Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

So, what's it really like being a personal assistant?

Take note: Gillian Adams, who is PA to Bill Wolsey, owner of the Merchant Hotel in Belfast
Luxury treats: Gillian enjoys perks at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast
Mean business: a scene from The Devil Wears Prada

A new book about the working lives of personal assistants in the City of London is causing a sensation. Two high-flying Belfast PAs tell Kerry McKittrick what their jobs entail.

Mention the words 'personal assistant' and the image that invariably springs to mind is of a harassed business-suited minion, mobile phone glued to one ear, chasing on the heels of an overbearing boss.

Certainly, the power plays and personality clashes of modern office life are very much to the fore in a new book which has been lifting the lid on the lives of PAs in the City of London. In her self-published book The PA, Victoria Knowles describes how she was treated rudely by bosses and used as a pawn in power struggles, and the book is full of tales of sleazy behaviour and sordid affairs, including finding one boss in a "very compromising position" with a fellow colleague.

While Knowles changed the names of the companies and the main players, it was reported that some former employers and colleagues were contemplating legal action, while others believed she has made a lot of it up.

Likewise, the hit 2003 book The Devil Wears Prada also gave the public a deliciously new villain in Miranda Priestly, editor of a fictional New York fashion magazine, who was portrayed on the big screen by Meryl Streep in the 2006 movie version, launching icy retorts to hapless PA Andy, played by Anne Hathaway.

While such tales are entertaining enough, the reality for most personal assistants has changed vastly within the modern workplace.

No longer are they responsible for filing and typing as in the world of 1950s-set drama Mad Men. Rather, the role is one which requires great responsibility, organisation, skill and tact.

Kerry McKittrick talks to some modern day personal assistants about why they love their jobs.

'I get free massages in the spa if the staff have a training day'

Gillian Adams (43) is married to Sean and they have three children, Josh (22), Charlotte (13) and Ben (10). She live in Bangor and is the Executive Assistant to the Merchant Hotel. She says:

Although my title is Executive Assistant to the Merchant I describe my job as PA to Bill Wolsey, the hotel's owner, as I've been working for him for 17 years now.

I have a social science degree which I got in London after I had my eldest son. We came home and I got a job though a programme aiming to get mature students with children back into the workplace. It was great because I got to learn a lot of skills like doing the Computer Literacy and Information Technology (CLAIT) course and I was also a youth worker in Bangor.

An off-the-cuff conversation informed me that Bill Wolsey was looking for someone. He had just taken over the Cafe Ceol and the Boom Boom Room nightclub in Bangor and his profile had risen a little so he was getting busier and wanting to expand. My first job was between a little office over a shop and the manager's office of Cafe Ceol.

In those days Bill himself didn't have a dedicated office and he still doesn't – even now he still likes to take meetings in the cocktail bar of The Merchant. My job then was as office manager and I looked after the accounts and liaised between managers and head office.

Now my job is certainly office-based and a large part of it is looking after Bill's diary – as the business has grown, he's become busier. I also look after customer service and insurance for the group. Someone once asked me to write my job description and I didn't know how to even start. It is busy, but every day when I wake up I know what will be on my desk to deal with. Mind you that could all go out the window, depending on how the day progresses.

Bill is very happy for his staff to pursue something different within the company. For me, at one point I took up an opportunity to run Cafe Ceol and the Boom Boom Room for a couple of years.

The job has certainly changed a lot over the years. The Merchant Hotel opening was certainly a game-changer because things became a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day operation. Bill never really finishes work, but he's very strongly family-oriented. When I started his sons were at Bangor Grammar, so at 3pm Bill would be at home to welcome them home from school; he would be out looking after the bars from around 8pm so that was his time with the family. Now he has a four-year-old daughter, so he would rather start early at 8am and finish off around 4pm so he can spend time with her. He's called to a lot more functions these days so that works for him.

My day is technically 9am to 5pm, but it's never exactly that. I get my kids to school first and then I'm at my desk by 9.30am. I finish at about 5.30pm and I try to get some fresh air, but there isn't a dedicated lunch hour. I might deal with some emails in the evening – if there's something that I can clear away before the next morning then I'll do it.

I'm the one that people need to get in touch with if they want to see Bill, but the staff in the hotel also do that for me these days – they know Bill too and how he works. I know there's no point in going to Bill without some background information – if there isn't a reason for someone to speak to Bill, then he won't be able to find time to speak to them. He's so busy we really have to manage his time more than ever before.

There are times Bill needs to get a present for someone and he'll get stuck for ideas, but I just point him in the direction of House of Fraser. I watched The Devil Wears Prada and laughed at all the things the assistant does, because we're the opposite of that. That's the beauty of working for a hotel as Bill parks his car, hands the keys to the concierge and uses the hotel for his dry cleaning, so I don't have to take care of any of that.

I do get perks too. All full-time staff must have The Merchant Experience within three months of joining the company.

They go and stay and have dinner so they can talk to potential customers and guests about their experience. I got treated to an overnight stay for my 40th birthday and then sometimes the therapists in the spa are training and need someone to practice on.

