Interview with Holly Wallace

Personal Assistant to Planning & Programmes Director, Northern Rail

How did you get into the rail industry?

It was a bit of both. Working in broadcast media ITV and smaller indies organising filmshoots in TV for 13 years and after endless fixed term contracts I wanted a more permanent settled role. Looked at roles where my skills were transferrable and a PA seemed to be perfect.

When my contract at ITV finished just before Christmas in 2012 I decided not to look for anymore media work and change industry completely even if it meant being unemployed for a little while. Took a big risk. The stress of the job, in particular the commute over to Leeds in a camper van every day, was meaning that I was exhausted and not getting to spend any time with kids so work/life balance was completely off kilter.

I applied and was interviewed by Barry Graham and Pat Beijer – Pat spoke at a women in Northern event recently.

Getting a job at Northern was completely by chance but out of all the jobs I applied for (NHS, educational establishments, charities) it was the one I most wanted.

What do you do?

In 1998 I went straight to uni after my a’levels where I studied Czech Writers in society, English lit and philosophy but dropped out after 3 months. Dropping out was the best thing I ever did and these days I think degrees are so expensive that unless it is critical for your career (vet, doctor etc) then it’s better to get an apprenticeship or experience in an industry.

After leaving uni I worked at Glasgow University library as a library assistant and then gained a place on an in-house training scheme at BBC Scotland in Glasgow. Learnt how to use a radio desk and aspects of TV production. Started working as a radio researcher on the Fred Macaulay show for BBC Radio Scotland and then as a TV researcher and then spent 13 years as a production co-ordinator for a number of TV companies.

Co-ordinated TV programmes for ITV, BBC, Channel 4, Sky, Discovery
Channel 4’s Top 30 Comedy Shows,
Celebs I have organised interviews with include Spice Girls, Cilla Black, Barry Manilow, Katherine Jenkins, Miss Piggy, Liza Minnelli, Cliff Richard, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Corrie stars, Ben Elton

Transferrable skills

  • Diary management for TV Directors transferred to diary management for Company Directors.
  • Logistics of organising complex film shoots (locations, transport, catering, permissions) transferred to logistics of organising visits from the DfT
  • Obtaining availability for celebrity interview transferred to availability of attendees from stakeholders and clients
  • Confidential nature of working with stars transferred to office confidentiality
  • Schedules for filming transferred to meeting agendas
  • Post production paperwork and transcription of interviews transferred to minute-taking and formatting documents and reports
  • Greeting audiences for shows, greeting meeting attendees
  • Polite telephone manner as a researcher speaking to celeb agents, hospital patients and their families, police officers, council officials, joe blogs public transferred to confident nature on the phone speaking to all levels of people
  • Spreadsheet skills to keep track of interviewees and footage gave me the skill and ability to monitor info and keep track

I joined Northern Rail as PA to the Business Development Director on a maternity cover contract, I then gained the role of PA to HR Director when this contract ended and currently work as PA to the Planning & Programmes Director so I’ve been about a bit. Rob has an exec team of 3 women so we are very much represented in the P&P department. These three ladies then oversee other members of the department which totals about 45.

What is a typical day/night?

There isn’t really a typical day as the role can be so varied. But if I had to sum it up it would begin and end with my ‘To Do’ list. The number of balls you juggle in a day can be extraordinary and in order to prioritise and keep track of everything you need to be incredibly organised. I have a pad with pen and a highlighter I use to cross things off. Everyone does it differently whether using Outlook Task Manager or a pen and paper!

I therefore come in take a look at my list for the day and see if anything is particularly pressing before starting to read through emails. Emails once dealt with are either deleted or filed in sub-folders and anything which hasn’t been dealt with remains in my inbox until I can cross it off the list and send to a folder. It’s another way of keeping on top of things.

