Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your current role
Hello, I’m Alice Watkins and I am an Executive Assistant to First Assistant Secretary – Economic Division at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. I am supported by a small team of EAs and have just reached my 8-year EA milestone. I had a brief break from EA roles to work in business management at Defence Finance Group and facilitated the Defence CFO Five Eyes conference, which was an incredible experience. My background is largely in the private sector, including several years at PwC. My five-year-old daughter generally dictates my schedule outside of work and offers her unsolicited management and fashion advice on a regular basis.
What are three items you can’t work without?
A difficult question, but I’ve narrowed it down to two. The first is to have a sense of humour. I try and factor a bit of joy into every day by listening to podcasts or sharing a joke with colleagues, and I really enjoy sneaking an opportunity to make my executive laugh. Mental health aside, if you are finding it difficult to find some joy in your workday, it’s potentially time to consider a new role. The second ‘item’ I can’t work without is relationships. PM&C’s strong EA network is an incredible asset, fostered by regular meetings and Coffee Roulette introductions, and led by the very experienced and knowledgeable Bev Sims. I have found these networks invaluable to quickly develop my understanding of the Department during a very chaotic year. These relationships were particularly vital during the peak of the pandemic. We shared how our leadership groups were staying connected and managing geographically dispersed teams, and the conversation continues as we now manage a staggered return to the office. Networks operate in all directions, which is how I secured my role at PM&C, and for me, supporting the development of junior EAs and onboarding new EA colleagues is just as enjoyable as it is valuable in the long term. When I adapted our Division’s induction pack to include remote onboarding procedures, the first people I consulted were my EA colleagues, and the final product has been shared and modified for use across a number of teams. We all benefit from going above our individual roles and bringing our best to the broader Department.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work and life this year?
This year has been extraordinarily demanding for our staff, executives and ourselves. I find two of the most common traits amongst EAs are warmth and empathy. An emerging challenge is how to balance this willingness to help with the drain of increased emotional labour. We have suddenly become much more of a lifeline and sounding board – we are finding ourselves in a true leadership role. It’s important to care for ourselves by calling in help when we need it. I check in with our Employee Assistance Program at times and engaged a facilitator to enhance team communication (Capital EA, in our case), and I would absolutely recommend both. During the more chaotic moments, to quote a song from my daughter’s favourite movie (Frozen – a source I’m sure all good business leaders draw from), “Just do the next right thing”. It’s important to remember that today’s difficult situation is tomorrow’s STAR response in a job interview. When our next panel chair asks us if we have an example of dealing with a difficult situation, we’ll suggest that they find a comfortable chair, because 2020 has given us a lot to unpack. However, if you do opt to burst into a Frozen song mid-interview, please don’t say it was on my recommendation.
Best advice you have been given?
Many of the most valuable pieces of advice I have been ‘given’ are borrowed from my favourite actor (and if we’re feeling generous, my celebrity doppelganger), Tina Fey. The first is to say, “Yes, and…” In her case, this relates to comedic improvisation and how a ‘yes’ allows you to expand your scene and a ‘no’ closes it down. In a work context, ‘Yes, and…’ means saying yes to opportunities and coming to your executive with a solution, not a problem. “Yes, you can’t do this meeting, but these three potential delegates can, and I have gathered together this relevant information for whoever you choose to send”. As Ursula has said in a past podcast, you won’t always be right, but you will often be close, and it’s rare that your initiative is not appreciated. My second piece of advice is that the modern EA role can function as broadly as you’d like it to. My first executive told me that being an EA offers a unique insight into the inner workings of a business in a way that very few roles do, and I enjoy being part of resourcing and finance conversations, process improvement and inclusion and diversity activities. If you work for an executive who isn’t interested in you developing your skills and understanding of their strategic objectives and how you can support them, as I mentioned earlier, it may potentially be time to consider if the role is right for you!