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To PA, or not to PA: Business leaders give their opinion on personal assistants

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We all know that technology can help us work in a more efficient and joined-up way. But what about having a specific person to handle those simple, and often mundane, tasks that seem to take up so much of an entrepreneur or business leader’s day?

For Casey Bowden, MD of Harvey Water Softeners, a good personal assistant (PA) is worth their weight in gold. “By default they have to be adaptable and this means they can turn their hands to so many things,” he explained. “With email it’s easier to run your down communication and scheduling but there are lots of other more complex tasks that you can hand over to the benefit of yours, and your company’s, performance.”

So what tasks can you expect a PA to be able to deal with? Craig Le Grice, founder of Hub and Lab, and formerly CIO at Blue Rubicon, said PAs can be useful when it comes to gate-keeping, pre-emptive intervention in issues, being eyes and ears and condensing the do list into bitesize chunks.

“I’ve had PAs and EAs [executive assistants] for several years now and it’s usually, still, the most important hire I make – especially when starting a new role. A very good PA becomes your right hand, whereas consequences of hiring a bad one can be catastrophic,” he added.

Beyond organising diaries and booking travel, Le Grice believes a good PA can allow an executive to “fully leverage” the 100 or so hours they probably work in a week.

“Specifically for executives that travel a lot, having a PA/EA as an anchor point at ‘home base’ helps with connectivity to the organisation and visibility when he/she is out of the office. The best assistants I’ve had, I’ve trusted to attend meetings on my behalf, have invited to travel with me, and have become an integral part of my ‘executive office’.”

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Tom Needs, COO at Adapt, views his PA as trusted colleague with a vital role in ensuring senior members of the team work together efficiently and effectively. This, he added, is especially important if a PA is working with more than one executive or senior manager at a time.

“PAs are effectively ambassadors for busy executives – strong communication skills are vital as they act as a conduit for managing many competing priorities. Organisational skills are also key – it’s often challenging to keep up to speed with everything that’s going on within an organisation. 

“A good PA keeps their eyes and ears to the ground for you, helping to field queries and alerting you to emerging issues. They not only support you, but your wider team.”

Needs went on to reveal a good PA understands the person they work for, their working style and communications preferences. “A great PA will also take time to understand the business – only then can they truly understand your priorities and find smarter ways of getting things complete, understanding the many characteristics and characters that make up a company.”

The connection forged beteween an executive and their PA is echoed by Le Grice who said while it is possible to share assistants, and it’s certainly a luxury these days to have your own dedicated resource, the latter is always the best option when possible. 

“The executive/assistant relationship is a bond and built on trust. That bond is stronger in a one-on-one capacity,” he explained.

Return on investment

One of the biggest problems with a PA for a CEO or MD comes when deciding when is the right time to invest. While the demands of the current pipeline of work might make one necessary, what about in a few months down the line when things are quieter? How will the cost of a full-time position be justified then?

Jenny Biggam gets round this by utilising online “virtual” assistants. As the co-founder of the7stars, the amount of work she was for a PA goes though “peaks and troughs”. While this issue can often be dealt with by sharing a PA with other managers, or twinning a job role with other responsibilities such as office manager, it can often lead to them being “spread too thinly”, she believes.

“As most communication is done by phone and email anyway, a colleague suggested I try outsourcing my work to a virtual assistant, or VA. I’ve never met Emma, my VA, but she’s available as and when I need her,” Biggam told us.

“the7stars is based in central London, which obviously has some of the most expensive office rates in the country. With a VA working remotely, we keep costs down on unnecessary overheads such as office space and IT support. The paperwork and legal issues in hiring virtually are also much reduced.”

While some may see it as impersonal, for Biggam it isn’t a problem. As most communication in today’s business environment is done over email and phone, she doesn’t believe it matters if an assissant is in your office or at their own home.

However, she does warn: “VAs are not for everyone though. They likely work best in small and medium companies which are growing. Personally, I think a VA could complete almost any task you would also give to a PA, but if you need your assistant to handle high-value work which is a little more complex, then face-to-face communication usually trumps a virtual relationship.”

Contradicting this opinion is Jonathan Richards, who thinks PAs can have a negative effect within smaller companies.

“The value that a PA delivers depends entirely on the size of the company you’re operating in. I’ve worked in larger organisations’ where I’ve had a PA and found that support invaluable,” the CEO of breatheHR said. “However, in smaller businesses the use of a PA can have a negative impact on how in-touch a managing director or business owner is with certain elements of their business.”

Richards currently runs a business of 12 people, meaning it is small enough for him to be involved at “every level”. This means he’s able to get a sense of when a decision needs to be made, or meeting called, before others are.

“When small business owners delegate part of their role to PA they risk losing touch with the pulse of their business which can ultimately cause problems later down the line. There I feel that the use of PAs in a small business environment is a false economy.”

The thought Richards concluded on is an interesting one. As smaller businesses grow, those at the helm will come across an increasing need to delegate and not be involved with every part of the company. A PA can serve as a useful tool in both being a conduit and freeing up admin time, but you must be careful to not put a barrier between yourself and the rest of the workforce.

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