Miss Moneypenny and co are the secret super-heroes of success. Are you making the most of their talents?
She starts out in Istanbul with a sniper rifle and a target who is wrestling someone she is definitely not meant to shoot atop a fast-moving train. Then she traverses the globe, battling one of the world’s most intelligent and evil villains alongside Britain’s greatest secret agent.
But the crowning glory of Eve Moneypenny’s career is the appointment that follows all that – as James Bond’s PA, at the end of Skyfall.
Thomas Hughes, assistant to the managing director at Lowes Financial Management, explains why the example of Eve Moneypenny, MI6 agent, evolving into Miss Moneypenny, 007’s personal assistant, is important and accurate. He says the change in role “didn’t feel like step down for her, and wasn’t inappropriate”. Compared with previous Bond films, he notes, you see a Moneypenny who is “sassy, sharp and intelligent”.
PAs are becoming the secret super-heroes of business success, for a range of reasons we’ll come on to shortly. “But we’ve still got a long way to go to go before people see a PA as more than just secretarial role,” Hughes says. “Actually, it’s one of most difficult roles in the business.”
Hughes is unusual as a PA because he is male, and only three in every 100 PAs are male in the UK. He admits that before taking up the role, he still couldn’t quite shake a notion that is still held by a fair portion of the business community – that a PA or EA is someone who “spends a bit of time filing, doing a bit of dictation, booking trains and wearing horn-rimmed spectacles”. He also thought that “a PA had to be young glamorous lady”.
Once in the job, he fast realised it encompasses a great deal more than that. “Today the role of PA is more like that of an aide, or a middle manager. It’s: ‘This is what we need to do – go and sort it.’ And it’s up to the PA to make that happen.”
From secretary to superhero: how the role of PA is evolving
Hughes’s experience is by no means unique. The role of PA and EA is no longer just administrative. The best PAs and EAs become entrenched in business operations and strategy – increasingly so in recent years as staff budgets have been cut and PAs and EAs have had to pick up middle-management and administrative roles’ workloads.
Research published earlier this year from Hays, the leading recruiting experts, found that four in 10 PAs, EAs and secretaries said their boss takes their opinion on business decisions regularly or often, while 7% stand in for their boss in meetings on a weekly or even daily basis.
The survey found that “as the role evolves, more PAs are expected to offer wider business insight, with 41% of respondents saying they were expected to have ‘strategic business understanding’ to fulfil their role.
“A trusted PA will also often be expected to have skills in areas such as budget management (36%) marketing (27%), and sales or business development (16%).”
All of which is no small to-do list. So it’s little surprise that nine in 10 of those surveyed were confident that their boss would not be able to their job as well without them.
Victoria Darragh has experienced the growing expectations placed upon her profession in recent years. She’s EA to the group HR director and the group technology director of Hays. Darragh says that the “bread and butter of the role – being organised and prioritising” is still very much needed by organisations from PAs and EAs. But the best in the profession will also be expected to have “fantastic business acumen, looking at where can you save money as a company, […] the tenacity and the autonomy to be brave and confident, to know your skill-set and make things happen in these companies”.
Darragh points out that PAs and EAs today “do have to have very open-minded and have a drive for success – and not just for themselves, because a lot of the time they do sacrifice themselves for their boss, their colleagues, their company”.
She also says that PAs and EAs have increasingly become “brand ambassadors” for the companies they work for. “You must get out there, to almost be PR-ing your own company and boss. […] We’re finding PAs are out there interacting and bringing in a phenomenal amount of business.”
Darragh says she has noticed that more and more PAs and EAs have started working for two, three or even several bosses over the last few years.
This, we may safely deduce, places yet more pressure on them to perform, and makes their jobs yet more complicated – even as many of them relish the challenge of greater responsibility.
Making the relationship work seamlessly with your PA or EA
So how can managers make the most of their PAs and EAs, particularly when they are expected to do this rather astonishing amount, while often juggling instructions from more than one boss?
Alison Boler is PA to the heads of legal & business affairs at ITV, which amounts to working for three department heads. She has previously worked for senior executives at MTV, the BBC and Sony, and achieved runner-up in the Executive PA Magazine & Hays PA of the Year Award 2012.
“For me it comes down to clear communication,” she says, of making her relationship with her bosses work. “They shouldn’t treat you like a mind-reader, which can happen quite a lot. Even if [as a boss] it feels like you’re over-communicating, just let us know exactly what you want and inform us ASAP if something is changing.”
But ultimately Boler believes that it is up to her to perfectly balance her workload among bosses who work in completely different ways. “The most important thing is that each boss feels they get equal service from me and there’s no favouritism to any boss. […]
“It can be incredibly hard to balance that, and balance the workload, but they have to see that it’s absolutely seamless and that you can immediately help them.”
Boler believes that “the mark of a good PA is to make bosses feel they can ask for anything they want within the business remit”.
All of which probably sounds like quite a tall order for most of us, and certainly requires a very unique intersection of skills. So how can managers find the PA and EA talent that can carry off all that?
Attracting and retaining the best PA talent
Hays’ Darragh suggests that those looking for the best PA and EA talent should look for personality fit as well as the right skill-sets and experience: “It won’t work if you don’t gel.” She says that some companies are using psychometric testing as a first personality filter.
It is important that PAs and EAs buy into the person they will be coming to work for, the vision of the company, and the opportunity to really make a difference within their role. Darragh explains: “Knowing a lot of top PAs in the country, many look for someone inspirational or creative [as a boss] that have quite a bit of weight to them, and let you get involved.”
She says that she gets “frustrated by job ads that just put the generic stuff down” as top PAs will be looking for “more weight” than that. She advises “total transparency” when recruiting, as experienced PAs will know there will be more to the job than the typical advert suggests.
“PAs are looking for jobs they can really get their teeth struck into,” she adds. “[Companies will] attract a better candidate if they [add in more responsibilities to the job description].”
ITV’s Boler says it’s crucial to recognise whether “someone is instantly proactive and knows how to prioritise when recruiting for a PA. “They need industry and company knowledge. […] In an interview situation you’ll see confidence, and a practical, classic multi-tasker able to do three things at once and all to exceptionally high standard.”
When it comes to retaining that perfect talent, Boler believes that communicatio
n is key: constructive feedback; annual or bi-annual reviews; and honesty about anything that isn’t working, however small.
Boler adds that personal development is also critical so that the PA or EA knows they are progressing, because “this is not just a job that pays rent, this is a career”. Being able “build that role out and expand the role sideways beyond just being a PA” is what will keep the best talent engaged in their job.
That means making sure a PA or EA can go on courses, supporting the development of their skills and helping them learn what they want.
Of course, if your PA wants to go back to their former life of being a secret agent, there might not be all that much you can do about it. But if you work hard enough to find them and keep them in your organisation, you might just find that together you can take on the world.
Last night was The Executive PA Magazine | Hays Awards 2013. Congratulations to Leanne Graham who was awarded PA of the Year, who is PA to the CEO of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), and to Newcomer of the Year, Teely Webb, PA to the director of the BP Centre for Petroleum and Surface Chemistry (CPSC) at the University of Surrey.
You need to read:
- How London’s looming tech talent shortage could cripple our country
- The Great British talent mismatch: why can’t businesses find the skills they need?
This feature is brought to you in partnership with Hays, the leading recruiting experts