Regular tasks on the ‘To Do’ list involve setting up meetings and teleconferences, booking travel and accommodation, calling up purchase orders and processing invoices, taking and distributing minutes, collating information for reports, updating annual leave calendars and reconciling credit card expenses with …all of which sound incredibly simple but can be quite complex. Non-typical tasks include things like organising the annual Angel vs Northern cricket match!

What aspects of the job do you find the most challenging?

Communication is key and the biggest challenge can sometimes be getting a response to emails or queries. As a PA you need to tread a fine line between hassling the life out of someone and gently pushing for an answer.

Obtaining availability from a list of 20 people who are needed at a meeting the following week can be a nightmare and communication can be a challenge and it’s a really busy industry with people often working out of office and away from their desk.

Also the abbreviations! People assume you know your PPM, CTM, LNE and TOC when you first start in the industry so it takes a bit of getting used to as does knowing the difference between a flange and a bogey!

What do you like the most about your job/the rail industry?

I have to say the people to be perfectly honest. It’s a really diverse mix all of whom (those I’ve met anyway) seem to have a real passion for their jobs and work hard to reach goals and targets. Attending a Women in Northern event last year was brilliant as I got to meet and speak to so many people in different areas of the business – from revenue protection to engineering and I think the industry could benefit from more events like this which raise awareness of roles and responsibilities.

I also like that it is a very structured industry with a lots of knowledge and help available.

Personally with my job, I like that most days are different and I have had the opportunity to work alongside a number of departments in Northern including Business Development, HR and now the Planning & Programmes.

I greatly enjoy logistical planning. Most recent challenge was a last-minute visit from the DfT which involved a trip to a community rail project at Accrington, a depot tour of Neville Hill and a journey to Huyton and Roby to view work on the Northern Hub.

Projects I provide support for include the new Tram Train Scheme between Sheffield and Rotherham , NW Electrification and close collaboration with Northern & DfT in franchise discussions.

The close relationships I have managed to build are really important and I work in a brilliant team of people…all of whom came to my wedding after only 6 months at the company.

I also work with PAs and staff from Angel Trains (I organise an annual Northern vs Angel cricket match), Network Rail, SYPTE, WYPTE, Abellio, Serco and have been invited to a number of PA networking events this year.

Northern Rail are striving to be forward thinking and put people at the heart of their values.

What made/makes you stay in the rail sector?

The people, the benefits, the pension package. It’s a really interesting industry. Having a pass for me and the family means we can jump on a Grand Central train to London and spend the afternoon going round an exhibition at the tate or an evening at the theatre without it costing the world.

What do you think could be improved within the rail industry for you personally?

A permanent contract! Still some stigma and negativity surrounding flexible working with the opinion that working from home is a bit of a skive. More training opportunities available. Mentoring scheme. The chance to experience other departments and roles. Trips to a depot.

What do you think the rail industry should start doing, stop doing or continue to do to support women within the rail industry?

Job roles be more widely advertised in the press. I came across my role via the local jobcentre but have never seen anything in my local newspaper! Continue with flexible working arrangements. Advertise schemes such as childcare vouchers and other benefits more widely.

What about to attract more women within the rail sector?

Advertise widely and have a presence at career events at universities and colleges. Build stronger links with local jobs centres and educational establishments. Provide more information about the different roles and try to overcome the perception that it is a male dominated industry

What would you say to a young graduate/woman considering a career in rail?

Benefits are fantastic. Good way to get a foot in the door and progress your career. You can start in one role but have the opportunity to go for others within the industry once you have that foothold. It may appear to be a male dominated industry but that is less and less the case these days and train companies actively want to recruit women.

What would you say is the biggest achievement of your career to date?

As a woman my biggest achievement has been to remain in full-time employment and have employers that allow me to juggle the demands of being a working mum. Proud of the fact that I’ve had very few periods of unemployment.

Why did you join Women in Rail?

It’s such a great representation of the industry and a platform where women can network with others. Provides guidance and support to help women progress their careers. Come out of events feeling a big boost to confidence.

 

Interviewed May 2014