Up Close and Personal

Management Today, December 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Up Close and Personal


The interdependency between boss and PA makes the relationship more sophisticated and demanding than a simple master-and-servant contract. There are ground rules, but each pairing is different. For Carolyn McCall, MD of Guardian Newspapers, and her assistant Beth Glazer, it relies on intuitive mutual understanding. Lord Marshall and his long-serving assistant at BA Anne Hensman set great store by clarity and frankness.

The Egyptian pharaohs had them. Ancient Romans had them. So did the Vatican and European monarchs. Today they stand at the right hand of captains of industry and middle managers alike. In fact, ever since mankind has had a need to juggle diary engagements and send out for coffee, the personal assistant (PA) has been there.

One of the most important appointments you'll make as a modern manager is that of your PA. Get it right and you'll enjoy a well-run office, an immaculately managed diary and a harmonious working relationship with someone you see more often than your spouse. Get it wrong and you'll be one of those permanently disorganised managers - late for meetings, lacking the appropriate papers and apparently unable to return important phone calls, probably because you never received the message in the first place.

And working relations will be severely strained. If you don't know how to manage your PA, the atmosphere in your office could be roughly akin to spending a night on the sofa of the marital home.

Secretaries, and PAs, have a long history. Functionaries and clerks - it was traditionally a male role - have almost always existed in some form, from Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit to James Bond and Miss Moneypenny. It wasn't so long ago that to be a government or military secretary in Britain was to be extremely high-powered - hence such titles as Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary.

The traditional image of the female secretary developed during the early part of the 20th century. During two world wars, women moved into the secretarial seats left vacant by men who had enlisted, and it became a female-dominated role (for simplicity's sake, the PA is given the feminine case in this article). Yet the role is still evolving. Angela Mortimer, founder and chairman of the international recruitment agency Angela Mortimer plc, says the 'traditional' secretary was last sighted about 25 years ago. 'The secretary was very much the office wife,' she adds. 'You were given a task, performed it, and that was the end of your responsibility.'

Today's PA is an entirely different breed. Twenty-five years ago, the main point of interest on a PA's CV would be her shorthand and typing speed. Now a high-flying PA, who can command an average salary of pounds 30,000, is expected to have a university degree and to be skilled at managing people, time and events. Thanks to technology, there's no longer any need for PAs to take dictation and type endless letters when most bosses have a PC on their desk and access to e-mail and faxes. It has freed up time for more important tasks.

Exactly how PAs use that extra time depends on their boss. However talented the assistant, it's the boss who decides the scope of the role. Alison Downing, winner of the 2002 PA of the Year Award - organised by Creme, The Times's secretarial supplement - has agreed a very modern 'partnership' with her boss Aled Miles, vice-president of Symantec Northern Europe.

Her tasks include putting together his board presentations, researching the companies he visits and attending senior-level meetings in Miles's absence. Says Downing: 'Maybe 15 years ago a PA would have gone into a meeting and taken notes and made the coffee. Nowadays, I participate in the meeting myself.'

Not all PAs have Downing's level of responsibility, but many come close. After nearly nine years together, Carolyn McCall, MD of Guardian Newspapers Ltd, and her PA, Beth Glazer, have a particularly good working relationship. …

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