I started my working life at the age of 17, with a job at my local estate agent (that’s me, on the left, at 18). It was initially meant to be work experience over the summer between my first and second years at college. However, when they asked me to stay full time, I accepted, and never started my second college year. Looking back, it was a really stupid or really risky thing to do (depending on how you look at it). That job went pear shaped after about 9 months and I was seriously wondering if I’d made the biggest mistake of my life.
The estate agent and I eventually parted company and I drove home in tears, scared of what to do. I hadn’t been earning much at all, and my mother was expecting me to pay rent. So when I got home I started to look for jobs in London. Since I lived about an hour out of London, it wasn’t really a “normal” thing to do. I didn’t know anyone else who commuted in, and all of my family had normal jobs in shops. But at 18 years old I made some appointments with recruitment agencies in London and went up there by myself. To this day I can’t remember what was going through my mind when I travelled up there. London was somewhere I’d only ever been on school trips. Looking back, it was actually quite a brave thing to do.
On that day I went up, the first agency told me that they had something that I could be put forward for. I was really excited, and waited for their call. The call came a few hours later and they asked if I was still in London and could I go to the interview. I was overjoyed and said yes. After a 3 hour interview, I was offered the job! On the very same day I’d gone up there! I could not have been more excited.
I ultimately left home at 18 and lived in a shared house. But I had a good job and I was independent. Not many people can say that when they are only 18.
Now, more than a decade on, I often wonder what a mentor might have said to me back then. As a mentor now, what career advice would I have given my 18 year old self?
1. You don’t have to hate your job
That first job was awful and I left just three months later. I sat in a glass office with five other people who barely said two words to each other all day. No-one ate lunch together, and my boss gave me a whole load of grief for not having a legible signature. Since the walls were glass, I could see into the office opposite. They had Dress Down Fridays, chatted to each other by the water cooler, and had cakes when it was someone’s birthday. They had quite a few more people in their office, and it looked so fun. I stared at them all enviously every day while I sneaked chocolate buttons out of my drawer (because I wasn’t permitted to eat anything at my desk).
My last job was great. I worked with loads of really nice people; I worked in a lovely area; and I genuinely enjoyed my job. I never woke up wishing that I didn’t have to go into work (apart from when it was snowing and I wanted to stay snuggled up in bed!). Sitting in a fish bowl with no conversation is not forced on you. Nothing is stopping you from going and looking for something else. Even if you have only just started there. If it’s a horrible environment, you will end up resenting your time there and you won’t work your best.
My career advice is that you don’t have to love your job, but you should never hate it.
2. Don’t be afraid to speak up
Your opinion is just as valuable as anyone else’s. If you are sitting in a meeting and someone says something you don’t understand, ask them what they mean. You have as much right as everyone else to know what is going on. And, at 18 years old, people are going to assume you will ask what you don’t understand. My nana once told me that she got herself into trouble for invoicing £20 when it should have been £2000. Back in the 50s, she was a secretary and worked near Bank. Part of her job was to send out invoices for the machinery that her company built. She told her boss that all the secretaries should be given a tour of all the machinery so that it meant a little more to them than just a code in a book. From that day forward, all secretaries were shown around on a regular basis.
My career advice would be that you have the right to speak up, and if you are told that you don’t, you are not in the right company.
3. You are the expert at what you do
Even if you don’t think you are, people will expect you to be. On my first day working at an investment bank, the printer broke and I was expected to fix it. I was also expected to know what flights my boss wanted for her trip to Hong Kong that following week. Of course I didn’t know, but as Secretaries and PAs, we become masters at these kinds of things.
People will try to tell you how to do your job. I always say that as long as you can explain why you have done something and you can show a logical trail of thought, then you have made an acceptable decision. Whilst I will always encourage people to challenge me if they don’t think what I’m doing is right, no-one has a better knowledge about my role than I do.
My career advice would be that you should have confidence in your own ability.
4. Learn about the business you are in
One of the best pieces of career advice I received came in the form of a question. “How does your department make money?”. At the time of being asked this question, I didn’t have a clue. But it wasn’t until I could fully answer it that I understood what my team did.
