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Desiree Ashton

doing the legwork, so you don't have to

Tag Archives: success

MagicWhen did you last have a great day at the office? Is it something you experience regularly, or is that ‘great day’ feeling proving somewhat elusive? If constant fire-fighting and the pressure of a weighty To Do list are draining your energies, take a moment to consider how a little out-sourcery might transform your days from tragic to magic again:

Start with the end in mind – Get your week off to a great start by creating a thorough To Do list. This will organise your thoughts and allow you to quickly identify which tasks can be cleared from your desk and given to your virtual PA.  Once your list is collated, a quick briefing call with your PA will be all that is needed to offload those niggle-some tasks, freeing you up to focus on the stuff that really matters.

Think ahead – What’s in your calendar for next week, the week after… next month? Are there meetings or events coming up which require some background preparation?  Do you need to read up on a prospective new client? Consider tasking your virtual PA with completing the necessary preparation for you. A well-timed overview of facts and figures, not to mention some links to interesting pre-reading, will ensure you are knowledgeable, prepared and considerably less stressed on the run-up to the event.

Make room for success – Business, like life, does not always go to plan.  Take another look at that To Do list… is there anything else you can delegate to your virtual PA which will allow you to create more time in your week?  By clearing space in your diary, you build a natural contingency which will allow you to react more effectively should something change for the worse or not go to plan ….. And if your week goes swimmingly, you now have a spare slot in your diary to enjoy doing something that feels good – an extended lunch, coffee with a friend, or even sitting down to map out your next venture!

Transforming your days from tragic to magic again means tackling the problem head on and your virtual support is ideally placed to help you do this.  Some well timed out-sourcery may be all that’s needed to help you get your sparkle back.  No magic or spells required!

If you would like to find out more about how I help my clients get more out of their day, please visit my website or get in touch: pa@desireeashton.com

If you have enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my earlier posts on Improving Your Focus and Take Control of Your Diary.

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Balancing the demands of a fulfilling career and a busy social calendar is a common challenge faced by many business owners.  All too often a day, week or even a whole month can be consumed by a growing sense of frustration that there are simply not enough hours in the day to get everything done that you need or want to.  Frustration breeds fatigue, which can ultimately have a very negative impact on your overall productivity.

One of the quickest and most effective ways to remedy this situation is to go back to basics and take control of your diary.  Here are some simple pointers as to how:

1.  Work with only one diary – too many people fall into the habit of running a ‘work’ and then a separate ‘personal’ diary.  At worst, this can lead to missed appointments and diary clashes; at best it leads to you feeling stressed and overwhelmed by a constant stream of demands on your time. The solution:  Merge your two diaries and run them as one.  You are, after all, only one person.

2.  Categorise all your activities – once set up and running with one diary, colour-code your activities accordingly as either personal or professional.  Not only will this help you see at a glance which particular ‘hat’ you should be wearing, it will also allow you to sense-check that you are not overloading your days with all work and no play.  If there are other activities which you would like to attend more regularly, such as fitness classes, networking events or a monthly lunch with ex-colleagues, drop these in there, too.  It’s far easier to edit and remove these nearer the time if need be, than it is to shoe-horn them in at the last minute.

3.  Be realistic with all your timings – remember to include in your diary travel time to and from meetings and ideally allow for 15 minutes prep before and 15 minutes debrief time after business appointments.  Not only does this build in a natural contingency for minor shifts in your day, it also allows you to arrive prepared and then, equally as important, clear your mind afterwards, so that you can attend to your next task with a fresh head.

4.  Schedule your holidays at the beginning of each year – even if we don’t know where we want to go, most of us know more or less when we’d like to take annual leave, so diarise these nice and early to ensure that you can plan important meetings and projects around these key dates.  Holidays offer busy professionals an opportunity to shift down a gear and re-energise.  Regularly spaced breaks over a 12 month period will ensure you remain focused and fresh – the perfect cocktail for those seeking a return to success.

By taking control of your diary, you assume control of one of your most important assets: your time.  Planning how and where you spend this time, building in small contingencies and accepting that you are one person, as opposed to two separate people, will mean you retain balance and perspective in all areas of your life.

