PA Diaries: Claire Harold, Arup

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As Executive Assistant to Global Services Chair at global professional services company Arup, Claire Harold is a force to be reckoned with. Starting her career in 2006, Claire has worked her way up the career ladder and describes herself as a highly proactive and organised professional focused on delivering business results independently as well as in a team.

This interview is our 2nd PA Diaries for 2019, enjoy!

The Assistant Room: You have been with your current company Arup for over six years, what an achievement! How do you think you have changed throughout those six years and what advice would you give to someone looking to take their first role support senior Execs?

Claire: When I started my career I was in a Team Secretarial role which is very different to my current position. As a Team Secretary you have to be very reactive and follow through on tasks as soon as you are given them. You are not only providing multiple people with operational support, you are also offering strategic support, booking travel, organising their diaries and everything in between. I learnt about the company very quickly, how it evolved through the impact of others and how people contribute in different ways to the running of the business.

Moving to a Personal Assistant role supporting Directors, I immediately noticed the change in expectation and the level of my own responsibilities. You become involved in the running of the business at a higher level and you adopt a greater understanding of the company from a different perspective.

When I moved on to an Executive PA role supporting the Regional UKIMEA COO at Arup I was much more heavily relied upon in every way. The advice I give to everyone as they work their way up the ladder is to read everything. If you have access to your Boss’ emails, read everything that comes in from other people and everything that he/she sends out as a response. Even if it’s a board report or other commercial documents, take your time to sit and read as much information as you can so that you can align yourself with what’s going in meetings and across the wider business.  When things come up or emails come in, you get a better understanding of what projects they’re working on, and you can have an active response to those projects because you know what’s going on and who it involves. I like to read my boss’ board reports and anything he personally sends out so that I can play an active part in everything he/she is involved in.

The Assistant Room: And the change in confidentiality and trust that is involved when you make that switch to supporting at Exec level is of course far greater…

Claire: Definitely. If there’s no trust or communication between you and your boss, there’s no relationship. Everything that you see and read on a daily basis has to be kept extremely confidential and you cannot speak to anyone else about what you know.  You regularly have to just smile and nod when interacting with other people in the office even if behind closed doors you are aware of things that they are not. You are more or less a silent partner.

The Assistant Room: Would you say that the role of ‘silent partner’ as a PA contributes to the reason we are largely a misunderstood industry?

Claire: Yes. Our Execs become disconnected to so much around them as they have to focus on their own roles, what they need to do and their objectives. They have to be involved in so much to make their role and the company better that they forget about the other bits.

I do sometimes notice that when people approach their desk or office that something changes in them and they walk differently. They walk just fine by the lift but as soon as they come closer to their desk they almost tip toe. That is where we come in – managing relationships within the office and creating a human element to the interaction between our Execs and other staff.

The Assistant Room: You describe yourself as a highly proactive and organised professional focused on delivering business results.  How would you define the purpose and responsibilities of a modern day Executive Assistant?

Claire: Our role is to make our boss’ professional life easier. Regardless of whether that means making a cup of tea, collecting someone’s lunch, whatever it is, if that’s what they need at that time then so be it.  I don’t think that the modern day EA needs to cut things like that out. If I see that my boss started working at 6:00am and by 10am he hasn’t had a cup of tea, making one for him does not degrade my role. Some people feel like that shouldn’t be part of what we do but as an EA,  I do what I need to do and what I think is right for my boss however big or small the task is.

The EA role has definitely progressed. It’s now normal to attend high level meetings and be involved in all aspects of those meetings whether you’re providing your own input into business critical matters or just minute-taking. We are now given the responsibilities that were previously reserved for people who have a technical background so we have progressed a lot in that way.

Technology has also changed, and we’ve had to adapt with it. We now know more about video conferencing and how online meetings work, phone-ins, webinars etc, and the higher up the ladder you progress, the more your boss wants to retain the traditional element of what we do and who we are. Even though we’ve progressed in our abilities and skills, they still need our support and always will.

The Assistant Room: As an industry what do you think our biggest downfall and likewise our greatest strengths?

Claire: We are solid support people but our downfall is that we often forget that. We think we must progress into something other than being a PA and think that we should be doing something different in ten years’ time. Being a PA is such an important role in today’s workplace. Whether our role is looking after a team or a chairman, we need to stop beating ourselves up and believing we’re ‘just PAs’. We should celebrate the fact that we have an integral part to play in our respective firms’ success.

The Assistant Room: I couldn’t agree more. We need to stand firm in who we are and the skills and knowledge that we have.

Claire: Yes! As Assistants we are exposed to so much but we also need to make sure that we don’t forget about the people around us other than our Exec. Our connection to the other PAs is so fundamental. To have a relationship with people who know and appreciate what we do from first hand experience, to chat to and get advice from makes our own personal network extremely strong.

The Assistant Room: How would you challenge the perception that people have of who were as professionals, what we represent and how we contribute to businesses?

Claire: We need to start within. If we keep undermining our own roles then we can’t expect others to celebrate our existence in the workplace and in turn people’s perception of who we are is not going to change. The reality is we know more about our company and the systems, the functions, the operations and the strategies as support staff than almost everyone in the office. We are more than just show ponies, we are every department combined.

PAs are inboxes, outboxes, draft holders, voicemails, report writers, speech writers, presentation creators, spreadsheet creators, diary managers, travel bookers, and the soundboard to some of the most senior people in business.  If we don’t give ourselves the respect we deserve, we can’t expect others to respect us either.