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Write here only if you have personal experience of working as a personal assistant. What are the ups and downs of the occupation?

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      23.07.2009 19:41
      Very helpful



      Get a nice boss and you've got a great job

      Often thought of as a glorified secretary, a Personal Assistant (PA) is much more than that - if they're any good, anyway. I've been a PA in 2 different roles, one to the CFO of a multi-national advertising company and, currently, to a Professor at one of the UK's top Universities, so here are my thoughts and advice on this position, which I hope will be of help to anyone considering PA-ing, anyone just plain curious as to what the heck we do - and perhaps to bosses of PAs!

      ~The job itself~

      In a nutshell, a PA is the right-hand woman/man to a very busy, important, person. Our job is to make their life easier and more efficient in any way possible.

      ~More than a secretary~

      A good PA will be intelligent and exceptionally organised. We use our own initiative to take on as much of our boss's work as possible so that they are freed up to concentrate on the really important things. We help them prioritise their work, organise their day and workload, bring important matters to their attention and, most importantly, get stuff done on their behalf! Initiative and adaptability really are the keys here, as different people work best in different ways - a great PA will be able to adapt to their boss's style, while also bringing some of their own ideas of how to improve this style subtly to the table.

      ~A typical role~

      A PA's role depends entirely on their boss and his/her likes and dislikes and level of delegation. Usual tasks a PA will undertake include: managing their boss's diary and inbox; responding to correspondence on their behalf; drawing up meeting agendas, attending meetings and taking minutes; liaising via phone and email with staff and clients; organising travel; and basically being your boss's public front.

      Added to this, however, can be a multitude of other tasks. In my current role, as an example, my boss works in science research so I additionally help organise and deal with any HR issues in her research group, sort out any expenses/purchases, proof-read and edit science manuscripts, write annual reviews for the research ethics committees, put together PowerPoint presentations for conferences, organise my boss's student teaching schedule and HR, help write grant applications, keep the group's webpages updated, organise large external seminars for an Institute she is a director for (involving inviting proposals, giving feedback, putting them to the Committee, liaising with organisers etc)... the list goes on and on as I'll do anything I'm able to help with, which, as I have a science degree, is quite a lot.

      ~Things I like about being a PA~

      I really like getting to know and work with one person (my boss) very closely - the more you know them and their idiosyncrasies, the more you can help them! I love organising, and thinking of new, more efficient ways to do things. I got a massive amount of satisfaction from sorting out my boss, who was in a quagmire of unread emails, overdue work etc before I started. We sat down and drew up a to-do list (something she'd never thought of doing), prioritised it (also a novel concept) and now things are under control, on time and being crossed off the list (which I keep and manage!). Finally, being a PA, your job can vary tremendously from day to day, which I thoroughly enjoy.

      ~Things I don't like about being a PA~

      My pet hate is the people who think that PAs are stupid, brainless and invisible. Grrrrr. I have a Masters degree and my boss (by her own admission) could not operate without me, so a simple acknowledgement and thank you when I bring you coffee would be nice.

      Other than that, the only major downsides are that:

      (i) your close relationship with your boss means you have to get on with them - if you have the boss from hell, the job would be a complete nightmare. I've been lucky with both of mine (although, I was warned about how difficult both were before I took each job - and they'd both been through a whole lot of PAs before me!!). Usually though, if you do a great job, your boss will be extremely appreciative because you make them look good too, and you take a whole tonne of pressure and workload off them.

      (ii) As you work directly for someone else, you don't have a lot of autonomy on what you do - you need to do whatever it is your boss needs you to do.

      (iii) You won't get a lot of recognition for your work outside your boss, unless they 'fess up that it was actually you who wrote the report they're getting praised for! This can be a little irritating at times so if you're someone who loves the limelight, this is probably not the job for you (fortunately, my boss has taken to admitting I wrote things, which is lovely).

