A personal PA

“My top tip for EAs looking to create a great culture would be ‘never ask anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself.’”

Not your usual high-level EA, Judith Sharon Willett is a personal PA to Lord Harris of Peckham, owner of Harris Ventures Ltd., in Kent in the UK. We catch up with her as she celebrates ten years since being crowned PA of the Year at the Executive PA Media Awards.

Tell us about your career journey to date.

I trained as a secretary at the BBC then moved on another company. At that time there was no such thing as maternity leave, so I was a stay-at-home mum for six years with my two children. I returned to work as a secretary at a brewery based in East London for nine years. Then I started working at Carpetright in 1991 in the buying department. I was offered the role of PA to the chairman and chief executive, Sir Philip Harris. I remained in that role until Lord Harris (he’d been elevated to the peerage in 1996) retired in September 2014. He asked me to go with him and work privately at his personal offices in Orpington, Kent, so I did just that.

How interesting! What are your main responsibilities?

Lord and Lady Harris are exceptional people, and they are extremely generous with their time and charitable donations. My role encompasses every asset of their lives and each day brings along its own challenges. I enjoy all aspects of my job but working on my own initiative is my greatest motivation as it shows the trust Lord Harris has to allow me this freedom.

He is an entrepreneur so has many interests and responsibilities which I am also involved in. He is a director of Arsenal Football Club, for example, which keeps him very busy. His son founded a company (flooring specialists, Tapi Carpets) in late 2014 and although I don’t work for it directly, I get involved with arranging its events and corporate gifting. My love has always been arranging events and I’ve organised some fabulous parties for both the business and the Harris family.

What’s been your favourite event to organise?

I’ve arranged many sales conferences (600+ delegates, so exhausting but very satisfying when it all goes well!) but my highlight would probably be Lord and Lady Harris’ Golden Wedding in 2010 – an extremely special occasion for two special people.

What training and professional development have you undertaken?

My only professional training was at the BBC where I learnt to touch type and do shorthand. Apart from that I am completely self-taught, learning on the job. I’m quite proud that I can use the latest technology as so many of my age group find this a daunting prospect. I suppose I should say that life experience has been my training!

How is the work/life balance?

I have always been treated like part of the family. Lord Harris is very generous and always shows his appreciation for what I do. Our office is very relaxed – everyone works hard but has fun too. Since the pandemic I’ve been working from home two days per week, which suits me travel-wise. My boss knows I’m only a phone call away and I can work as I would in the office.

What about benefits and perks?

Even though I am not actually employed by Tapi Carpets, I’m included as part of the Tapi family and they have recently been developing incentives. The company has introduced ‘Tapi Treats’, which include having your birthday off and, for five years’ service, receiving a £500 Virgin Experience voucher. I was, therefore, presented with my Virgin Experience and I’m using it to have a private dinner with my husband on our 45th wedding anniversary.

Do you have any direct reports?

Not now, but I did in my previous role. They were always extremely supportive and I’m still in touch with them. In fact, my husband and I are godparents to the children of one of them.

Finally, what are your top tips for senior level PAs looking to create a great culture in their organisation?

I would say never ask anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself. Treat everyone equally and as you would like to be treated yourself. Always be an ‘ear’ to listen, take note of any problems or concerns and make sure you act upon them.

Philip Charles Harris, Baron Harris of Peckham (born 15 September 1942), is an English businessman and politician. A prominent Conservative Party donor and is a member of the House of Lords.
Lord Harris is currently an advisor and shareholder of Tapi Carpets, a flooring retailer set up recently by a number of the old Carpetright management team. He was the Chairman of Carpetright plc and has over fifty years’ experience in carpet retailing.