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.'