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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.
I worked as a PA from the late 80s into the early 90s and have had jobs since then where part of my role was to act as PA to various directors, so I thought I'd share my knowledge of the role here.
WHAT IS A PA (PERSONAL ASSISTANT)?
A typical PA works closely with a director or senior manager and provides executive administrative support. This can include things like typing up confidential letters, making travel arrangements and keeping itineraries up to date. Don't be fooled into thinking it's a glorified title for a secretary though. A PA can hold a lot of senior responsibility and is not someone you want to upset if you want to get into a director or senior manager's good books!
The PA will be someone that their boss trusts implicitly with all manner of confidential information. They will be in the know about who is in their boss' good books and who isn't. They will know about impending redundancies or hires as well as knowing who the key contacts are of their boss. A PA will know of the company's strategy and long term goals and will often have the responsibility of reminding the boss which items he/she needs to bring up at board or senior management meetings.
SO WHAT DOES ONE OF THEM DO THEN?
Well I've told you above already generally what a PA does and below I've a list for you.
I don't like writing lists when I talk about job roles but there are just so many typical duties of a PA that I couldn't resist putting one here.
* Organising diaries and making appointments
* Dealing with incoming mail; be it postal, electronic or faxes
* Producing presentations for meetings
* Carrying out research for projects
* Liaising with internal or external facilities staff to ensure property issues are dealt with quickly and efficiently
* Organise travel arrangements, hotels, car hire, train or plane tickets
* Attending disciplinary hearings to take confidential notes
* Attending board or senior management meetings to take minutes
* Maintain office stationery supplies
* Running the office in the absence of the manager
The typical PA would work regular office hours, which is generally Monday to Friday 9:00 to 5:30 with at least 4 weeks holiday a year plus bank holidays off. Depending on how busy or demanding your line manager is you might have to work over time on occasion but most sensible bosses would either pay you for it or give you time off in lieu.
HOW DID I DO IT?
The above list is by no means exhaustive but now I'll discuss what other duties I've carried out in my capacity as a PA over the years. Although I work in HR (Human Resources) now; I report to a director and he has no PA so I do even now have some PA responsibilities. Usually when starting out in HR one has many responsibilities which are similar to a PA. One of the main similarities is the need to have total discretion and to be completely trustworthy as you are often given highly sensitive and confidential information which would cause controversy and bad feeling if leaked to other employees, as well as potentially causing the loss of your job!
As well as many of the duties I've already listed above, some of the other duties I carried out in my capacity as a PA included:
* Reminding my boss of his/her partner's birthday and/or anniversaries
* Reminding them to attend their children's school play or parents' evenings
* Reminding them of doctor's appointments
* Keeping a record of staff attendance and holiday requests
* Screening telephone calls - it really does not do for sales people to upset or be rude to receptionists, secretaries or PAs - this could be fatal as they have long memories and many of them actually keep a record of people who've been rude to them in the past and you might never get through to make that great sale!
* Screening CVs for potential new staff
* Be involved in the interview process for potential new staff
* Attend meetings in manager's absence
* Manage admin staff workload; including receptionists and secretaries
Again this is not an exhaustive list but I wanted to stop there and add a few of the very odd or out of the ordinary things I've been asked to do in my capacity of PA - I will say here and now that some of these things I actually point blank refused to do:
1. Make sure the girlfriend wasn't put through on the phone when the wife was on the other line and vice versa.
2. Give him my house keys so that he could take his girlfriend there as his wife was at home and, of course, he couldn't take the girlfriend to his home (by the way, 1 and 2 were different bosses)! Oh and I definitely did not agree to this - my home is not a knocking shop, thank you very much!
3. Cook a meal for a blind date my boss wanted to impress - she had no idea I was a much worse cook than she was, but she never found out because I said I was busy that night.
4. Help them revise for their highway code for a driving test - this was easy and was a pleasure to do as I really did feel I helped her pass her test!
5. Advise another member of staff that they had a serious B.O. problem and suggest that they use deodorant or better still took a shower each day!
6. Go shopping with them to buy an outfit to wear to a friend's wedding (the friend was Indian and as I am too, my boss wanted advice on choosing a nice Indian outfit).
WAS IT ENJOYABLE?
I have to admit that I enjoyed working as a PA but it was only ever a stepping stone for me to get more experience under my belt and help me specialise in other areas. It was fun having the ear and trust of a senior manager or director but also it can be a lonely job as you never know if the other staff are being friendly with you because they really like you or if they're trying to get some inside info. I was often asked if I knew what salary such and such a person was earning, not openly but questions dropped into conversation subtly as if I wouldn't notice. It's a good way to learn a good deal about the company and gain enough experience to become a project manager or move into another department.
I would also have to admit that working as a PA can mean spending a lot of time with your boss so if you don't get on with or dislike him or her it can be a huge problem. Also as you're with them for the most part of the day, you'll be at the receiving end of their wrath if they're having problems outside of the workplace but on the other hand you could also become good friends and be a help to each other in times when moral support is needed.
WHAT'S IT WORTH?
PAs can get paid very decent salaries considering you don't specifically need to have a university degree to become one although it doesn't hurt to have a degree in Business Admin or Business Studies or Finance. I've even known PAs who had an MBA. A PA is a role you can work your way into from starting as a receptionist or secretary or administrator, etc.
The starting salary for a PA can range from £15,000 to £20,000 depending on where you are in the country. Obviously the cost of living in London is much higher than most of the rest of the country so the higher rate would apply in Central London. Senior level PAs can command £25,000 - £40,000 after at least 5 years in the role. The more languages you have under your belt the more you can earn. Multi-lingual PAs can command even more than a Senior PA with 10 years experience in some companies.
So do you think you could do it? Do you have the discretion to work in such a confidential role? Do you have the ability to work closely with pretty much the same person day in day out five days a week? Do you think you could get accustomed to that sort of salary (assuming you're not already earning that salary or more already)? I hope I've given you a good insight into what the role would entail and you decide for yourself if it's something you'd like to do.