Marion Lowrence is Founder of The PA Hub, a network for Assistants that serves Yorkshire and Leeds.
In this frank and in depth interview, Marion explains how circumstances in her personal life took her down a completely new path; from a successful career as an Assistant to one of the most recognisable industry leaders in the UK.
Can we start with a little background information? Where are you from?
I am from the city of Leeds in Yorkshire in the North of England. I have lived in various parts of Yorkshire over the years and have now settled in Leeds city centre among the hustle and bustle of city living. People tend to find it strange that a woman in her forties is a city dweller; some thought I was having a mid-life crisis. But I say life has just begun and I love my forties!
What is your background?
I am number six in a family of seven and was brought up in a single parent family from the age of six. My nearest brother in age is six years older than me and my little sister is six years younger. I was looked after well by my older siblings growing up and there was always someone cuddling me at some point being one of the youngest. My Grandad lived with us too so I never thought anything of having just Mum there when Dad left. However, as a Catholic family there was a stigma attached to being in a single parent household.
It was difficult for my Mum as a Catholic single parent which must have been awful for her but to be honest it never really bothered me when the taunts started at school. I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about as I had my Mum, brothers and sisters, a large family of cousins, other family and my wonderful Grandad who took me under his wing and treated me as a daughter. I guess looking back he was my first role model and gave me enough love and attention to last my lifetime. He died when I was 14 and I was devastated. However, I always live life with the love in my heart received from him. He was an amazingly selfless man who taught me morals, dignity, warmth, kindness to others and passion for life. He had exceptional qualities that I try to mirror to this day. I also had contact with my Dad intermittently as I got older and I never felt too different to my friends who weren’t from a single parent family.
Now as an adult I realise how tough it all must have been for my Mum. My Dad had gone to the other side of the world to Australia and she was left with seven kids and no career, with no financial support or benefit system in those days. She had her Dad who helped immensely in bringing us up and she trained to be a social worker while being a single parent with very little money and successfully qualified through a lot of determination and hard work. This must have been hard for her but it paid off and she was able to support us working full time to do that. We sold the house and moved into a council house to help make ends meet.
Being a social worker’s child on a very poor council estate was not the most pleasant of experiences. We were bullied and had air rifles shot at us and dogs set on us by the other kids around. The council moved us after a year due to the terrible time we had there and I will never forget that sprint I used to do up our street to get to the door without an air pellet hitting me. I am still terrified of dogs too after being mauled by an Alsatian dog and having to have hospital treatment but we got by and we were moved to a nicer council estate.
My Mum saved like mad to buy a house so we could be settled and by this time there were only two of us left at home so things changed and we were now living in a nice area with a bit more normality. Mum became an outstanding social worker and having been a single parent of seven children herself, she could relate to her clients so well. She was a great role model and showed us that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
I was studious, quiet and shy at school. Being number six in the family meant there was a pecking order so my views were way down the list! It never bothered me; I enjoyed listening to the banter and the house was never quiet. I still to this day prefer to be around people and probably because the house was never empty.
However school was a different issue. I was bullied often at primary and middle school for being a “geek” and having hand-me-down clothes but once I got to high school I got away from the girls who had been the main culprits and finally enjoyed education. I did well in my O levels and started studying as expected for my A levels. I was told I should go to university and actually wanted to be a social worker or a teacher. Life decided differently and I really disliked studying at A level. I knew it wasn’t for me but knew Mum would be cross with me if I left. So I secretly looked for a job and was successful at getting an Administrative Assistant role in the Civil Service. My Mum initially was disappointed but very proud of me for finding a good administration role and soon got used to it. I was earning a good salary for a 16 year old and soon discovered life outside. I became more outgoing and got a steady boyfriend.
At 17 I discovered I was pregnant. I was terrified of telling Mum, Dad and my Nana. It wasn’t in the plan; it wasn’t how it was supposed to be. My Mum was furious, my Dad was going to kill my boyfriend, my boyfriend’s Dad insisted on an immediate wedding, my friends said I was stupid to have a baby and my Nana, the one I was most scared of telling, was actually fantastic. Funny how you imagine certain reactions but they turn out not how you expected.
I had my brothers and sisters to support my decision and everyone calmed down. My Mum let me live with her until we found a house and my beautiful boy Matthew was born a month after my 18th birthday. My boyfriend and I eventually got married when I was 20 and had another gorgeous baby boy, Liam, when I was 24. I was lucky to have a mother-in-law who looked after the children so I could go back to work at the Civil Service and I rose through the ranks of the admin world in the years to follow determined to support my children as my Mum had supported us.
