Cathryn Smith, PA at WSP, is a highly experienced assistant, having been in the role since she left university – but a mid-pandemic acquisition pushed her firmly out of her comfort zone. We found out more…
How did you become an assistant?
Whilst at school, I decided to take a secretarial course so I could take on temporary roles to help pay for university. I completed my journalism degree but for various reasons decided that it wasn’t something I wanted to progress. I had been temping for various companies and one made me an offer to continue working for them as an assistant – but also doing their marketing to use my degree. So, my first PA role was my first full-time job outside of university.
What are your main responsibilities now?
My role is a bit of a hybrid – as I have a professional qualification in my industry, a certain percentage of my time is spent as a project manager. In terms of the assistant role, it has never been very traditional and has always been more on the strategic side, assisting with the running of the business rather than dictation and meeting bookings.
How has your role at WSP evolved?
In 2019 the company I had worked for for the previous 15 years was acquired by a multi-national firm. There were huge challenges during the acquisition which really pushed me out of my comfort zone, assisting the finance and HR directors with shareholdings, novation of clients, internal communications and much more. The acquisition was completed just two months before the pandemic hit and so it was a bit of a perfect storm. There were new systems and procedures to learn but we were having to do it remotely and on our own. I was the first port of call for a lot of people to talk through their problems and issues, and my role over the past couple of years has been around helping the team integrate into the new business. I need to ensure they understand the new systems whilst being able to do their day-to-day jobs.
What are the most important parts of your role?
I think it’s the softer side of the job that’s the most important. Knowing that you’re a safe pair of hands who can be left to get on with a task, being a sounding board for decisions and tough days. These are all the things that they probably don’t even realise they need, but if they didn’t have them, life would be much tougher.
What skill or technology do you rely on most to do your job?
If you’d have asked me this a couple of years ago, I would probably have had a very different answer. Now, I can honestly say I don’t know how we would have coped during the pandemic without Teams. I can’t say I enjoy sitting on video calls all day (and am very glad more face-to-face meetings are coming back) but I think life would have been much harder without it.
How do you find the work/life balance?
The pandemic really affected my work/life balance as it’s difficult to know when to log on and, more importantly, when to log off when you’re on your own at home every day. Putting in boundaries has helped. When I’m working at home, I make sure I take some time at lunch to go out for a walk and have a defined logging off time. I’m one of those people who is much more productive in the office, so I’m back in four or five days a week. I think it’s very easy when you’re an assistant to believe you’re at someone’s beck and call 24 hours a day, and it takes experience and discipline to not answer emails out of hours. It’s something I’m getting better at but I’m not quite there yet.
What training and professional development have you undertaken in your career?
I’ve spent the last few years learning more about strategic management and leadership as being an EA and PA is now more about being part of the running of businesses, rather than the traditional secretarial tasks. With my journalism background, I’ve also run writing skills training courses for the past 15 years. It’s always great to get feedback from people and see them take on board some of the skills and techniques.
What advice do you wish an established assistant could have given you at the outset of your career?
Have confidence! However flustered or stressed you might be, don’t let other people see it. Find that one colleague you can trust so you can bounce ideas off them, go to them for advice and, most importantly, let them talk you down from the ceiling when you need it! Also, find the boss who trusts you implicitly and it will be the most rewarding role you’ll ever have.