Role-holder interview: Caroline Coultascaroline coultas image

Q: Thanks for doing this interview, Caroline. Can you start by saying what your current job title is?

CC: My current job title is probably about to change. I started out as Project Finance and Administration Assistant. Half of my time was working with Lynn Farrell, assisting with the finances for the HR Directorate. The other half of my time was devoted to a JISC funded project called CREATE – so I did all the project’s finance for that. It was quite a big project and part of the role was to disperse monies to other universities for their projects.

Q: How long have you been at Brookes?

CC: Two years, and my role is now changing to take in marketing.

Q: It’s a role in transition and change, then

CC: Yes, the CREATE project has not quite gone, but should have by the end of August, even before, maybe.

Q: Can you give us a taste of the current content of your – well – changing role?

CC: Well, at the moment, it varies greatly from day to day. Some of my more repetitive tasks are running finance reports, checking balances against budgets, meeting with budget-holders on their finances, costing of projects, reporting to external funders on project finances.  Until recently, I’ve done a lot of minute taking, attending meetings with Workforce Development (RBDO) and external funders as well, arranging meetings, lots of communication work. I’m also the administrator for the Senior Staff Development Programme (SSDP), so with that I arrange one to one meetings with our external facilitators, I keep an eye on where people are with their 360 reports. I set up liaison between Real World group, who are our external facilitators, and delegates and also our staff developer. In my new role I’m going to be doing a lot of marketing-type activity, so I’ll be going to conferences. Holding stands, actually writing material for marketing.

Q: Can you say a bit about what sort of team you’re in?

CC: I’m part of the support team for OCSLD – that’s the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development. And, really, the support team have complicated and divided roles. We’ve got the Course Administrator for internal courses, the Course Administrator for external courses, we’ve got the Course Administrator for compulsory courses – that’s induction and health and safety related courses – and we’ve got a Web Developer and then the Finance and Administration Manager, who is also my line manager and we all support the very varied work of the Staff and Educational Development Consultants.

Q: What are the skills or the skills sets that are really important for you to own in this role?

CC:  You have be really organised, administratively, with an ability to use Word creatively. With ICT you have to have strong Excel skills. In the marketing role I will need strong presentation skills, and PowerPoint. Financially, I have to prove a good grasp of figures and numbers and communicate the analysis of that data. I have to have good, professional use of the English language – not to be underestimated – and summarising skills. Also, keeping and understanding confidentiality is key, especially with senior staff – although of course I don’t see any detail of their reports, there are certain things that may come out of workshops that I may have sat in that need to stay in that context. You need to be a good team player and enjoy talking to new people, and you need to have initiative and be proactive and there’s something in having enough confidence to talk with people at all levels of the organisation.

Q: Can you say something about your career history – about what journey you’ve taken to arrive where you are now?

CC: OK. I started off at Waitrose.  I worked on the checkouts initially. Then I got moved from working on the checkouts to working on Quick Check – which is where everyone scans their own shopping. I ended up becoming a“technical” person on that, so that when it went down it was down to me to fix it. The next thing I knew I had finished my A’ levels and was asked to go on the management training that Waitrose offers.

So I went full-time. I chose to do that rather than to go to university, really to suit my home life. I had a long-term boyfriend, I’d just moved out of home.  I didn’t want to start my career with, well, a load of debt. That’s why I decided to go with that, I enjoyed working at Waitrose at the time, and I seemed to have a good relationship with all them managers and teams – so I went that route. I was then made – well, they call it “third hand” - third in charge of the check out section and was moved around within the store, between various departments, as “third hand” of each one.

I completed the management training course then decided that, actually, retail wasn’t for me.

I decided Waitrose wasn’t for me, but I didn’t know where I wanted to be, so I went for a few jobs and I got offered two jobs within the space of a week. One was Assistant Manager of Cargo Home Stores in Abingdon, and it was a smaller store and they knew they were going to be opening a larger store in Didcot. So their view for me was that I would go and be manager of the Didcot store, based on me proving myself as Assistant Manager in the Abingdon store.

But the other job that I got offered – and which I did take – was Administrator of sample reception in a DNA testing company. Which was very different to retail. And I decided that that was going to be the best way for me to move forward, because I wasn’t sure if it was Waitrose or retail that I wanted to get out of, so this was a way into administration.

Within three months I was promoted to Manager of the administration team, and this was a case of leading a team. Our main focus was receiving the samples, they came in and we had to make sure that they were filed in the correct frozen facilities. Each one of them came with a card with a barcode on it, and there was a lot of data entry – you had to put them into the system. Then I was managing, making sure that the quality control on what was entered to the systems was correct. Also, you had to make sure that confidentiality was kept, because we were doing paternity testing and crime sample testing – and we did have some high-profile cases come through. You also had to make sure that you weren’t working on a sample of someone that you knew – I did have a case where a sample came through and it was a friend of a friend’s, so I had to declare that and I wasn’t allowed anywhere near that batch.

