“We can now be strategic partners, trusted confidants and professional problem solvers”

Ellen Mackenzie, EA to the Shark Tank’s Steve Baxter, and runner up for EA of the Year at the 2019 Executive PA Awards, shares her secrets on exceeding in the EA role.

Ellen Mackenzie was working as a receptionist for an insolvency firm and wasn’t sure where her career would take her. Just out of school and searching for inspiration, Ellen found what she had been looking for while working underneath a PA for one of the firm’s partners.

“She was the partner’s right hand and knew more about the company than anyone. She was the absolute backbone of the company and it was then I decided that a career as a PA or EA is what I wanted to do.”

With her goal in mind, Ellen completed a course in business administration and set her sights on the future. For the next seven years Ellen called big accounting firms home—soaking up all she could and developing her EA fundamentals.

“It was an incredible experience. My time there was extremely valuable, I got to work with the best and I was exposed to various aspects of the business.”

Feeling ready to move on from the world of accounting, Ellen began hunting for a fresh experience. “I was craving something different than accounting and found a job ad that simply said ‘investor looking for PA to run company like well-oiled ship.’”

What seemed like a fairly normal—if a bit snappily written—job listing for a PA, turned out to be the career opportunity of a lifetime. At the other side of the interview table sat Steve Baxter, famous Australian investor, entrepreneur and ‘shark’ on the Australian television series, Shark Tank.

“After my first interview I realised the person who interviewed me was actually somebody fascinating. I really wanted the role and thankfully I got it.”

“EAs are in a particularly unique position to help forge and support the culture of an organisation.”

Now after seven years working with Steve at the helm of his company, Transition Level Investments, Ellen has a depth of experience as an EA and has taken it upon herself to expand the definition of the role.

Taking advantage of new technology, Ellen has been able to automate her lower-order responsibilities so she can focus on lateral thinking and transformed her job to encompass culture, community and events.

“We are now at the point that we can automate the boring tasks through organisational tools, note taking apps, communication platforms—to name a few—and take on bigger things that provide a larger impact for the people we work with.”

“We can now be strategic partners, trusted confidants and professional problem solvers.”

Ellen taking home runner up for EA of the Year at the 2019 Executive PA Awards in Sydney. Photo: Oniell Photographics

In Ellen’s experience, EAs are in a particularly unique position to help forge and support the culture of an organisation.

“These days, to retain the best staff you need to offer more than just salary—people want to enjoy coming to work. The average person spends a third of their life at work. We spend more waking hours with our colleagues than our own family.”

“I work hard on making sure our team feels connected with each other and enjoys coming to the office through small things like good quality snacks or teas, to bigger monthly events such as heading to Zero Latency, popping on VR headsets and killing zombies as a team.”

“I am constantly evaluating what works, what doesn’t and changing things along the way to make sure everyone is happy. Even with no budget, you can have a huge impact on office culture.”

But this expansion of Ellen’s role didn’t happen overnight. As she mastered and automated parts of her job, Ellen went looking for areas where she could add value and make her job more dynamic.

“I was hungry for more and decided to make it happen. I wasn’t overly confident, but there’s an abundance of resources out there like books, magazines, online articles and training courses. I like to jump into the deep end and learn how to swim.”

“I don’t think there are many managers or bosses who would decline someone adding extra value to the company, and in my case, all it took was a simple discussion outlining my plans and reasons, then getting approval.”

Despite her experience and skillset, working as an EA for someone with such a high profile comes with unique challenges, particularly on the fast-paced set of a television series like Shark Tank.

“People are constantly trying to get cold meetings with him and when I say no they launch into their pitch and why Steve should invest in them. They can be quite insistent that they are the next Facebook, Uber or Airbnb and need to meet with Steve urgently.”

“So I need to activate ‘extreme gatekeeper mode’ more often. Otherwise it’s no different from working for anyone else—everyone deserves the same levels of discretion and respect.”

But working with Steve also came with an unforgettable experience and a new avenue for learning.

“I completely loved being on the set of Shark Tank. The days were long and it was challenging being away from the office and home for three weeks at a time. Especially one year when I had my 6-month-old daughter with me.”

“Being a new mum and travelling with a small baby to Sydney and putting her into a totally new daycare, completely out of routine, was intense on top of managing set life.”

Juggling motherhood, show business, a high-profile boss and mastering the EA role is a huge task. It’s hard to imagine how one person can balance all these responsibilities and continue pushing the boundaries. But Ellen’s description of how she makes it all work, drives home a simple fact.

“The way I managed this was the way we all do—you just do it!”

In the end it all boils down to determination. Ellen’s career and success is a testament to the power of dogged motivation. By pushing both herself and her role further, Ellen’s determination has not only had an impact on those she works with, but also to those who look to the EA role as a career choice in years to come.

Nominate for the 2020 Executive PA Awards

Ellen Mackenzie took home runner up for EA of the Year at the 2019 Executive PA Awards for her outstanding professionalism, career achievements and work ethic. Do you know a stand-out EA, boss or employer who deserves recognition? Is that person you? Nominate for the 2020 Executive PA Awards today. Click here.

Transition Level Investments began in 2012 as the investment vehicle for Steve Baxter. They help ambitious start-ups secure investment in early funding rounds, providing both equity and development opportunities through their network.