So ask yourself. How does your company make money? If you don’t know, you don’t know your business. Ask your boss. Ask their boss. Even ask THEIR boss. Ask anyone and everyone to explain what they do and how they fit into the organisation. There aren’t many people who won’t want to tell you what they do.
My advice is to understand your company from the bottom to the top. If your company is massive, at least understand where your department fits into the organisation.
5. Make Connections
In this era of LinkedIn, it’s probably harder to lose touch with old colleagues than it is to stay in touch. But back when I started my career, LinkedIn wasn’t as widely used as it is now, and so I just kept hold of people’s business cards. Travel agents, event managers, hoteliers, everyone. I once moved house and found a whole shoebox of these business cards. Looking through them was almost like a diary of memories and I subsequently looked up some of them online.
As an administrator, we sometimes wonder how useful our contacts can ever be, aside from potentially helping us find a new job in the future.
But I can tell you, they are super helpful. Your career will develop, and so will theirs. My network is filled with senior bankers, entrepreneurs, fellow administrators, and many others. I’ve connected countless people to each other through the Introduction function on LinkedIn. And every time you help someone, they are more likely to help you in the future should you ever need them.
My career advice is that your network isn’t just the people you know. It’s the people they know too. And that is priceless.
6. You are the only person who cares about you
This one took me a little while to realise and was actually rather a shock to the system. I have been in numerous jobs where I’ve gone over and above, only to be told at my review that my salary is staying the same. Yes I’ve gained experience and skills, but no one is going to pay you for that out of the goodness of their hearts.
I promise you that you will never have someone offering you a massive pay rise because you had done loads of extra work in the previous year. The best you’ll get is some comment about you being lucky to have a job.
Am I bitter about that? I was. Very. I’d worked so hard in one of my roles. I’d taken on a whole load of extra work, way over the skillset of your standard team assistant. I was putting in probably an extra 2-3 hours a day over what I was paid to do. When it came round to promotions, I was overlooked because the HR person in an office on the other side of the globe said that my job description on file was “administrator” and that administrators didn’t qualify for promotions. End of debate. My boss didn’t even argue my case because he didn’t want to upset anyone above him. I was devastated and I have never felt more alone and helpless in my career. I left that organisation within 3 months.
So my career advice on this one is to look after number one. Yes, absolutely take on extra work if you want more responsibility and if you want to learn. But make sure you benefit from doing it, without the money. Make sure that the extra work adds something to your CV. Because if you gain no money, no skills, and no efficiencies from doing something, why do it?
7. Learn, learn, and learn some more
Take every course offered to you. I’ve done Prince 2, VBA, and I once almost did Six Sigma (until the budget was cut). Anything you can do will look amazing on your CV. Whilst you don’t necessarily have to have a degree , all the courses that you can sign up to will add to your unique skillset as a PA.
Be sure to see what your company’s policy is on training. If they don’t have one, see if you can create one. Ask for a budget if there isn’t one. Look online for courses that might help your job. Asking for a random language course might be difficult, but anything to do with MS Office is unlikely to get unreasonably refused. Be the most skilled PA that you can be. Always look to improve your own skills.
Take the VBA course I have done as an example. I have learned to be more efficient. Everything I do in Excel I can try to make it more efficient. I’ve already managed to help someone else in the office speed up a really laborious and repetitive task that they have to do. I’ve worked out that I’ve saved them about 20 hours of work. That equates to about half the cost of my course.
I’d advise anyone in any role to see what courses they can take to improve their own skills. Then work out how much you have benefited from it, and tell your boss. This will mean that they will be more likely to say yes to other people asking to go on courses, and also when you ask for the next one!
8. The best Career Advice I could offer
Your job is 10 hours a day. If it doesn’t change you as a person, you don’t care about it enough. Make friends. Talk to as many people as possible. Join associations and clubs. Say yes to after work functions. Maybe this career advice is a little cliched, but I really wish someone had said this to me when I was 18. Your work impacts you as a person more than anything else in your adult life. HAVE FUN and SMILE EVERY DAY.