2005 – Career structures for secretaries
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.
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.
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.
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?
who heads the London-based secretarial recruitment
business she founded in her own name 30 years
ago is a fierce advocate of managerial progression
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.
we see as an administrative role, handling an
executive’s diary. The EA is something completely
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
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
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”.