Christmas Day probably feels like a bit of a project, but imagine if it was an actual project – where the deliverables are hundreds of presents sourced from around the world, and you must mitigate for last-minute requests for gifts that aren’t available in stores yet. That was Amy Johnson’s reality as personal assistant (PA) to a wealthy family.
Johnson became a PA on a whim. One of the trustees at a charity she worked with was an ultra-high-net-worth individual. Johnson interviewed to become her PA and got the job. Immediately, the work was full-on – particularly when it came to project managing Christmas. Here’s the work breakdown structure for managing a typical Christmas:
Step one: the Christmas spreadsheet
The Christmas project lifecycle would run throughout the year, but would really ramp up in October. It involved a certain amount of project governance to keep it all on track. For example, Johnson ran a 200-300 line master spreadsheet, shared with her assistant (and eventually, the wider team), which was the central hub for managing gifts. People would be added to the rolling spreadsheet throughout the year. Everyone on the list would then be sorted into budget ‘bands’. “The children would submit their gift lists from October onwards.”
Band one were the most important people, with an essentially infinite budget. Band two was for family friends, new friends, and potential business partners, with a high budget. Band three was for acquaintances, in the mid-budget range. Band four was for teachers’ gifts. “There was a lot of competitive gifting between families [when giving gifts to teachers]. So you’d need to coordinate with other PAs to get ahead of the game.”
Step two: stakeholder approval on the gifts
Once Johnson had a Christmas shopping plan, she would run it past the key stakeholder – her boss – who would approve the presents for bands one and two. “Once that was done, I would submit a final report to her of what we’d sent to everyone so that when she received thank you notes, she knew who had got what.”
Governance was essential if Johnson was going to be able to mitigate some of the biggest risks. For example, she had to deal with numerous requests for gifts coming in from her boss – with 72 hours notice to deliver them. “If the kids wanted something specific, often something that hadn’t been released yet, I would have to find ways of getting them.”
Step three: source the gifts
Johnson had accounts set up with key players like Fortnum’s Concierge service, Net-A-Porter, Selfridges and Wild at Heart florals. Her assistant would keep an eye on the gift list while Johnson sourced specific requests. “Managing that spreadsheet was kind of low risk, so I was able to leave that to her.”
Johnson and her assistant kept in touch via a Slack channel specifically for the Christmas gifts. “It didn’t matter where I was in the world, if I had an internet connection I would be firing instructions at her with gifts or names of people to add to the master sheet. Everything was kept in a centralised place, and that Slack channel was how we survived.”
Step four: get people’s addresses
Some challenges were unexpected, and often involved stakeholders – collecting the addresses of the people on the gift list, for example: “The rule when you work for a private family is that you don’t ever unnecessarily contact either the person that you work for or [their] friends and associates if you can avoid it, so trying to find private addresses was always the biggest challenge.”
Generally, Johnson would get around it by contacting their place of work and mentioning the name of the family. Johnson’s network of PAs was also a useful source of contact details. “We used to exchange one person’s address for another.”
Step five: Preparing the deliverables (presents)
Once she had the gifts, Johnson would arrange for a calligrapher to write labels. “The gifts and labels would all get delivered to my office (away from the house) for me to assemble and either put under the tree or arrange couriers.”
In the run-up to Christmas Day, one of Johnson’s tasks was to make sure that the tree had enough gifts underneath it. “If the kids had asked for things that came in small packages, I would have to find gifts that were significantly larger to fill the space under the tree.”
Decorating the house was also a project in itself. “They would fly off for a weekend away, and we’d come in and decorate. It would involve full rigging and scaffolding. I produce theatre now, and I think that’s partly how I got into it, due to the huge installations we did for the house.”
Step six: closing the project (Christmas Day)
On Christmas Eve, Johnson would spend the day briefing everyone on the team so that they were ready on Christmas Day. “Every day, I would put a report together for the day and a brief for the following day for all of the staff...On Christmas Eve, it was a bit more complicated, but the chefs would be prepping for Christmas dinner the day before, so it was a matter of executing it.”
On Boxing Day, Johnson would manage the clear-up after Christmas while the family went on holiday. That would involve a debrief as project Christmas came to a close.
The experience taught Johnson to be resilient and think on her feet. “Nothing phases me now. The pressure in that job was incredibly high, so I’m very mellow now.” As for her own Christmas celebrations, Johnson has embraced the importance of family time more since her PA days. “Even if there are no gifts and we’re just whacking a turkey in the oven in the morning. The fact that I get to spend time with people I genuinely want to spend time with is enough.”
Do any of you have any project habits when it comes to planning Christmas? Let us know in the comments.
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