Donna Olliver is the Founder of Guernsey PA Connect
Can we have a little background information? Where do you come from and what is your current role?
I started my career as a chef. When I qualified at the age of 17 I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I wanted a 9-5 job like my friends had.
I was offered a receptionist job by the hotel I was working for part time as part of the college course and accepted it. I really enjoyed the work, but after a few years I was offered a job in finance for one of the Big 4 accountancy firms. I jumped at the chance, as by that point I was alone in the hotel each afternoon and I found I wasn’t learning anything new. Four years later I was asked to join another finance firm which also offered to support me through my HR qualification, and I accepted the role. During my time there I took the first PA qualification in Guernsey and also qualified as a Legal PA. When the company later closed its Guernsey office, I decided not to move to Southampton with them. I took a job at a local accountancy firm before moving a few years later to my current role with another Big 4 accountancy firm, KPMG, where I have been for the last three years. In my current role I look after a Partner, a Director and a growing team.
In my current role I look after the needs of the Advisory Partner, who is also the Head of Advisory in both Guernsey and Jersey. I also look after a Director and the Guernsey Advisory team by arranging meetings, travel, typing, training, seminars and events, and I have various other duties.
What is your background?
I’m a Guernsey girl. I was born here and I’m proud to be a “Guern”. I grew up with my parents, Nick and Jan. I have three brothers and a sister. I’m the second youngest. I currently have (it keeps growing…) three nieces, five nephews and two great nephews.
Apart from spending a month travelling in the US I have lived here all my life.
My mother grew up in the Lake District but has lived in Guernsey for the last 37 years, so I spent a lot of time in the Lakes when I was younger; my grandparents had a farm there. My claim to fame is that my grandfather use to judge livestock with Beatrix Potter. Their farm still exists, but it’s changed a lot – it is called “Fell Foot”. My family still live in the Lakes, so I try to get over as much as I can. My partner Lee and I have been together for three years and we are going to meet my family next year in the Lakes as it has been a little while.
My dad is from Guernsey and he was one of 8 children, so our family is large.
Guernsey is a small island approximately nine miles by five. We have a population of 62,711. We have our own currency and still have the £1 note. Guernsey lies 70 miles south of the UK and 30 miles from France. The Queen is the Head of State; Her Majesty is represented in the Bailiwick by the Lieutenant-Governor, Air Marshal Peter Walker CB CBE.
We have a beach around nearly every corner, cliff paths to explore and the chance to island hop to one of the neighbouring islands for a day trip.
Famous islanders from Guernsey, to name but a few – Heather Watson, Andy Priaulx, the people who started Specsavers – Doug and Dame Mary Perkins, Matthew Le Tissier – who played for Southampton and England. Plus Jenson Button used to live here, as did Dawn O’Porter.
If you have never been to Guernsey, you really need to pay us a visit.
How did you become an Assistant?
As I say, when I left catering college I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I started work at a hotel reception. This gave me the skills that I needed for general office work. I also took Office Communications for my GCSEs (which was a pure fluke as I really loved Humanities but I remember the teacher saying, “Please only opt for this if you are prepared to work extremely hard”. I thought I wouldn’t be able to cope with it, so I opted for OTC. Then the Humanities teacher asked why I wasn’t opting for it and she explained that I would have more than coped and she was disappointed. But looking back, I think someone somewhere was pointing me in the right direction as with OTC I had done all my RSA levels before I left school which was what you needed to get an office job).
I saw a job for a doctor’s PA and I thought I would apply. I didn’t get the job, but a few weeks later they told me that there was another position and they would love it if I joined them. I was over the moon and this was my first PA role. I didn’t know it at the time but one of my closest and dearest friends Kelly Dean would join the same team a week later and we would remain friends for life. I still keep in touch with the girls I worked with. I stayed at the doctor’s for three years and I love the job.
My sister-in-law at the time was working for an accountancy firm and there was an opening for a PA, so she submitted my CV for me and I got the role. I’ve progressed from there really as I was then asked to join another firm and they supported me to study for my HR qualification, PA qualification and legal PA qualification all at the same time. Looking back now I must have been absolutely crazy to do them all at once. I remember studying a lot, but I passed all three which was great. When the company moved I made the choice not to move with them and found a role at another accountancy firm. I stayed for two years before finding my current role, which is by far the best role I have had as I get a real mix of doing the jobs I love; event planning, seminars, marketing and also the PA role to a partner, a director and the team. I’m never idle, let’s put it that way.
How important do you think Associations and networks are to the career of an Assistant and why?