I think at this stage if I was going to change career it would be something completely different that would require training to do something else, but you never know what's going to come up!"

'My work is exciting and enjoyable but no two days are the same, challenging doesn't begin to describe it'

Sussanne Gillespie (48), who is single and lives in Belfast, is PA to the heads of regions and the Isle of Man for Marks & Spencer. She says:

I normally work between the Belfast store and the Sprucefield store in Lisburn. I first started working for Marks & Spencer when I was 16 as a part-time job. I left the company to go to university – my degree is in Modern Studies and the Humanities – then I trained to be a teacher, and then worked for an IT company as an administration assistant.

I came back to Marks & Spencer when I was about 27 and I was a mature student at university. I worked in the food hall and then worked in our warehouse in Mallusk. Then I came back to Belfast to work as section manager in Donegall Place and I took the job as PA.

I never set out to be a personal assistant, but after I had done my postgraduate certificate in education the job market wasn't great for teachers.

I decided to pursue a career within Marks & Spencer. The company recruits internally for promotion and every job I've got has been through that.

It's a nice company to work for. You get discounts on clothing and food, and the holidays are good too.

The previous PA took early retirement when I was working in the admin department in Belfast. The job came up and it appealed to me with the skills I already have. I chiefly work with Simon Lucas, the head of regions, and I always work with Mags Dunne, the head of HR business partners. They're the two top people in Marks & Spencer in Northern Ireland.

I generally work from about 8.30am until 6pm, five days a week. Mondays are our reporting day, where a lot of it is spent delivering corporate reports on the facts and figures of the previous week. I can spot any glitches in the system because of my background in IT and finance. A lot of Monday will be spent managing Simon's diary and his store visits as he does that a lot of the time. I also deal with any travel arrangements he would need to get to head office.

He spends a lot of time on the road so we spend a lot of time on the phone catching up on emails. I've worked with him for the last 18 months so I know what's important and what can wait, and what he's able to do while he's travelling. I can reply to a few emails on Simon's behalf and other times I'll compose the email, with him telling me what he wants to say.

We have a monthly meeting and I'll organise the facilities for that and deal with the travel arrangements. I have access to both Mags's and Simon's emails so I'm party to a lot of confidential information that doesn't go any further, and people now know not to ask me about it. It's a bit of a change because I used to talk a lot about my job to people, but now I talk about other things.

I'm the first point of contact for Simon and Mags, I'm like a filter for them – as their time is so precious that part of my role is to make sure that their time is spent efficiently. They need a brief outline, not the ins and outs of what's going on. I love what I'm doing, though. No two days are the same so challenging is one word that doesn't live up to my job. It's exciting and enjoyable, and my two bosses inspire me to come to work and do a good job, so the time flies.

I've never once been asked to do anything that wasn't my job by any of my bosses. If anything I would be the sort to offer to do something to help them out – if I know I'm going to the post office anyway or I'm going past a particular place then I'll offer.

Before this role I would have considered a management role and I wouldn't rule it out, but it's not a burning desire at the moment.

I am highly organised – even outside of work I get the job of organising things. I can type, and though I don't have Pitman shorthand, having worked for an IT company comes in very handy as I have Excel skills and PowerPoint skills. I also keep up-to-date with technology and keep in touch with other PAs in Marks & Spencer over Yammer – it's kind of like a corporate version of Twitter.

I think for the foreseeable future I would like to stay as a PA. In Marks & Spencer the senior managers tend to move on so Simon's the second head of regions I've worked for; while the two people I've worked for are very different, the job I do for them has been quite similar. I can expect a new head of regions in the next couple of years.

I would love the challenge of working for one of our executives, but that's unlikely if I want to stay in Northern Ireland as it would mean relocating somewhere else. And I made the decision to stay here a long time ago. My work-life balance these days is exactly where I want it to be."

Book that lifted lid on being PA in London

Apparently, the newest pastime in the City Of London is to guess the identities of the characters in Victoria Knowles' self-published tell-all book

During her years as a high-level personal assistant in the Square Mile, Knowles worked for three companies – Sir Robert McAlpine, DF King Worldwide and the now defunct M: Communications

Earning more than £45,000, her salary was nevertheless described as 'danger money'. She was the sort of personal assistant who had to meet her boss's every demand and who was on-call 24/7

Inter-office affairs aside, the book describes saucy intercepted emails between a colleague and a woman in Brazil describing various sexual shenanigans. She went on to describe a senior manager – with the pseudonym of Dick – performing a sex act while watching adult material on his office computer. He was separated from her by nothing more than a privacy screen that he had asked her to buy

The office affairs were easy to spot too, as superiors would use their online airline accounts to book flights with colleagues 20 years their junior – and then leave their boarding passes in the printer where others could easily see them

Then there were the bullying bosses, including the one who demanded that her after-work drinks with the other girls in the office would have to stop

Detractors have declared that the book is made up, but Victoria Knowles has firmly stated that every word is true and called the book a tool for PAs – or anyone who has to deal with bullies

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