The days of Mad Men-style secretaries and typing pools are long gone – nowadays PAs make key decisions and manage budgets
Ask any successful leader how they achieve their goals while battling a diary full of commitments, a deluge of emails and requests for their time, and most will say they couldn't do it without their personal assistant.
PAs and executive assistants (EAs) are at the heart of organisations, working side-by-side with chief executives and leaders, playing a key role in supporting decisions.
Technology has replaced the typing pool, releasing PAs from routine clerical tasks and creating opportunities to take on new responsibilities. Some of the duties traditionally belonging to middle management have also been taken up by PAs during the recession. So while a PA will still be expected to book meetings and juggle diaries, they might also be running their own team or conducting meetings on their boss's behalf.
In a recent survey of more than 1,700 PAs and secretaries, 16% said their boss regularly takes their recommendations on business decisions. Where PAs might once have held a small budget, this could now be a seven-figure sum, and PAs will negotiate directly with suppliers.
In the survey, 17% of respondents said that they stand in for their manager at meetings at least monthly and 29% undertake projects for the wider organisation at least weekly. PAs might be co-ordinating big events with thousands of guests, organising office moves or supporting other departments with projects.
With these wide range of skills, it's not uncommon for PAs to use their role as a route to another profession; 12% of PAs in the survey said they became a PA as a route into an organisation or industry. For example, I know of a PA who organised a multimillion-pound tender submission at short notice because their boss was away and the opportunity was too good to miss. They went on to a career in sales and marketing after winning the contract.
But PAs can also lead fulfilling and varied careers by staying put; a third of respondents said they had always wanted to be a PA and a similar number plan to progress into a more senior PA or EA role in their organisation.
Judy Willett, PA to Lord Harris of Peckham, chairman of Carpetright, was named PA of the year in the Executive PA Magazine Hays Awards 2012. Willett agrees that there's much more to the role than providing help behind the scenes. "I hope I can show that the role of the PA is not just a support role," she says. "It's a career that can be moulded and shaped with hard work and commitment to your boss and the company you work for."
For Willett it's the variety of the job that makes it rewarding. "I've worked for Lord Harris and Carpetright for over 20 years and I love the variety of the work that I am involved with. I'm involved with every facet of Lord Harris's life, including Carpetright, Arsenal Football Club, and the 19 Harris Federation academies. Most recently this has included his interest in showjumping — his horse won a gold medal in the Olympics."
Where a PA or secretary used to have a purely reactive role, they are now proactively finding new ways to improve processes and contribute to the goals of the organisation. Having acquired these new skills, I hope we'll see more PAs being acknowledged for the important role they play, and more people aspiring to become one.
Geoff Sims is managing director of Hays PA & Secretarial