An award-winning EA in her own right as well as founder of the visionary and award-winning Hays PA Network, and the biggest conference currently in the UK, Executive Secretary went to find out what makes Victoria Darragh tick.

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

I am British and a born and bred Londoner!

I am currently Executive Assistant to the Group HR Director & Group IT Director for Hays plc and also the National Channel Lead for Hays PA & Secretarial in the UK.

What is your background?

I left school at the age of 16 with very few GCSEs but with a strong desire to be a PA. I picked this as my career of choice at the age of 12! At 16 I went to secretarial college to complete a one-year PA Diploma. The Diploma was 3 days a week and I knew even back then, it was not going to be enough to get me a job afterwards. I had two days a week to play with so decided to offer my services to a local business for free so that I could get some experience in the office environment. I came out of college with my Diploma and also some work experience and then headed back to London as I wanted to work in the UK’s vibrant capital.

I worked my way up the traditional route from Office Junior to Junior Secretary to Junior PA and then landed my first Executive Assistant position in London at the aged of 21 which was pretty much unheard of at the time. My first EA role was to support the female Canadian CEO of a charity in London and I spent five glorious years with her before coming to Hays, which brings us up to date.

I was advised earlier on in my career to gain experience in the three main sectors, public, not-for-profit and corporate. I have done just that over the last 14 years and learnt so much. I am sure experience in each of the sectors has enhanced my career enormously.

You are an award winning PA. How did this come about and how has it changed your working life?

In October 2011 I attended the Mayfair PA Magazine “PA of the Year” awards and had nominated several of the Hays PAs for a few of the categories on offer and was hoping that we may have had success for one of our incredible PAs. I was absolutely shocked and surprised to find out I was in fact one of the winners! I discovered that Laura Richardson-Ahmed (Hays/Times PA of the Year 2010) had contacted both my bosses, clients, candidates and of course the Hays PAs to start a campaign for me to win an award.

Laura had in fact been contacted by Mayfair PA to say that I didn’t meet the criteria for the four awards they had on offer and they were going to create an award for me which was “Outstanding Contribution to the PA Profession” which recognized my eight years (at that time) contribution to the industry.

To say I was a little emotional to discover that I had received over 20 nominations for the award was an understatement!

I was also shortlisted for the Hays/Times PA of the Year 2008 and although I made it to the final shortlist I didn’t win but ultimately you could say perhaps I did as Hays came to me about the role here and I celebrate my five-year anniversary with the company this month!

In addition to this Hays also won PA “Employer of the Year” back in 2010 for the internal network that I created back in 2009 which was just so amazing as it was for the whole group.

The awards have changed my life for sure. For me personally, it has changed the way I work, my confidence levels and general outlook on life. I have been afforded opportunities to travel the world, meet people and make lots of new friends. Those very people have changed my life. The world has suddenly become such a small place and I have PA connections all over the world. That is just the tip of the iceberg…

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

Ten years ago when I started networking and organizing events for PAs it was always the same PAs who would attend events and we struggled to get new PAs to understand why networking was important to their careers. They would come along for one event and then that would be it, we would never see them again.

The biggest change we have invariably seen is that more and more PAs are networking now and are putting themselves at the forefront of the industry. It is crucial for businesses and organizations to use their PAs as brand ambassadors and for PAs to understand this new element to the role.

Now we have the industry on board we need to spread the word to those people outside of it too. I recently went to a government minister to discuss with them the industry and they were shocked and excited to hear that we do, in fact, have an industry and also that there are apparently 750,000 PAs in the UK today.

Other changes I have seen are that companies really are starting to have a better perception of their PA workforce and what their capabilities are. We still have a way to go but we are definitely well on our way there.

At the start of the recession PAs were the first people to be made redundant from the workforce – I guess some companies saw it as a quick win, easy cost base to dispose of but they were also the first to be brought back and in that time we have acquired new skills because we are now picking up work that would have ordinarily been completed by a middle management layer.

You set up the Hays Internal PA network 4 years ago and now travel the world talking about the importance of PA Networks. It is obviously something you are passionate about. Can you explain why?
I was already very well networked in the PA industry before coming to Hays. One of the reasons I wanted the role at Hays was all the PAs who were here. I thought to myself finally I will have a support framework around me which I didn’t have in my previous position as I was the only EA.

I was baffled on coming to Hays to find a PA group who didn’t really know each other at all and there was no support framework in place for training, networking or any form of development, internal or external. In addition to this Hays PA & Secretarial were doing all this amazing stuff in the PA industry yet none of our own PAs knew anything about it and were never invited to our external events. It was very disjointed for a number of years and I felt we had to put a stop to that and join up both our PAs and recruiting arm to work together and let our own PAs experience some of the amazing things we do in the PA industry.

