Enterprise columnist Michael Hayman returns from his bucket-and-spade trip to Anglesey with a newfound respect for the personal assistant
For those heading for the heat of the beach and looking for a read that packs a high degree of sizzle then you might find it in The PA. It tells the tale of former Square Mile personal assistant Victoria Knowles and her experiences as the right-hand woman to a succession of high-level bosses.
It might politely be described as a series of uncompromising positions, for all concerned.
A salacious read no doubt but many professional PAs have been appalled by a book that some have claimed has demeaned their standing.
To shine a light on the debate I was invited by the BBC to discuss the role of the PA with Evan Davis. I have been fortunate enough to work with a number of personal assistants, male and female, for the past 14 years.
What I’ve learned is this: underestimate the pivotal importance of The PA at your peril.
Many of the most successful entrepreneurs in this country would not hesitate in confirming this. For them the PA is one of the most difficult positions to hire for but once you get it right the world is your oyster.
These undercover bosses are often at the heart of the success of the business leader bringing aplomb, polish and organisation to proceedings. They keep the show on the road. For this, and many more reasons, it is one of the pivotal positions of power in organisations large and small.
Yet the position is often the unsung hero, especially among those who do not have a PA, and it is a role that is all too frequently misunderstood and underestimated.
As my new assistant Camilla remarked to me, there is a significant difference between how most people perceive the PA role, and what is actually required to ensure the smooth execution of a schedule that is bursting at the seams on a daily basis.
“A PA cannot just be a logistics person, you need to take on an effective chief-of-staff role, proactive and always ahead of your boss, not behind them,” is her view.
That means at heart the best PAs must be expert relationship managers, deft communicators and firm but fair guardians of the schedule. A great PA has the uncanny ability to make you appear everywhere at once. Their business is the business of you, and their success goes very much hand in hand with your own.
As an entrepreneur the temptation is to think that you can have a hand in everything, never saying no to a meeting, never comfortable to let the business manage itself. The art of the PA is to take charge of priorities and help determine the urgent from the important.
What’s more, as your team grows and it becomes ever harder to juggle huge numbers of individual dialogues, the PA becomes an essential conduit between you and your team, ensuring that messages land on the right desks at the right time.
If the founder is to retain an active role in the day-to-day running of their business while performing their parallel role as a brand ambassador, a skilful PA is the pivot on which it all rests.
It demands a paradoxical embrace of organisation and last-minute chicanery. Keeping things seamlessly on track when the threat of gridlock is never far off.
For this reason I have always thought that the image of the swan is a good analogy for a great PA. There might be a good deal of scurrying under the surface to propel you forward but up top it’s all serenity, grip and control. Great PA’s seem to glide through the currents of business life.
“Diplomacy, communication and flexibility” are the three pillars of the job in Camilla’s eyes. That’s an enviable skill set, blending broad competencies and sheer unflappability that many who are high-performers in their field could not muster.
And a great PA will always go the extra mile, even if in the cases of some that has led to near-farcical revelations with assistants required to fulfill the offbeat whims of their employers. Take Charles Saatchi, who allegedly had his PA travel around London purchasing his book to push it up the bestsellers chart.
Indeed, I have known successful executives make their move to a new organisation contingent on taking their PA with them. While for a number of entrepreneurs I know their PA has been one of the most long serving members of the team in the business. They become inseparable.
When I am pitching for business one of the key people I look to get on with most quickly is the PA. This is the gatekeeper position and if you get locked out life can be very tough.
At the BBC meeting I was joined by an excellent PA called Mary Aubrey. For her the PA is a nerve centre. It’s a job where you have to know what it is going on. You are one of the key holders of corporate memory and contacts.
They say that knowledge is power. And it is. An assistant of mine was once snapped at by someone who insisted they speak to the boss. They obviously did not understand that they already were. The conversation never happened.