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Donkin on Work - Women

June 2005 – Career structures for secretaries

Rosemary Paur, the personal assistant, to Sir Christopher Bland, chairman of BT, the telecommunications group, has one of those jobs that tends to get overlooked in all the mountains of literature on leadership and management.

Business writers and academics are obsessed by investigating the qualities needed to be a top boss, but they rarely spare a line for the boss’s assistant. It is as if the assistant is expected to blend in to the background like a piece of the office furniture.

In her own way, and with the support of her boss, Ms Paur has been trying to change such perceptions. The company-wide network that she has created to encourage PAs to pursue self-development now has about 500 members across BT attending regular speaker events.

“I think it is one of the corporate roles that has been neglected for too long. New technologies have been increasing the complexity of the job in recent years. The girls work so hard in their jobs,” says Ms Paur.

It is difficult to avoid the gender stereotyping of PAs. Ms Paur’s use of the term “girls” recognises that the vast majority of these jobs continue to be performed by women. While the job may have changed, its image too often remains rooted in the 1960s when a top secretary was the loyal protector of her usually male boss.

In spite of equal rights legislation aimed at improving the career prospects of women, this image of the PA remains steadfast in many companies. Unwittingly, perhaps, it is reinforced by Ms Paur who stresses the sense of loyalty exhibited by most PAs. But why should any PA be loyal to someone whose self-interest in retaining a devoted servant ignores the potential of PAs to expand their managerial role?

In the past few years a new position – that of executive assistant – has grown in popularity. You would think that the EA and the PA would be similar creatures but there are critical distinctions.

The expanded role of the executive assistant would appear to present the perfect opportunity for secretarial and PA progression but some companies have developed it as a grooming role for graduate trainees. Adam Oliver, who entered BT as a graduate trainee, is now working in the group technology office in Newcastle as an “innovations experience manager.” Before that, however, he was as an EA for two years.

The executive assistant, he says, fulfils a day to day managerial role, often working on special projects, undertaking analytical work and research. “It’s a very interesting role to have because you are working alongside someone very senior and quite important and you’re helping them out and making things happen. That’s quite a challenge because you are acting as their ambassador.”

So did he answer the telephones or look after the diary? “I would stay away from the diary stuff or working with the PA,” he said. This is not to suggest he was disparaging about the secretarial role. Far from it. “Secretaries are incredibly important to my organisation,” he said.

Few would dispute that observation. But some secretaries and PAs might ask, ever so quietly, why they might not be doing more research and analytical work. Why should the PA not be part of a structured progression through the management ranks?

Angela Mortimer, who heads the London-based secretarial recruitment business she founded in her own name 30 years ago is a fierce advocate of managerial progression for secretaries.

“When I started this business a distinction was made between typists and secretaries. It reflected better on the boss to have a secretary who performed a broader role. Since then there has been a tendency to bump up the role. The PA reflected better than the secretary and now there is the EA which is a bigger role altogether,” says Ms Mortimer who has done much in the UK to establish the broader responsibilities undertaken by executive assistants.

What she has been unable to do, however, is to prevent these positions and career distinctions being interpreted differently across different sectors and businesses. What she sees as a senior position for an experienced and highly qualified individual who may have worked as a PA earlier in their career, is viewed in some companies as either a graduate job or as an early managerial career role.

Fresh Minds, a research and recruitment company that taps in to the graduate job market, has placed a number of people in the early stages of their careers as executive assistants. James Callander, a consultant at Fresh Minds likened the role of the EA to that of an aide de camp, or ADC, in an army staff. “Typically the searches we have carried out will have been looking for people who have spent about two years with a leading consultancy. The EA job gives them unrivalled experience working with top level people. It means that they are also working with the clients of these people, enabling them to build their networks.

“The PA we see as an administrative role, handling an executive’s diary. The EA is something completely different.”

The unspoken recognition among ambitious graduates, therefore, is that the executive assistant is a valid and acceptable route for managerial progression. But the PA role, particularly if it involves minding the telephone and the diary, may be one to be avoided.

This may be discomforting for the ambitious PA, particularly if he, or, more commonly, she, happens to be in an old established company where management approaches may be slow to change. The reality for some of the best PAs is that the last thing the boss wants to lose is the loyal assistant who is there with an aspirin at times of stress and a cup of tea first thing in the morning.

The idea of an additional bag carrier, who can do a lot of the research, administration and leg-work associated with running a large multinational, is attractive to many bosses, but not at the expense of their trusted PA.

The interrelation of these various staff roles around the chief executive was expertly framed in the US TV series, The West Wing, that explored the machinations of the Oval Office through the work of the presidential staff. It was sometimes difficult to discern the pecking order in the subtly drawn relationships. The presidential PA was far from the most highly paid or senior individual in the office but there was no disguising her importance or the respect in which she was held.

That said, her role was that of an anchor, not of a mover or a shaker. Perhaps too many companies have neglected to recognise the significance of employee anchors in the running of a business. Somebody has to know where the records are kept. Somebody has to care whether you came in to the office that day.

Companies will continue to struggle with the changes in technology and career aspirations that are evolving the secretarial role. In doing so, they should not overlook their PAs. Angela Mortimer holds regular seminars where delegates are asked to score their companies on the career progression they provide for their secretarial staff. “The ones that score highest are those that are performing best in the stock market,” she says. “It is no coincidence”.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved