Paul Pennant is the MD and lead trainer for Today’s PA

Can we start with a little background information? Where are you from and what is your current role?

Originally, I’m from Croydon, South London, and still live in the South West London area.

Although I left school with one GSCE to my name, I returned to full-time education as a mature student, studying for a Masters in Business Psychology at London Metropolitan University. I also have a Post Graduate Diploma in Business.

I’m now MD and Lead Trainer for Today’s PA, a training company I set up in 2005. So this year is actually our 10th birthday.

It’s amazing to look back and remember that very first Today’s PA training course – attended by the grand total of three people. From that not-so-auspicious beginning, I could never have imagined that by our 10th birthday we would have trained PAs from over 4,000 organisations across 80 countries.

Before setting up Today’s PA, I worked in a variety of admin roles for several companies before becoming PA and Office Manager. It was when I was working in the City (of London) that I spotted a gap in the market for high-calibre, real-life PA training. And the rest, as they say, is history…

What is your background?

Like many of the PAs I train, I was an “accidental PA”! There was no career plan – it just happened.

My first job on leaving school was as a cashier with Sainsbury’s. I stayed with them for 5 years before gradually moving into a series of administrative jobs, gaining experience and learning all the while. This eventually led to my becoming PA (accidentally!) to a female doctor at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, South London.

From that role, I went to work for a Quango (quasi non-governmental organisation) in the City, before leaving to work freelance for a training company.

My first course for them was teaching people how to write minutes. The delegates on these courses came back and began asking for advice on assertiveness in the office, and then help with computer skills. It quickly dawned on me that what they were really asking was “can you teach me to be a PA?”

So, just as I had been an accidental PA, I am also an accidental PA trainer.

I quit freelancing with the training company to set up Today’s PA, but after that first training course – with those three delegates – I was convinced I’d made the wrong decision and this was going to be a total failure. Thankfully, I was wrong!

How did you become a Microsoft Certified Trainer?

From that very first course, I identified that IT skills are just as important as the core PA skills and the soft skills.

To become a Microsoft Certified Trainer, I had to take a series of exams. You have to pass all four exams – one each in Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook.

The exams are incredibly tough. You sit in a lab and it’s strictly time-limited. It’s very intense. You have to be strong in every area, otherwise you’ll be found out very quickly. It made me realise how powerful and complex the MS programs really are.

What are the main changes you have seen in the time you have been training Assistants?

In the 10 years I’ve been training PAs the thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of soft skills. Listening skills, organisational skills, managing people, these are as important as ever.

What has changed, as far as recruitment is concerned, is that employers are now asking for PAs to be educated to degree level. That’s new. Also, languages are becoming more important as businesses have clients (and offices) in Europe or further afield.

But mainly, it’s the rise of technology. There used to be greater emphasis on the core skills such as typing and shorthand speeds, and good communication skills. Of course, these are still important but employers are now asking for excellent IT skills or an advanced knowledge of MS Office. PAs need to be more than just average. They need to be experts in all manner of software. Not just Microsoft but also Google, the Apple suite of programs, everything, right across the spectrum.

Just to give you an example of how advanced and in-depth the IT training needs to be, for that first Microsoft course the handouts were 40 pages – that’s 40 pages for the two-day course. Today, it’s a 165-page handout for the two days. And, essentially, it’s the same course!

What inspires and motivates you?

Education. It’s both inspiring and motivating. And seeing how a small change can have a huge impact on someone’s life.

The PAs on our courses may be struggling with situations at work. We try to give them the tools to deal with the problems, and the reward is hearing them say they’ve stood up for themselves in the office, they’re starting to get a better life/work balance, they are managing their stress levels, they’ve gained promotion. Then hearing how they’ve built on that small success. That’s fantastic.

You recently won an award for Best PA Training Provider in the UK. Tell us about that. What difference has it made to your business?

It’s early days but we’ve already had a fantastic few months since we won the award. So, yes, it has made a difference, boosting our profile even further.

The award was the Members’ Voice Award from Being voted Best PA Training Provider by over 7,000 PAs is a huge honour. But the biggest shock was being nominated!

When pa-assist decided to reward the organisations and individuals who were seen to be making a real difference to PAs’ lives, they asked their members (around 12,000 PAs) to suggest the categories of awards. Best PA Training Provider was just one. So then the 12,000 PAs were asked to nominate and vote.

Today’s PA made it to the top 30! We’re a small company, working in a big field, dominated by a few big players, so top 30 was incredible. Then, amazingly, we made it to the top 5!

I was invited to the Awards Ceremony which was an experience in itself. I’ve never been to an Award’s Ceremony before and I just loved every minute of it. As Today’s PA was up against some well-established training companies and there was no expectation we would win, I could just relax and enjoy the atmosphere.

