A Personal Best

By Louise Hodgson

With a finger in every pie, the personal assistant has one of the most challenging roles in any business

The role of the PA is a wide-ranging and demanding one, involving a huge amount of organisation, a very high level of technical know-how and an array of both interpersonal and administrative skills.

In most cases, PAs must assume responsibilities delegated to them by the most important people in a company. Therefore, the position often entails dealing with very high profile clients on a one-to-one basis, while at the same time handling the run of the business in a manner that omplies with their employer's objectives.

At the same time, the PA is, primarily, a personal assistant and a degree of involvement outside working hours is often expected. The PA's evening may require attending a corporate dinner, and, if the CEO is away on business at the weekend, they must be constantly alert to help with anything their boss may need from the office.


A challenging role


The PA role is a challenging one requiring many skills and outstanding professionalism, all of which must be backed by qualifications. "Nowadays, most PAs would have third-level qualifications and if they don't, they often study at night for their professional development," says Erika Davis, PA to Business&Finance publisher Ian Hyland. "The days of a personal assistant being employed to answer the phone and type up letters are gone." "A personal assistant's role is to oversee the management of their direct boss and to ensure that their boss's time is utilised to the maximum effectiveness," explains Aisling Broderick, managing director of Osborne Recruitment. "This will incorporate everything from diary management, screening calls, coordinating travel arrangements, putting together PowerPoint presentations and all administrative duties for that particular person."

As such, the role of the PA has changed in line with the advancement of technology over the years. Where once PAs had to navigate a filing cabinet with stealth, they must now maintain an intricate knowledge of the company's computer system. Where once shorthand was an indispensable tool, high speed typing and a thorough comprehension of Microsoft programmes such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint are absolute must-haves on any PA's CV. This technical expertise must constantly be updated. As the main aim of the PA is to use their time efficiently, they need to be on the lookout for the latest software that will help them to do so.

Keeping up with with every need

Quite often, the CEO of a large corporation won't know the names and roles of all who work for him or her - what with being busy enough taking care of the big picture. PAs, on the other hand, have to keep up-to-date with staff. When there is company news to relate, they need to know who to alert first, and when a work gathering is being organised, they cannot afford to leave anyone out.

In much the same way, PAs must keep track of all those with whom their boss meets. They will know what calls to screen, and indeed, have to diplomatically conduct such screenings. In this way, the role encompasses a large element of public relations. Dealing with important clients requires a considerable amount of charm and discretion, especially when there are sensitive matters that can potentially go askew. On a more basic level, it is the PA who will have contact details at the touch of a button for everyone associated with their boss, both personally and professionally.

There are legal implications for asking someone to work more than 48 hours a week, as detailed by the European Working Time Directive. It has become increasingly obvious that a large amount of workers in Ireland do not stick to these hours; the Eurest Lunchtime Report 2006 has shown that the average lunch break in the Republic lasts just 38 minutes. A recent survey conducted by irishjobs.ie reported that 43% of Irish employees take only one week or less of their holidays. The PA is doubtlessly one to be affected by this national trend.

"The main issue that a PA faces today is juggling to achieve a work-life balance," says Aisling Broderick. "Many find it impossible to leave their jobs at 5pm, as their boss may still be working and need them at 10pm." Any hour beyond the 48 hours should be paid for. But it can be hard for PAs to count the extra time, because they are often working in spurts around someone else's clock. On top of that, PAs may have signed away their right to a usual working schedule, as there is usually a clause in their contract that gets around the matter. As with any employee, however, if a PA feels that his or her position is being taken advantage of, they have every right to solve this issue through the legal route (and indeed, in some cases they are actively encouraged to do so).

Assisting the assistant

The organisation of meetings, conferences and, in certain instances, holidays, involves the need for a wealth of information. The PA has to be aware of an array of promotional offerings: the most efficient and cost effective methods of travel, from limousines to double-decker buses; the best hotels and restaurants to impress clients and/or accommodate employees; the most suitable leisure activities to promote healthy work relations and teambuilding; and the most accommodating conference centres and meeting venues in the country.

Therefore, websites like pa-assist.ie are a vital lifeline for the PA. After all, sometimes even those assisting need help.

"pa-assist.ie is an online resource and information website for PAs, secretaries and management assistants," explains Sandra Cummins, the website's director. "It aims to bring a wide variety of products, services and help facilities to the one desktop to assist office professionals in their daily activities."

Here, the PA will find a one-stop-shop of resources. From grammar guidelines essential for professional emails) to hotel recommendations, there is plenty here to make a PA's job easier. As Cummins explains: "The main features of the website are the help services, which include: 'Ask the Travel Pilot' - where you can submit a complex travel itinerary and we will respond with best solution; 'Ask the Grammar Expert' - for advice and assistance with irregular and difficult forms of words or for confirmation that the structure of your sentence is grammatically correct; 'Ask Moneypenny' - for any specific advice you may require or to assist you with finding a specific product or service; The 'pa-assist Venue Finder' - a free meeting and venue finding service in association with Ovation Group; and the 'pa-assist Hotel Booker' - a hotel reservation service in association with TravelRes." Pa-assist.ie was first established in Britain in May 2000 (pa-assist.com) and then came to Ireland in October 2002. It employs just three people in Ireland and six in the UK, yet remains the number one resource for office professionals.

As well as all of that information, a quick glance at the website shows that the team covers a wide range of topics of interest to the PA, such as guidelines to using FedEx, recommended events organisers, CV writing skills and many more. This wide range of topics gives an idea of what the PA has to cover on a day-to-day basis.

But while the role of the PA is often challenging and ever changing, there are few who would swap it for anything else.

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