Part art part science role of an EA

Is your boss embarrassed to have an assistant?

The high-flyer with a modest but well known listed company found himself enjoying a series of rapid promotions until within a few years he occupied the chief operating officer’s chair, a role widely interpreted as CEO-in-waiting. The executive was charismatic, exceptionally talented and clearly destined for big things, but he was humble with it which made him very popular with staff.

When he discovered that one of his spoils of office was a personal assistant his first instinct was to “send them back”.

Far from being overcome with egotistical pride and a sense of entitlement, the newly installed COO was embarrassed to have his own PA. He had never had a PA before; he didn’t even know what one did with such a person. It’s true that he had dealt with the three shared PAs in the C-suite – as well as the CEO’s exclusive PA – but it had never occurred to him that he would one day have his own. Until his own promotion – a position especially created for him – the PA in question had been assigned to three other senior executives. He knew her reasonably well and liked her, but that didn’t lessen his quandary.

“They’re very smart,” he observed to your columnist over lunch, “but I don’t need a secretary. It’s embarrassing to ask her to book my flights and make my restaurant bookings.”

Perhaps it was his egalitarian streak kicking in, or perhaps there was an element of guilt given that his previous role involved swathes of retrenchments in the name of efficiency. But he was insistent that he did not need an assistant. After some rumination, he decided against giving up his “perk”, not because he’d changed his mind, but because he feared she would lose her job if he did.

And it’s just as well, because he came to realise what a vital role his PA played in his busy and demanding new role.

The COO’s PA had been with the company for seven years; her knowledge of the key personalities and their agendas, the political currents running through the organisation, and a who’s who knowledge of the branches and external stakeholders soon made her an invaluable ally, confidante and adviser.

“She knows where each body is buried – or is going to be buried,” he marvelled on another occasion.

The PA quickly gained an understanding of her boss’s objectives and priorities in his new role. She became a valued member of his cohort that he could fully trust and rely on, in many instances anticipating who he needed to meet with, where he needed to be and the obstacles, resistance and pitfalls he would likely face in meeting those objectives.

If he had been provided with his PA’s job description it’s unlikely that the PA’s true worth would have been reflected in the specifications. He now can’t imagine doing the job without her. And, yes, she also arranges his travel and makes restaurant bookings.

“What she can do with an airline schedule is part art and part science,” says the executive, which also neatly sums up the diverse role of the executive PA.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a business journalist, author and commentator, and was former associate editor with BRW.