After many conversations during The Assistant Room networking events, more glasses of wine than we can count and multiple emails spanning 6 months, it’s a sunny Monday morning in July when Kathryn Wolstenholme and I finally manage to settle down to chat through her incredible career as an EA. With an infectious smile and one of the warmest personalities in the industry, taking a deep dive into Kathryn’s experience from her first role at Hard Rock International through to now EA to CTO, CFO, CPO & CPeO at Farringdon based print and design company, MOO, was the perfect way to start one of the hottest weeks of 2018 off.
TAR: Hey girl! We finally managed to pin each other down, the impossible has been achieved! Let’s jump straight into everything and chat through your career from your first support role at Hard Rock International through to your current position as EA at MOO.
*We have a giggle and give ourselves a pat on the back for making it to this point!*
KW: Great! Ok, my career is a bit of a roller coaster to be honest so grab a cup of tea and hold on tight! It seems like a lifetime ago but I was fresh out of Secondary School having finished my A-Levels, and with a lot of encouragement from my Mum, sought out to get some work experience while waiting for my Foundation course to start in Theatre Design. I had some connections at Hard Rock Cafe London so I got in touch with them and started helping out in their sales and marketing team covering basic office admin tasks over the Summer. After my Foundation course I eventually accepted a full time role with Hard Rock supporting their European Headquarters. There are about 25 European Regional Managers, the area Vice President and various other staff in their office, and as the only admin, there were a lot of different things to get involved with. My role consisted of front of house duties, travel management, office management and everything else in between. Even though I hadn’t really settled on a career at that point, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with establishing a great admin base so I jumped at any extra work I could get. This included getting involved with operational roles on large events, through to patching in phones and computers to the server room which any Office Manager out there will tell you is not a fun job!
When I left Hard Rock, to be honest I was trying to find myself as well as finding the career I wanted to focus on. I jumped through various industries trying to find what was right for me from serviced offices to tv production and then started at Softwire in 2015, where I was accountable for managing an administration team. I am now at MOO which is a great place to work, we have a team of around 500 employees across 6 locations which means there is never dull day in the office!
TAR: It sounds amazing and the company looks so much fun to work for! This campaign (the PA Diaries) is such a wonderful thing for us to be able to get to know other PAs and learn from their experiences. You seem very happy where you are at the moment.
KW: Although MOO originates from London and our HQ is still here, our largest customer base is in the US so some of your readers may not know much about us. MOO has been around for a while but it’s great to see the company grow more and see people recognising the products we have, which are premium but also accessible to a mass market. It is so important to be passionate about where you’re working as well as for the people you work for.
*We talk more about how invested Kathryn is in the business and how important it is as an EA to see yourself as a pivotal member of the Executive team in order to drive the business forward in a commercial sense*
TAR: I totally agree. Working with a group of Executives who work on an international basis must come with its challenges. How do you find working with them when they travel?
KW: Our Execs travel around 2-5 times each, per year, depending on business. I have worked for other companies who have an international base as well as a UK base and it is definitely the case of dealing with two different animals. When you are working with Execs who aren’t from the UK, their needs and requirements can be different to those in London. I have found that American Executives like an EA who can be on top of their calendar, reminding them when they are running late or when they have two minutes before their next meeting but are still at their desks, dropping them quick emails to hurry them along. Whereas most London based Execs (in my experience) tend to be more self-sufficient in that respect. As long as you organise their calendar, they will generally live by that. It’s small intricacies that you might not notice at first but I find that it’s really valuable to have that knowledge across different cultures and working styles.
TAR: If you were to look back to your time studying musical theatre, did you ever consider being an EA as a long term plan for a career in comparison to your initial plans?
