Secretarial: Hungry for success

I Work For... JulIe Poelvoorde is PA to Linda Huett, The Vice chairman of operations at Weight Watchers UK Ltd, part of an international company
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I've never been grossly overweight, but at 19 I joined a Weight Watchers meeting when a friend wanted to lose several stone and needed my support. I liked the fact that I was allowed to eat everyday food rather than having to adopt a fad diet or take diet pills, and I soon reached my target weight. At the time I thought Weight Watchers was just a local group, in our cosy village hall. Three years later I attended an interview for an interesting-sounding job. It was only once I got to the office that I learnt it was Weight Watchers. While I was watching the hustle and bustle of marketing and accounts, the penny finally dropped and I realised that this was an international company.

I became secretary to Linda, who was then the trainee manager responsible for 600 leaders. Before, I'd worked for the Civil Service and was used to addressing colleagues as Mr this and Mrs that. But this is a friendly, laid-back company where everyone is known by their first name, so it took a while to learn who was who within the firm. Linda is American and says what she thinks, which I found a little frightening at first, yet it gave me confidence to see everything she had achieved for herself. We worked as a team for four or five years, but when she got promoted I didn't feel ready to join her and take on what I saw as a high profile, go-getting job.

Being a bit of a stick-in-the-mud I was not keen to change. But after 18 months I had enough confidence to join Linda in her new position as vice-chairman and found my new job wasn't so different. The big change was that I had to learn to deal with far more senior people: organising a conference for up to 50 managers could prove stressful, but it was also rewarding.

Obviously when you work for Weight Watchers you get an awareness of what you are eating, but everyone here is a different size. We are employed for our skills, not our figures - it's not the office of skinny women I'd envisaged. Admittedly the nature of our work means we think about food most of the time, which can make us hungry. If people see me eating something fattening at a social gathering they often tease me, or will confess to feeling guilty about eating in front of me - it's interesting how many people feel guilt about food.

At this time of year, after the Christmas bingeing, we know that the phones will soon start ringing non-stop: even I recently went back to Weight Watchers meetings, having put on rather more weight than I wanted to. We don't drag people in from the street; it's up to individuals whether they want to lose weight or not, but like the Government we do want to encourage healthy eating. Mind you, it's not all lettuce leaves and tomatoes; if you want biscuits you can have them, because there's always tomorrow.

But we do try to discourage people from automatically reaching for the biscuit tin after an argument, for example, advising them to opt for a nice, comforting bubble bath instead. I've talked to many people on the phone who have lost self-confidence because they are so upset about their weight. Yet having the courage to phone is an important first step and I enjoy giving them encouragement by explaining that each of the Weight Watchers leaders was once in the same boat as them. Even Linda used to be a member of a group before becoming a leader; I've seen her "before" photographs, in which she's hard to recognise.

Although I am sure that there are male Weight Watchers out there too, it's quite a female-orientated company full of women who in many cases have been housewives themselves, and understand the pressures on women running a home. It's one thing being a high-profile dieter like Oprah [Winfrey], with people to cook for her, but it's a different ball game for a normal person who has to provide large meals for her children and husband. As a mother myself, I don't think I would have been able to do this job without Linda's understanding; with three teenage daughters of her own she reassures me about my 12-year-old son. We are close: if I've got problems I will confide in her, and every Christmas my family visits hers.

I think that both Linda and my colleagues have a lot to do with the fact that I've stayed here for so long. Although I feel secure in my job I don't get bored, as we are constantly developing new projects. As someone who didn't like change, I have come full circle.