We are four years into our internal network and what a whirlwind it has been! There are huge benefits to having an internal network not to mention the power by numbers mantra when you are trying to create change. The benefits far outweigh the negatives and I think a snippet from my Director’s speech from last year’s Hays PA Conference sums it up perfectly!

“Our internal PA network has changed our PAs almost beyond recognition. By giving them the opportunity to network and train together and the autonomy to select the training they feel they need at any given time we feel that productivity has increased greatly; confidence in themselves and also the perception of the role of PAs within Hays has greatly improved. At Hays we are extremely proud of our PAs and the way in which they work and conduct themselves. They are hardworking, conscientious and add a great deal of value to our business.”

The majority of our PAs have indeed changed beyond recognition since being part of the network and I can think of one in particular who was so shy at our first Lunch & Learn and was a nervous wreck just asking a question in front of the group. I look at her now and she is a completely different PA, her confidence levels are astounding and her contribution to the business has been phenomenal. I am proud to say I am her colleague.

Something that has stuck in my head is that one of our PAs who left around two years ago said she had put off leaving the company because of our internal PA network. She said she knew she wouldn’t get a PA network and support framework at her new company and that she was really gutted about it. That actually made me quite sad – I hope one day we are in a position to say that 99% of companies have some form of internal network and that every PA can look forward to a support framework when they arrive at their new job.

You also run the Hays PA Conference, which is not only the largest PA Conference in the UK but it is also free. It’s very unusual for a business to run something like this for no money. What is the thought process behind it?

We celebrate our fourth year with the conference this year and what a journey it has been! The Hays PA Conference was very much an internal conference as part of our internal PA Network. When I had initially put together a plan for the network we had wanted to host a conference in Year Two but because things snowballed very quickly I decided to ask my boss for the budget in Year One and had success.

In 2010 I had been working with a handful of clients who were in the process of setting up their own internal PA Networks so we invited them along to our first conference which resulted in around 20 external guests attending in addition to the 50 Hays PAs.

We also won PA “Employer of the Year” around the same time and that is where things really started to change and escalate for us! We received quite a bit of internal and external press for the award which resulted in a number of companies contacting me to find out what we were up to within Hays and asking for help to support their networks.

Because of the huge amount of interest in our internal network my director at Hays actually came to me and suggested doubling our budget for the PA conference and opening it up to the external market – to all those PAs, companies and clients who were trying to achieve what we had and also showing them how to do it too. We did just that and the result was that the conference doubled in size to 150 PAs attending in 2011!

By the 2011 conference the interest was still very strong for our internal network and I had also been on the road around the UK and then internationally speaking on this very subject.

Fast forward to the third year of the conference and we went up by an additional 100 PAs to 250 PAs attending. This then made our conference the largest conference dedicated to British PAs. This year (our fourth year) we are at 250 PAs again and excitedly are moving the conference out of London for our fifth year. PAs have been voting and emailing with their comments on where they would like us to go and the shortlisted cities were Manchester and Leeds! The winning host city and venue will be announced at this year’s conference.

The negative of those among us would say we do it to gain lots of fees but it really isn’t like that for us. As a recruitment agency we promise to invest a certain amount into each industry that we recruit in. I see this very much as our investment in the PA industry. Also we are in a unique position to not only assist people with their careers but also to introduce our clients and candidates to each other and encourage them to network.

The budget for the conference will be there regardless of if we open it to market or not so why not let hundreds of other PAs benefit from what our PAs do at Hays?

I always say the best development you can get is to be around and share best practice with other PAs. I see the fact we invite external PAs to our conference very much as development for our PAs at Hays. They learn so much just by being at the table of fellow PAs!

Who have been your most inspiring speakers?

I have been organising and running PA events for nearly 10 years now and have been fortunate to have worked with some incredible speakers during this time from across the world. It would be impossible for me to name all of my inspirational speakers but just off the top of my head some of my favourites are below.

Susie Barron-Stubley – Castalia Coaching & Training
Liz Jackson – blind British female entrepreneur from Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire
Bonnie Low-Kramen – former PA to Oscar Winning Actress Olympia Dukakis & now PA trainer
Jo Gambi – fastest woman and Brit to have climbed the Seven Summits and skied both North and South Poles.
Laura Richardson-Ahmed – Hays/Times PA of the Year 2010 & EA to CEO of Elexon

What inspires and motivates you?

A lot of people inspire me personally and professionally. All my PA friends inspire and motivate me on a daily basis.

Professionally my biggest inspiration has been my coach, rock and mentor for the past nearly 10 years Susie Barron-Stubley. She has impacted my life so much and I so appreciate having her in it. I have called her for crisis coaching on occasion at silly o’clock in the morning or 10pm at night over the years and attended all her courses and have gained so much out of it. I wouldn’t be the EA I am today without her in my life!