My marriage was not the best. We had met too young and had different views on most things. I didn’t want to be a single parent so we tried our best to make it work. We stayed together for 16 years and then went through a terrible and upsetting divorce. It was tough all round but as life has taught me over the years – things happen, the going gets tough and then eventually things settle down again and normality returns.
It took some years but my life was back on track. I was “me” again and as a single parent made sure I supported the children. This meant working full time and living in a council house for a while but it was all okay. Good friends and family got me through a dark time in my life. And as all good stories should have – there was a positive outcome. I met the love of my life and my life was on the up. I met Jon Lowrence and after five years I remarried to someone I truly loved, respected and cherished. Jon made me feel life again; he became a great step-father and role model to my children and I became a step-mother for his.
Now the children are grown up and living their own lives and we have a two-year-old grandson. Life still has its ups and downs but we are on a road of contentment in a place that I could never have imagined all those years ago.
How and why did you become an administrative professional?
As I mentioned above it was a matter of chance in the beginning. I wanted to leave school and this was a job that looked interesting with full training provided. It was 1985 and the Civil Service was known for being a great employer and trainer. At the time it seemed a job for life. The training was an intensive six-week course which really did set me up for life as an administrative professional. It is a shame we don’t do that anymore for our youngsters as it was intense, thorough and a great set up for my future career.
I am still friends with a lot of the people I met back then. We were a young workforce and had a great social life out of work too. It seemed the perfect job for me. I loved working there and there was also a programme to work through to gain promotions. I was working in the punching room as an Administrative Assistant. We literally typed in lots of information all day every day and there was a huge computer which covered a whole wall. The information we typed in literally “punched” holes onto a reel of tape which you then fed into the big machine and that was transferred to head office! It is incredible to me how technology has moved on in a relatively short space of time, or am I just showing my age?
I had been there six months and was told I was ready for a promotion and was invited to go for an interview to be an Administrative Officer in the main office. I was successful and given a date to start. It was 1986 and I was told to go and see my new manager on the Friday before I started my new role. I knew I was pregnant but had wanted to wait until after my scan to tell people. As I had been officially offered the role, had accepted and had an offer letter I felt safe telling him on that Friday that I was expecting a baby. He just said “You silly little girl! I am afraid that means you cannot start in your new role on Monday! We cannot pay you for a promotion that you won’t even be here for.” I was shocked and said I would be coming back after the baby was born but he refused to listen. It was at a time when I really would have benefited from the extra money and I would still be at work for another four months. There was uproar in the office. But to no avail – I lost my promotion for being pregnant! The union got involved but unsurprisingly my papers got lost and when I reapplied they said it was too late to appeal. I lost the battle.
However, I was determined to prove myself. I took five months off work and then returned to work as the main earner as my boyfriend didn’t have a job. It was heart-breaking to leave my baby but I knew he was in good hands with my mother-in-law. Money was tight so I went straight to the manager who had taken my promotion off me and asked if I could have an Administration Officer role now I was back. He said no as expected so I kept an eye out for jobs in the various departments.
A few months later one came up in our department and the manager I had was replaced by a female manager. She was fantastic. She agreed I should never have lost that promotion and interviewed me there and then for the job and gave me the chance I needed to escape the punching room! My career had begun and she became an unofficial mentor and someone for me to aspire to. I haven’t seen her since those years but I will be forever grateful for the opportunity and the advice she gave me. It was my first promotion and I threw myself into it! I have worked in many admin roles throughout the years and at one time was in charge of a team of 18 staff. I got to the point where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do anymore and really began to think about what I could do next.
You recently gave up your role as an Assistant for Yorkshire Universities to run The PA Hub full time. Tell us a bit about why you set up The PA Hub.
In 2009 I was not sure I wanted to stay in the administrative world. I had got to the top of the scale as PA to the CEO and Office Manager at Yorkshire Universities. With the encouragement from my CEO at the time I started a degree so that I could go for management roles within the university. Without the degree I couldn’t climb any further. As I had been a teenage mum myself I wanted to change my career path and move into a role where I could help young mums. I started a BA course in Childhood Studies at the University of Leeds in September 2009.
