Dealing with misconceptions of the role.

By – Sally Longson

When someone asks you what you do for a living, and you tell them your job title, many PAs will hear reactions such as, 'you mean, you type letters all day?' Perhaps you feel you're fighting a loosing battle in trying to explain to people what you do. Whatever you do or say, people look at you in a disbelieving way, because, to their mind, secretaries and personal assistants or whatever you want to call them Type Letters and Make the Coffee, and they can't change their mindset beyond that.

So how can you put the record straight?

  1. Acknowledge that this issue is an important one for you. Work defines who we are. We spend a lot of time there and we've worked hard to get to where we are.

  2. Who has a misconception of your role? Is it the general public? Or your boss? If it's the latter, going through the exercise in Getting recognition for what you do will help. If it's the general public or your own family, you need a different strategy!

  3. Recognise that many people are so busy with their own lives, they won't even stop to think about what a PA role involves. Plus, there are so many different PA roles and they all differ so widely that people are bound to be confused about what your specific responsibilities may be.

  4. Recognise that there are still people who fulfil the traditional secretarial role, and who are very happy doing it. For some roles, the conception that the secretary "types letters all day" will be an accurate one.

  5. Think a minute. You work in your world. People with a misconception of your job are employed in a different world. Why should each of you know what's going on in the other's world? They may not even know what your company does, so try to put yourself in the place of those people who are assuming you type letters all day.

Most families and friends have little idea of what people do at work all day, or how their jobs have changed in the last five or ten years. How much do you know about what other people's jobs involve? Could you describe what a nuclear engineer does? Did you know that most dentists are now concerned with preventative work, as opposed to curative? If you were to think of any popular role - say teacher - how far could you describe the job a teacher has, given the changes that have taken place in education even in the last few years? You don't know? So why should a teacher know about the things a PA does?"

Handling family and friends

One way to tackle the subject of misconceptions of a role when you're handling family and friends or anyone else, is to have a minute's briefing divided into three: what the organisation does; where you fit into that company; and what you contribute to it. Let's look at those three parts further:

  1. Be clear about what your organisation does in your own mind. How many people does it employ? What is its mission? What do its finances look like? Does it have a global reach? Typists traditionally didn't think or know about that sort of thing. Thinking PAs do.

  2. Be specific about the three most important things you do. This shows breadth to the role. You should be able to outline them quickly and confidently, so practice if you need to. Have another minute's outline of what your job contains, so that you can "bullet" the major points.

  3. Outline what you're contribution was to the company or the section in the last year. What were your achievements?

Finally, how much do you know about the sector you work in? How passionate are you about it? If you can talk knowledgeably about it and with passion, you'll talk like a smart PA who makes a difference.

Looking at the PA world

A second way to start changing misconceptions of the role is to be able to talk about the changes which have affected the role of the secretary, such as the facts that:

  • many PAs now have degrees;

    - increasing numbers of PAs are taking on management responsibilities as organisational structures have been stripped away;

    - the impact of the IT revolution has given PAs to stop spending time typing letters and the power to take on more interesting things instead. If secretaries hadn't moved with the times and evolved into their PA roles, they would have been wiped out, since most bosses now type their own emails and letters.

What image do you portray?

Look at those people who are in positions above you. Look carefully at the way they dress and learn from the way they handle themselves and others. If you want to join the ranks of management and go higher, then emulate how management dresses. And don't be taken in by dress-down days. Always have something really smart on hand for that inevitable day when a really important client drops in.

Have a clear idea of where your career is heading next.
It will provide evidence that you are going places!

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