When the MC announced the award in our category, I was incredibly proud to be nominated alongside businesses like Hemsley Fraser, Pitman and Reed.

The winner of the award was announced… and you know how sometimes everything happens in slow motion? It was like that. The first letter spoken was “T” and my brain thought “Hemsley Fraser doesn’t start with a T, Pitmans doesn’t start with a T and Reed begins with an R …”. Then the presenter said “T…oday’s PA”. I was completely flabbergasted.

7,500 PAs voted for us – the very PAs we’ve been training for the past 10 years. It’s a real recognition of all the extremely hard work and for what we’re trying to achieve. For me, it’s an endorsement that I’m doing something right.

There has been another bit of great news. Last year, we were also awarded the Innovation for Growth Award from the British Library. We received £10,000 worth of business advice and support. That’s invaluable to a small business like ours.

What advice would you give someone just starting out as an Assistant?

My best piece of advice is to start as you mean to go on. Decide from the outset if you’re going to be a career PA – and then go for it. If you are lucky enough to work in an industry you love, that’s great. However, you do need to remember that, as an Assistant, you are there to support your boss and his role in the organisation. This is your job, irrespective of the industry you’re in.

If there is a PA you admire, someone in your organisation, someone in your PA network, or someone you’ve read about, why not get in touch and ask for some advice? They will be incredibly flattered and you’ll get some excellent advice and insight into your role.

Another piece of advice is to become an avid reader. Your boss may be keen for you to attend any number of training courses but before you start booking anything, look at the cost benefit and what you will get out of the course. It may be the perfect course for you. But remember you can also get a great deal of information from books. There are so many books out there – on business practice, management, how-to, being a PA, and books about the industry you’re in. Books, websites, magazines – there’s plenty of advice and help out there.

To be honest, I haven’t attended a training course in years – I’ve learnt it all from books!

Your course covers hundreds of Microsoft secrets that make life easier for Assistants. If you had to choose one for each Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook, what would they be?

We all tend to use the same few features in these programs, mainly because we’re too busy to learn the techniques that can save us time and help us to organise ourselves more effectively. Taking a little time to learn a few short-cuts is well worth it in the long run.

In Word, there are two very simple short-cuts that you will use every day. We all know Ctrl + C and Ctrl V to copy and paste. But try Ctrl + Shift + C to copy the format and then Ctrl + Shift + B to paste it. It works on text and pictures so it can be used in PowerPoint, too.

The other really simple tip is highlighting the text and then using Control + [ or ] to make text bigger or smaller.

For Excel, my favourite tip is highlighting one cell in a data range, then pressing F11. This will give you an instant chart. Also, Shift + F3 will let you write a formula. For instance, if you have a worksheet that’s been sent to you and there are lots of extraneous spaces, hit Shift + F3. It will ask you what you want to do. Type “remove spaces” and it will come up with “trim” – and off you go.

In PowerPoint, try these tips in the slideshow view (F5 for that). Hit B or W will change it to black or white. Ctrl + P will give you a pen to draw on your slide and Ctrl + E to erase it.

With Outlook, there are so many short-cuts because it’s such a powerful program. A great one is to drag and drop an email into your Calendar to make it an appointment. My favourite one is to categorise your Inbox so you can instantly see what is urgent, what needs following up, where you’re waiting for more information, or what is just reading.

You have trained Assistants all over the world. What are the most common problems you come across for Assistants using technology?

Despite having the technology to organise ourselves more easily, PAs still seem to love their notebooks!

A small notebook is invaluable for jotting down notes or capturing that flash of inspiration but make time to transcribe these thoughts.

Get your ideas on to your computer, tablet, phone, however you like to work. You can set up reminders or check that a project is on schedule quickly and easily. By making use of technology, as you would your spiral-bound notebook, you’ll find it easier to organise yourself and your boss.

Of course, the real problem is lack of time. PAs are continually busy and can’t always afford the time to become experts in technology. My advice is to try to carve out that time. You’ll reap the benefits very quickly.

So what’s next for Paul Pennant? Where do you want to be in 5 years’ time?

I would love to be still training PAs and be reaching our 15th birthday. Today’s PA may continue to grow, but there are other products and services I’d like to become involved in; other ways to help support PAs and make their lives easier.

Whatever the next five years holds for me and Today’s PA, it’ll be exciting. And Executive Secretary Magazine will be the first to know all about it!

Lucy Brazier, OBE is one of the world’s leading authorities on the administrative profession. Author of ‘The Modern-Day Assistant: Build Your Influence and Boost Your Potential’, she is the CEO of Marcham Publishing, a global force synonymous with world- ... (Read More)

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