-up meetings with your Executive’s staff (this will keep things moving along swiftly!)

The Doctor’s waiting room

I don’t know about you, but when I phone up to get a Doctor’s appointment, I am given a time slot and that is that. I can come in and wait during the open hours surgery, but otherwise, I have to take the appointment I am given. Okay, the reception staff at my local GP don’t have the best customer service skills, but I take the appointment I am given without much complaint! Now, I wouldn’t suggest you have an open hours surgery for your Executive but you could block some time for your Executive to have an open door policy that allows people to come in with ideas and a catch up chat. Otherwise, tell your colleagues and clients when your Executive has an appointment available (obviously, give a few options) and stick with that time slot. Your Executive only has so many hours in the day and you should only make appointments that fit in with their routine… Unless it is an emergency!

Email Management

The saying goes that unless you own your emails they will own you. It is really important you do everything you can to reduce the amount of emails your Executive receives in the first place. Once you have control of the inbox, you can schedule time for your Executive to action and reply to the messages.

Work in progress

Your Executive’s schedule is a work in progress and must be accessed on a regular basis. Can you adapt the schedule for certain activities or planned events? Does your Executive need more time for extracurricular activities? Is it working and what isn’t? What can you do to help them save even more time?

You are your Executive’s time manager so make sure you have regular meetings (which you can schedule in their diary) to review how it is going. Getting to a point where you have your Executive in a productive routine takes time but it is worth it. Your Executive will be much better at their job, and you will be a total rock star.

We are thinking about running a one day training event for Personal Assistants on time management and making your Executive more productive. The event will be in London in Summer 2017. Please fill in your details if you are interested in attending.