Forget Mad Men-style secretaries and typing pools. Today’s top-flying personal assistants (PAs) and executive assistants (EAs) are managing big budgets and making key business decisions. Whether you’re just starting your job search or keen to advance your career, here’s what it takes to succeed in the role.
Changing nature of the job
If you think being a personal assistant means doing a bit of diary management and typing, think again.
‘The role of the PA has moved away from being a traditional “secretarial” role – i.e. typing, filing and producing documents – to one that is all about organisation and logistics,’ says Elaine Sutherland, Managing Director of specialist PA recruitment consultancy PA London.
‘Some sectors still rely heavily on their PAs to produce lengthy documents and contracts, but others see their PAs acting as a pivotal member of the management team, keeping them on track and helping their schedules to run as efficiently as possible. They will their spend time organising meetings, international travel and events – but the core element of the job is to provide pro-active, intelligent support.’
As a PA you may be responsible for diary management, organising travel, visas, accommodation and itineraries, as well as email and inbox management and acting as a gatekeeper to field general enquiries.
‘The job can involve organising events and general office management (especially in a smaller company), which could include ordering stationery, facilities management, supplier contracts, and finance administration, such as expenses and invoice tracking,’ adds Elaine.
‘Some PAs are tasked with co-ordinating major events with hundreds or thousands of guests, organising office moves or supporting other departments with projects.’
Moving on from PA to EA
Almost a third of office support professionals doing a traditional PA role now have the title Executive Assistant, according to a survey by recruitment company La Crème.
Recruitment consultant Anna O’Sullivan says: ‘The changing nature of administrative job titles reflects how many PAs’ roles are now more akin to junior management.
‘A lot of PAs are moving up to the role of EA, supporting several senior board members, as well as running their own projects. EAs do amazing work and are key to the successful running of the company.’
In a recent survey, 16% of PAs and secretaries said their boss regularly takes their recommendations on business decisions, while 17% of the 1,700 professionals questioned by Hays said that they stand in for their manager at meetings at least monthly, with 29% regularly undertaking projects for the company.
Is the job right for you?
‘There is a misconception that anyone can work as a PA but you really do need substantial experience behind you,’ says Anna. ‘Some companies ask for 50-70 words per minute and, of course, strong computer skills, but generally experience and ability matters more than qualifications.’
If you’re looking to land your first PA role, Anna suggests working in an administrative role and proving yourself there. ‘Sometimes, people won’t have the job title of PA but will have been doing diary management, organising and arranging travel as an admin assistant.
‘PAs tend to be very proactive. They’re always looking for ways to help the company to run better. The employees that go furthest in their career are those who work hard and prove their worth to the organization,’ says Anna
So how do you know if you have what it takes?
‘Organisational skills and resourcefulness is important, as is the ability to remain calm, even if you’re feeling under pressure,’ says Anna.
People skills are paramount
The ability to relate to people at all levels, from CEOs to suppliers, is perhaps just as important as good organisation skills.
‘A good office manager is able to deal with all kinds of characters and brings the whole office together. Senior EAs can support the president of a multi-national and be involved with key business decisions, but if a client comes in for a meeting, they have no problem making them a cup of coffee,’ says Anna.
Elaine adds that it’s vital to have a good working relationship with your manager to succeed in the role.
‘It is crucial to establish agreed methods of communication and to agree expectations of all parties. Each PA role can be very different and you need to establish how your boss(es) likes to work and what levels of autonomy and authority you have when making decisions on his/her/their behalf.’
Getting hired When it comes to applying for a job, ‘a well laid out CV, well written with no grammatical errors is a good start,’ says Elaine. ‘Try to think about the transferable skills you may have from other roles and experiences that could be relevant.’
During the interview, it’s important to show you have researched the company, but Anna warns against listing facts. ‘If you’re asked “What do you know about the company?” it’s best to give a broad overview, and then pick out one or two things that interest you, and which you can give an intelligent opinion on. Ideally, you should then bring the conversation back to why you want to work for the company.’
If you’re asked “what makes you right for the role?” be sure to give examples. ‘Don’t just say “I’ve looked through the job spec and have done everything on the list” – pick out a few things and give examples of what you’ve done in the past,’ says Anna.
‘For instance, think about a time when you were making travel arrangements and something went wrong. Tell them what you did to resolve the situation. If you introduced a new system, give a concrete example of how it improved the running of the office and the success of the company.’
Finally, have confidence in your abilities. ‘I find that office support staff often don’t realise just how much of an asset they are,’ says Anna. ‘Confidence is a huge thing in an interview so speak about your achievements with confidence. Value your own worth, and employers will too.’
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