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The Accidental Administrator

Told to us by Jennifer Brown


Yup. I really did get into my dream job by accident. Which just goes to prove that we end up right where we should be, even if that is not where we thought we were actually heading.

I was the teenager that caused Careers Advisors to tear out their hair in frustration. Unable to articulate what one career I wanted to follow, I was very clear about what I was NOT going to do; join the Civil Service, work in an office, or “push paper”. I certainly wasn’t going to become an administrator.

With such strong views on the subject, you might guess that the first organisation to offer to employ me was the Civil Service. I joined as a Temporary Admin Assistant, providing cover for various departments but although I did enjoy the variety and learned the roles very quickly, I was very keen to move on to roles with more responsibility and the ability to control my own workload.

The following year I joined the Civil Service permanently as an Admin Officer in search of this mythical responsibility. Posted to a role managing version controls and proof-checking documentation, I spent three years driving my boss mad with requests for more work, different work, extra responsibility and temporary promotion. He was probably glad to see the back of me, stirring up his nice quiet team with my demands to do more, be stretched and make my mark in the workplace. In fact that was pretty much the theme of the first ten or so years of my career. A string of general admin roles in a variety of sectors, each one carefully chosen in the hope of it being the role that would finally stretch me and allow me to shine as I was sure I could. Each one turned out to be too easy. One role was advertised as “incredibly busy”. I was even asked at interview if I handled stress well. I was so thrilled at the idea of taking a job where there would be enough work to create stress that I absolutely leapt at the role. Within two weeks I was doing my own job, my bosses job, volunteering to assist three other people in the department and still had acres of spare time. I started an Open University degree to provide the stretch that my career wasn’t providing and found studying independently in that way exhilarating. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I enjoyed the courses, loved learning new things, found managing my time extremely easy, and learned an awful lot about how to write persuasively, research topics and read selectively; all skills I found invaluable when I made my next career move.

So, there I am, head in my books when I’m not at the office, craving a role where I could manage my own workload the way I managed my learning and hobbies, yet increasingly disillusioned with admin as a career. So when I made my next career move I was just looking for a role nearer to home so I had more time to study. The role I applied for was at a new College and I was just recruited as “An Administrator”, one of a number who started on the same day. But I was super lucky. I got one of only two roles where I would manage my own workload, provide full admin support for over 40 staff, and set up new processes that would be used when the College opened. I loved that role from the first day. For the first time in my career I was fully occupied all day, challenged, stretched, trusted and a genuinely valued part of a close knit, professional team. I actually felt a huge sense of relief that there was a role I could enjoy, that there was something I was good at, that I wasn’t going to have to spend the next few decades of my life miserably counting the minutes until the end of the day as I had in most of my previous roles. I worked alongside some fabulous people, learned a lot about myself and my capabilities and woke up every single day with a smile on my face, eager to get to work and get on with the next challenge. Every subsequent role has been measured against the yardstick of this one. I was also lucky enough to work for an extremely experienced manager who, knowing how ambitious I was, coached me for promotion. On the same day that my promotion was confirmed I also got the letter from the Open University to say that I had gained first class honours in my degree.

I moved into a supervisory position, managing the team I’d just left, supported by the same boss who had seen my potential. He was a fabulous mentor to have and taught me a huge amount. I was always stretched in the role because the management team were always willing to let me take on new tasks. And I took on a lot of new tasks, expanding my role well beyond my job description. If I had to choose just one lesson I took from this role it was this; if you don’t have enough of a challenge in your role, look around you. Listen to what people are talking about. Find a problem you think you can solve. Present the problem and the solution to management and ask if you can run with it. If you are not allowed to do anything about it, you have at least shown promise. If you are allowed to run with it, you can really show what you are made of. Either way, you aren’t going to lose. Maybe if I had learned that lesson a bit sooner, my earlier career might have been a little more satisfying.

So, I’m pottering along, gathering up new responsibilities and new skills as I go and having rather a nice time in my role. I’ve taken a CMI Leadership and Management course by this time to consolidate and demonstrate my knowledge and my boss is starting to think about retirement in a few years. He is handing more and more work over to me which I am loving and I’m confident enough by now to be thinking to myself “hmmm, I rather fancy his corner office”. At which point both of us were made redundant, bringing that little fantasy to a screeching halt.

I got a new job straight away, with a large IT company. Not a sector I was familiar with it must be said, so there was a hugely steep learning curve. The tech staff appeared to be speaking in tongues, I had no clue how any of the processes worked, and on my very first day I was put in sole charge of an auditing project that I didn’t really understand. However, the role was pretty much organising, trouble shooting and problem solving though admittedly on a global scale this time. I had the skills, I just needed to learn how to apply them in a different way. So, I bought a dictionary of IT terminology, consulted Mr Google when unsure and practiced my “I really do understand what you are yammering about” face in the mirror until it was convincing. The IT sector moves rapidly so I was constantly learning new systems and processes and trying to get my head around new things. It was exhilarating, hard work, super challenging and I loved it. Even better, I was working from home. I had been a bit nervous about that part but found it worked better for me than an office. I had no problems with concentration and my only real difficulty was the lure of the biscuit tin. I even enjoyed blasting up and down the motorway to meetings. So I’m in the middle of a super challenging project, really enjoying my work, getting really good reports and making a name for myself as a reliable and determined problem solver who met her KPI’s… and …. I’m made redundant for the second time in two years.

This time I didn’t find a job right away and had to temp for quite a while. Unexpectedly, I really enjoyed temporary work. The work was varied and I had some longer-term assignments which were more challenging interspersed with some really fun short assignments. Highlights included working on a chocolate packing line (no, I wasn’t allowed to eat any) where I was too short to see into the boxes and had to be given a box to stand on. Standing in the snow doing visitor surveys during a sporting event. Acting as PA to a man whose desk was a living example of what an explosion in a paper factory might look like. And two stints as a waitress where I failed miserably in the “speed gravy carrying”, “pick up dropped cutlery whilst carrying soup” and “wash up eleventy billion items in ten minutes whilst also waiting tables and replenishing the café stock” challenges. Driving back from yet another job interview one day, I realised that I was really enjoying the flexibility and variety that temping offered. However, I wanted to have more choice in the roles I took and the chance to use more of the skills I’d gained over the years in a way that would benefit businesses. How I was going to do that I wasn’t sure. I kept on applying for jobs, but in the back of my mind I was turning over ways to have a more flexible working arrangement.

Then I read about something called a Virtual Assistant. They provide office support on a freelance basis and mostly worked from home. I had the right skill set, I loved learning new things (I’d have to keep up to date with new tech advances so I could share these with my clients) and I figured I had the determination to succeed in building up a business from scratch. And thus began my journey from employee to business owner. JJB Office Services officially opened for business in June 2016 and I’m currently working on a full time project as a temp whilst I build up my business and client list. I am enjoying both roles enormously. The early stages of business set up can be difficult and it may be one of the biggest challenges I’ve taken on. However, it is without doubt one of the most rewarding. I’ve done things I never thought I’d have the confidence to do and faced things that downright frightened me, but my confidence grows with every new skill I learn, and every new task I complete that brings me closer to my goal. So if you are thinking that business ownership might be for you, then go for it. My mentor frequently asks us what we are doing with our “one wild and precious life”. Well… what are you doing with it? Whatever it is, employee, employer, business owner, or a mixture of these, I hope it is something that thrills, excites, challenges and stretches you, because that is where the magic happens.

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