x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Behind every successful executive is a hardworking personal assistant

Keeping up with Sir Richard Branson's international schedule would be a tough job for anyone, but for his PA, Helen Clarke, it's all part of the job.

British secretary Helen Clarke, left, is the personal assistant for Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group. Courtesy Gus Powell
British secretary Helen Clarke, left, is the personal assistant for Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group. Courtesy Gus Powell

British secretary Helen Clarke, 36, is the personal assistant of Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group. Having left school at 17, Ms Clarke worked in hospitality and as an office manager for a security company before becoming a flight attendant with Virgin Atlantic in 2004. Two years later she became a floating personal assistant at Virgin’s head office in Crawley, West Sussex, moving to Mr Branson’s private office on his own 74-acre island, Necker, in the British Virgin Islands, as the assistant to his then PA in 2007. A year later his PA left and Ms Clarke was promoted. Now she works as Mr Branson’s only PA and has her own assistant. Ms Clarke is speaking at the two-day Executive Secretary Live event in Dubai at the Oberoi Hotel, which begins on November 18, in a bid to lead change for executive and personal and administrative assistants, who often go unrecognised for the expertise they deliver.

What’s the most important skill to have in your job?

It’s important to have a sense of humour, especially at work in a hectic environment. Work hard, be flexible, have fun and laugh at least once a day. If you know your job, everything else will fall into place.

What are your most common duties?

Going through and answering all of Richard’s emails with him. He gets a ton every day and he likes to keep on top of them as much as possible; he likes everyone to get a response.

Do you have to travel much?

The logistics for our hectic schedule – I travel with him constantly – are ongoing and changing most days. Organising this is a joint effort between myself, Richard and the various teams we have around the world. (Ms Clarke missed this interview first time around because she was travelling with Mr Branson in South Africa and he urgently needed her in a meeting.)

And the most unusual?

There is nothing “unusual” about any of my duties, although other people may think that some are … Having done this job for almost eight years, even the most potentially unusual of things seem quite normal now.

Do you help organise his personal life, sports and hobbies too?

His personal life is mixed in with his business life so, yes, I organise that with him as well.

Mr Branson actually seems like a very organised person – or is this his PA quietly at work in the background?

He is pretty organised but, with so much going on, he leaves it up to me to organise 95 per cent of his time so he can get on with the really important stuff.

Delegating is often hard when you are a manager – how good are you?

Richard is a good delegator and I like to think I’ve got better at it. I’m always learning.

One of Mr Branson’s former assistants, Sam Cox, was turned down for a job as a member of the Virgin cabin crew team but ended up as his PA a decade later. What do you think about his philosophy that you should treat people who don’t get jobs as well as those who do?

I completely agree with Richard’s philosophy. You should treat everyone with the same respect, especially if they have been brave enough to go for a job in the first place. There’s no need to be unfriendly when turning them down for a job, as you may really want them for something else in the future. Sam and I worked together for four years as Richard’s PAs, and we are still very close. I’m actually planning a trip to see her in Florida, where she is now based. I’m also really good friends with quite a few of the other incredible women who worked as Richard’s PAs for many years – most of them have continued to work for Virgin.

You’re going to be speaking at the Executive Secretary Live event – are you nervous about being in the spotlight?

It’s usually Richard on stage answering questions while I watch in the background, so this is going to be a very unusual thing for me to do in relation to my role.

If you weren’t working as Mr Branson’s PA, what would you be doing?

I would possibly still be a PA. But I’ve also always wanted to have my own bar and restaurant in Ibiza. I began my work life in hospitality when I was 14 and absolutely loved it. It’s hard work but you can also have a lot of fun if you’re working with a great mix of people.

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