In the 1980s and 1990s, the death of the secretarial profession was prophesised. Computing technology would take over and the role of the secretary, personal or executive assistant (PA) would become redundant.
The reality has panned out differently. PAs are here to stay, but they're more of a business partner rather than someone hired to answer the phone, arrange the boss’s diary or serve tea.
The role of the secretary, or PA as they're called these days, has metamorphosed and requires more general business knowledge.
These days, a complete executive assistant or personal assistant exemplifies the qualities needed for a successful career as a personal assistant or executive assistant: hard-working, loyal and keeping things confidential, reliable, dependable, trustworthy, organises business and private matters; can handle multiple tasks at the same time and is liked by colleagues and guests and is simply terrific.
Today's complete PAs take on a chunk of their bosses' roles.
A 21st century PA needs to know what makes the business and his or her boss tick as well as understand a range of differing issues such as human resources, project and event management.
A successful PA must be able to identify change in the workplace and embrace it. PAs need to have the courage to see the change and be proactive about bringing change to the table.
Personal assistants need to be looking for ways to make themselves indispensable and ask questions such as: “What other value can I add to the business? How can I support my manager by giving feedback or being a conduit of information?
Project management is another skill PAs can learn. Most managers have a project they need to run. Some PAs are able to draft a project schedule for their manager, which adds huge value.
Interpersonal and communication skills are needed so that the PA or Secretary can build and manage relationships, answer phone calls and respond to emails.
Indeed, while some PAs or Secretaries at times respond to their executive's emails in their executive's name, some can even help develop the first draft of documents for their executive. Organisational skills are also needed to manage busy workloads, plan outside meetings and arrange flights and accommodation when the executive or manager travels on business.
Other roles 21st century “Jack-of-all-trades'' PAs can take on include:
Networking to assist managers;
Assisting with team building and relaying insights about the team back to a manager;
Giving feedback to managers;
Assisting with marketing.
The best PAs don't need spoon-feeding. They anticipate what needs to be done and do it before they are asked to do it, so it takes tasks off the boss's hands. The best PAs do things they are not asked for. It shows initiative. Being able to take orders and think independently at the same time is crucial for a good assistant.
It is true that some managers feel threatened by their new-style PAs and may feel as if they are losing control of their territory when a PA steps over the boundary between her role and theirs. It can become a difficult conflict to manage and requires a good degree of emotional intelligence from both the manager and the PA.
Traditional managers could also face a problem with the new type of PAs coming into the workplace with a know-how of best practice and how a business could be run better.
Psychologists say sometimes, it is simply a clash of personalities. After all, one of the best skills a good PA has is emotional intelligence, which should assist in smoothing over conflict.
Good managers use their PAs more effectively as their eyes and ears. Indeed, the best secretaries make their bosses look good.