“The more evolved we become in our roles, the more respect we will get. Half of that is on you”

Natalie Kennefick, EA to Head of Mass Market Retail Channels at Optus and winner of Up and Coming PA of the Year at the 2018 Executive PA Awards, is a stalwart character. Speaking with Chief of Staff’s editor Bennet Nichol, Natalie shares how she has forged her career through hard work, determination and confidence.

Natalie Kennefick has put in the hard yards to develop her administrative career. From humble beginnings at her mum’s office while still in high-school, and now the EA to multiple senior managers at Optus in Sydney, Natalie has a wealth of experience to draw from. I interviewed Natalie after she won Up and Coming PA of the Year at the 2018 Executive PA Awards to discuss what wisdom she had learned from her career so far.

Natalie started working in offices while she was still in school and helped out where she could. “I’d meet my mum in her office and I’d do a bit of data entry and filing and things like that,” remembers Natalie.

From there, Natalie went on to chase bigger adventures and expand her skills in a variety of roles. “I started working in offices in Sydney. I started in a team assistant role, and then I progressively moved up into admin manager, then office manager.”

With a diploma in HR, Natalie was at an impasse. Looking to move into recruitment, suddenly her aspirations changed. “I got my job as an EA at Optus. It wasn’t a conscious decision, I found the admin side of things almost second nature. It was either going to be HR or EA, so I went for the EA.”

I asked her if she was happy with that decision. “Oh, definitely. There is so much more to it than what most people think. It’s encompassing and challenging in a way that I never thought it would be. I definitely don’t regret my decision.”

Now a fully fledged EA, Natalie has a breadth of experience in the field, and at one time was working for four managers at once. I wanted to know how she balanced the interests of so many people simultaneously—surely each manager had an urgent schedule and immovable meetings.

“It was all about managing expectations,” said Natalie. Managing four bosses was a delicate exercise of making sure everyone knew where they stood, but it was also an opportunity for Natalie to expand her knowledge.

“One of my managers at the time was doing a transformation of Optus, shaping the way the company was going. So I learned a lot that way. It’s not insider information that I’ve picked up, it’s more about learning the day to day workings of each department as much as you can so you can take the knowledge of each department with you if you want to progress or move into a different role. You’ve got to have an understanding of how the business works.”

With this knowledge, not only was Natalie able to become more flexible within Optus, but she was also able to approach managers with confidence when she wanted to give advice or question something. And not just privately, Natalie occasionally raises her queries in front of the whole company.

“I’m very open. If I have something on my mind, or I have an opinion on something that’s happening in the business, I will raise it. We do a weekly forum with the whole company at Optus. My team always laughs when I get up, and are excited to see what I have to ask, because they know other people won’t do it. They talk amongst themselves, whereas I’ll get up on the microphone in front of a thousand odd people and ask my question.”

But her approach is not simply a stubborn confidence, Natalie has worked hard to develop open and trusting relationships with her managers, which she knows makes her much more productive.

“I try and build a relationship with my manager where I feel I can openly ask questions, give feedback or an opinion,” Natalie contends.

I also wanted to know how Natalie thought the EA role had progressed. Her own career experience has seen the job develop and grow, and I was curious to see if her opinion, or the opinions of others on her role had changed as well.

“I thought people saw EAs as a work-wife. Or a guardian and a gatekeeper. I know a lot of people don’t know what an EA is—they think we just manage emails and dairies. I’ve actually found it really heart-warming when people in Optus come up to me and say ‘I could never do what you do. You run this place.’”

“I think the more people work with EAs, they understand that we are not limited to things like expenses and travel. They understand that we are more integrated into the team and the business. We have our fingers on everything. We know what is going on along all different paths and departments,” Natalie continues.

With this in mind, Natalie has kept pushing her own role forward and striving for more responsibility and a deeper understanding of the organisation.

“I’ve agreed with one of my bosses to be sent out to our regional areas so I can find out what our regional reps do. I see all their expenses and travel requests, but I don’t really know what they are doing out on the road all these days. Now I can take on more responsibility, my manager isn’t going to be bombarded by emails because I can give answers to people.”

However, these opportunities didn’t fall into Natalie’s lap. She sees herself as the one responsible for developing her role, and thinks that EAs are in a unique position to ask for more.

“The more we get involved and the more evolved we become in our roles, the more respect we will get. Half of that is on you. You need to step up and show that you want to do it, and the other half is having a relationship with your manager where they can give you that responsibility with confidence. A lot of managers are afraid to hand off things, so there needs to be trust,” Natalie said.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Natalie to reflect on her awards night experience, and asked her what it felt like to be the Up and Coming PA of the Year for 2018.

“I’d met all the other nominees earlier in the day, and when it came down to me and one other person, I turned to my mum and said ‘I’m not winning this’. I’d met her earlier in the day, and she was super professional, really well-spoken and presented. When my name was called out I nearly passed out. I was so excited,” Natalie remembers.

“I found it really eye opening, and enjoyed being able to sit there and talk with other EAs about the things that they do. It was all about learning how to better myself, so I can in turn go and tell other EAs the same thing.”

Optus is the second largest telecommunications company in Australia. Optus owns and operates its own network infrastructure and provides internet, mobile services, home phones and cable television to millions of Australians. Optus employs more than 8000 people and has a national retail store network that provides services and support
to customers.