While I was working for Shell International Chemical Company, my personnel adviser sent me the details of this job. I was a little unsure as to whether I ought to apply, since the job was a more senior role than I would have considered myself. But I bore in mind what the Principal of my Secretarial college had said to us: "Never be afraid of a job which is a bit beyond you; it's the only way to find out your potential and capabilities."
Shell UK is the operating company for all Shell's UK-based business; it encompasses Shell Chemicals UK, Shell UK Downstream and Shell UK Exploration and Production. My introduction to the job was a baptism of fire; I had to get to know so many people. There are 2,000 employees within our building alone. It wasn't until I had experienced the entire 12-month planning cycle that I could feel completely confident.
The culture of Shell is that, as it is a global organisation, people move around within it, and as a result I have now worked for four chairmen. You can't underestimate the continuity that a PA can provide. I have been in the company for 24 years and seen great changes in the style of management, from being formal to being more relaxed. I am now on Christian name terms with Chris Fay, the current chairman, and we even have dress- down days.
Each chairman brings his own personality, interests and perceptions to his role, and attitudes have varied according to what the chairmen felt they needed from me. Some have been very independent; others less so. Of course, it hasn't always worked perfectly; there have been hiccups, but I've learnt a lot from each boss.
Whenever a new chairman comes, it's important to make clear that my loyalty lies with him rather than with the previous chairman.The key thing is to be adaptable. I already knew Chris from his previous role as MD of Exploration and Production; nevertheless, when he arrived here three years ago we had to work at building up a close professional relationship. I need to be able to sense the chairman's mood, to be sensitive to his situation and behave appropriately. It's important to know when to stand back and give Chris space, and when to take the lead. Similarly, Chris doesn't breathe down my neck, and he allows me the authority to act on his behalf, which other colleagues need to understand. He is incredibly patient, approachable and informal whilst being very astute; he doesn't miss a trick.
The oil world is a high risk area, and when things go wrong it's an awful experience. Working for the chairman means that there is no way you can't be involved in the crises. For example I may be watching television at home and I will hear of an incident involving an oil spill; I hold my breath and just hope that it isn't Shell who are involved. It's the last thing in the world you want to happen, but you have to know how to manage it if it does, which is why we have an established crisis management system.
I sometimes get out of my ivory tower to see refineries, chemicals plant, and recently the Bunsfield Terminal which supplies petrol to all Southern retailers. I travelled with a tanker driver and saw just what a solitary life these drivers can have, which made me appreciate my office all the more.
I arrive in the office at around 8.15am. If Chris is in the office it gives me an opportunity to spend time with him before demands start being made on him. My role is to ensure that regardless of what goes on during the day, the machinery still moves smoothly. I deal with correspondence and incoming telephone calls and manage the diary, ensuring that Chris's time is being used as effectively as possible, which includes his being properly briefed. Organising his schedule involves arranging not only visits, meetings and travel, but also quiet time for Chris to think.
We have experts working with each sector and one can call on them at any point. Of course Shell UK has a separate department managing issues such as the environment, but none of us works in isolation and Chris's office is at the heart of the organisation. The buck stops here, so I do as much as I can to relieve the chairman of unnecessary pressures, using a combin- ation of judgement and initiative. We work very closely with the customer, and when one man wrote to complain that the complimentary rose he got with his petrol on Valentine's day had wilted by the time it got back to his wife, I took the letter in to the chairman because I felt he ought to see it. He instructed me to send the customer's wife a huge bunch of roses by way of apology. That one small gesture said more than all the letters in the world could have done. I also like the way that Shell looks after its staff in terms of both working environment and benefits. Recently I have begun lecturing at conferences about the role of the PA and sharing my expertise with others, an experience I have found surprisingly enjoyable.
Interview by Katie SampsonReuse content