From P.A. to V.A. and Back Again
By Tanya Kuhrt
It’s been a year of big change for me. In April 2018 I was applying for jobs, having spent the previous five years working for myself as a freelance Virtual Assistant. I’m now working full time as an Executive Assistant in Central London. Wait, what? I hear you say. Why on earth would you give up the freedom and flexibility of being your own boss for a full-on, demanding 9-5 requiring a daily commute? And just when you’ve turned 50!? Let me take you back in time. The year is 2012, a traumatic event in my life had occurred, and I was applying for a new job for the first time since 2001. My confidence level was zero, the job market had become ruthless and it felt like the C.V.s I was sending out were lost in cyberspace never to be looked at by an actual human. Getting a job suddenly seemed to be all about social media, and who you knew - but I wasn’t on LinkedIn and barely had a Facebook account. I got nowhere with my job applications. An old contact got in touch to see if I could help with typing up some documents and it gave me an idea. I would set myself up as a freelance Personal Assistant (P.A.) - there must be plenty of potential clients. I quickly found out that there were lots of others like me out there, and they called themselves Virtual Assistants. I plunged myself into the digital world, familiarising myself with cloud software, productivity apps and - crucially, social media. I discovered the world of small business networking which was a revelation to me, and became the source not just of clients but of many new friends too. I absolutely loved it - and it was perfect for a parent. My daughter was ten and being a Virtual Assistant (V.A.) meant I could work flexible hours from home. It wasn’t all plain sailing though - I had to work hard at learning how to sell myself and it took me months to start building up a decent client base. It turned out I was rather good at sales - who knew?! I had a wide variety of clients, no two days were ever the same and I gained a bunch of new skills along with a massive boost to my confidence. I was thriving on it all. The icing on the cake was when I won the Best Newcomer Award at the VA Conference in 2014. So, why did I decide to give all that up and go back to nine-to-fiving? In short, after four years of it, I was beginning to go stir crazy at home. At first, my daughter was still at primary and at least I walked to the school and back twice a day. But by 2014 she was walking to secondary school and back alone - I was no longer needed for the school run! So I was at home in the morning…. at home in the daytime….at home in the evening….and becoming less and less motivated to go out anywhere. I just sat at my desk working away! I was a workaholic and took on too much work. In 2015 I slipped a disc as a direct result of continual sitting and lack of exercise. My lifeline was networking - I regularly went to the meetings and met up with people here and there - but it was still only getting me out of the house once or twice a week. Don't get me wrong - there were lots of things I loved about being a V.A. and it's fantastic for working parents - but I needed a change, and recognising this coincided with losing one of my regular clients. So I decided to start applying for jobs. I needed to get back out into the big wide world again. I was absolutely terrified. I hadn’t had a great experience applying for jobs back in 2012 but I was a different person now and determined to succeed. I knew I didn’t want to go back into the corporate world - I wanted something I could get my teeth into and really make a difference. Perhaps a start up where I could make it my own, and be independent - with a boss who didn’t breathe down my neck all the time…but were there any P.A. jobs like that out there? I threw myself into learning about the latest interview methods, I bought Why You? 101 Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again (highly recommended), I went to a Guardian Masterclass , I taught myself about competency based interview techniques (which I HATE). However when it came to the actual interviews I was so nervous I was absolutely awful. Just when I had started to think I was too old, at 50, to get a job, an agency called me and invited me to an interview with a biomedical research company, Prokarium . The more I looked at the job description and researched the company the more I liked it. Unfortunately though, it was full time and I wanted to let myself back into employment gently with a part time job - so I decided to just treat it as interview practice. Because I wasn’t really intending to go for it, I was relatively relaxed and the interview went well! they offered me the job and I liked them and the company so much I decided to accept despite the hours. I couldn’t wait to start. These were scientists - really interesting people, doing cutting edge research in biomedical research that could potentially make a massive difference to the world. You couldn’t get further away from corporate! It was a growing company, and there was a big challenge involved - part of my job would be moving their H.R., Finance and IT operations down from Keele where they had previously been located. They wanted someone who could work independently, take up a project and make it their own - someone with lots of experience which meant that far from being a handicap, my age was an advantage. Nearly a year later and I’m absolutely loving it, happy that my job gets me out of the house every day. I’ve also taken one of my favourite parts of being self- employed with me: networking! I’m on the board of The Essex PA Network which holds events to bring PAs VAs and Admin professionals together for support and development. It’s been an amazing journey going from PA to VA and back again. And I wouldn’t rule out returning to the VA world one day, perhaps in later life as I move towards retirement. There would be just a couple of ground rules - don’t take on too much work and get myself a dog so I’m forced out for exercise!