How modern PAs complete the best execs

Sometime in the early 1980s, a time when most Australians thought espresso was a service offered by courier companies, the media company I was working for lashed out on a coffee machine for the staff kitchen.

Until then the company had actually employed a tea lady. This mechanical abomination offered just four options: black or white ‘coffee’, with or without sugar. Unlike Val, it didn’t do biscuits, much less fruit cake.

"That’s because the constantly evolving role of the PA is often misunderstood and clouded by stereotypes."
Leo D'Angelo Fisher, Freelance writer & veteran of management journalism

One day in the kitchen, before I had fatefully declared “either the Café-Bar goes or I do” a small group had gathered around the orange-hued machine (its other contribution to bad taste) and awkward kitchen chit-chat ensued.

“Well,” said Brian from accounts addressing the Managing Director’s secretary, “I suppose it’s only a matter of time for you?”

If looks could kill, Brian would have been toast there and then. As it happens, he died of a heart attack while jogging a few years later. And at least some of his colleagues kept an open mind on the death-by-optical-penetration theorem.

But to the nub of my story: it wasn’t the first time the demise of the secretary (these days the personal assistant, executive assistant and executive PA) had been predicted on the basis of new technology.

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Photo: Sydney's Powerhouse Museum

AN OFFICE STAPLE

Café-Bar’s ‘hot-drink dispensing machines’, an Australian innovation, became an office staple in 1970s and its early efforts are exhibited in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum as design masterpieces. These days, of course, Café-Bar is more hip to the cosmopolitan coffee vibe as well as the importance of excellence in industrial design.

But while those early orange coffee machines are museum pieces, PAs, despite regular predictions to the contrary are not. Nor are they gender specific.

That’s because the constantly evolving role of the PA is often misunderstood and clouded by stereotypes. As Brian’s lead balloon illustrated all too clearly, the PA’s role is often characterised as a run-about.

But anyone who has had a PA, or who has worked closely with a top-level PA, will know their role is considerably more complex and nuanced.

That’s not to suggest technology, changing work practices and the cost-conscious flattening of organisations have not resulted in the removal of layers of administrative support in organisations.

The Mad Men nirvana of the 1960s in which senior managers might reasonably expect their own secretary as a relatively low-cost perk of office has long past.

Computerisation has enabled managers to do without administrative support and senior managers and executives who once might have had their own PA now have to share an assistant.

According to researchers Dr Michael Osborne from Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science and Dr Carl Frey of the Oxford Martin School, 33,000 secretarial roles in London disappeared between 2001 and 2013, a drop of 44 per cent.

In their study ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?’, Osborne and Frey warn 47 per cent of occupations in the US are at “high risk” of being automated “over the next decade or two”. The jobs most at risk include “the bulk of office and administrative support workers”.

As sobering as those assessments are, anecdotally there is some evidence to suggest organisations that cut back drastically on administrative support in the 1990s and early 2000s have had second thoughts about the DIY excesses of overzealous bean counters and management consultants.

The sight of general managers refilling printer trays may send egalitarian hearts aflutter but the productivity benefits are less clear cut.

MANUAL MINUTIAE

The modern PA is prized over and above the manual minutiae of daily life in the office. Good PAs at the senior level of an organisation develop a range of skills, knowledge and talents that can be invaluable to modern executives in increasingly complex and demanding environments.

They possess a deep knowledge of the key personalities and their agendas, the political currents running through the organisation, a ‘Who’s Who’ knowledge of an organisation’s branches and external stakeholders and an intimate understanding or organisational systems and processes. This armoury makes them an invaluable ally, confidante and adviser.

C-suite PAs over time gain an understanding of their boss’s objectives and priorities and can become a valued member of his or her cohort, someone who can be fully trusted and relied upon, in many instances anticipating who the boss needs to meet with, where he or she needs to be and the obstacles, resistance and pitfalls they are likely to face in meeting those objectives.

Top flight PAs manage their boss’s email traffic, meeting schedules and agendas, and are often called on as project managers for logistical and planning tasks, such as relocations, new computer installations and staff training.

Brisbane company director and former CEO of Suncorp Banking & Wealth, John Nesbitt, told Executive PA magazine (for which I am a columnist) of the vital contribution his PA, Larissa Paton, made during the recent relocation of 1600 staff members.

Describing Paton as his “right hand” Nesbitt praised her “planning and prioritisation, persistence, influencing skills and relationships forged across the business”.

Nesbitt, who retired in September, was one of Australia’s most senior financial services executives. He is also former Group CFO at Suncorp and CFO at Perpetual.

His description of his working relationship with his PA at Suncorp gives rare insight into the bond that can develop between a CEO and his PA.

“Larissa has learned to mirror my tone and brand, which is vitally important to developing a strong level of culture and engagement across the entire business,” he said, particularly important as culture is increasingly recognised as crucial to an organisation’s ability to create sustainable value.

It is this intensity and level of responsibility that makes the modern PA a vital cog in the C-suite and therefore the organisation.

While new apps, digital technologies and artificial intelligence-based software programs are, as Osborne and Frey observe, “enabling the automation of tasks once thought quintessentially human”, the longevity of the PA should not be doubted as long as the “P” in PA stands for “personal”.

Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a freelance writer and veteran of management journalism

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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