However, life events came along again and changed everything dramatically. In December 2009 my brother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after developing jaundice. He died seven weeks later leaving us all in extreme grief. It changed my life. It made me re-evaluate what I was doing and I was also ill myself and the same week we said goodbye to my brother I was admitted to hospital for a routine operation. During the operation there were further complications and I had to have some major surgery. I caught an infection and was off work for six months. My CEO left when I was off and I got a new CEO who was part-time and I returned to work with a new boss, a role with extra responsibilities as I was now in charge of HR and financial procedures. I threw myself into work and helping my new CEO settle in. It helped me get through the grief but then as it all started to look up my Dad died.
What can you do? Life is hard and I just got on with things. I worked hard to make my new boss’s life easier at work and helped him settle in. He in return became a great mentor to me and was the first person to explain how I would benefit from a dedicated mentor. Professor Roger Lewis became a big believer in my abilities and helped me realise them too. He put me forward for Yorkshire PA of the Year in 2011 and I won. It was life changing – I realised this was the career for me and could not believe I had doubted it! I loved being a PA so why change it?
I didn’t carry on with my degree and he also put me forward for a national PA award where I was runner-up. This was when I discovered the true benefits of PA networking. I started being invited to London PA networking events and I travelled back and forth as often as I could. I found a couple close to home but they were mainly in the South. I loved attending them and through social media was networking on Twitter and LinkedIn and met my mentor Victoria Darragh. Victoria has been fundamental in me setting up my networks and I will be forever grateful for her encouragement and persistence to help me do this.
I came home from London and realised that I was networking with London PAs and didn’t really know any in Yorkshire. With help and encouragement from people in the industry I came home and started to research setting up a PA network for PAs in the universities of Yorkshire that worked with me on a regular basis. There were 70 PAs that worked directly with me helping me set up the Board and executive group meetings and I set up the group to enable days of learning, networking and development. It was very successful and word got around. PAs from around the universities were asking if they could join but the budget could only cater for the PAs that worked directly with us. Word spread further and external PAs were asking if they could come along or asking where they could access a network like this. It became apparent Yorkshire was crying out for this type of network and The PA Hub idea was born. I set it up as a limited company in September 2012 with my husband Jon while working full time at Yorkshire Universities. We launched officially in January 2013 and I genuinely was not expecting it to take off as it did.
By May 2013 I had to make a decision and I decided to take a leap of faith and hand in my notice to concentrate on The PA Hub. I did some VA work to make ends meet and also had some regular project work to fund the new business. I was suddenly in a world of being a Director rather than the Assistant. I had a steep learning curve ahead.
What advice would you have for someone looking to set up a PA network, whether internally or externally?
I get asked all the time “How did you set up the network?” And the simple answer is a lot of hard work. The not so simple answer is it depends on what you want to achieve from your network, how much you are willing to give and how often you want to hold events. You need to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve, who you want to be involved, whether it has a social element or is only development, how you are going to fund it, who you think will attend, why you want to do it. You need to be motivated as it is difficult to start with but well worth the effort.
At Yorkshire Universities it was development only twice a year for half a day with networking and a mix of external and internal speakers that were relevant to the PA role. The events were held at different universities around the region and the Vice-Chancellor of the university that was hosting always attended to say a few words which was hugely encouraging to know they approved of what we were doing. It was a great way to meet my colleagues throughout the universities whom I had only communicated through phone and email previously. It made our working lives better, we all had a common purpose and we helped each other within our day-to-day roles. It is astounding how much easier it to work with your fellow PAs once you have met each other. It takes the relationships up to another level and we agreed it was much better to have that group to turn to knowing someone could help.
The PA Hub runs 10 events a year in both Leeds and York with five development events and five social events all held on an evening. This means it doesn’t affect the working day and has the benefits of the businesses of Yorkshire meeting on a regular basis. The relationships that have formed within the network are incredible and I am still in awe of the power of networking especially PA networking. Because we meet regularly there is a great family feeling to the group and the benefits are many. The PAs are the hub of the companies and the power of a PA network is immense. I love my role of bringing our profession together on a regular basis. I feel honoured to be part of it and will continue to promote our profession and help make our role recognised.
What inspires and motivates you?
I am inspired by mentoring others and motivated by my mentors. I believe everyone has the power within themselves to be amazing. Sometimes they just need someone to encourage them to do so. I believe in mentoring and continue to grow in my role and want to be the best I can be – my mentors help me achieve that. I also want people to realise their own potential and if I can release that in someone there is no greater motivation for me than to see them succeed. I mentor six PAs and they are all fantastic. I am inspired by watching them improve and it is a two-way relationship. Only you can change you but sometimes you just need that whisper in your ear to help you achieve your goals and make that first step.