KW: At that point in time no. When I was studying, I was making costumes which I really enjoyed but I soon realised through that course, that I was actually making a lot more clothes for myself rather than the models. I did and still do love musical theatre and decided to chase my dream at that point in time. Looking back, I don’t think I can imagine doing anything else now other than being an EA. I truly love my job and to think that I am able to make an impact on a business and make someone’s life easier means a lot to me. I am a natural born organiser and that follows through in everything I do in life. Like The Assistant Room says, being an EA is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle choice and for many of us, our job really does carry through our entire life.
TAR: Do you think that the resilience you learnt during your studies in musical theatre has contributed to you as an EA and enabled you to work at the standard you do?
KW: 100% yes. Experiencing the knock backs and being told I wasn’t right for parts I auditioned for, really built my resilience and taught me not to take things personally. When you work with an Exec that has a back to back calendar, you aren’t always going to be able to get time with them when you need it and you can’t take that personally. It’s about understanding their priorities and feeling sure in the knowledge that you will get time with them. That resilience has definitely helped when it comes to understanding that.
TAR: Thinking back to Softwire, you were in charge of an admin team consisting of six team members. What advice would you give to a PA/EA who is about to take on a similar responsibility within their office?
KW: Try and think about the type of manager you want to be. As an EA we can be very task focused but managing people is completely different. You have to be able to delegate without telling someone what to do and how to do it. You have to empower them and give people the freedom to do the job they are employed to do. As an EA it can be difficult to relinquish that control to someone else and say ‘ok, we’ve been given this task but you’re going to do it’ and understand that they are going to do it their own way. One style doesn’t fit all and adaptability in your management style will really help to achieve great work from your team. We are all people and a great skill that good EAs have is emotional intelligence which we should use to our advantage. Work out what motivates your team, try to empower them, hold them accountable as well as yourself and be adaptable to get the most out of them. One of the most valuable tools is feedback, not just from the person managing you but also from the people you are managing. Feedback has been invaluable in helping me to understand if something isn’t working the way I thought it should or was. It can be quite difficult for someone reporting to you to step up and say something isn’t right, however if you approach the matter in a constructive way and then ask for honest but fair feedback from everyone, it can be a huge help. Lastly just trust yourself. If you haven’t managed people before it can be really daunting especially if you’re thrown into the role, but it’s about trusting your own ability and remembering that the person who has given you that responsibility has chosen you for a reason. It’s something I struggled with at the beginning so I looked to find any online training or advice I could get. There is a reason you have been asked to take on a management role so trust that decision and just go with it. When I took on the role of manager, I tried to think about previous managers I had and the good qualities that they had. If you don’t have that person, networking and mentors can be a great way to get some extra advice and input. Simply meeting people and bouncing ideas off of someone is great so if you have the opportunity to find a mentor, definitely take it.
TAR: You obviously love working for MOO and as someone who works in a creative environment, what do you find are the biggest challenges you come face to face with and how do you overcome those issues?
KW: Anyone who works in the creative industry will know that creatives are some of the most inspiring, exciting and fun people to work with, but when they are brainstorming that next big idea, sometimes dreams can overtake logistics. Anyone reading this will know that as an EA, attention to detail is one of the greatest attributes you can have, so it can be really challenging to be the only one in the room thinking, ‘how can we actually make this work?’ You never want to be negative and pull an idea apart so I will always try and plan in advance. If I know my Execs are going to be getting excited and talking about the next big idea in a room, I will build in some buffer time in their calendars so they don’t have to rush to the next meeting. This means they can really go with that process, build on it and make amazing things happen.
TAR: It sounds like you have it pretty much under control. Have there been any standout moments where you’ve thought ‘oh my god I haven’t ever had to deal with this before’ and sort it out yourself without any guidance?
KW: Definitely! When I was working as PA to the MD at Softwire, we had someone who was looking after the organisation of the annual conference who unfortunately handed in her notice in during the planning process. There was no one stepping up to the plate to take the responsibility of the event so I took on the project. It was a huge amount of work and a lot more than I expected at the time – a weekend away for 200 people meant booking flights, airport transfers with babies, speaking and negotiating with Spanish restaurants which was interesting as I am not multilingual! I spent my time booking activities for the attendees and making sure everything was going to run smoothly. It was a huge challenge but I took it all in my stride, made sure I was fulfilling my day to day duties and it all ended in a great success.
