Real EAs of Wellington: a Q & A with Charlie Dickson

Business Support
Charlie Dickson

Charlie Dickson

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with one of Wellington’s Executive Support superstars and get to know what she loves, what makes her tick and how she has carved out an amazing career. Charlie Dickson, Office Manager at New Zealand Consulting Engineers Limited, has a fantastic reputation in the Wellington market. I must admit, every time I meet with Charlie, I can’t help but leave with a huge smile on my face, and many laughs along the way – Charlie’s sense of humor is second to none. I think Charlie is fantastic at what she does, so we sat her down to find out more about how she has got where she is today.

Tell us about your pathway to becoming an Executive Assistant (EA).

I knew at age 9 that I wanted to be a secretary when I grew up.  My dad took me into my uncle’s office and this larger than life, very professional looking woman was sitting behind the typewriter.  I made sure my uncle brought that typewriter home that afternoon – I spent the evening on it, barely breaking for dinner, and didn’t go to bed until very late.  At age 11, I started teaching myself shorthand.  At 21 I was working in San Diego for Sir Michael Fay on the NZ Challenge for the America’s Cup.

San Diego Union front page

Here’s a photo of me on the front page of the San Diego Times… well, my skirt at least!.  I think those are the highlights, to be perfectly honest!

What’s your funniest/most embarrassing moment as an EA?

One day I stood at my boss’ door demanding he get to a meeting, or make a phone call, or something like that… and I guess my chest was pretty puffed out.  His response was simply, “You look like a [swear word] penguin.”  From then on, I was Penguin and he was Dolphin (so professional!).  It’s one of those “you had to be there moments”, but 23 years later we still call each other by our aquatic names.

What’s been your biggest challenge in your career?

Not getting bored, I think.  The need to stay engaged has meant that I’ve worked in a variety of industries and have been fortunate to gain a wide breadth of skills.

Who do you admire and why?

Any great leader, who has a very strong sense of how invaluable a great EA really is, publicly recognizes the work they do (which often goes as ostensibly unnoticed) and treats their EA – and other EAs – as equals.  When I meet people like this in my career, I make an effort to continue staying in touch with them… without being too “stalky”, of course!

If you could do any other job in the world what would it be?

Anything working with animals, preferably birds.

What’s the best piece of advice that’s helped you in your career?

In my first PA job at 19 years old for a large company, for some reason the CEO’s PA was always mean to me.  Back then, CEOs’ PAs tended to be much older and we were pretty intimidated by most of them!  I think it was at least a whole year before the CFO casually stood next to me and said, “You know why she doesn’t like you, don’t you?  Because you’re a better PA than she is.”  Unfortunately it took at least another ten years of similar comments until I actually believed I was any good at what I did!  Now when I hear of ‘younger’ PAs having similar experiences with more senior EAs, a lot of the time it turns out that the more senior ones are simply intimidated by how good the more junior ones are and/or protective of their position.

As CEOs’ EAs, part of our role is to mentor and provide opportunities for those who might be less experienced.  The best way I have personally found of doing this is to get other support staff in the company to sit in my seat when I’m on annual leave.  This is obviously good for the big boss, but also a great opportunity for others to see what it’s like in that role.  Every time I’ve done this, I’ve been well aware that the person filling in for me will inevitably be able to show me up in an area where I’m perhaps deficient.  This ability to “let go” and be prepared to be shown up by ostensibly less experienced support staff is one of the qualities I see consistently in the exceptional and very experienced EAs I come into contact with.

What’s your favourite piece of work wardrobe?

I don’t really have a favourite, but what I do tell PAs/EAs is this:  When someone your boss hasn’t met before comes to your office for the first time, when you greet them and shake their hand, you should be dressed so well that they mistake you for your manager.

Where is the best place in Wellington to get a coffee/drink?

I’m not really a fan of “franchise” coffee outlets, but you can’t beat the staff at Columbus Coffee on Featherston Street.  They treat everyone as their favourite customer, and even try to write your name or initials on the top of your coffee!  For after work drinks, Avida Bar has the best tapas and you can actually have a conversation without competing with the music.

If you were not living in Wellington – where would you be and why?

San Francisco.  Much like Wellington (including the propensity for earthquakes, unfortunately), but better.


Thanks Charlie for taking the time to sit down with me and share some of your experiences. Watch this space for more insights from the Executive Support community here in Wellington.