Seema Shah, EA at Sportech, proud Mum of a thirteen year old, PA of the Year in 2011 with Executive Secretary Magazine, finalist with SecsInTheCity as Social Media PA of the Year in 2012 and all around superwoman. If there is one thing we can all learn from Seema is the ability to go above and beyond your job description and truly embrace what the role of Executive Assistant means in every sense.
Forget Monday motivation, Seema is the inspiration we can all learn from day in, day out.
The Assistant Room: Hey Seema! Let’s jump straight into this. You have had two extremely strong roles over the past 18 years as PA to CEO at Arena Leisure, EA to CEO at Sportech Plc and now recently, EA to the wider team. Let’s take a walk through your career history from your first exposure to the position of PA through to your current responsibilities at Sportech.
Seema: I have been very fortunate to have worked for the same person for 18 years, both roles were reporting to the same CEO (Ian Penrose) just at different companies. We met through Trevor Hemmings, a British billionionaire, in the north of England when Ian looked after Trevor’s entertainment business, whilst I worked for the solicitor of the parent company. I initially joined Arena Leisure in 2000 to support the CEO in situ, Graham Parr, however Ian eventually took over that position and that is when we officially began working together.
At the time, Arena Leisure was a very small office. There were only four people based in a serviced building in Mayfair where they had to plug into the wall to receive their internet!
In 2005 I left Arena Leisure to start a family and upon my return, Ian had moved to Sportech. My new boss Mark had previously been the Finance Director and then the CEO of Wembley before joining Arena Leisure. He was a great guy to work for, albeit very different to Ian.
Later in 2008, Ian invited me to work alongside him as his Assistant at Sportech. At the time, the office was based in Liverpool where he had two Assistants however, plans were in place to open a London base. We had built such a strong relationship at Arena Leisure that it was amazing to be working with him again and the office slowly grew from four of us to a team of twenty. The business eventually moved the majority of its operations to the office in Liverpool, so we soon became a team of eight.
Upon renewal of our tenancy agreement, I was given the task of project managing the refurbishment of the 2500 sq ft office space. It was an amazing experience which Ian completely relied on me to get right. I was allocated a budget and worked closely with local companies to choose everything from the colour on the walls, furniture and layout, to the design of the carpet.
When we left that office last year, I was also in charge of the dilapidations. I was given a budget to tackle the job and after going back and forth with builders and other contractors and negotiating with the landlords, we eventually settled on a final cost which was half the allocated budget. It was a great personal achievement and a fantastic learning curve. I don’t think many Assistants are trusted with such a big facilities job, but I loved it. Looking back, I think that taking on the office project really gave me an advantage over the other nominees for the PA of the Year Award that I won in 2011 with Executive PA Magazine. When I had my interview with the judging panel, they recognised that responsibility as something that not every Assistant is given the opportunity to get involved in.
”Upon renewal of our tenancy agreement, I was given the task of project managing the refurbishment of the 2500 sq ft office space. It was an amazing experience which Ian completely relied on me to get right.”
Fast forward to the present day – a decision was made to sell part of the business last year and we no longer have a UK CEO or CFO. It was tough to begin with as I had worked with Ian for so long, but I still love my job and I now have the opportunity to learn even more than before. I am no longer an EA to just one person, but what I am doing is getting involved with new processes. I now get involved with HR, payroll and CoSec and work on the administration in those areas. I do miss the close relationship you have with someone as their Assistant, but times have changed and I’m going with the flow.
We chat more about the changes in the business and how a large portion of Sportech is now run in America, and how that affects Seema, after Sportech sold its Football Pools in 2017.
I absolutely believe that I would not have had the opportunities I have had at Sportech elsewhere. When everything started changing, especially when Ian left, I could have thrown the towel in, but I didn’t. I decided to stick it out and I am so thankful I made that decision. I have spoken to many other Executive Assistants about their roles before and I think I have been lucky that I always have and still do work with a group of really nice people. That is another reason I decided to stay, the team at Sportech has always been great to work with.
We talk more and get onto the subject of the article titled ‘How to Deal with the Loss of your Office Bestie’ and how we both have always felt that our best friends in the office were the people we reported to and how changes at work should not affect your own career path.
The Assistant Room: So, you’ve always had a very busy career and have always looked after the CEOs of the businesses you have been a part of. What would you describe as the key challenges that Assistants who manage senior individuals are (and let’s not forget the challenges of working with a team based in the US!) and how do you overcome those?
”…when Ian left, I could have thrown the towel in, but I didn’t. I decided to stick it out and I am so thankful I made that decision.”
Seema: With Ian, one of the main challenges was his diary. It changed constantly which made our morning meetings extremely important. In the morning I would be booking flights to the USA, arranging meetings, booking hotels and chauffeurs and then by the afternoon, the plan would have changed, and the trip would no longer be going ahead. My biggest tip to any Assistant who plans travel is to find a good travel agent. It is essential to have someone you can call on to make things happen, or your boss can call on in your absence, 24/7.
Seema and I talk about when Ian was stuck in New York, desperate to get home, however unable to fly back due to the ash cloud in 2016. This is one moment she says she valued her travel agent the most.
Something I had to make sure I got right when working with Ian was controlling the demand on his time from other employees. We had offices in India, California, Atlanta, Connecticut and London which meant I was prioritising his workload across multiple time zones. Not an easy task, but something I became very accustomed to.