I believe the two things that have helped me achieve my goals are mentoring and networking. Networking is the biggest and best tool for success. Keep in touch with people – you never know when you may need them or indeed when they may need you. Networking works and, of course, it is now also my business. If you had told that young teenage mum all those years ago that she would be running a successful business and helping others she wouldn’t have believed you. Once I started believing in myself things changed. My two sons Matthew and Liam both encouraged me to take the leap. They were both self-employed before me and that really helped me to make that decision to set up the business. I taught them to be self-sufficient and work hard and it took them to return the favour to help me believe in myself.
What has been the highlight of your career so far and why?
Winning Yorkshire PA of the Year was definitely one of the biggest highlights as it changed my belief in myself and gave me the confidence to grow and achieve things I never thought possible. Public speaking was probably one of the biggest hurdles I had to jump over. I was literally petrified of doing it and shaking in my shoes. Learning to control the nerves was the hardest thing and thanks to others I now look at speaking as an opportunity to spread the word of how great our profession is.
Thanks to those who made me do it – you know who you are and I will always be thankful to you for pushing me way out of my comfort zone. Speaking in Moscow, Russia was definitely a turning point and thanks to Lucy Brazier for encouraging me to be part of a wonderful opportunity. Finally winning Pitman Training Super Achievers PA of the Year in 2012 was such a huge highlight. I felt I had reached a place where I was able to give back to the profession all that it has given to me. It was also very special personally as my Nana had been a medical secretary and a GP’s PA and had always encouraged me to be proud of my administrative background. My Nana at the age of 15 passed her Pitman exams with distinctions and was the youngest woman to have done this in the UK at the time. She actually took the exams to support her siblings as they had lost both their parents in separate tragic circumstances by the time she was 15. I felt proud to be following her in a profession that we both believed in and to be recognised for it was a great and exceptional highlight for me.
What are the main challenges facing the profession at the moment?
I think the general consensus of “What does a PA actually do?” is a big challenge. We quietly work away while no one really knows how much and how wide our roles are. We are one of the few members of staff that can walk unannounced into the Director’s office and have a lot of confidential knowledge about our companies. We are directly responsible for organising our managers’ lives and we are constantly working to important deadlines. We are working differently to previous decades where a secretary/PA may have done a lot of typing and phone calls. Now the role is much more complex often with middle management responsibilities and extra duties such as HR, recruitment, finance, office management, procurement, strategic projects and managing a team. The PA role is forever changing and the salary and responsibilities do not reflect the work we do.
The PA workload is usually high with long hours and conflicting deadlines and it is not unusual to be supporting more than one manager. It can be a stressful role and the pay packet does not reflect this in my opinion. Multi-tasking and having multiple directors to support is a talent and one which should be recognised more.
What advice would you give someone just starting in the role?
Listen to others who are already doing the role and get a mentor. Network as often as you can and keep in touch with people. Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Experienced PAs were once in your shoes and most will be happy to help you develop. Shadowing a PA for the day is a great way to get a feel for the role and take the opportunity to attend conferences or training courses as often as you can. If there is a local PA network or a company one do not be afraid to attend. There will be so much expertise in that room for you to plug into. Ask the organiser to introduce you to someone so you don’t stand on your own panicking. Be up to date with technology and be active on social media. Twitter is a great way of networking and LinkedIn has so many relevant groups for PAs to learn, network and develop. Do make time to learn – even without a budget for training there are plenty of free resources out there such as articles online and webinars. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. It will be worth it.
So what’s next for Marion Lowrence? Where do you want to be in 5 years’ time?
I have so much I want to do! This year will see the first PA Hub Yorkshire PA awards which I am very excited about. We want to help PAs achieve and this is a great way for assistants to be recognised by their companies. We will be holding the awards on 2 July 2015 and look forward to rewarding our PAs for their hard work and dedication.
We also would like to expand. At present it is Jon and I running the company and we would like to grow and help as many PAs realise the benefits of networking. I love my project work such as running the PA days at Conference and Hospitality Show and The Meetings Show, and I would really like to have our mentor scheme up and running this year so our PAs can benefit from the expertise in the group. On a personal level I would like to do some voluntary work to help teenage mums and I am working on that at the moment.
In five years I hope we will have helped more assistants believe, improve and realise their own potential. The power of the PA is phenomenal and I want to see a change in how our role is perceived. I think we have made a start in the industry but there is a long way to go. I want to be part of that and will continue to be a voice for the profession.