UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL - The interdependency between boss and PA makes the relationship more sophisticated and demanding than a simple master-and-servant contract. There are ground rules, but each pairing is different. For Carolyn McCall, MD of Guardian Ne

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The interdependency between boss and PA makes the relationship more sophisticated and demanding than a simple master-and-servant contract. There are ground rules, but each pairing is different. For Carolyn McCall, MD of Guardian Newspapers, and her assistant Beth Glazer, it relies on intuitive mutual understanding. Lord Marshall and his long-serving assistant at BA Anne Hensman set great store by clarity and frankness.

The Egyptian pharaohs had them. Ancient Romans had them. So did the Vatican and European monarchs. Today they stand at the right hand of captains of industry and middle managers alike. In fact, ever since mankind has had a need to juggle diary engagements and send out for coffee, the personal assistant (PA) has been there.

One of the most important appointments you'll make as a modern manager is that of your PA. Get it right and you'll enjoy a well-run office, an immaculately managed diary and a harmonious working relationship with someone you see more often than your spouse. Get it wrong and you'll be one of those permanently disorganised managers - late for meetings, lacking the appropriate papers and apparently unable to return important phone calls, probably because you never received the message in the first place.

And working relations will be severely strained. If you don't know how to manage your PA, the atmosphere in your office could be roughly akin to spending a night on the sofa of the marital home.

Secretaries, and PAs, have a long history. Functionaries and clerks - it was traditionally a male role - have almost always existed in some form, from Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit to James Bond and Miss Moneypenny. It wasn't so long ago that to be a government or military secretary in Britain was to be extremely high-powered - hence such titles as Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary.

The traditional image of the female secretary developed during the early part of the 20th century. During two world wars, women moved into the secretarial seats left vacant by men who had enlisted, and it became a female-dominated role (for simplicity's sake, the PA is given the feminine case in this article). Yet the role is still evolving. Angela Mortimer, founder and chairman of the international recruitment agency Angela Mortimer plc, says the 'traditional' secretary was last sighted about 25 years ago. 'The secretary was very much the office wife,' she adds. 'You were given a task, performed it, and that was the end of your responsibility.'

Today's PA is an entirely different breed. Twenty-five years ago, the main point of interest on a PA's CV would be her shorthand and typing speed. Now a high-flying PA, who can command an average salary of pounds 30,000, is expected to have a university degree and to be skilled at managing people, time and events. Thanks to technology, there's no longer any need for PAs to take dictation and type endless letters when most bosses have a PC on their desk and access to e-mail and faxes. It has freed up time for more important tasks.

Exactly how PAs use that extra time depends on their boss. However talented the assistant, it's the boss who decides the scope of the role. Alison Downing, winner of the 2002 PA of the Year Award - organised by Creme, The Times's secretarial supplement - has agreed a very modern 'partnership' with her boss Aled Miles, vice-president of Symantec Northern Europe.

Her tasks include putting together his board presentations, researching the companies he visits and attending senior-level meetings in Miles's absence. Says Downing: 'Maybe 15 years ago a PA would have gone into a meeting and taken notes and made the coffee. Nowadays, I participate in the meeting myself.'

Not all PAs have Downing's level of responsibility, but many come close. After nearly nine years together, Carolyn McCall, MD of Guardian Newspapers Ltd, and her PA, Beth Glazer, have a particularly good working relationship. They know each other's close family and friends, and tend to finish each other's sentences. How have they managed to develop such a good partnership?

'You can't be scared of your boss,' says Glazer, who calls the shots when it comes to McCall's diary engagements. In return, McCall trusts Glazer completely and usually follows Beth's advice on which appointments to accept or turn down. Says McCall: 'In all the years I've known her, Beth has never let me down.'

Glazer's role is so pivotal to McCall's job that when she returned from maternity leave to a three-day week, no longer as McCall's PA, McCall found it unworkable. 'I said: 'I would rather have Beth for three days a week than not at all, and I am willing to make any sacrifice or compromise to get that back',' she says. Glazer now works a three-day week, with a deputy to bridge the gap.

They have complementary skills and personalities, and believe that sharing a sense of humour and being open with one another helps. There are few things they won't talk to one another about.

Communication is probably the most important aspect in the boss/PA relationship. Anne Hensman has worked as a secretary and PA within British Airways for 36 years, for the past 19 years as PA to Lord Marshall, now non-executive chairman of BA. Hensman appreciates the fact that Lord Marshall will tell her exactly what needs doing. 'He knows what he wants and he's good at saying what he wants,' she explains. 'And he responds to messages immediately.'

