Could Your Boss Survive?

By – Roisin Woolnough

Jo Tomazou thinks that to describe a secretary as ‘the rock’ in an organisation is a cliché – but she also thinks it is true. “It is an overused term, but secretaries are the linchpin and co-ordinators in companies,” says Tomazou, co-managing director at secretarial recruitment agency, Gordon Yates. “Take them away and where would bosses be?”

It is a question employers across the country should be asking themselves this week as it is Professional Secretaries Week. In honour of this occasion, Deskdemon is celebrating the many achievements and skills shown by today’s secretary.

The only problem is where to start. The modern day PA fulfils so many different and varied functions that it is well nigh impossible to draw up a definitive list of what constitutes a good PA.

Certain skills have always been desirable – such as efficiency, good communication skills, discretion, time management and adaptability, for example. But, as PAs are increasingly called upon to perform a wide range of tasks, including tasks that their boss would have traditionally handled, so has the required skills set changed. PAs are now writing up company reports, recruiting staff, overseeing training needs, managing teams of people, organising and attending conferences on behalf of their company….The list goes on.

So much so, that it is not just a case of how would the MD manage without their PA, but how would the whole department cope? This is particularly the case when the PAs has several different bosses.

According to Tomazou, secretaries are the people with their fingers on the pulse, the people that know what is really going on, who is doing what and who is not doing what. “They’re a barometer,” she says. “They are the eyes and ears of what is going on in an office.”

By this, Tomazou doesn’t mean knowing the office gossip – although that knowledge is often part of the PA’s repertoire and can be very useful indeed. It is about understanding how a department is or is not functioning, how is in charge of what projects and what the politics are.

This is particularly important for any bosses who spend a lot of time in meetings or out of the office, be it that they are travelling or work from home. In these instances, the secretary is usually the person they rely on to keep them informed and up to date. An indicator of just how important PAs are to their bosses is a recent survey by HR consultancy Chiumento. It found that over a third (34%) of employers rely more on their secretary than on any other person in their organisation.

Even when a boss does spend most of their time in the office, being the person in authority can be a lonely position. Many bosses feel they need to keep a certain amount of professional distance between themselves and their employees and whereas once they may have joined in the office banter with everyone else, think it is no longer appropriate to be quite as matey. Secretaries, however, have a slightly different status and often end up being the link between the boss and their employees.

There needs to be a high element of mutual trust. Trustworthiness and discretion have always been essential qualities in support staff and Tomazou thinks they are two of the most important skills required. “What makes a successful PA-boss relationship is one where there is trust on both sides,” she says. As secretaries have always been party to sensitive, confidential information – be it people’s salaries, disciplinaries, business critical information or whatever – it is a given that employers have to be able to trust that such information will remain confidential.

Now that PAs fulfil so many more functions on top of traditional PA duties, their bosses also need to be able to that any jobs undertaken will be done well, on time and in budget. Tomazou thinks PAs need to be able to pre-empt situations and plan ahead, even predicting scenarios that the boss hasn’t thought of.

Perhaps unfortunately for PAs, Tomazou thinks the best PA is often the most invisible one. “An outstanding PA is often invisible,” she says. By this she means that the person is so effective, organised and confident in what they are doing that others don’t even notice how much effort or skill is required.

Faced with the prospect of losing this valuable assistant though, many bosses instantly realise just how important their PA is. An Office Angels survey of 1,000 employers found that 29% of bosses would offer an immediate pay rise to their secretary at the mere hint of them leaving, whilst 75% would do almost anything to keep their secretary happy. Now that’s the sign of a valued employee.

Words to describe today's PA:

  • Efficient
  • Adaptable
  • Multi-tasker
  • Discreet
  • IT-literate
  • Communicator
  • Trustworthy
  • Mediator
  • Capable
  • Organiser

Roisin Woolnough is a freelance journalist specialising in employment and business issues. She regularly writes for The Guardian, Personnel Today, Computer Weekly and other leading business titles.

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