Working with a PA for the first time

Half way through 2021 it became clear that I needed help.

I was drowning and working weekends to keep my head above water. As well as hiring more senior people into my department, which I knew would take 3–6 months, I made it clear that I needed someone to help me now — the most obvious source was an EA to help with the growing mountain of admin coming my way!

My organisation kindly obliged and the wonderful Beth arrived to help me (and a couple of my peers) get through each week unscathed. It was the first time in my life I’d had that kind of help and although it was life changing, it wasn’t an easy transition. Adding someone to your personal team takes effort on both sides and so I thought I would share what I learnt in the form of 3 benefits that have changed my life and 3 things I needed to do to make it work….

My life changed because now:

1. My calendar just works

This was easily my biggest issue and the difference has been so stark, I don’t think I would ever take a new job without help on this front again. As Paul Graham pointed out years ago the schedule of a “manager” is very different to that of a “maker”. For me, back-to-back-to-back is the norm and although we could debate whether this is healthy or effective, in that moment that debate was irrelevant. I needed someone to help me put out the fire before I could work out why it started in the first place. Beth was that person. Suddenly each week I had no overlapping meetings that would take me 20mins to fix, my days roughly started at the same time each week (I don’t like mornings) and my stress levels were manageable as I knew nothing was falling through the cracks.

2. I don’t need to worry about external communication channels

I don’t like emails, I think they are dumb and should only be used in rare circumstances — luckily most companies I work for agree and have made the switch to slack for internal comms. However for comms between orgs, email is still necessary, especially for lukewarm outreach or budding new partnerships. Even though I know this to be true, I simply fail to prioritise sifting through the overwhelming mountain of inbound to get to the important stuff, so emails get left unread for days or weeks, causing problems with partners who think I might be ignoring them.

Beth’s triage system

Beth changed this instantly by creating a simple triage system which meant only the most relevant communications would reach me. Firstly through labelling in gmail and then by a nudge on whatsapp if something was really important. When you’re rushing from meeting room A to meeting room B all day, this kind of personalised triage is simply worth its weight in gold for being able to do your job to a high level.

3. I can go on vacation

This sounds crazy, but I went on vacation for 2 weeks in a row for the first time recently. I was only able to do this because of Beth. I knew any external emails she would handle; I knew that if anyone needed my help she would route them to the right person; I knew that when I came back there wouldn’t be a dumpster fire. I’d be lying if I didn’t have moments when I was on vacation where I worried, where I thought “oh god what have I done!”. But I shouldn’t have, not only am I not that important, but Beth has it all under control. This piece of mind has allowed me to book more trips and live a more balanced life :)

For this to be true, I had to:

1. Give up control

Without dredging up bad Brexit slogan memories, I couldn’t think of a more succinct way of putting it. In many ways I would say working with an EA is a bit like being in a relationship — for it to work you need to tell them everything. You’ll quickly be giving them all your passwords, your credit card numbers and likely your passport information — fair to say Beth could defo take me to the cleaners should she wish too. Not only this, but you’re going to have to get very comfortable saying “Can you ask Beth” when someone asks for time to talk about something. This is incredibly hard if you’re used to helping people through servant leadership as it feels counter initiative. But part of this is being realistic that you can’t help everyone right away and you have to have a triage system, that system for me is Beth — she is my first and last line of defence.

2. You have to share extra context to help them be effective

For Beth to be effective, I have to give her context. She needs to know what my priorities are, who needs the most help right now and what external events I have going on. Sometimes I do this well, sometimes I don’t, but it’s noticeable when I do. Sometimes it’s something small like referencing what a conversation relates to when asking her to free up time in my diary (see below), other times it’s making sure we sync for 30mins to plan next week and prioritises potential clashes. Knowing if next week is going to be hectic or not is so comforting when heading into a weekend.

3. Give feedback, ask for help

Like so many partnerships, feedback is crucial, otherwise each party simply doesn’t know if they are doing their part right. I need Beth to let me know if she has too much on, so I can take things off her plate; she needs me to let her know if there is a process change we need to make, rather than have me get frustrated. Only by doing this will you get stronger as a team together.

If all of this sounds crazy..

Well it would have to me a year ago too! But realising that I need to protect myself in order to still be healthy is ok! We’re all just humans making it up as we go along, the more help we get for each other, the better off we’re all going to be.

Also didn’t work out the above on my own, Beth basically sat me down and explained it all to me, so she has not only has changed my life by doing these things, but she has also educated me along the way. Beth you are the best :)

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Benji Portwin

Benji Portwin

VP Product @accuRx . Previously @HawkfishNYC, @Monzo, @Spotify, @NHSDigital, @GDSteam