Debra Jacobs, Founder and Chair of the Royal Bank of Scotland PA Network, shares her top tips for setting up and running an internal assistant network

Towards the end of 2015, I had this great idea to set up an assistant network. Having worked at Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) for quite a few years I had seen the benefit of other internal employee led networks. I saw the network as an opportunity to bring the assistant community together, something that had never been done before.

As is the case in other companies, RBS didn’t offer any specific training for assistants, even though the demands on our role were increasing with new in-house platforms, systems, suppliers and increased expectations. As assistants, we always seemed to be the last to know what was going on.

I also wanted to bring the assistants together so that we could support and learn from each other and focus on our own development.

I started by researching ‘How to set up an internal assistant network’, reading online articles and reaching out to the article authors. I spoke to various people within the industry, asking for advice and support. I also approached my manager, who was supportive. We decided to include this initiative within my personal development plan and objectives for 2016.

There is no right or wrong way to set up an internal network within your organisation; each company is going to be different. It’s not going to be easy!  You will need to be determined, resilient, dedicated, and most importantly, passionate. Not everyone is going to be interested in joining your network.

Top Tip 1: Don’t be shy to reach out for support and guidance

Other network chairs, my assistant peers, my manager and my wider team have all been fantastic at supporting me. If I had a challenge or just wanted reassurance I would reach out to anyone who would listen.

Top Tip 2: Fully utilise internal resources

As part of the Learning and Development (L&D) function, I was aware of the sessions the bank was running for the wider population, as well as the learning systems and platforms that could be utilised. I also had a great network of contacts within L&D that I could reach out to.

Our first network event was 9 February 2016 – it was my big opportunity to share my passion, and what I considered to be the aims and goals for the network. I practised my presentation over and over again. My manager Jane came along with a few of my colleagues for moral support.  Only nine of the 50 Assistants turned up! I was so embarrassed, devastated and upset. On reflection, and after words of wisdom from Jane, I realised I had nine really engaged assistants who wanted to make a difference and that this was a fantastic starting point.

From that moment on, I became a powerhouse, a woman possessed, ensuring the success of the network by raising awareness, increasing its profile and proving its value at every given opportunity. Those nine assistants have been with me on the journey too, developing the network ever since day one.

As well as using my contacts and asking for support, I quickly realised that you need to be driven and determined to ensure a network is successful.

Top Tip 3: Have a Clear Aim and/or Goal

The aim of the network is to bring the assistants across the Bank together, to learn from one another, share experiences, information and best practice.  We have a collective voice and offer career development, training and networking opportunities. The network also helps to reinforce the value of the assistant role.

From a standing start in January 2016 the network now has over 560 members worldwide, and includes Executive Assistants, Personal Assistants, Team Assistants, Business Support Assistants and those looking to move into an assistant role.

We also wanted to create a sense of community and we have most certainly achieved this. The network has enabled me to meet, collaborate, share knowledge, experience and become friends with assistants from across the Bank. I would never have had the opportunity or privilege to meet and interact with them, if it hadn’t been for the network.

From March 2017, the assistant network was adopted by the RBS Women Network. This allows for greater collaboration, connectivity and opportunities for all members. This collaboration also recognises the value of the RBS PA Network. (The PA Network and RBS Women Network are open to both female and male employees).

Top Tip 4: Ensure you have the right people around you 

It’s been a very fast and steep learning curve and I have had to step up to the challenge. It hasn’t been plain sailing – there have been many highs on this journey and equally many lows. One of my key learnings is to ensure that you have the right people around you.

I have a fantastic committee in place. We have hubs in both London and Edinburgh and key members scattered across the regions that promote the network and support network activities. We meet monthly and plan the activities and events for the forthcoming three – four months.  As the committee has gelled and members gain confidence, they have come up with some fabulous ideas, taken ownership of events and initiatives and – importantly – stepped up to lead them.

This allows me time to focus on our overall programme, manage the mailbox and network communications and continue to build and develop relationships with people across the bank.

Top Tip 5: Doing lots is possible with a limited budget

The RBS PA Network doesn’t have any budget, so we have to be creative.

For sessions held over a lunch time, we simply say ‘bring along your lunch’. Members of the committee have also reached out to their individual leaders and asked for sponsorship to cover catering and other small costs.

This year our training and career development has focused on upskilling assistants to properly use and understand the bank’s in-house platforms, systems and processes –the ones that no one ever really shows you how to use when you join a new company or get a new role!  These include gifts and hospitality, procurement and Skype for business – and also promote the accessible and available learning across the bank.

We have also arranged sessions with senior business leaders. These sessions have been very popular, providing insight into how different parts of the bank operate, the day-to-day challenges of these leaders, thoughts on the future of the business and how they can work more effectively with their assistants.

The network is still very much London-centric especially for our guest speaker events.  However, by running webinar sessions and hosting audio calls (where possible), we try to be an all-inclusive network, allowing everyone the opportunity to participate, regardless of location. Many of our events are held during business hours and we have seen attendance increase by around 50% during this year.  The assistants now understand the benefits of the network and enjoying the training and networking events on offer.

In addition to our training and career development sessions, we have also invited many award-winning assistants, key figures within the industry, and those who champion our profession, to present to the network.

