The secret life of a PA

I’ve made no secret about the fact that by the time I left my career as a PA, I was ready to leave. I’d fallen out of love with a job I was convinced for a long time that I would do for the rest of my life. Career opportunities only go so far and I found myself a little bit stuck with little progression. I mean, I’d done it for 17 years and was only 35, I wasn’t quite ready to give up any ambition for more just yet.

That said, I will maintain that it’s an  undervalued profession and can be extremely rewarding. It was the diverse nature of the job that gave me the skills and connections that I have now and it was getting those skills that enabled me to move into the engagement side of things; something I was probably born to do. The problem is business engagement simply wasn’t a thing when I left school at 18, so front line admin was a natural choice for me.

Being a PA (personal assistant) and EA (executive assistant) really is a varied existence, and much as a cliché as it is, no two days are the same. It’s also a misconception that PAs and EAs are just glorified receptionists who just file and smile. For me, the ‘assistant’ element was key. You do all the little jobs that your boss is too busy to do. And yes, that can mean photocopying, printing, travel booking etc but it also meant in-depth research, statistical analysing, and report writing. It’s relationship building, and having been an EA has enabled me to build  valuable relationships with high level people – networks I’ve able to utilise in subsequent roles in a ‘hey remember when I did you loads of favours…’ type way.

Of course, like anything, being a PA comes with it’s challenges. There’s a lot of pressure. More often than not you’re either the face or the voice of the person, the department or even organisation that you work for. There can be an element of being expected to be seen and not heard; it’s your job to make sure everything runs smoothly, and only when it doesn’t, does your name become mentioned. If every room is booked, meeting papers prepared and travel arranged all without incident, happy days. Get one of those things wrong and it’s suddenly the biggest issue on the planet. In your world anyway; when you’re right no one notices, when you’re wrong no one forgets. 

Depending on your boss and quite frankly how modern or not they are, you are probably going to wind being PA to aspects of their peronal lives too. I’ve arranged dentist appointments, flowers for wives birthdays and even collected kids from school (in an emergency) for different bosses in the past. It’s almost like you weirdly become part of the family, just maybe one of those very peripheral family members you don’t really like inviting over to the house.

You are inevitably privvy to some sensitive information, espeially if you happen to work for the peron in charge. Who’s had a griveance put in against them, who is being made redundant due to a restructure, who had run off to join Isis, who was being investigated on domestic abuse charges etc etc and you can’t say a word about any of it to anyone. It’s more than your jobs worth and can sometimes put you in some awkward positions. That’s the more severe side of things, obviously I’ve had some funny things happen to (well, maybe just funny in hindsight): 

Many many years so I sent my boss down to London for a meeting that had been cancelled weeks before. I’d taken a phone call telling me this, but must have been in the middle of juggling a million and one things at once and forgotten to amend the calendar. Travel was booked and I thought nothing of it until my boss rang me to alert me to the error. I still feel sick about it to this day and it was over ten years go. I was ready to accept my P45 there and then. They were not best pleased to say the least, and it was a long time before I regained any confidence in meeting arranging. I checked arrangements to an almost obsessive extent after that. Which isn’t the most stable way of working.

You soon learn the importance about semantics as well. Another story which always raises a smile was the time I took a call from someone asking to speak with a someone who had left the organisation. I said ‘I’m sorry they’re no longer with us’ without a second thought. They said ‘oh, that’s very sad’ which I brushed off as them being sad they couldn’t meet with this person. So they must have thought me extremely cold hearted when I then said ‘well yes but I can put you through to XXXX who have replaced them?’ Anyway, cut to me merrily getting on with my work, triple checking my travel arrangements and we get a large bunch of flowers delivered form the caller offering us their sincere condolences. Woops. When I rang to explain, they thankfully saw the funny side. But needless to say I felt awful.

Much as I love my new job, there are elements I miss about my old PA life. I’m not shy in saying the perks were pretty good and especially at Christmas time I would come home with armfuls of fancy wine that had been bought for me as thank you gifts. It’s nice having a job that’s reactive; your workload is dictated by someone, and there’s always plenty to keep you busy; you do as your told to a large extent. Certainly in teams I’ve been lucky enough to work in, it’s a really supportive atmosphere, we all help each other out because we’re all in the same boat and we all understand and I’ve come away with some great friends from those jobs.

Probably the biggest thing I’ve taken away from my career as a PA though has been to always, always, always thank the admin staff. If they’re anything like me, a thank you will go a long way, and you never know when you might be in need of calling in a favour.

1 Comment

  1. May 12, 2021 / 11:08 am

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Helen! I’m currently looking into various career options for after I graduate and I’d never considered PA/EA work before – I like the idea of something that will make the most of my organising skills and where no two days or the same, so you’ve given me a lot to think about here! Your funny stories (about an employee being “no longer with you!”) did make me chuckle as well!

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