Vital signs: A new range of sloanes

Vital signs: A new range of sloanes - The original inspiration for Sloane Rangers - an idea that ended up as a detailed description of an entire tribal group - came from secretaries ... young posh secretaries.

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing directorof consultants SRU, e-mail:
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The original inspiration for Sloane Rangers - an idea that ended up as a detailed description of an entire tribal group - came from secretaries ... young posh secretaries.

When I started writing for Ann Barr at Harpers and Queen, Ann and I found ourselves talking obsessively about a new kind of girl who'd appeared in our lives. A recently evolved type with a revised dress code, who brought a touch of old class to new 1970s situations and new bosses. Those bosses had nice new money, and Sloane Rangers played an important symbolic role for them. By 1982 our little apercu had turned into the epic Official Sloane Ranger Handbook.

Secretaries are important; that's why the archaic structures of the job don't matter. However much you process and e-mail and search and fax for yourself, you need somebody to understand and anticipate, sweep and negotiate and mediate your energetic messy presence in the working world.

I say messy because people who've pushed things on in the private and the public sector have always taken risks and left things hanging; they've had to. And they've known how to delegate to someone who instinctively knows what matters: who to contact; who to fast-track; who to soothe and which pieces to pick up first.

You can tell a lot about the company and the person from a CEO's office.

The physicals - how formal, how old-fashioned, how big etc - reveal much.

But so does the secretarial set-up - where and how they're housed, and what they're like.

There was a time when CEOs had only two options; let's call them Marjorie Moneypenny and Lucy Ashe-Warren. Mrs Moneypenny - the real-life version is clearly a Mrs - is in her late forties or fifties. Like the CEO himself, she breathes the fine air of the Guildford/ Leatherhead/Woking triangle, she is very superior suburban, pleasant-looking, pleasantly dressed and deeply reassuring. She makes everything pin-neat and just that bit domestic.

She favours Peter Jones' all-wool velvet Wilton in a nice mossy green throughout the Presidential suite. She is Ward Sister to the organisation and in traditional businesses she is, unofficially, the company's First Lady, easily outranking those pushy Marketing Manager girls from Basildon and those MBA types in the newly instituted Strategic Planning Department.

Lucy Ashe-Warren was simply a Sloane, Mark I or II, 21 to 25 tops, utterly identifiable and considerably posher than her boss. There was, still is, a kind of man who liked a girl who left at 4pm sharp on Friday because she had somewhere in the country to go to.

But now there's a much wider range of models. There's the Mark III Sloane, cleverer, better educated, less identifiable, who never wears a velvet headband. There's the Executive Assistant, who is very managerial herself, and the fast-track graduate who's shadowing and learning. There's the Rock Chick PA. And there's the Real Person.

The real person represents how you and your business operate, its values and style, rather than acting as a front of genteel respectability. The real person relates to your colleagues, rather than acting as a barrier between you and them. The real person is a real colleague herself.

(There is, of course, the himself thing: male assistants, secretaries, etc. And why not? In practice, I think there's a powerful positive argument for women as secretaries, and it's the one about complementary skills - women do the 'relating to others' part better. The few dedicated male secretaries I've experienced as temps seemed - oh, how can I say this, and me so PC - a bit like turbulent spirits.)

Anyway, the real person likes being a PA and isn't waiting to be turned into something else. The alternative is the type of girl you get in record companies and ad agencies who first-names all comers, behaves as if she isn't really a secretary and when she answers the phone acts as if she was just passing.

In brief, the requirements are:

Grown-upness. Over 27, and preferably over 30. And she must have top-level experience if you're a remotely top person.

Versatility and adaptability. Anyone who says 'I don't do that' is a glaring problem. By the same token, she must be able to relate to chairman and cleaner.

'Skills'. PowerPoint, Word, Excel and the lot are all clearly more important than shorthand.

Oh, and she should respect and like you too, not just want the job for the status and next-step potential. If she's going to represent your values to the world she must be on-message.

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