From Girl Friday to strategic partner

Karen Robinson EA to the CEO Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District "These days, the EA is no longer a support mechanism alone. We’re an integral part of the executive team and it’s us who will know the ins and outs of matters"

In this new series of articles Executive PA Media editor Claire Muir explores the evolution of the high-level assistant with the help of some talented and insightful Executive PA Magazine readers

Karen McDonald, EA to chief executive, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District  

Starting out as an energetic hospital assistant in 1992, Karen ended up in admin after suffering an injury. She progressed from administrative assistant to conference room co-ordinator to corporate records officer to executive support officer. In 2007, she became an EA and hasn’t looked back since.

“Back in 1992, I could never have dreamed of elevating myself to an EA. At the time, I was looking to gain full-time employment and, given my background – I was raised in public housing and we weren’t well off – I didn’t know if even that would happen. But with hard work, opportunities and people having faith in my abilities before I even realised I had any, I’ve gone beyond what I ever felt possible.

“When I first started in admin, we’d not long had computers installed. We barely knew how to turn them on, let alone the abilities they’d have in years to come! Email was not a widely used communication tool for a while and only some people had access to it. We’d type and print memos when communicating throughout the workplace.

Now, of course, we’re available at the touch of a button and forms are rarely paper-based. Our corporate record keeping is now online – previously it was sorted by hand. Diary management is now electronic. Long gone are the days of literally pencilling in appointments! We’ve had to move with the times and the once dreaded technology has shown its real worth – especially during the pandemic. EAs really have adapted to their new surroundings.

“The demands on the role have changed, too. There’s always a level of urgency and response times are short and critical. Researching and retrieving information is at your fingertips – you’re not having to rummage through old filing systems that are unique to the person who filed them at the time.

“Being available around the clock comes with the job of working for a chief exec. When I started, we’d work, for example, from 8am until 4.30pm. We’d sign off and the rest of the day was ours. It’s not that way anymore. Having laptops at the ready means you can work more hours – but we benefit from the flexibility of not having rigid start and finish times. The busyness is still there but being able to use the laptop out of hours helps keep on top of workload too.

“These days, the EA is no longer a support mechanism alone. We’re an integral part of the executive team and it’s us who will know the ins and outs of matters. I’ll often think of things that perhaps my executive hasn’t. I think that’s partly because of the roles I’ve had in the organisation, and the impacts decisions have on people.”