A personal challenge for me was creating a work life balance when it came to dealing with offices on different time zones. I would be at home after a full day and I would be receiving emails from the states, requesting information and project updates. There were times when I didn’t feel I was able to say no to helping someone at 8pm at night, it sometimes felt like it was a 24/7 job. I slowly started to become more confident and communicated that should the teams overseas need me, to email me as soon as they arrive at the office or even the day before. Of course, I know that’s not always possible, but I started to push back and began to value my own time at home with my family. Ian was very supportive in this way too. If he required my attention due to any reason late at night, he would encourage me to start the following day later than normal. If you have a CEO who values you, they will allow you to work flexibly depending on the demands they make on your time away from the office.
”My biggest tip to any Assistant who plans travel is to find a good travel agent. It is essential to have someone you can call on to make things happen, or your boss can call on in your absence, 24/7.”
Ian was someone who always expected a solution presented to him if a problem was raised. It took me a while to get used to this and he expected a lot from me. If something went wrong, he assumed I would have the perfect remedy on hand which is what I think a lot of bosses expect of their Assistants.
Seema and I giggle about how she looks back at times when she was able to fix anything and everything for the team at Sportech without them asking and her questioning her own job title – ‘Am I an Executive Assistant or am I actually God?’.
The Assistant Room: So slightly different direction here but, how did you find going back to work after becoming a first time Mum? Was that a challenge in itself?
Seema: I was very lucky. The CEO that took over from Ian at Arena Leisure (Mark) sat me down and was very open in the fact that he knew I was earning a good salary in a job he didn’t quite ‘get’ but was willing to be flexible on my schedule. I was keen to get back into the swing of things and went back to work when my son was ten months old, initially working two days a week. I eventually was back at my desk four days a week pretty quickly, which I much preferred, as I felt on top of things again.
”If you have a CEO who values you, they will allow you to work flexibly depending on the demands they make on your time away from the office.”
The Assistant Room: In 2011 you were recognised as PA of the Year by the Executive Secretary Magazine. How did that experience impact you as an Assistant and what advice would you give to people who were contemplating self-nomination for similar awards?
Seema: For Executive Assistants, recognition for what we do is extremely important. I was unaware as to how much of an impact winning the award was until a Director from KPMG contacted my boss and asked him to pass on his congratulations. Our PR team also became aware of me winning the award when my name was mentioned in the press alongside Sportech and they then informed the Directors. It was then that people started to take notice. Subsequently after winning the award, I started to receive a number of job offers, which put me in a good position for a pay rise and a change of job title from Personal to Executive Assistant
It also led me to be given the opportunity to visit companies and present to their Assistants on key topics. A comment I regularly heard from other Personal and Executive Assistants was ‘I work in a huge company, no one will nominate me for an award like this’ which my response was always that they should nominate themselves. As Assistants, we know our worth and we should embrace that with confidence. Winning is not everything, to simply receive a nomination is just as amazing!
”For Executive Assistants, recognition for what we do is extremely important.”
The Assistant Room: Your position as EA at Sportech has and still does involve so much variety, you are an essential member of the team. How much do you think that other PAs maximise their opportunities at work and how could they start to embrace a wider set of responsibilities to develop and grow as a professional?
Seema: To begin with, you need to have a strong relationship with the people that you work with to be able to put yourself forward for new opportunities and be taken seriously. Ian used to ask for my advice and I would give him my honest opinion when he was making key decisions. I think a lot of PAs wouldn’t feel comfortable providing that level of input but it’s all about confidence. From the outside, you see a group of Directors in a boardroom, making decisions about the company which in reality is a group of people having an open discussion about business related topics. As Assistants, we see and hear what goes on and can add value to those conversations, so things can be seen from a different perspective, even if your input is outside of the boardroom and during a one on one meeting.
Putting your neck out and offering your take on things is a lot less scary than you think. In my experience, your boss will always appreciate you being more proactive by offering your thoughts on subjects, as opposed to simply doing the things you’re asked to do. It shows you’re driven, ambitious and a leader in your own right. You’re not always going to be right and that’s ok, it’s the effort that counts.
The Assistant Room: You have had two amazing roles since 2000 looking after the top dog and everything that is associated with that. What would you say is the key to a happy and long PA/boss relationship?
”…your boss will always appreciate you being more proactive by offering your thoughts on subjects, as opposed to simply doing the things you’re asked to do. It shows you’re driven, ambitious and a leader in your own right.”
Seema: One of the main things for me was pre-empting what your boss needs. Nobody is indispensable, but you should try and make yourself invaluable. I had such a strong relationship with Ian that I could tell what he was going to ask for before he asked for it. With a simple look from across the room, I knew what he was thinking which sometimes freaked him out *we giggle*.
Something that has always been extremely important for me is that I always had access to Ian’s emails, diary and personal details and without that, I would have been so far behind. For an Assistant to be effective in their role, they need this access and the Execs that struggle to let go of this information or open up, will be putting their Assistant in a really unfair position.
Advice that I would give to every Assistant is to be open and honest with any mistakes you make. We’re all human, we don’t always get things 100% right and that’s ok. Keeping a cool head is crucial to being a good PA/EA. Your boss relies on you completely and if they are the top dog, they don’t want to see you involved in any office drama or becoming flustered over tasks.
Always remember, you are a key part of the team and the company so be loyal, committed and determined to be the best Assistant you can be.