We’ve heard from the PAs themselves about their day-to-day lives in the workplace, but we’ve decided to ditch the rule book and speak to a boss to find out what they look for in an assistant. In a special ‘5 minutes with…’, Jade Burke speaks to retail consultant and broadcaster Mary Portas, to find out why mutual respect is key and the importance of not blurring the lines between a friendship and professional relationship.
Finding the right assistant is not always the easiest job for an executive or a manager – there are so many elements to consider, from efficiency and trustworthiness to confidence and integrity, which all play a crucial role when choosing an assistant.
For those working in the public eye, securing the ideal assistant can make all the difference to an exec’s role, something Mary Portas, retail consultant and broadcaster, knows all too well. With a seasoned career in TV and radio, Portas’ daily schedule is jam-packed with interviews, TV appearances and meetings, meaning a well-equipped assistant is crucial to her daily working life.
Speaking with Portas, I am keen to find out what specific traits she looks for in an assistant. She tells me: “Trust is number one. You have to trust them completely and that for me is the most important.
“But I think your assistant has to have charm – I really look for that in mine. I hear Abi (Abi Sangster is Portas’ current EA) on the phone to people – I get a lot of requests for interviews and she has to often say ‘no’ and you have got to be able to do that with charm. I’ve been on the receiving end of some assistants to executives who kind of hold thought and aren’t very charming. So, I would definitely say charm and she’s got oodles of it.”
“I think we have a really close relationship – I wouldn’t call it a friendship because I think once you go into friendship you fall into a different category.”
Having met Sangster myself, I couldn’t agree more – her ebullient personality is one to admire; it’s no wonder that her and Portas have such a close-working relationship. However, Portas is careful not to cross that business line with a friendship. As the two work with one another daily, she appreciates the importance of a respectful and trusting bond with a work colleague.
“I think we have a really close relationship – I wouldn’t call it a friendship because I think once you go into friendship you fall into a different category. But she will be a person that will be in my life forever, and my old assistant before that was,” Portas recalls.
“You can’t say it’s a friendship because it’s a business line you have to have, but for sure this is someone that will be in my life because we have a really deep respect and care for each other.
“When it works and it’s a chemistry thing with mutual respect and trust at the heart of it that neither of you abuses, then you have got something very valuable.”
Due to Portas’ work schedule, Sangster has to wear many hats and juggle a variety of jobs and it’s this tenacity that makes her stand out. Having the initiative to make a decision about something is essential to an assistant’s role – and it’s this intelligent mind that Portas specifically looks out for.
Portas continues: “It’s knowing when to do something and knowing when to interrupt. It takes intelligence; you need an intelligent and sharp mind because you really are bringing every skill to the role and it’s the ability to be able to guess a situation even before it happens, which I think is brilliant, and Abi just picks it all up.”
It’s clear that this duo has a solid working relationship built on honesty and respect – however neither are averse to having some fun in the office. There’s a video on Portas’ Instagram page where Sangster can be seen smacking her boss’ arm with a book in a bid stop her hand cramp – a hilarious video that truly captures their trusting bond between one another (I’m sure many bosses wouldn’t let their assistant whack a hardback book across their arm no matter how much they trusted them!).
“Regardless of your gender, don’t be afraid to embrace female qualities like flexibility, collaboration and kindness and use them in how you work day-to-day.”
But that professional relationship is maintained no matter what between the pair, and Sangster is always on hand to support Portas no matter where she is or what time of the day it is. Portas recalls a time where her publicist came down with a sickness bug and was unable to attend her speaker session during her book tour in the North. This is where Sangster saved the day and dropped everything to get up to Yorkshire to support her boss on stage.
“I know I can get hold of her any time,” Portas shares. “If there is a time where I think I need her help on something she will always say ‘don’t worry’. She might have to really pull strings to make it happen but the fact that someone who you rely on says ‘don’t worry they I’ll pick up on this’ is just fabulous.”
This year has also seen Portas release her new book, Work Like A Woman; a title filled with tips, advice and business experience. There’s something within these pages that will resonate with any assistant no matter what industry they are working in, but I am curious to know what advice Portas would give assistants in the industry.
She shares: “Regardless of your gender, don’t be afraid to embrace female qualities like flexibility, collaboration and kindness and use them in how you work day-to-day. Bringing your whole self to work is incredibly important, too.
“Stop being who you think your boss wants you to be. You are special because you are you. You must use your voice. Stay true to yourself and have the confidence to work like a woman.”
As a public figure within the creative arena, gaining an understanding of what a boss like Portas wants from an assistant demonstrates that PAs need to have the ability to think on their feet. If I’ve learnt anything from my chat with her, it’s that this industry and its members need to think outside the box, and I am sure that we will see this develop much more in the future.
And if anyone is thinking of pinching Sangster they can ‘sod off’ – Portas’ words not mine.
Keep your eyes peeled for the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of PA Life, where Abi Sangster features as our PA Profile star.