After going to Office* 2014 and meeting Victoria Darragh, Cath Thomas, and Marion Lowrence, and listening to various people talking about the PA networks in their regions and the difference it made, I thought, “Right that’s it, I’m going back to Guernsey and I’m doing something about it.” I bounced some ideas about with my colleagues Martine Marshall, Joni Free, Carolyn Domaille and Vickie Presland as well as my closest friends, and on 25 February 2015 Guernsey PA Connect was born at the KPMG offices with an afternoon tea for any Guernsey PA who wanted to attend.
An article went into the local Guernsey Press and the reporter asked me, “So, Donna, how many PAs would you like to attend to know that you made the right choice and this will be a success?” I thought about 30-35 would be great. The invitation went out and at times I really didn’t think my inbox was going to cope. Over 100 PAs attended our first event. The buzz in the room that day was electric. I remember our Chairman Mark Thompson saying that he had given lots of speeches before but even he could feel the buzz and the excitement in the air, and he was excited for us. We now have 180 PAs on our database and it’s still growing. That is fantastic. We had Vic Darragh come over and speak; she was amazing and inspired us all. We are now working on training for PAs in Guernsey as well as funding to keep Guernsey PA Connect going forwards. We hold four events a year – training, networking, a speaker and an ad hoc event.
I think networks are a great idea as they are sounding boards; we support one another, help PAs who are new to the role, inspire and motivate, provide training and networking – the list of benefits is endless. Since we started Guernsey PA Connect we have had huge amounts of feedback:
“PAs rock, thank you for making me love our profession again.”
“Thank you for finally seeing the need for this”
“What have you done to my PA? She’s attended one event and she is like a different person, so inspired.”
Caroline Renouf also came on board. I asked her before we launched, and at first she thought that it was not something that she would be able to do as she lacked confidence. She then sent me an email to say that she thought it was a great idea and wanted to be a part of it. Her confidence has grown so much and we are proud to have her involved.
What are the main changes you have seen in the time you have been an Assistant?
I think the role has changed a lot over the years. There was a time when we did everything by fax or telephone – now it’s mostly email and we have lost the personal touch a little bit. We are now involved in social media, marketing and events more. You need to continue to train and learn to be able to support your bosses to the new level of what is the norm. The internet and social media have grown beyond belief and this has also seen the rise in virtual PAs. Can you imagine how the role may change in the next 10 years? Even schoolchildren are being given iPads when they start education now; imagine the skills they are going to have when they come into the workplace. We were only introduced to computers in my last year at school, so it was really new to us and we first got email when I started at the doctor’s surgery, but only internally. Now when the Doctor sees you they don’t use physical notes, they have everything on the computer – that’s a huge change in only a few years.
What inspires and motivates you?
I think the ideas and stories from the PAs that we meet are amazing. I’m lucky that due to Guernsey PA Connect and KPMG I’ve had the chance to attend lots of different events and seminars, where I get to meet new people and fellows PAs all the time. You get to hear different stories, which makes you realise that you can then put this into practice, or wouldn’t it be great if that person came to Guernsey to speak to our ladies. (We have no male PAs in Guernsey at present that I’m aware of, but if there are any out there they are more than welcome to join us). It really makes you realise that being a PA is not just a job, it’s a real career and it’s about time we spread the word about it and make school leavers want to choose this for their future, instead of being told, “well if you don’t pass your exams, you could always be a PA.” We need to break this, we need people to see that a lot of hard work goes into being a PA and you have to have natural skills to be able to do it, it’s not a role for everyone.
I was lucky enough to win the We Are The City award recently for the Personal and Executive Assistant category. I visited the Bloomberg offices in London and will also attend an event at the House of Commons next week. There were many inspirational people speaking at the Bloomberg event and some of the things that they said about PAs were wonderful to hear. Just hearing that they valued what we do and continue to do was great. I wish all the Guernsey PA Connect ladies could have heard it, it gave Caroline and me a really great buzz.
I also mentor a PA at KPMG who is doing amazingly well, and I find that I want to do better in my job so that I don’t let her down. I find that I’m doing more now than I ever did before due to Guernsey PA Connect.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out as an Assistant?
Get yourself a mentor. Maybe someone who you look up to; your boss, a colleague, someone in another firm who you think is a real go getter. This will be someone who you can ask about how to do certain things or get advice from. You will learn a lot from this person and you know that they are always there for support.
Join EPAA – The Executive & Personal Assistants Association, which will launch next year. This will give you training options, and is a PA body that we should all support. I know that it will do great things for our profession. I can’t wait to become a member.
Above all, learn. Get as much training as you can. This role is ever changing and you need to develop skills in different areas all the time; if you don’t, you will get left behind. Join a PA network or, even better, if there isn’t one in your area then start one. The more networks that we have linking the profession together the better. If you need a helping hand then please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website for ideas – www.guernseypaconnect.com.
Above all be proud to be a PA – we rock!