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Confessions of an executive PA

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A few days into my very first job, personal emails intended for my boss appeared in my inbox. I assumed it was a mistake and said nothing. But as time went on my boss would refer to something about his finances or things going on at home, and I twigged that not only was I meant to be across all this stuff, I was also supposed to be replying on behalf of my boss.

I’d gone into the position fresh from school to get experience in a media company, without really thinking too much about what it would mean to be a PA, or at least the personal element of being someone’s assistant.

As I moved around the company, supporting various executives, I realised that my job would go far beyond the black and white aspects of diary management. Most tasks are about giving the boss the support they need, picking up jobs for them that make their lives that little bit less stressful. Like buying Valentine’s, birthday, anniversary and Christmas presents for their spouses; and drawing up – and making sure they stick to - a diet plan ahead of a major operation. Others tip over into the ridiculous. Like my former daily routine of picking almonds out of a pack of mixed nuts because the ex-boss didn’t like them; and polishing his shoes – while he was still wearing them.

I’ve had plenty of bosses who are very appreciative – apologetic even – about the particularly demanding stuff I’m asked to do. But I’ve had others who get a massive power trip from insisting you drop everything in the middle of dinner with your partner or an evening at the theatre with friends to insist you work on their holiday plans.

In the early days, I found it difficult to say “no” to unreasonable demands – after all, the number one rule of being a PA is to always protect and support your boss. But with experience, I’ve come to learn that it’s essential to have boundaries and to stick to them – if you don’t, you cross a line of respect and professionalism that it’s difficult to cross back over.

One technique I use to push back is what I call the “No, but…” response. If my boss interrupts a family dinner with something genuinely urgent, I’ll typically stop everything and help. But there are other times when I have to put myself and my relationships first, and say “No, I can’t do that right now, but I’ll make sure it’s sorted first thing Monday”. It’s about keeping perspective on behalf of the boss over what really constitutes “urgent”. Does that restaurant reservation really need to be altered right this second, or can it wait until I’m back at my desk? Knowing the difference between a demand and a priority is essential if you want your own personal relationships – as well as the dynamic between you and your boss – to stay healthy.

A difficult situation arose when my boss called me one Saturday, the day after the office had closed for the Christmas break. He was due to jet off on holiday for a fortnight and it had just occurred to him he hadn’t done any Christmas shopping. I was in the middle of a special family occasion and one my boss was fully aware of – I’d been talking about and looking forward to it for weeks. He wanted me to leave the gathering, go into town and buy gifts for his family. I pointed out I’d been chasing him for a Christmas list for weeks, and that it wasn’t fair to drop this on me right now. I tried to negotiate – I’d stay at home and place an online order for him to collect en route to the airport. But he was furious, accusing me of ruining his Christmas, his family’s holiday and having my priorities all wrong. I was upset by the comments, but I knew that it was a stress reaction to his own disorganisation, so I just let it go. 

That ability to keep a cool head – even if the boss is losing theirs - is mandatory for a PA. Whatever issue is kicking off might not be my fault, but as the right hand woman I’m caught in the crosswind. Taking it personally isn’t going to get me very far – this is no job for the thin-skinned. It works both ways too – sometimes I’m the one saying the things that are difficult to hear. Like the time I had to sit down with a boss and explain that there’s an office cultural issue to address or else they’re going to have a major team problem on their hands.

Something that never gets easier to deal with are the times I’m expected to keep secrets that negatively impact other people. Like when I’ve known that one of my closest work friends is about to lose her job and I’ve had to bite my tongue as she tells me over lunch that she’s trying for a baby and exchanging on a house. Or when my boss asks me to “become friends” with individuals around the business so that I can get information out of them about their department’s dealings or insight on their line manager. However much you might want to tell the truth; however much you feel bad for what you’re doing; you have to give yourself a kick, put your work head on and remind yourself that it’s work and you’re paid to support your boss.

As a PA, you have a front row seat to the trials and stressors of life as an executive. The job is to relieve some of those pressures whenever possible, and make life as smooth as possible for the boss. Staying motivated, positive and flexible as you roll with the punches; managing difficult conversations with diplomacy and negotiation skills; seeing beyond the drama in the detail to the bigger picture. They’re not just the marks of a successful business leader; they're essential skills of the assistant too.