Top Tip 6: Get the basics right at the beginning

These are some essentials that I would suggest you put in place when starting out:

  • Network Mailbox and Calendar
  • Network distribution list which is locked down – so only a few people can send to it (a learning from early on)
  • Network logo (create a brand)
  • Membership (excel spreadsheet or other system)

Here are the tools and processes we have in place:

  • Create and circulate a monthly email newsletter
  • Provide regular email updates (new systems, changes of suppliers, etc)
  • Created a collaboration site on SharePoint called PA Connect
  • Work with resourcing to promote internal assistant vacancies
  • Welcome email sent to all new network members
  • Feedback form sent out after each activity
  • Created a structured guide for the committee on organising assistant events, ensuring a consistent approach
  • Set up a shared drive for network documents which all committee members can access

We support external assistant campaigns such as the Executive & Personal Assistants Association (EPAA) Workplace Bullying and Not Just a Girl’s Job campaigns. In February 2017, RBS hosted EPAA’s first Financial/Banking Conference for assistants, which was a great success.

Top Tip 7: Celebrate early wins and recognise the efforts of others

It is essential to appreciate, recognise and reward those who have stepped up and contributed to the success of the network. Something as simple as a hand written thank you card, a reward voucher, bunch of flowers or public recognition on social media shows your appreciation.

Take the time to recognise those individuals who, in addition to their day jobs, have given up their time to host training and career development sessions; members of the network committee who are leading the way, showing passion and enthusiasm; and key business areas who have helped raise the network’s profile. It is also a good opportunity to provide and receive feedback.

Instrumental to our success has been the support, time, and resources received from external contacts. None of this would have be possible without collaboration, building relationships and advocacy by all for mutual benefit.

Top Tip 8: Make internal connections

As the profile of the network has increased, we are now aligned with key areas of the business. These areas utilise us for support with vacancies, supplier changes, and system upgrades. This ensures the assistants are better informed, and able to support their leaders, teams, and business areas, by implementing new processes and approaches.

We have worked hard to promote the assistant role, and network benefits, since the launch. Assistants now regularly attend training, development, and networking events. Assistants are beginning to have good conversations with their leaders around their capabilities, roles, and careers. Consequently, leaders are actively encouraging assistants to be involved in the network; to become committee members, to network, to attend sessions, to join an association, and take time for their own professional development. Assistants are realising their potential and finding their voice. It is this which makes the hard work and effort extremely worthwhile.

Top Tip 9: See everything as a development opportunity – be brave and learn from your mistakes

I am a true advocate of collaborating with others, reaching out for support, and sharing experience and knowledge. I champion our role as a career, and also pay it forward by recognising the achievements of other assistants.

I have been fortunate to work for leaders who have actively encouraged my professional development, including my current leader, who is also a role model.  Jane has given me her full support in running the network alongside my day job. Whenever possible, I make every effort to continue to expand and upskill my knowledge by attending external assistant training courses and events.  I have had the opportunity to meet with like-minded assistants, many of whom are now part of my personal network.

I am keen to change the perception of what it means to be an assistant. We now work in partnership with our leaders, and are trusted advisors who can offer solutions, contribute and challenge all, without supervision.

Having created the network’s calendar of training & career development activities, I frequently facilitate, which has supported my own continued professional development.

With support from Jane, my team, and the assistants within the network, I have improved my confidence, decision making abilities, determination, resilience and leadership skills.  I believe in the value of what I am trying to achieve.

Top Tip 10: Network, Network, Network

My external assistant network has been invaluable, and has supported me every step of the way.

It’s worth remembering that not all networking has to be face to face.  Social media is an ideal way to network, especially if you have commitments that prevent you going to events out of hours.  There is an active and supportive assistant social media community, right at your fingertips.

I would highly recommend becoming a member of an assistant association – I am a Fellow member of EPAA.

Summary

If you are thinking about setting up your own internal network, it doesn’t have to be all singing and all dancing. Keep it simple, find out what people want, organise a lunch and learn session, or ask HR to be involved in this initiative. Talk about your differences and challenges. Collaborate, support one another; become a buddy or even a mentor. Reach out for help, delegate, network, and keep asking questions.

The network at RBS has had a positive influence on the way the assistants work together and support their leaders.  We have better clarity on business priorities.

As Chair, it has been an extremely busy, challenging but rewarding time. I am extremely proud of what the network has achieved.

I hope to encourage and inspire others to set up their own internal networks, passing on my experience, knowledge, top tips and enthusiasm.  I hope I have inspired other assistants and helped them realise they are not ‘just an assistant’. With a bit of support, knowledge, confidence and self-belief, they can understand their value and what they are capable of, and see that the assistant role is a professional career choice.

I am excited about the future of the network.  We are already looking at our plan of activities and strategy for 2018!

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Debra Jacobs, PA within Natwest Markets, is a winner of the We Are The City Rising Star Awards 2017; with over 10 years of experience working with Senior HR leaders, across a variety of industries. Debra has been at RBS for 8 years, working within Group ... (Read More)

One comment on “Running an Internal Assistant Network

  1. Carolyn Strumillo on

    Hello Debra,

    Thank you So much for this article which is being viewed right now in Kansas City, MO, USA. 🙂
    I’m in the developmental process of a local city EA network and all of your tips and insight into this project have been incredibly helpful.
    I’m looking forward to future collaborations with peers in this career niche.

    Happy New Year to you and all the best in your future endeavors!

    Sincerely,

    Carolyn

    Reply

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