We also had to prepare the batches of frozen samples ready to go for testing – so I had to make sure that they weren’t out of the freezers too long, otherwise the samples lost their strength, and you weren’t likely to get a clear DNA profile, which was really important, obviously, with the police. That person you were processing may be in the cells and they can only hold them for so long, and if you don’t get that DNA profile done in time, that person can be released and potentially go out and maybe commit more crimes.

I then went through a big change in my personal life and decided that I wasn’t necessarily going to be the most effective manager so I decided to find an administration job based within an office rather than based within a lab. I thought this was still a valid career step in one way or another.  Lab work does have its pitfalls. Having gloves on all the time is frustrating – if you’ve got a cold and you have to have a face mask and a hair net on it can be frustrating and you had to go out of the room every time you wanted to sneeze – because with DNA you can’t go contaminating any samples, and I didn’t like typing with my gloves on.

So then I got a job as an Administration Assistant at a planning and environmental consultancy, within a planning team. And I think it was probably four – maybe five – months later that I was made Secretary.  So I was then secretary for seven of the planning consultants, one of whom was the senior planning director and that involved sorting out his diary. I was very much a PA really, and in addition I was taking on all of the invoicing. It was one of those jobs where you do a little bit of everything, to help out with the administration workload for the whole department.

So, I was doing the invoicing, I was ordering books and journals, I was arranging travel and hotels and accommodation, arranging meetings. It wasn’t totally necessary to understand the complex planning issues that were going on, but it helped and I naturally picked it up.

After being at RPS – the planning consultancy – for two years, I moved to the environmental team, which was a lot bigger. I was then secretary to six archaeologists and I also took on the invoicing for the whole environmental team. In particular I worked with the managing director on a large projected connected to Stansted Airport. We were invoicing about a quarter of a million every two months, it was a big project, lots of invoicing, I had to make sure that the purchase orders were all received before we invoiced and it was keeping on top of every account in a project-based company. I had to keep an eye on the accounts, as well – to let people know when we were getting a high volume of work-in-progress that hadn’t been invoiced. I had to inform managers when invoices that I had raised were not making 80% profit, or if we were writing off more than 20% of the work without covering it in the invoices. I had to start raising their awareness and initiate if things weren’t right. So I was keeping an eye on the accounts and making sure they didn’t get out of control.

Unfortunately, I had a bad time there – I was on the receiving end of some difficult relationships. The HR team were at the other end of the country, and I was warned off taking action.

So, I decided to look for another job. And that’s when I came to Brookes. I’d really enjoyed the finance work that I’d been doing, and the environmental side of things. But I wanted to keep the administration side of things going, so the job that I saw advertised in the Oxford Mail at Brookes looked perfect.

And it’s developed a lot beyond how it was advertised.

Q: Does your career now look very different to how you thought it would be when you set out?

CC: Yes.  I thought I was going to be a Manager at a Waitrose branch.

Q: Before you took up with Waitrose, did you have career plans? What did they look like?

CC: Yep. I was going to be a Graphic Designer.  I knew graphic design was going to be very hard, and I knew I didn’t want to go to uni, so I made the best of what I knew at the time.

Q: When you reflect on your career journey, were there any significant moments or real learning points or turning points for you?

CC: I’ve very much gone with what’s happening in my personal life – I’ve let what’s happening in my personal life guide me. I’m proud of myself – of taking myself out of the managerial role when I found it wasn’t right for me. The large changes I was going through were going to affect me at work – to some extent, they’d already started to - and I knew that it wasn’t fair on those that I was managing and it wasn’t fair on me, and I’d have only got more stressed for not doing my job to the best of my ability.

Q: Does that say anything about managing and the managing skillset, as not actually being what you are interested in. That you were actually more interested in the finance skillset and the admin skillset?

CC: Yes, I’m more interested in getting real job satisfaction out of what I do and it wasn’t happening in the manager role.  In all honesty I wasn’t in the manager role for very long before my personal situation got hard so I didn’t really have time to give it a go. The other thing was, our team was a team of four when I started and by the end of the year, it was a team of ten. There was a lot of change going on and that was why it wasn’t a good role for me at the time, because you have to be on top of a team that is changing quickly.

Q: So appraised the situation, did a reality-check?

CC: Yes and I could do it, I think I could still do it. I don’t think it’s where I want to go, but possibly – who knows? I’m very interested in management techniques and I’ve been very lucky with my managers. I’ve now got the best manager I’ve ever had – she’s great, and I can quite honestly say that what’s kept me here - above all the other interesting things - is my manager.

Q: When you think about your ideal career, what will it look like when you get there?

CC: I’d love to say, being at home and doing my paintings! I’ve got so many commissions at the moment. I’ve got a waiting list. Commissioned artwork is where I’d like to go. The thing that may hold me back on that is the solitary nature of it. I think I’d be better being part time in an office and part time doing what I love regarding my painting. It’s not that I don’t love my work, but where my real passion is in my artwork, and that’s my hobby. Where I’d like to be is to make money out of it.

Q: Any words of wisdom regarding career and self-development looking back on all that?

CC: I think the thing I’ve not been afraid to do is to change direction. And do take reality checks - they have been important to me. And you have to listen to what you enjoy doing.

Last update July 2011