      ~Essential qualities in a PA~

      *You need to be a good all-rounder - PAs are in charge of a myriad of tasks and are expected to turn their hand to anything they're asked to do, including writing/editing, finances, verbal communication, event organising, people management/HR, and logistics/travel.

      *Adaptable - you have to adapt to your boss's style; they are not going to adapt to yours.

      *Friendly and Professional - you are the public front of your boss, dealing with most of their correspondence and rounding people up for meetings etc, so you need to be friendly and courteous to everyone, and professional in all dealings. In addition, if you're friends with the post or catering staff, it's amazing how easy it suddenly becomes to find your boss's favourite biscuits at the last minute, or get a late parcel sent out immediately - much less stressful, and it makes you look extremely efficient.

      *Discrete and loyal -you will be privy to a lot of confidential and/or personal info and must not gossip over the water cooler about it. For example, I check my current boss's emails so know about problems with staff, personal issues etc. In my previous job I knew months ahead of the office that my boss had cancer - I had to keep this quiet until he felt ready to tell everyone else, and covered up hospital visits, days off etc from everyone else. These kinds of things go no further than me (and maybe my dog if it's really juicy gossip and I can't contain myself).

      *Highly organised - you need to not only organise yourself but also your boss. E.g. I keep track of my boss's to-do list and tell her what needs dealing with each day; I tell her which emails she needs to read and file/delete/answer the rest myself; I tell her what meetings are coming up and make sure she has all the background info she needs for each in good time. At the same time I have to keep track of all those 'oh, and could you just look up/call/arrange a meeting with...' requests and keep on top of my own work and emails. I would say keeping track of all the to-do's is the most challenging aspect of being a PA.

      *Initiative - if you can think of a way to do something more efficiently, great.

      *Good with people - you have to be able to read your boss and their moods and know when it's best to suggest a new idea you've had, and when it's best just to make a coffee and run out of their office for cover! I also act as a bridge between my current boss and her research group, so get to hear both sides of a situation - tact and diplomacy are musts!

      *Ability to do boring tasks - your boss will pass the buck on boring or repetitive tasks and, unfortunately, the delegation ends with you. I've had to queue at the post office to get a tax disc, trawl through 1600+ emails and sort them out, do my boss's health and safety questionnaire, re-organise filing systems... It's boring, but it needs doing (and it's usually finite at least).


      So on to the nitty gritty of the benefits package. Being a top PA can be fairly lucrative. I'd guess the average PA gets £20-30k p.a. (depending on the industry and how high up your boss is) but I know that the CEO's PA at the company I worked for in London was on £45k plus a £10k bonus, so if you're at the top 'the possibilities are endless'. How did I know? We're back to that confidentiality thing again - as CFO, my boss got details of everyone's pay and bonuses, and I could read all his emails... You do get to know some interesting stuff, it has to be said.

      Working hours vary tremendously; sometimes you have set 9-5 hours (and your boss is nice enough to say things like 'it's 5 o'clock, why are you still here?'), while in other jobs your boss may expect you to work the same hours as they do, which will be a great deal longer than 9-5. Inevitably, though, there will be days when a presentation is due the next day and you have to stay late to complete it. My current job is nice enough that I get time off in lieu if I do this!

      Holiday entitlement, again, will vary depending on the industry, but will be in line with the office norms. I have to recommend Universities as particularly generous in this regard.

      ~How do I become a PA?~

      Most PAs start off as secretaries, gain experience and eventually progress to being a PA. You could start straight out from school as you don't need a degree although I've found my degree aids me considerably in my job - I can help my boss a lot more than her previous PAs because I understand how things work in science research and academia (publication layouts, referencing, scientific writing style etc).


      Like all jobs, being a PA can be challenging at times but if you like people and are super-organised and efficient then maybe this is for you. As an end note, it's totally recession proof - the top guys and gals simply cannot do enough work in one day to not have a PA helping them sift through all the bumpf :)

      Sorry this turned out a bit of an epic, and thanks for reading.


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