If you have enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy my earlier post on Improving Your Focus.

If you would like to find out more about how I could bring organisation to your business, please visit my website.

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For those who run a small business, no two days are ever the same.  Over the course of a normal working day, a small business-owner may be asked to sport a number of different hats – everything from personnel management through to financial control… with a possible detour into the role of marketing in between.  While on the one hand, this presents variety and challenge and the need to ‘think on your feet’, on the other, it can result in a sense of distraction, interruption and loss of momentum.

Regardless of the admin solution a small business has in place, there will always be times when the ‘task in hand’ must be completed by you alone and must take precedence over all other activity, e.g. re-drafting a business plan, preparing for a meeting with prospective investors or reviewing important information relating to a client briefing.  At that point, you want to be able to switch efficiently and effectively into ‘focus’ mode, nail the task and then move smoothly on to the next thing.

For someone used to sporting many hats, this can be easier said than done.  However, there are some simple, common-sense steps that can be taken now which will mean that when required, this spontaneous switch is both seamless and easy to obtain.

Six simple ways to improve your focus:

1.  Get Comfortable – one of the most common causes of distraction is discomfort.  Invest in a good workstation to ensure that cramp and discomfort do not cause you to fidget or interrupt your flow.

2.  Tidy Up – keep your workstation clear of clutter.  File any stray notes and papers which might catch your attention and cause you to ‘wander’ from the task in hand.

3.  Organise – develop a robust and straight-forward filing system both on your computer and in your office.  Make it easy to find information – both for you and anyone who may be assisting on certain tasks.

4.  Automate Your Email – use folders to ensure that only the most pertinent information arrives in your inbox.  Automate all subscription emails to pre-named folders.  Create auto responder templates which you can easily switch on to advise those who contact you when you are in ‘focus’ mode that you are away from your desk and will be accessing your email again at a particular time.

5.  Make the Most of Voicemail – all phones have this, but how often do we use it to actively manage when and how we are contacted?  By using your voicemail service over key work periods, you can minimise unwanted interruptions.  A brief personal message advising that you are in a meeting and will be picking up calls again at a certain time still gives the respective caller an impression of having been ‘personally’ attended to.

6.  Manage Your To Do List – as you tick off your To Do list, update your ‘Done’ List.  Be aware of how much you are achieving and understand what this means for your business.  Remaining focused takes effort and is not simply about tick lists – by acknowledging progress, you will remain motivated too.

The simple secret to improving your focus is to organise, and the pointers listed above can help you do this.  Interruptions and distractions are a fact of working life.   By choosing to proactively manage these, you can create a day-to-day environment where you can switch effortlessly into a more focused workspace, as and when you need it.

Good luck!

If you find this post interesting and useful, you might also enjoy my posts on effective planning and outsourcing.

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As the colder weather and darker evenings mark the end of another year, December is often a time when I meet with my clients to review what has been achieved in the last 12 months and draft an outline plan regarding where and how I will support them in the coming year.

Despite working across very different sectors, planning ahead and being prepared has always been an approach which is shared by all my clients.  Many have enjoyed very senior positions within the corporate sphere so know the value of investing time in identifying where and how they can continue to grow their business and plan resource and personnel to support that.

This annual process of forward-planning highlights my clients’ understanding of the importance of targeted delegation.   Their collective aim for 2012 is to free up their time, so that they can focus on activities which build their business and feed their bottom line.  What they delegate to me will vary, depending on the nature and stage of their business, but each task has been thought-through to ensure that it is ‘SMARTER’:

SPECIFIC –  Tasks and sub-tasks are clearly listed. Verbal instructions are supported by a written summary.

MEASURABLE – Markers for ‘completion’ are agreed, milestones for larger projects are identified and diarised.

ACHIEVABLE – Current, available resources are reviewed and additional expertise/personnel are sourced, if required.

REALISTIC – Turn-around times and handover dates are agreed.

TIME-BOUND – On-going / open-ended tasks are assigned ‘check-in’ points, to review progress.

ETHICAL – Tasks are sense-checked for compliance with industry ‘best-practice’ and regulation.

RECORDED – Tasks and progress are recorded by both parties for summary review at the end of the year.

