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PA Life uncovers the challenge of admin professionals at office*

This week saw the office* show bring together thousands of PAs, EAs, VAs and office managers for two days of networking, supplier sourcing and education. PA Life Editor Amelia Walker led a panel discussion to discover how admin professionals can boost recognition of the PA role.

The panellists included Donna Coulling, celebrity PA and PA speaker and mentor; Adam Fidler, Executive Assistant Trainer and Consultant; Katie McEwan, award-winning EA to Jacqueline Gold at Ann Summers; and Emily Mills, Co-Founder of the Norwich PA Network.

The session started with a discussion on how the PA role has changed over the years and how that has affected the way they work. Adam, speaking from 20 years’ experience as a corporate PA, said he started out as a secretary and has noticed a huge shift in responsibility for admin professionals.

“We have to be so much more aware of business now because we’re called on to do more than secretaries ever did 20 or 30 years ago,” he commented. “Assistants are becoming the new middle managers and need to grow their managerial skills. The more we know, the more we can contribute.”

Giving testimony to this, both Katie and Emily spoke about their roles, in which they both manage large teams of PAs within their organisations. Katie oversees six herself and is responsible for a £500,000 budget and the company’s annual charity strategy. Meanwhile, Emily manages 18 PAs across the UK and believes assistants need to evolve with the job.

When it comes to changing the common perception of the PA role both within the organisation and to the business world in general, Adam thinks it starts with PAs. “Learn as much as you can about business,” he stated. “It allows you to express an educated opinion and changes the way your boss and colleagues look at you. Remember that you’re there to provide extra value to your company.”

Katie spoke about a recent survey her team conducted within the company that asked what their colleagues thought of the PAs. She said they were surprised to find out that most people had a high opinion of the assistants and knew exactly how much they added to the business. “Always ask what people think so you know what you need to improve. Being informed is the starting point. It’s all well and good receiving good feedback from executives, but you have to own that perception and stop putting yourself down.”

Emily asked the audience to raise their hands if they felt confident explaining to other people what they do at work and only a few hands went up. She said: “It’s difficult to get others to understand what we do, but we have to have confidence in ourselves to do so. It’s the profession you’ve chosen for yourself, so be proud of it.”

Donna agreed and went back to what Adam said about gaining knowledge of the industry and business. “If you aren’t passionate about your industry, how can you contribute? Show an interest to get better at your job and expand your responsibilities. The ‘bread and butter’ PA role doesn’t exist anymore.”

Commenting on social media, Donna said it’s one of the best tools an assistant can use. “I’m all about social media. It’s networking in your pyjamas. You can always get an answer to your questions online. We as PAs can help each other just by talking about our problems. Go to events and meet new people to grow your list of contacts so the next time your boss needs something, you can say ‘I’ve got the perfect solution’.”

Speaking on exhibitions such office*, the whole panel agreed it’s key to get your employer to understand the importance of such events so they can support your attendance. Adam believes it’s a shame that more companies don’t support development among their admin staff and said: “To attract new talent, employers need to promote development.”

Katie commented that if she didn’t have such a supportive boss, she would probably be looking for a company that could give her the opportunity to grow. Her advice? “Build a business case for every event or training course you want to attend. Every company is going to be concerned with the bottom line, so you have to be serious and show how you can add value to the business through these events.”

And when it comes to development, Emily said it’s up to PAs to get the ball rolling. “Appraisals need to be a two-way discussion. Have a plan in mind so you can get what you want out of the meeting. Don’t wait for a satisfactory appraisal and then settle. Always be moving towards improving your performance.”

Meanwhile, Donna believes mentoring is important for PAs. “I’m a real believer in mentoring,” she said. “Find someone you look up to for encouragement and to give you an example of where to go with your career. I’ve met a lot of PAs who are downtrodden because of stagnation, so it’s important for us all to inspire each other.”

Next, the discussion was opened for the audience to ask questions, the first of which was what the panel suggested for PAs whose companies didn’t have a budget or a scheme available for training opportunities. Katie pointed out that training for PAs isn’t actually that expensive, especially if companies can arrange internal sessions with their own experts. “The cost here is time,” she said. “Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle you’ll face is getting your boss to give you time away from work for development. If there’s a gap in opportunities for training, fill it. Be proactive and put forward a case for allowing development.”

Another PA asked for advice on developing a case for a pay rise after noticing a growth in responsibility. Katie suggested keeping the request simple and focusing on the bigger picture rather than the tiny details of each thing you do. “It’s more in tune with how executives think about business,” she explained.

Adam agreed and went back to his point about being informed about business. “We can do ourselves a disservice by not elevating the language we use when building a case for ourselves. Look at the outcomes and success factors of the things you do. Understand that 20% of your job might have been the responsibility of a manager once upon a time. Try re-writing your job description to accommodate the tasks you actually do and base it on a middle manager’s description.”

And how can a PA in a leadership role measure the success of his or her team? “It’s a challenge, especially if you don’t see all of your team members on a regular basis,” said Emily. “On my team, we collectively come up with a single objective to reach and then each individual has two of their own objectives. It’s difficult to evaluate success in black and white, but having manageable objectives makes it easier. Each person’s remit is completely different, so a long list of objectives is difficult to manage, especially if they don’t all apply to each member of the team.”

Katie brought the discussion to a close by pointing out that the PA in charge is the one who has to adapt to each of his or her team members. “I’m the one who has to adapt to their way of working. Some want regular support, while others prefer the autonomy to get on with it themselves.”