Q&A: EA of the year

Zoë Robinson is an Award-Winning EA and Public Speaker

Zoë Robinson is an Award-Winning EA and public speaker who has led a successful and satisfying career in office support. Currently the EA to the CEO at nib, Zoe talks to Tribe about what she's learnt along the way, and explains why office support roles can lead to endless opportunities. 

What was it like to be PA of the year? And how did that even come about?!

Humility is not a strength of mine.... I’m a big believer in blowing your own trumpet; if you don’t back yourself no one else will. Executive PA Magazine’s PA of The Year Award is the oldest and most established awards for Personal & Executive Assistants and the only PA & EA awards that are run globally. So, being fabulous, I wrote my own (exceptionally comprehensive) entry, and had my Chief Executive Officer endorse me and submitted it.

Long story short, against some very tough competition; across the whole of Australia as well as New Zealand, my trumpet blowing paid off and I took out the top spot!

Having my skills verified and endorsed by an external body of international industry experts and being selected as an individual who is at the very top of their field - not only in my city, or my country, but across a whole continent - was a huge achievement.

Tell us your EA story from the start…

I was at University in London studying Fine Arts. I sold my end of year collection to an art gallery and decided I could paint and work at the same time. My first role began as a temporary general admin / reception role, but I was offered the EA role after a couple of months and ran with it.

I stayed at my first role for just over four years before moving on to work as the PA to one of the Partners at an Engineering and Urban Design consultancy. I loved it there; it was such a fun role and I held it for about five years, until my now-husband and I moved to New Zealand, where again, I worked as an Assistant. I now work with the CEO at nib, the second largest health insurer in New Zealand.

Was the dream always to be an EA?

I’ve been in the role for 20 years now and it’s something I’ve always enjoyed and felt confident I’m really good at. Because I took an EA/PA role as my first "real" job, I didn't have any misconceptions.

Overcoming preconceived ideas about the EA role and its responsibilities and objectives can sometimes be challenging; where the role was historically perceived as an evolution of a secretarial role and an ‘admin’ role, it has long since become a strategic leadership or management role and I’ve been able to evolve my career organically, to suit my skills.

Can you really have a fulfilling career as an EA? (playing devil’s advocate here!)

I think every career can be fulfilling, if you enjoy what you do. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been given the opportunity to speak at conferences across Australasia, to groups of 100 - 400 EAs, alongside some pretty inspirational people.

I've always been confident in myself and my abilities and have been fortunate to work with Executives who have given me the autonomy to shape the role as I saw fit. The Partner I worked for at the Engineering and Design Consultancy in London used to pull me aside if I referred to him as "my boss" or said I worked "for" him; he'd say "You don't work for me, you work with me." I think it was a very strong message and something that's stuck. To be successful in this role it's important your relationship with your Executive is a partnership.

What’s a typical day like?

Our CEO is awesome and I very much enjoy working with him. We have an amazing culture where development, innovation and taking ownership are encouraged. We’re in a fast paced environment, with competing priorities and no two days are the same. It’s challenging, but exciting.

Is stakeholder management a big part of your role – do you find it challenging? How do you deal with big personalities? Any advice?

To be the best I can at my role, I need to understand the way my CEO thinks. I need to understand what’s important to them, why they make the decisions they make, what they like, and what they don’t. I need to be able to second guess them, so I can make decisions on their behalf, that align seamlessly with theirs.

Everyone is different, and we all have different personalities. The way one person works can be completely different from someone else. A big part of my role is understanding how people think, why they do things, what motivates them, what their priorities are. When I’m working with multiple personalities, I think about how each responds and behaves. Understanding and accepting these differences, is essential in building strong relationships.

Have you developed leadership skills from your role as an EA? Tell us how… 

I’ve had Leadership roles throughout my career. Personal and professional development is important at nib and I’ve been fortunate to attend comprehensive Leadership courses in the last few years, as well as those on Strategy and a number of other focus areas. I currently lead the Business Support team, who provide support to our CEO and CFO and manage our workspace.

Indirect leadership; influencing, guiding and advising the wider leadership team is something that’s also part of the role. We have a Strategic Plan that looks at where and how we want the business to grow and it helps us understand our roles in that. I need to be completely across our strategy to support my Executives and our business; if I know what’s important to the business, I know what to prioritise, when. I really value being given the autonomy to perform at a management level and having my feedback and decisions trusted and respected.

Where can an office support role take you? What advice would you give to someone who is starting out in their PA career?

My team have a really broad remit within the New Zealand business, looking after our CEO and CFO, our workspace and facilities.

We work with stakeholders internally and externally, on all areas of our Strategic Plan, identifying what areas we need to focus on, where we have issues, and what’s working well. We run the Facilities in New Zealand – We look after the day-to-day running of the premises and we build and maintain relationships with our landlords and suppliers. We negotiate contracts for our Travel requirements, building requirements and new providers. We also look at our corporate responsibility; new ways to recycle; what vehicles we purchase.

We work on employee engagement, staff wellness initiatives and a heap of events. We want to make our business a safe and happy place to work – and we try and facilitate an environment where that happens.

In a PA or EA role, you’re in a unique position where you get an overview of the whole business; there are so many directions you can move in, or you can grow your skills as an EA. C-Suite EAs can earn 6-figure salaries, so it really all depends on your personal preferences, and what your motivators are.

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