By following a set formula for delegating to virtual support, my clients create a working arrangement which allows them to spend time on their business, rather than in it.  My task list for 2012 already promises a variety of projects, touching on customer communications, social media, marketing and business development.  An exciting year!

When you look ahead to 2012, how are you forward-planning for your all-star year?

If you’d like to know more about how I might help you achieve your plans for 2012, please visit my website or get in touch:  pa@desireeashton.com

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This week marks an important week for business – Global Entreprenuership Week.  Running in over 104 countries world-wide, there are some 40,000 events planned which are designed to  bring businesses big and small together, connect people, share ideas and also offer support and inspiration to drive the next generation of business owners to achieve their goals.  Quite an undertaking, and two days in, there’s a veritable buzz in the air….and across social media.   #GEW is providing a vibrant Twitter feed of what’s happening, and where.

Among the many events that are running in my area, I took time out of my busy Monday schedule to attend an event at MENTA in Haverhill, Suffolk, run in conjunction with Enterprising Acorns.  Both organisations offer invaluable support to budding and growing businesses, and the Monday morning session was a perfect example of the great work they do.

After a brief meet and greet with coffee and biscuits, the group were treated to two short presentations by Claire Martinsen of Breckland Orchard – an inspirational ‘mumpreneur’ with a strong nose for opportunity – and Steven Flory of Hudson Signs – a former corporate ‘suit’ who is now carving out a new career as an entrepreneurial businessman in his own right.

While both speakers now operate in very different sectors, much of what they said carried a common theme.  Both, through sharing their own startup stories, highlighted how many successful businesses start out simply as an ‘idea’…. something you know can and will work, you just need to have the courage and commitment to lift it off the paper and turn it into reality.  Interestingly, both told tales of going with their gut instinct, often appearing to contradict the accepted way of doing things.  Looking back now, they could see where some decisions could be called into question – but, would they change anything?  The simple answer seemed to be ‘no’.  For Steven and Claire, it was all simply part of the journey that had made them the successful business owners they are today.  This point seemed to resonate strongly with the audience – you already know what is best for your business.  Have faith in your own judgement.

At the end of the session, Claire and Steven were asked what, if anything, would they throw money at if they were to start out in business again?  Both very firmly shared the same opinion – sales.  In their experience, no business could be a business without an orderbook and it was the one area that both had repeatedly focused on in their respective startups. In their own experience, they knew that money spent on websites, premises, branding and even personnel, was pointless unless you had the pipeline of firm sales to justify it.  Of course, this did mean that many decisions relating to the likes of branding and personnel had to be taken at the eleventh (sometimes twelfth!) hour, and both recounted some genuine laugh-out-loud anecdotes about the lengths they went to in order to deliver on a contract in super-quick time.  What this did mean, however, was that they quickly developed an ability to think laterally, to know who they could ask for help when they needed it and, most importantly, to focus wholeheartedly on honouring and closing that sale.

I, for one, found their honesty and willingness to share their experiences hugely refreshing.  Their tales of chasing down opportunities and (come what may) delivering on promises showed true entrepreneurial spirit.  It certainly kick-started my week with a  bang, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

If you want to find out more about what’s happening in your area, check out the GEW website.

And.. if you want to know what I do to help startups and entrepreneurs, please take a swing past my website, too.

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One of the most common calls to action I receive is when a small business is looking to upscale.

For any business, being able to seize an opportunity to grow can provide a springboard for the next phase of business development.  The dilemma which presents itself, and which can cause smaller businesses to hold back at that critical life-changing moment, is sometimes centred on the simple matter of ‘resource’.  To take on a larger-than-normal project will possibly mean putting existing personnel and systems under increased strain.  Perhaps the procedures which are currently in place are not regarded as robust enough to deal with the sudden increase in ‘noise’ or ‘traffic’ that this potential project might generate.

So, how does the business which finds itself faced with such an opportunity react?

I recently worked with a client who took a very conscious decision to seize such an opportunity and upscale.  Having successfully tendered for and won a contract to deliver a high-profile project to a national organisation, there were several key areas which they knew would need added focus and targeted resource.

