Abigail Jones, mentor, coach and currently Executive Assistant to the CEO at renowned beauty brand, ghd. There aren’t many people in life you meet who hold your full attention from the moment they walk into the room to the moment they leave and true advocates of the PA profession are very few and far between. With Abigail, after just one meeting, you are left feeling enlightened, encouraged to exceed your own expectations of your own skills and as though you have made a friend who will forever have your best interests at heart.
A PA Diary to remember, enjoy!
The Assistant Room: With close to 20 years experience as an EA working across a variety of sectors, including the arts, media, charity, banking, law, fashion and luxury beauty, you are now the EA to the CEO of ghd. Talk us through the journey you have been on and how you have changed and evolved as a professional throughout your career.
Abigail: I originally started working in museums for galleries after my three degrees in History of Art. My first job was as a Press Assistant/PA and from that, I made the decision to pursue being an assistant as a career so I started working as a PA in different art institutions before moving into the charity sector. I realised that I needed a lot of experience from different sectors as I wanted to be able to work my way up the career ladder quickly. I didn’t have any formal training but I had taken a touch-typing course in sixth form which is probably the most useful thing I’ve ever learnt *we giggle* and is a skill I use today.
In 2008 when the UK entered recession, I found the first thing companies did was to let go of their admin staff and the second thing they did, was to hire the same people back on temporary contracts. This worked in my favour as I spent the following year working in different industries that were previously closed to me due to my background in arts and charity. I was able to gain experience working in property, banking, pharmatech, medical, commerce, retail and I worked my way up very quickly to more senior positions.
Soon after, I became the EA to the CEO of a global company before moving to a more senior role as EA to CEO at LOréal. I was then headhunted by AMEX, before working at a law firm and then back into fashion. Now, I work at ghd.
When I look back to when I started my career in my early 20s, I see a lot of differences between the person I was then, to who I am now. Professionally, I have more knowledge, more patience and I am calmer. Problems and crisis don’t panic me because I have had enough experience to be able to predict and react to different situations which is a vital skill to possess as a successful PA.
The Assistant Room: You are now working for one of the most famous hair brands in the world which was founded in 2001 and has just celebrated its 17th birthday. As an EA, how important do you feel it is when working at C-Suite level, that you are able to align your own values with that of the company and how much do you feel it directly impacts your on success level within that role?
Abigail: I think that with any job, there has to be enough of you, that aligns with the company and its brand values to make it tolerable but, that is not to say that you have to lose yourself in the total immersion of company values.
I like ghd because I know the brand as a consumer, I have experience in the fashion and beauty industry professionally and I like the direction that the company is going in its innovation and its leaders are exciting and dynamic.
I think it’s more important that you’re able to align a working style to the person you support which in my case is the CEO. It is the main reason why having an interview or some form of meet and greet with the person you will be supporting during the interview process is so crucial. You have to have enough of a rapport to know that your working style is going to be complementary to each other.
My CEO and I are both on the same page. I align my professional support to his values which reflects the values of the company and in turn enables us to both be more successful as individuals and as a team. He’s very supportive of my career and gives me plenty of autonomy with the desire to establish and maintain a good working relationship.
On a personal note, I’m very happy to align my hair values to the brand and use the products and take advice from the resident stylist to up my A game!
The Assistant Room: You have had the most incredible career working within some extremely demanding environments. How have you seen the role of the PA/EA change and what are the key challenges you feel our industry is going to face in the coming years? What hope do we have of overcoming those challenges?
Abigail: The role of the PA/EA has changed from the stereotypical idea of the executive secretary in the ‘60s to becoming far more formalised and recognised in its own right as a career path. More men are entering a traditionally female dominated profession but, on the flipside, we still don’t have as many female CEO’s as there are males. The EA or PA is no longer just admin, but it can have roles in office management, project management, HR, finance, the list is endless. It also means that EA’s and PA’s can move across from one role to another more easily as the skills they have are easily recognisable as transferrable.
Crucially as well, I think that we’re very influenced by American business and one of the roles that I see admin moving into, is Chief of Staff. I’m coaching a couple of EA’s at the moment for whom that will be the next stage in their career and I think that is something that not everyone has clocked onto yet but it’s coming.