*We chat through some of the more funny requests we have both had to deal with as PAs in the past especially when it has come to dealing with UHNWI and private duties*
KW: In another of my previous roles I was supporting a Vice President and we had a big conference going on in the office. We only had one filter coffee machine in the building so I came into the office at 8.30am to fill the coffee decanters however they didn’t fit under the spout. I was literally filling the decanter one cup at a time. In the afternoon he came to my desk and mentioned that the following morning, we needed Starbucks to fill the decanters rather than topping them up cup by cup. I knew straight away this wasn’t possible so I had a look online at different options and put my proposals to him later that day. His response was ‘no, I want you to go to Starbucks and get them to fill the big decanter for us’. I explained that this was unlikely but let me check, it will be fine and I’ll figure something out. I went to Starbucks, Pret and Costa and unsurprisingly they were not able to do it. The following morning I went back to the coffee machine as I had done before, filled the decanter with individual cups and placed it in the meeting room. It was absolutely fine, no questions asked, he didn’t know any different and we went on with our lives. It’s those irritating requests that you know are not possible to make happen yet they won’t believe you so you just have to come up with the next best option.
*We talk and giggle about the similarity of the PA role to the YouTube video where the Australian couple argue about untidiness, with the man in the sketch showing his partner the ‘magic table’ where any rubbish or washing he leaves there, has mysteriously disappeared the next morning*
KW: But it’s so true! It is such a funny video and so similar to how people sometimes look at us as PAs. They think things just happen! It’s about us having confidence in ourselves as professionals and in the profession itself to be strong in what we are able to achieve according to requests. We’re not the secretaries from the 50’s, typing away on a keyboard – there is so much more involved in the work we do. When working for multiple Execs I don’t think even they realise the amount of work we are coping with and the things we are just making happen. To them it just happens and it all magically comes together, the calendar fairy waves their wand and makes their day perfect which is not as easy as it sounds!
TAR: Going back to your experience from Uni to MOO, you mentioned that you wanted to get as much experience as possible, finding your feet in different industries to understand where you really wanted to focus on your career and where you could make most impact. You have amazing cross sector/industry experience which is so valuable when it comes to learning how to deal with different people and learning new skills professionally and personally, however some PAs think that having multiple jobs on your CV can be off putting to future employers. What advice would you give to people who feel their CVs contain too much information/too many roles to be taken seriously by a future employer?
KW: I completely understand those concerns and it’s a question I have asked myself so many times. I have been told by recruiters on multiple occasions that I don’t have any longevity and I don’t have this or that. I think it’s important to focus on the skills you have that the employer is looking for. Really filter through your experience, look at the work you have done and then highlight things that are relevant in the job spec which match. As for too many roles, I truly believe there is something to learn from every experience in life and as much as we all go to work to earn money, we take a role to grow. If you’re in an environment where you can no longer do that then maybe you’re in the wrong job. As long as you are able to stay confident in your knowledge and experience you can bring to an employer then that’s what really matters. All of my past experience has only made me focus more on my passion as an EA and showing that passion and drive to keep progressing in your career really shows that you are serious about the role. When I was responsible for hiring people at Softwire and looking at CVs you can tell when people have gone into a role, stayed within the box of their job spec and not looked to develop their skills or grow in the role. They the leave that role and repeat that behaviour in another company. Whereas there are other people who have gone to a role, really taken as much as they could from it and then used their experience in their next position and then further grown and carried that on through the rest of their career. Growth and learning is so important to become a great PA/EA and is something we should all embrace.
Photo credit – With thanks to Rob Wilson | insta/robwilsonphoto | web/robwilsonphotography.co.uk