Working closely with my client, we agreed that there were 5 main areas where I would offer support:

  • Project plan – using project management software to keep track of progress and ensure that key milestones were met.
  • Team logistics – co-ordinating communications and travel plans across an extended team to ensure that personnel were in the right place at the right time with the right equipment and materials (and knew what to do with them!).
  • Document control – ensuring that all the appropriate templates, reports and presentations were drafted, formatted, uploaded, printed and delivered to where they needed to be, when they needed to be there.
  • Invoicing – tracking inbound and outbound payments to ensure there were no discrepancies, delays or anomalies which might interrupt the smooth-running of the programme.
  • Client communications – providing an additional contact-point for my client’s customers, ensuring that emails were processed and queries answered – because even in the midst of their busiest period, keeping in close contact with all their customers was still of utmost importance to them.

As the project gained momentum it became apparent that the support which I offered in one area could also extend to other smaller projects which were running concurrently with this one.  And so, I became involved in supporting those, too.  When the larger project came to an end, I spent some additional time with my client, tending to small house-keeping tasks such as securing testimonials and writing up case studies detailing the different outputs from the project concerned.

The time came for me to step back from my day-to-day involvement with the business and as I did so, my client and I took stock of our achievement.   Not only had my client been able to gain stretch and reach new potential in terms of competency and capability, every member of the team had, too.  Fuelled by the experience of operating at a new level, my client is now confidently chasing their next exciting opportunity.   They are, in every sense, moving on up.

So, the next time you sense a new opportunity on your horizon, what will you do?

More information on the various services I provide to my clients can be found on my website

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In the context of a shrinking economy, how do you find and explore new horizons?  This isn’t just a challenge facing smaller businesses, large organisations are wrestling with this, too.  However, for a small business, it is unlikely that there is a whole department of staff dedicated to identifying the next big opportunity for you.  In all likelihood, the one doing the exploring is you.

In my time as a VA I have worked with a number of businesses, each one operating to a slightly different model.  Sensing and being part of the next big thing has always been key to their longer term growth, yet it’s something they have not always had the time to do.   Playing catch up and being on the back-foot is never pleasant.  Aside from feeling out the loop, arriving once the party is in full swing can be damaging to your business.  You risk being left with the deals no one else wants.

Those I have worked with have often drafted me in to help them scope out their new horizons.  It’s not a complex task, but it can be time-consuming.  Getting me to do some of the background research and early legwork has certainly taken a weight off their desks, and their minds.  Being involved at this stage has been interesting and it has cemented in my mind the very special characteristics of small businesses which can actually make it easier to sense and ride the wave of the next big thing.

One of the benefits of being a small business is that you can quickly shape-change to respond to the market around you.    This is something I have seen many of my clients do very successfully.  Rather than being limited by their ‘petite’ size, they have used it to their advantage.  Without layers of management and a tangle of systems, they have swiftly and efficiently modified their offering to satisfy the demand they see emerging before them.

How have they known about this demand?  Quite simply, they have remained close to their customers.  This is something which small businesses can do very well.  By exploiting the personal touch, they can feel the pulse of their customer base and respond accordingly.  Large organisations throw a lot of money at this – some more successfully than others.  Small businesses, on the other hand, can do it just by being themselves – by making regular contact with their customers and networking with those who might be interested in what they have to offer.  Yes, it takes time, effort and commitment, but in today’s clamorous market-place, the personal touch never fails to make an impact in itself.

Another skill particular to the small businesses I have worked with has been their ability to think creatively and understand how to make the most out of what they already have.  Rather than being limited to purely what they can deliver themselves, they look to forge partnerships and relationships with other businesses which might complement and add value to their offer.  Larger organisations can do this, but they often look to push it as part of a one-size-fits-all package.  Smaller businesses can pick and choose from skills of their carefully selected associates to ensure that what they offer is a truly tailored solution.    There is a growing sense of admiration for the individuality and flexibility of the ‘small guy’.   Smaller businesses can trade on this and market what they offer as bespoke.

So, in my experience of working with small businesses, size is not everything.   Being small comes with its own set of perks.  Small businesses can and do catch the wave – it’s just a matter of believing they can.

Where do your new horizons lie?

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