Another big challenge is keeping up with all the tech advancements and changes and I think the industry will see a greater upsurge of virtual assistants and people are going to have to adapt to that. Now more than ever, continued professional training and development for support professionals is absolutely crucial. Imagine the millennials when they enter their 40’s and 50’s, they are going to be able to provide support that is adaptable and flexible as there are younger people entering the industry now as career-focused EA’s and PA’s. The people who can’t or won’t adapt are going to get left behind because they aren’t going to be able keep up with the Insta blogger, Snapchatting, multitasking, multi hyphenated people that can do everything themselves anyway.
The Assistant Room: You are an extremely busy lady with not only your EA role and career to keep you occupied but also your coaching and mentoring business aimed towards admin professionals. Do you think that Assistants generally give themselves enough credit for what they do and if not, why?
Abigail: That’s a very interesting question. I think it’s really tied into general politics and cultural definitions as well. I don’t think it’s an easy one but I would say assistants usually don’t give themselves enough credit and what’s even worse is other people don’t give us enough credit either.
Culturally we’re not used to blowing our own trumpet. As a large portion of the industry is female, I think women are less inclined to identify areas of self-praise because we are not taught as men are, to boast about ourselves and make our achievements known. If a guy walks into a pub, within five minutes you know every single amazing thing he’s ever done. We are less good at negotiating pay rises, interviewing aggressively and being more forceful in what we want and what we know we deserve.
I also think that practically, we’re probably too busy to dwell on our success because we move so quickly onto the next thing without really acknowledging what an amazing job we are doing. Therefore, consequently, no one else does it for us either, because that becomes the standard. Your high, excellent service level becomes the base norm. I always tell people to place a folder in their inbox where any email you receive that commends you doing a great job. Or if you email yourself reminders of successful meetings, events or organisational cost savings that you made, which benefits the company, keep it in this folder because when it comes to your next appraisal or request for a pay rise or a bonus, you have evidence to back up the claims of what a great job you’ve been doing. It also helps combat the fear of being underappreciated and offers tangible evidence rather than having to remember what you did this time 12 months ago.
The Assistant Room: So, in effect you’re building your own case study….
Abigail: Yes exactly. Businesses run by using business proposals. If you are looking for the next step up whether that’s more money, more responsibility, a more senior role, a new role, you’re going to need to prove it in the same way that you prove through an interview. You need to be able to provide evidence that backs up your future plans.
The Assistant Room: Your mentoring, coaching and experience as an EA has opened many doors for you including having the opportunity to speak at events with the Office Show, PA Life and the Global PA network. How important do you think it is for anyone within a position of support to attend events which champion our industry and what advice would you give to those who struggle to ask their boss and or team for time off to attend such events?
Abigail: Networking and attending events, is invaluable. The key thing to remember is that no one but you are interested in furthering your own career. If you want to grow, develop, change jobs, earn money, change your industry, look for other job, one of the better ways of doing it is by actually doing something about it. If you don’t change anything, nothing is going to change for you.
Networking is a good opportunity to find out what jobs are coming up, who is moving where, who’s going on maternity leave, who needs an extra pair of hands, who’s being made redundant, what are other assistants doing and experiencing? The only people who are ever going to understand your frustrations or worries or concerns or hopes about your job are going to be the people who do it alongside you. Networking can give you the opportunity to find a shared ‘safe space’ to discuss real time matters with other assistants who understand what you are going through which is incredibly helpful.
The more of your network you have, the easier it makes networking. It can be difficult to get time off but there are plenty of networking opportunities and providers who offer events after core working hours or even before at breakfast. Some training providers give you a downloadable proposal that you can give to your boss to explain why you should be allowed to attend in work hours if you think it’s a really important event to attend. A good point to mention is that if there is a learning and development budget for your company, you should be able to use it, just like any other member of staff. You can point out to your boss that when you start seeing differences in your working abilities after taking part in these courses, it benefits them in the long run.
Speak to Abi directly for all queries regarding mentoring and coaching here.