01 Oct 2009

GET PERSONAL

What makes a great personal assistant and why has it become one of the most important roles in business?

THE AGENT

As we push ourselves to achieve more, in business and leisure, time has become the ultimate luxury for many people. Senior professionals increasingly realise that a strong PA can free up that time and enable them to be more productive, in and out of the boardroom.

People at every level of the corporate ladder are now adept at dealing with technology. As a result, the main focus of the PA’s role is no longer typing emails and keeping diaries. It has evolved to incorporate high-level research and project work, perhaps even presenting papers to the board.

Whereas the PA was once reactive – waiting for work from the boss – today, a good PA must always be one step ahead and proactive in anticipating their needs.

As with any relationship, it will always be more satisfying when the two parties share the same values and can meet each others expectations. On paper, it can be easy to match a candidate to a job. However, the most successful partnerships are achieved when the boss interviews a small selection of candidates, hand-picked to suit his or her own personality.

At the top level, PAs should also have a good understanding of the business they are in and bring relevant experience to the role. They must be effective from day one, rather than taking time to learn the sector. Having good local knowledge can also be of great value, especially when the role requires an amount of personal work – whether it’s selecting the right junior school or knowing who to schmooze to get a table, the less a boss has to explain, the more of their time is freed up.

Kirsty Miall, Attic Recruitment

THE CHAIRMAN

A great PA in whom you have absolute faith is worth their weight in gold. Being able to feel relaxed about delegating authority to them takes the hassle out of life; it lets you focus on what’s most important. And that needn’t only be in business – if a PA can help with your personal admin, it leaves you more time to deal with the job in hand.

Martin Broughton, Chairman, BA

THE CORPORATE PA

Since I started working for Martin five years ago, my job has been revolutionised by technology. He has embraced flexible working – making good use of his PDA and remote access to the British Airways network – and he’s happy for me to do the same. This has dramatically reduced the time I have to spend on certain administrative tasks, freeing me up to venture into other areas of interest, such as customer relations.

Proactivity should be second nature to a good PA, but to be really great at the job you have to think ahead of your boss, get answers to questions before they ask them and initiate better ways of working. You also have to be reactive, as unforeseen events can send your day spinning in an unexpected direction. One call can change my priorities in an instant.

Working for the head of an organisation can be isolating, so knowing exactly where to go for information is very important. You have to build and maintain a strong network and use it effectively. Experience has taught me never to assume, to learn quickly from mistakes and realise there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

A purely professional relationship between a PA and their boss can work fine. However, only a close partnership, based on mutual respect, will get outstanding results. My admiration for Martin’s style and ethics and the mutual trust that we share motivate me to do my very best for him.

Samantha Pitman, PA to Martin Broughton

The football PA

As the game has become more commercial over the years, the demands on the football manager’s time have increased. On top of training and matchday responsibilities, they now have numerous commitments, both within the club and externally.

Before we had a press office and commercial team at Arsenal, it was down to me to deal with these things. I remember handling the requests for George Graham’s pre-match press interviews. Having those wider responsibilities meant I was more involved with what George Graham did; I always knew where he was. In any relationship between a boss and his PA, it’s important to like and respect one another. That respect comes naturally if you’re good at your job.

To do the job well, it’s important to have a good understanding of football. For example, you must be sensitive to the impact of a poor result and show empathy with the manager, colleagues and fans. Come Monday morning, I can gauge when it’s appropriate or necessary to bother the manager and when I can handle something on my own. No two days are ever the same, and much depends on match results. That keeps the job interesting and me on my toes.

Football is an emotional game and can play a huge part in people’s lives, so it’s rewarding to be able to help put a smile on someone’s face. It’s nice to know that, while I’m behind the scenes, I’m part of the team.

Sheila Horne, PA, Arsenal

THE MANAGER

Whereas life can be like a bumpy road, a good PA makes it more like a motorway – smoother and easier. In a profession that is already filled with a lot of stress, they can take away a lot of the unnecessary worries and get rid of the things you don’t want to deal with.

Having a PA as proficient as Sheila, who really knows the club, was especially important when I first started. I had a double handicap – I was unfamiliar with the culture of the club and the country.

A club is a very complicated organisation and it is very difficult to determine how much individual people contribute to the team. But the success of a club is based on human relationships; if you don’t get that right, things can be very difficult.

Mutual respect between the manager and his PA is essential, as are positive feelings towards each other. Of course, when you have worked together for such a long time, through good and bad periods, you develop affection for one another. It’s during the difficult times that you discover just how much you can rely on someone.

Arsène Wenger