Lord Marshall agrees on the importance of an open dialogue. 'There has to be very good, very open communication between one's PA and oneself. It's very important to establish a good working relationship and a good rapport, and that means not holding back or being frightened of something.'

A PA should also be able to communicate to the boss what's going on within the company. As well as being the gatekeeper, there's an element of the go-between. 'There is always the tendency in an organisation to try and bend the ear of the boss's secretary or PA in the hope that they will relay it back to the boss,' says Lord Marshall. 'I will sometimes ask Anne: 'What's your sense of the morale of the organisation?' And Anne will then tell me what she believes and hears and understands the situation to be. As a boss, it's often not easy to find out.'

All sorts of problems can arise if communication is poor - from botched tasks and missed messages to a full relationship meltdown. It can also mean you fail to get the most from your PA, because you haven't bothered to find out what she is capable of. Rosalind Renshaw, editor of Creme, believes that some executives don't appreciate how much the role has changed. 'Too many bosses still see it as a master-and-servant type relationship,' she says.

It's too important a relationship to get wrong. Carolyn McCall believes that a PA 'is the most critical appointment a person makes. I think a PA can make you look very efficient, or she can make you look very disorganised.'

The good news is that the onus isn't all on you to achieve the perfect working relationship. 'You ask: 'How do you manage a PA?' and I have to say I think it's the complete reverse,' says McCall. 'The only person that manages me in this business is Beth.' And Angela Mortimer, who's been recruiting secretaries and PAs for 26 years, has these final words: 'You can't call yourself a PA and not be able to manage your boss. You'll have failed dismally.'


- Communicate. Really talk things over. And that includes little things like telling your PA where you'll be all afternoon. Otherwise, what will she say when anyone calls for you?

- Listen. If your PA comes in to tell you something, pay attention. It's probably important.

- Trust your PA. You appointed her, so you know what she's capable of. If she's not worthy of trust, get another.

- Don't presume. Be clear with your PA from the start about what's expected from her. Anything else, ask before you fire off the order. Your PA might be delighted to pick up your double macchiato in the morning, but you'd better check with her first.

- Be accountable. If you make a mistake, never commit the cardinal sin of trying to pass it off on your PA.

- Respond quickly. It's a waste of your PA's time - and, by extension, yours - if she's still chasing you for an answer to a question she asked three days ago.

- Be appreciative, but not over the top. A simple 'thanks' for a job well done makes a difference.

- Prioritise your tasks. How is your PA to know whether you want her to prepare the notes for today's board meeting first or book your holiday flights if you've told her they're both 'urgent'?


- Communicate. Say you can't do all the 10 tasks your boss has just asked you to do without dropping what you're already working on. Don't fume at your desk; go and explain what the problem is.

- Get to know your boss's way of working and match it - unless his/her preferred method is 'disorganised', in which case you aim for a complementary role.

- Respect your boss and back him/her up in public. Anything else is a recipe for disaster.

- Be discreet. Remember that others will see you as her master's voice. Whatever you say about the company may be interpreted as the innermost thoughts of your boss. So keep quiet.

- Never moan about your boss to other colleagues. You'll destroy the trust in your relationship if he/she finds out. And you'll damage your boss's reputation in the meantime.

- Agree on duties. Your role is to make your boss's working life easier. Sometimes that might mean making the coffee. If you're unhappy with that, fine. Make the coffee anyway, then arrange a separate chat with your boss about any duties you find unacceptable.

- Don't be scared of your boss. If you've made a mistake, admit it and suggest a solution. If your boss has made a mistake and hasn't realised it, tell him/her.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

The ignominious death of Gordon Gekko

Profit at all costs is a defunct philosophy, and purpose a corporate superpower, argues this...

Gender bias is kept alive by those who think it is dead

Research: Greater representation of women does not automatically lead to equal treatment.

What I learned leading a Syrian bank through a civil war

Louai Al Roumani was CFO of Syria's largest private retail bank when the conflict broke...

Martin Sorrell: “There’s something about the unfairness of it that drives me”

EXCLUSIVE: The agency juggernaut on bouncing back, what he would do with WPP and why...

The 10 values that will matter most after COVID-19

According to a survey of Management Today readers.

Why efficiency is holding you back

There is a trade-off between performance and reliability, but it doesn’t have to be zero-sum....