Communication is key to being a great assistant, especially if you’re a PA to three Directors in the Group Communications department at the UK’s biggest retail chain. PA Life visited Tesco HQ in Welwyn Garden City to discover how Marie Bliss has honed her skills over 14 years…
How did you become an Assistant?
I stumbled into it 14 years ago and have never looked back! It’s a role into which I have grown and absolutely love. I’d previously had a role which took me away from home overnight and, with my children being so young, I was missing out on so many important moments. When this opportunity came along, on a temporary basis at first, I thought, ‘yes, I can so do that!’. How little did I know! It is such an intricate role, constantly changing and evolving, where you play organiser, peacekeeper, gate keeper, moderator, confidante, and partner in crime, all rolled into one… and so much more.
My first role as a PA was a baptism of fire. But I had a great and patient task master! It was an intense but fast way to learn the business, how to be a PA and how to make the role my own. Looking back, I think the latter is a very important part of being a PA. There is also a fine line between mucking in and getting your hands dirty, and ensuring that your colleagues respect that some areas are a no-go. Respect for what your remit does not include can be difficult to maintain without causing offence. I think it is about striking the right balance and I’m happy that I’ve mostly got that right. Respect is paramount. You should never ever go over the assistant, they are in charge!
What’s it like working at Tesco?
Retail is so dynamic – I know it’s a cliché, but no two days are the same. Diaries change by the hour, working in the communications team, it’s such a buzzy atmosphere. You can leave the office and diaries are all set for the following day. By the time you get home, it’s all change. But that is one of the things I love about the role, it’s never boring. There is such a great PA network here at Tesco too. One of them will know of a great app you haven’t heard of or an easier way to do something. Or just be happy to lend a supportive ear. That’s invaluable in a job like ours.
Everyone here who I have met is friendly, and I mean genuinely so. Even people who you do not know will smile and say ‘hi’ as you pass them. I did find this odd when I first started at Tesco, as it wasn’t an environment I was used to. But people here really do care. And several times a year, office staff go and help out in store, which is a real eye opener. Our teams in stores work so hard. If it weren’t for them and the work they do for our customers, I wouldn’t have a job!
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
That’s always a difficult question. Honestly? I am very proud of being a good PA for 14 years, starting in a role that was new to me and learning daily, from some great PAs, and never being too embarrassed or proud to ask for advice.
I’ve had several different directors in my time here so far, all different and all with their own ways of working and I’ve always adapted to those and worked well with them. I think having a great sense of humour and remaining confident and calm even when I do not always feel it (we’ve all been there) is a big achievement. That’s our job after all. I’d like to think my bosses have confidence in everything they ask me to deliver. They don’t need or want to know the detail, they simply want to know that all is in hand.
To this day, I also take great pride in making sure new members of the team are made to feel welcome. We were all new once and for each new person, starting their journey, in a new workplace can be a difficult path to navigate. So being a helping hand goes a long way for a nervous new starter.
How does your relationship with your current boss work?
Ah, I actually have three bosses and all are very different in their approach to how they use a PA. Some are very hands-on and tell you everything you need to know, others go off on a tangent which can prove troublesome! I’m sure other PAs will agree, we don’t like it when items pop up in our diaries that we haven’t put there! Ultimately, it’s about flexing your style to get the best out of each relationship. They are all lovely, and I am very lucky.
What are the most memorable moments in your career?
There are many, but one that stands out happened during the Iceland dust cloud incident, with someone’s nanny in a panic saying there were absolutely no flights back from her holiday, so she was going to stay another week. Needless to say, I found a flight and the nanny was back within 24 hours!
Others include taking part in the Tesco triathlon for Help for Heroes and having tea with a famous celebrity (I was actually struck dumb) to discuss their charity.
I only play a small part but there are so many things Tesco do that I am really proud to be involved with, from working with our charity partners, BHF, CRUK and Diabetes UK, through to all the work we do with food banks.
How has technology impacted your role and how do you use it on a daily basis?
Technology is an absolute godsend. It’s great to be able to receive and answer emails anytime, anywhere. You literally have your desk in your handbag. Plans always change, which means you need to stay in touch with your bosses, all the time. People are late, your boss is late, people get lost, people cancel at the last minute. The last thing you want is your boss sitting waiting for someone who isn’t going to be able to make it. It’s also nice to reassure the person who cannot attend that you’ve got their message, so they aren’t worrying. We work flexibly at Tesco and you can still be in touch, just with a little device.
Are you conscious of personal and professional wellbeing within your role and the company?
Wellbeing is something I am passionate about, and especially good mental health. It’s one of the many things Tesco focus on to support colleagues. On a personal level, I have been studying mental health and have passed my first level assessments and am now studying Level 2. Positive mental health and wellbeing is an agenda that everyone should be aware of, and I think this should start at school. Previously, Tesco was kind enough to give me the time to volunteer with HMP Send, mentoring female offenders who were soon to be released, offering support and guidance. It does strike a chord with me that if many of these women had found some sort of support sooner, they may not have followed the path that they did.
Any challenges to your career or daily work that stand out?
Time. Not enough time in the day – for me and the diaries I am managing! Trying to accommodate diaries, with people my bosses would like to see vs the people they need to see.
What advice would you give to aspiring Personal Assistants?
To be a good PA, I think you need to be organised, personable and confident, virtually or physically – all of these qualities apply to both. For me, a big part of being a PA is building that personal relationship. I gain a lot from the face to face interactions – reading a situation or acting on a passing comment. As a virtual assistant, you may lose that insight, so I imagine you’d need to ensure your boss was extremely precise and clear with their instructions. And network as much as you can!
And what’s next?
I’m not sure I’m typical, so getting higher up the ladder isn’t really what I am looking for. Now that my children are adults (I’m going to be a grandmother in January and I am beyond excited!), I’d like to perhaps merge my role with my studies, keep promoting positive mental health, and keep working with offenders and the Youth Justice System, to play my part in helping those who need it.
Family is very important to me and juggling home life with work life, when the children were young, was a constant struggle – feeling guilty, trying to make sure your children are happy, having to beg, borrow or steal childcare and doing your best at work. You don’t always feel like you’ve quite got it right but, at the end of the day, all you can do is your best, in all aspects of your life. I’m sure I haven’t got everything right, but I’ve got as near as I can, and that’s what it’s all about.
Photography: Dave Willis