Q&A with Gemma Hughes: Outstanding Achievement Award Winner 2020

Written by: Imogen Hartley
Published on: 8 Jul 2021

In a year which saw business support professionals step up in ways no one could have foreseen, the Outstanding Achievement Award at our 2020 PA of the Year Awards felt more meaningful than ever.

Unlike the other three categories, the Outstanding Achievement Award cannot be nominated for; the judges choose a candidate from the pool of nominees who they feel is a true champion of the profession.

Gemma Hughes’ inspiring levels of commitment and care in her working life shone out to the judges, with Gemma’s boss, Chris Leader, describing her as a “true inspiration to all staff and students in the Academy.”

We spoke with Gemma to find out more about her journey to the awards.


Hi, Gemma! How did you become a Personal Assistant?

“I became a PA literally by chance. I went to a staff and partners event at my husband’s place of work, and he introduced me to the owners of the business (who were husband and wife). They asked what job I was doing at that moment in time and when I explained that I was in a job that I wasn’t particularly enjoying, they said ‘why don’t you come and work for us?’ I did that and worked in their call centre for 12 months when an internal position as a PA was advertised. They were looking for their very first PA, somebody who could multitask between business and personal duties. I was successful with that interview and the feedback they provided was ‘You got the job because of the little thoughtful things we have seen whilst you’ve been employed at the company.’ One gesture was providing a little gift bag full of things to keep their 2-year-old occupied at a dinner event. ‘Always thinking out of the box’ they said. I went on to work for them for 11 years."


Can you tell us about your role as PA to the Vice Principal of Salford City Academy?

“My role at Salford City Academy is worlds apart from my very first PA role. I went from 11 years in a corporate and personal PA role to working in a secondary school – two very different places of work indeed.

“No two days as PA to the Vice Principal at Salford City Academy are ever the same. Things can change very quickly and what is most challenging is when you have your day planned with the tasks you want to complete (a very standard trait of a well organised PA) and none of them get done due to other priorities that occur in the day.

“I’ve had to learn lots of new things whilst being in a school environment including child protection, working in ‘timetable periods’ when scheduling meetings instead of actual times of the day and adjusting to dealing with the ever-changing day.  One new thing I found particularly difficult when I started this role was adjusting to work colleagues and students calling me ‘Miss’.  When I first started in the role, I would often ignore a colleague or student (unintentionally) as I didn’t know they were talking to me. That took some getting used to as that never happens in a corporate environment!”


What do you love about being a PA?

“I love the feeling of being valued. Someone whose opinion really matters and the sense that by supporting the Vice Principal, you are ultimately making a real difference. My organisation and ability to ‘get things over the line’ allows the Vice Principal and other members of SLT to continue with their work knowing that they have the support of somebody they trust and the knowledge to complete tasks the way that they want them completing.”


You were nominated by your boss Chris Leader for the PA of the Year Awards – a nomination in which you are described as “always positive, forward thinking and proactive.” How did it feel to have your hard work recognised in this way?

“It was lovely to be recognised this way by a boss I really love to work for.

“Chris and I have worked together for just over two years and as I’m sure many of the other PAs will agree, they didn’t think their boss had it in them to write a nomination that was so heartfelt (as we are the ones that usually do everything for them!) He really surprised me with his kind words. Chris had never had a PA before I started at the Academy and I’m glad that I have had the opportunity to provide support that is both proactive and forward thinking. I’m always positive because of the support I have received from both Chris and all my work colleagues. When you are supported, going above and beyond in your work is an absolute pleasure. It encourages you to want to go even more the extra mile to show your appreciation for that support.”


How did you find the PA of the Year Awards interview process?

“I was really nervous at first. I hate interviews! However, I didn’t need to worry. It was lovely and I had such a good time having a chat over Zoom. I felt really at ease and had a laugh too, at my expense!”


This year’s PA of the Year Awards was held virtually for the first time due to Coronavirus. How did you find the ceremony?

“It was lovely and well planned. It is obviously lovely to go to an actual party where the partying probably would have continued afterwards but in the current circumstances I was positively ‘buzzing’ after the event finished, and I loved the dress code too – even if we were on a Zoom call.”


How does it feel to be the recipient of the 2020 Outstanding Achievement Award?

“It feels great! All my hard work and determination hasn’t gone unnoticed.”


How did your colleagues and boss react when they found out you had won a PA of the Year Award?

“They were thrilled. I received a text message minutes after my name was announced from the Principal of the school and the following morning a ‘shout out’ in the staff briefing. This was followed by many ‘Congrats’ emails from colleagues. It was really lovely!”


Do you have any good stories from your time as an EA?

“I’ve had many stories – many funny ones in the corporate role, from arranging Olly Murs to appear at a party with his mammoth ‘rider list’ to totally different stories in the school environment – including replacing Chris’s chair one day with a ‘doll house sized chair’. We love to have some fun at work!”


It would be amazing if you could tell us in your own words why PAs and EAs are so essential to the organisations and individuals they work for.

“PAs and EAs allow their boss to continue their work as they know that the tasks that need doing can be done by their PA. PAs are often a ‘mini me’ of their boss - understanding workloads, being privy to sensitive information. They are therefore able to support at all times.”


What advice would you give to other Assistants hoping to replicate your success?

“Unfortunately, I’ve had health challenges since starting at Salford City Academy – things that I always thought ‘that will never happen to me’ (and certainly not 7 months into my role at the Academy). My advice would be ‘you never know what life is going to challenge you with, so just go for it and you will never have any regrets!’”


Have you, or someone you know, done something outstanding this year? Click the button below to submit your nomination today.