Overcoming two years of change, adaption and challenges with Sue Spink

“Be curious. Learn about the company you’re in, understand other peoples’ roles and don’t sit in a bubble.”

From suddenly co-managing a team of 17 while doing her day job to rapidly transitioning to a pandemic-induced way of working, it’s been two years of change, adaption and challenges for former Executive PA of the Year Runner Up, Sue Spink. A business assistant at Arup in Leeds, UK, she tells us more…

Let’s rewind – tell us about your career journey to date…

I started my working life after leaving college with some secretarial qualifications. I was offered the role of office junior/trainee accounts clerk at a house builder, which was the best foundation to office/admin anybody could have had. Being able to clearly see all the steps in the process of how a house is designed right up to it being sold and beyond gave me a really solid basis on which to build my career on – of course, I didn’t realise it at that point.

I sort of worked up to the assistant role – but a bit of right-place right-time helped, too. I’d done some assistant-type work and my organisational skills were clear to see so when I moved companies and began a team secretary role that included PA support to the team leader, it just worked. Later, I moved departments and became second in command to the CEO’s PA before being tipped off from a former colleague about a role at their company – PA to a director. Off I went and here I am, 17 years later!

What are the most important parts of your role?
All of it! My ‘core title’ is business assistant and in our company that’s like an EA i.e., partnering and strategic thinking, as well as the usual skills of diary and inbox management, etc. I support two directors – one has a remit for 500+ people across five offices and the other runs an £80 million portion of the overall business. I’m part of the director’s leadership team, too. Arup is a real advocate for wanting its support staff to get involved; to have a voice and to be curious about the business. 

I also co team-lead the business support team in Leeds. And there are lots of other ‘extra hats,’ from being a brand ambassador (ensuring people are using our brand correctly and consistently and answering any queries about it) to supporting with the organisation of large-scale events.

Ultimately, my role is a minute-by-minute prioritisation and re- prioritisation of whatever is happening at the time. Managing the team and supporting two busy directors means its constantly shifting sands. Flexibility and agility are required in great quantities!

What’s your favourite thing about working for your company?
There are so many things I like and love about working for Arup. One is that the organisation is employee-owned, so everything we do is for us. In other words, we need to put energy and effort in to get success and job satisfaction out.

I also love the people. Everybody is friendly and inclusive. My colleagues are experts in their discipline but love sharing their knowledge so it’s a really collaborative environment and a great place to learn something new every single day.

Not forgetting the projects we work on – they’re inspirational and often innovative with sustainability being a key factor.

To what extent is there flexibility in terms of where, when and how you work?

Arup recently launched its ‘Word Unbound’ initiative, a hybrid work model that allows UK employees to choose their working days across a seven-day week. I feel really lucky to work for such a forward-thinking company.

What are some of your career highlights?
I was nominated for Executive PA Media’s PA of the Year a few years ago.  I got runner up, which was a great honour. The award resides in my sitting room with pride of place on a shelf! More recently, I achieved my Chartered Manager status with the Chartered Management Institute. I’m really proud of this – and grateful to Arup and my manager for supporting me through the process. 

What training and professional development have you undertaken in your career?
Too much to list! But I’d say that over the years I have balanced formal training, when applicable, with a lot of self-led learning. I think it’s important to balance the two.

What motivates you?

Aside from coffee and biscuits (!), helping others see their own potential then watching them put it into practice and really grow and flourish.

What advice do you wish an established assistant could have given you at the outset of your career?
Going back to the early 90’s when we were usually called secretaries and I’d just left college, I would have said this can be a career. At the time I saw it as a job – something to do until something else came up. But it turned out I was pretty good at it and wish I’d realised that a bit sooner.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the role?
Firstly, communication is key! Secondly, be curious. Learn about the company you’re in, understand other people’s roles and jobs, absorb the information and don’t sit in a bubble.  Your role will mean so much more to you if you know the context of it – and you’ll become valuable to others if you have knowledge they can tap into. All round that makes for job satisfaction!

How do you see your role progressing?

Having just achieved Chartered Manager status, I hope to be able to move forward with more training in managing people and coaching/mentoring, whilst continuing to support my busy and business-critical directors. I just want to do my best no matter what role I’m in.

If you could change one thing about the assistant role, what would it be?
As a profession, I think we are most proficient in soft skills – but those are hard to quantify, especially in a commercially-driven world.  So, I think it would be that we are recognised more for just how valuable those soft skills can be. 

Finally, tell us a little about Sue out of work…

I live in West Yorkshire with my husband, our cat, Purdy, some tropical fish, pond fish and a rescue turtle! I have a geeky fascination for family history and a more recent ‘hobby’ has been volunteering at a local cats’ protection re-homing centre. It’s taught me a lot about cats… And people! Finally, I’m a bit of a back-seat ecologist – I love nature, trees, animals, birds everything fauna and flora.