For Bill Cockburn, ex-head of the Post Office and now chief executive of WH Smith, the route to the top went by way of an early stint as personal assistant to the Post Office chairman. No sooner had Cockburn got his feet under the desk at the retail group than he created a similar post in his own office. Clearly he subscribes to the high-flyer-as-right-hand-of-the-boss tradition. But why have so many other company chiefs allowed the system to fall into disuse - even while it is attracting renewed interest in the US?
Jennifer Johnson, the high flyer whom Cockburn appointed as his assistant, came from the company's strategy department, and is six months into what she sees as an 18-month to two-year posting. She describes her role as 'supporting Bill in whatever he is doing - dealing with the in-tray at its most boring, drafting speeches and papers at its most interesting'.
The post offers real advantage to both parties, she believes: 'support to the chief executive that a secretary could never give', and for the assistant, 'the opportunity to see a plc being run from the centre. You could liken it to going to business school - without the fees.'
British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL)has had a similar system for years. Here executive assistants to the CEO are usually appointed when well into their working lives, explains the present incumbent Mike Simpson. Traditionally they have 10 or 15 years' experience under their belts and are entering the ranks of senior management. Atypically Simpson has been 25 years in the company, and laughs to recall that, 'I was offered the job in 1979 and turned it down in favour of getting shopfloor management experience'.
This time around, his interest was caught by the timing: the new assistant was appointed to help ease the transition between two chief executives.
The executive assistant's job is not necessarily a passport to the top at BNFL. 'Some people have gone on to great things, others to more prosaic careers,' says Simpson. About a dozen of the company's top 40 managers have worked as assistant to the chief executive. Three of them currently sit on the company's nine-strong executive.
Civil Service departments also have top-level assistants. But BNFL and the Post Office aside, such jobs now seem to be the exception in the former public sector. British Gas abolished the position three years ago when the company restructured. Spokesman Chris Judge explains that, as layers of management were removed, the role of the centre was much reduced. Less action at the centre meant less need for turbo-charged assistants.
Stephanie Monk, HR director at Granada Forte, who has been devising a fast track for the company's most highly regarded recruits says she looked at the executive assistant model and rejected it. 'I had experience of it when I was at Tate and Lyle. It worked there but only because of the individuals involved.' She claims that the value of the experience gained by executive assistants can vary hugely, because so much depends on personal chemistry. Across UK industry as a whole, it seems, the crown prince remains deposed.