Last year we spoke with Gemma Bennett, EA at Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour Hotel, and runner up for Up and Coming EA of the Year at the 2019 Executive PA Awards. She shares her tips for a good relationship with your executive and the importance of learning and development.
A year after graduating high school, Gemma Bennett was studying a Bachelor of Business Administration in International Tourism and was unsure about what her future career would be. Only 18 at the time, she had no idea what she wanted to do. But when a career advisor recommended that she explore travel and tourism, she didn’t realise the journey it would set her on until many years later.
“My dad was looking through the newspaper one day and said, ‘Oh there’s a hotel opened up close to home, why don’t you go and work there?’ I thought, ‘why not?’ So, I sent them an email and managed to get my paid-industry placement with them. And that was at Q Station retreat, which is a heritage site in Manly,” says Gemma.
“So, I ended up starting a job there as a guest service agent on the front desk. And I worked there for six to seven years as I was still studying. So, I was working casually throughout my studies and then went to American on exchange, came back and continued working there and did a bit of work in sales and weddings as well. And then decided after I’d finished all my studies—I did a second degree in America—I came back and realised I didn’t want to work every single weekend and every single public holiday.”
Luckily for Gemma, there was a full-time role available at the Novotel in Manly, which was still within the same company. So, she accepted a move there and was made group co-ordinator where she was in charge of looking after big group bookings on the accommodation side of things. Gemma worked in this role for two years before deciding to try something new.
“I really got along with the general manager at that hotel and his EA left. The role was executive assistant and guest relations, so kind of half an EA role and half looking after the relationships of the VIPs and other loyalty members. I moved into that role still a little unsure of my career path but as soon as I got into that role, it was like a lightbulb moment and I realised this is exactly what I should be doing. I love it and I’m good at it and it matches my personality and skills to a T,” says Gemma.
Gemma worked in that role for two years until the EA world was flooded with advertisements for the new Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour opening. Being the first new-build hotel in Sydney to open in 20 years, it was a big deal. A bonus for Gemma, it was a flagship of the brand and still within the AccorHotels company.
“I’d seen the job posted and everyone was only talking about how they’d only hire the best. And I just thought there’s no way, of all the EAs that work for the company everyone was going to go for the role, and there was no way that I’d get it. So, I didn’t bother going for it. But then it came up again a couple of months later and I thought, ‘Oh, why not? I’ll go for it.’ Then I ended up getting the role!”
But this new opportunity wasn’t smooth sailing. Without any prior relationships with staff or direction from her boss, it was up to Gemma to rely on her EA instincts to figure out her new role.
“I just … took it upon myself to start setting up absolutely everything from phone lists to committees to mailing lists to every single office system to folders, electronic and hardcopy folders, and then we opened. And here we are two and a half years later, and I don’t really know where those two and half years went.”
Gemma has been flourishing in her latest EA role, and she believes it’s all down to experience behind the front desk way back in her teen years.
“If I didn’t have the operational background and understanding of how a hotel operates, I’d absolutely not be able to provide the support that I do. Coming from some of those entry level positions, there’s obviously quite a big gap between that and the general manager and executive level team. So, I kind of feel like I can bridge that gap because it wasn’t that long ago that I was there, and I understand the systems and the processes,” explains Gemma.
“It has completely had a huge impact on how I do my role. And also understanding what’s important, in terms of communication. It’s very easy for communication to get lost in the hierarchy of things. I’m privy to the high-level visions and goals and strategies and then can ensure that message is getting passed through the levels.”
Gemma’s background in the operations side of the hotel business means she can communicate and provide her executive with a level of understanding that is unique.
“For instance, we get guest complaints coming through to the general manager’s office every day and with my operational background I have the ability to understand those issues and can drill into what went wrong. Then the general manager has to phone that guest and apologise or resolve the complaint, and without that understanding of what has gone wrong he can’t really talk to the guest. So, I’ve found that really helpful to be able to investigate and understand what’s gone wrong, what the issue is, and what we need to fix.”
And while her opinion is always welcome, a good relationship between an EA and their executive doesn’t appear overnight.
“I think it takes a while to build an understanding of your executive, and that trust and respect. And I think he knows that I would never give him information that I didn’t feel was of high importance. Just through time, experience and that mutual respect and trust. Everything I feel the need to be vocal about is received in a serious manner.”
But that level of communication and trust hasn’t always been expected of EAs. Gemma believes that the role has shifted from the preconceived idea of EAs as a gatekeeper, someone that answers the phone and schedules the diary. It’s changed into something that’s like a business partner and someone that can be there to bounce ideas off. These days, EAs must have an understanding of their executive’s goals and vision, KPIs, and changing priorities to understand and provide the best possible support.
“Often, he bounces ideas off me and asks for my feedback on certain things. I can absolutely disagree with him and he definitely appreciates that. So, I think it’s become more of a partnership/confidant type role. Not in all cases but that’s definitely what people look for in EAs more so than maybe 10 years ago when it was much more traditional.”
But with more trust, comes more responsibility. And for an EA, dealing with a crisis is a regular occurrence. Whether it’s a serious crisis like the bushfires or coronavirus, or someone double booking the meeting room, EAs must know how to handle crises under pressure.
“I think I’m lucky to have a background where I automatically know who to contact and who to communicate with straight away and who to escalate it to. And working with the same general manager for the last two years I have a complete understanding of how he works and his reaction to everything. So, it’s really good to have that understanding so you can get on the front foot and start implementing things before he’s even alerted.”
Gemma is an ambitious young woman who’s found her place in the world; being an EA is her calling. While she’s happy with her position, she’s always striving to develop her skills and grow as an EA—something that is usually an individual effort in this particular industry.
“For me, developing is something that’s really important and if I don’t keep learning then I’m going to get bored and lose motivation. I think as an EA you really need to take control of your own learning and development because it’s not really the focus of your boss. Your boss has much bigger priorities than your development. You really need to take control of that yourself,” says Gemma.
As someone who holds development highly, Gemma has big plans for the future.
“For the moment I absolutely love being an EA and I can’t foresee myself doing anything else … I think for me the next step would be … to work in our corporate offices for Accor hotels and support the COO of the Pacific region. That’s a role that I have been trying to get myself into for the last year or so. And I’m now using the person who’s in that role currently, and has been in that role for 13 years, as a mentor.”
In 2019 Gemma was recognised as the runner-up Up and Coming EA of the Year at the Executive PA Awards and she highly recommends nominating either yourself or your EA.
“I didn’t expect to be a runner-up and it was exciting to be recognised. I’ve been recognised within Accor Hotels for other awards, but they’ve all been hotel specific. So, to be recognised on a level that wasn’t industry specific was super exciting and I think it was really good exposure,” says Gemma.
“You have nothing to lose and the exposure is great. It’s a fantastic evening, very inspiring, and you can learn from other EAs. It gives the EA role a little bit more recognition and it helps people perceive the role in a greater light. I think we can easily be forgotten and it’s important to recognise the success of other EAs and the work that we’re doing.”
Since our chat, Gemma has been working hard on her self-development as an EA and she’s excited to announce a new adventure in the AccorHotels corporate office supporting the Senior VP Commercial, Pacific.
“Given the challenges of this year, especially for hospitality, it’s some good news for me and I’m excited to stay working for the same company.”