Personally, it would be my amazing Dad! My Dad is gay and came out over 15 years ago, also at that time he was diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer and we were absolutely devastated that he had months left to live. I was only 13 at the time. Somehow Dad miraculously started to improve and the cancer cells were clearing – the doctors were even more baffled when he went into remission months later and put it down to his constant positive mental attitude amongst other things. Sadly a year or two after that my Dad was diagnosed with HIV and we have been working through it as a family ever since. My Dad recently found out from a HIV drugs testing group he was part of many years ago that he is the only person still alive from that group, it really puts things in perspective. I hope and pray every day that a cure is found for Aids before it’s too late for my Dad but in the meantime he is and continues to be my ray of sunshine every day.

What has been the highlight of your career so far and why?

I think being rejected by over 20 recruitment agencies in the space of just over two days over 10 years ago is a major career highlight for me. I had actually wanted to be a PA from the age of 12 and it was a career decision to me, not something that I “fell” into. I had been rejected by various agencies due to being (their words not mine) “working class”, “wrong accent” (there was a real problem with my London accent), not elegant enough and the list goes on. Naturally being someone who was born in London I was devastated that I couldn’t seem to get a job in my home city, even though I had dutifully gone to secretarial college and worked my way up via the traditional route.

I remember only too well when I was interviewed for a PA role at a solicitors in South London and he was very harsh during the interview and said “Frankly Miss Darragh you are never going to cut it as a PA so give up trying, the best you can hope for is a spot of data entry.” I was devastated at the time and walked off from the interview crying with frustration that people wouldn’t look beyond my background to see my capabilities and skills. I turned his negativity into a positive thing for my career as his words along with those agencies put fire in my belly to prove them all wrong and prove myself right – that I could really be a successful career PA.

So my highlight is that I have managed to have this amazing and life-changing career despite all the odds stacked against me! I look back now and feel utterly proud.

The irony is also not lost on me that I have spent the last five years working for one of the largest recruitment agencies in the world and, do you know what, I love it!

What are the main challenges facing the industry at the moment?

I think our biggest challenge is technology. I have said this for many years now and maintain this to be the case. It has changed the role beyond recognition and will continue to do so. Career PAs absolutely must keep up to date with the latest software and packages as well as the gadgets. I actually have Google Alerts set up for new Apple, Microsoft and Google products so I am aware what is coming to market in the coming year.

I also think a minority of PAs have struggled to come to grips with the changes to the role, albeit some that have happened because of the recession. I remember presenting on this subject at a PA conference in Europe where the audience unanimously said “We don’t want the role to change” and were quite upset about the direction the position was headed. Two years on I spoke to some of those same PAs who are delighted at the new skills they have acquired and it’s a really different picture.

Some could perceive this as a challenge although I see it as a positive one in educating organisations about what their assistants are really capable of. I have met many PAs who have gone into battle mode with their employer over this but I prefer the educational route and proving to them capabilities and skills sets of our PA workforce. So a challenge can actually be a positive thing and I love nothing more than to get my teeth stuck into one – it makes life even more interesting…

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

I would say to any new Assistant to join as many networks as possible for the support framework alone. My only regret is that it took me the first four years of my career to find out they were there in the first place! Fortunately now the industry is far more out there than it was 14 years ago.

I would also strongly recommend getting a mentor, preferably a very experienced PA who has been in the business for a while and can share their tricks of the trade and experiences. Most PA networks do offer some form of mentoring scheme so it might be worth looking at those first.

Lastly, embrace change! This role is one that will continue to change year on year and to be successful at it you need a positive attitude, willingness to learn and to develop constantly, and also not doubt your own skillset. You may have additional skills that a company has never seen before and will be worth their weight in gold to that organisation – don’t be afraid to show them off and speak up!

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

I am honestly not one of those people or PAs for that matter who plans that far in advance for my personal or professional life. My career so far has taken me to extraordinary heights and I have no desire to leave my role as a PA, that much is for certain! Ironically, there seems to be an expectation in the PA industry that I will soon be “moving onto the next stage of my career” – what next stage? I am very happy with being a PA and look forward to seeing many more changes to the role over the coming years.

Although a future plan of mine is that we will be launching the “Internal PA Networks Forum” later on this year. The companies I have been working with have asked me to put together a Forum for companies to share best practice and exchange ideas and want to meet up a few times of year. I have started to work on a “PA Employer Charter” whereby companies will have to meet the criteria to be awarded a “PA Employer of Choice”, and who knows in the future we could have our own equivalent of “Great Top PA 100 Employers”. Watch this space… “

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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