The Truth About the PA Industry

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Glorified secretary. A ‘Mad Men’ throwback. The ‘Ice Tea Maker’. A female only role where answering the phone, escorting guests to meeting rooms and making coffee is the extent of your value added on a daily basis. Sound familiar?

In a recent survey we opened to Personal and Executive Assistants around the world, over 2000 business support professionals answered the question ‘As a PA/EA, what are some common misconceptions that you have either heard of or experienced from others regarding your role?’ The answers did not surprise or shock us…and not in a positive way.

When I first created The Assistant Room in 2016 after spending ten years working alongside CEO’s, Founders and Entrepreneurs, it was to give our industry access to authentic support and career development opportunities that I had always asked for; but never received. From personal experience I know what it’s like to be called ‘just a PA’ and to have my worth questioned by those who have quite literally no involvement and no idea in what I do on a day to day basis. Career long discrimination and a consistent battle with the opinion of entitled colleagues led me to question my own successful career, a direct consequence of a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ style of negative commentary. Importantly, the discrimination I experienced was always one-way because unlike many of my ex-colleagues, I did not presume that it was my right to judge and comment on someones (or anyones) contribution to the business, based on my own misplaced understanding of what their job description included.

”To the individuals who condemn the worth of an assistant due to their job title alone…do better.”

In a recent LinkedIn post I shared: ”There is no such thing as ‘just a PA’. To everyone who is naive enough to belittle the people closest to the Executive board (and who are much closer than they are), to those who publicly shame skilled professionals who work behind the scenes and accept that their impact is largely hidden but continue anyway and to the individuals who condemn the worth of an assistant due to their job title alone…do better.” The response was huge and echoed many of the sentiments shared in the survey deep diving into the raw truth about the perceived value of the PA industry.

It is with a huge amount of appreciation and thanks to those who answered our question over misconceptions of the business support industry and to give some of those people a voice, here are just some of those answers:

MISCONCEPTION 1: ”That I do jobs no else would do, I’m a glorified secretary.” – Emma, celebrity PA – Dorset, UK

MISCONCEPTION 2: ”The most common misconception is that even in the 21st century we are still viewed as those women from “Mad Men.” We are just there to file, take calls, and escort visitors to meetings. We are so much more than that. We are influential, we are “the Red Right Hand”, we are the glue of the company.” – Brandi, EA in Tech – California, USA

MISCONCEPTION 3: ”Gender! I’m male. There is no understanding of what the EA role is, that it’s more than a basic admin position. The influence that we have is ignored when the reality is that we’re leaders in our own right. The abilities we have, the breadth of our knowledge and skill set, our role is essential and mandatory for the success of our Exec/organisation. Our strategic mindset and ability is overlooked always.” – Joel, EA in Healthcare – Nottinghamshire, UK

MISCONCEPTION 4: ”Some companies don’t see this position as revenue generating and therefore place a lower priority and lower pay for the function. This comes from the misconception that the function plays within an organisation. If you use this function correctly, you will see that it is revenue generating in the way of allowing the leader to focus on their business, which in turn saves time and money.” – Amy, EA in Tech – Utah, USA

”The irony of the situation is that the day to day impact of a Personal/Executive Assistant is the antithesis of every answer submitted”

MISCONCEPTION 5: ”Assistants don’t need training so no learning & development is curated for them, many see us as are glorified clerks and believe that technical skills aren’t important for an EA/PA to develop.” – Shagufta, Administrative Assistant in Tech – Mumbai, India

MISCONCEPTION 6: ”People assume because I work in an office and my job is seated that it’s a lazy profession. They just assume it’s typing or data entry – Josh, Business Development Support Officer in Social Care – London, UK

Is this really what people believe? Is this honestly the best that people can do towards an industry that represents steel resilience, board level commercial awareness, a fine tuned strategic mindset, laser sharp organisation skills and people management abilities that require the highest levels of emotional intelligence? The irony of the situation is that the day to day impact of a Personal/Executive Assistant is the antithesis of every answer submitted including those above. The question is, after years of our industry striving for change and working towards developing a respected industry wide reputation, how do we ensure whatever we do sticks?

Education

When faced with adversity, you must seek to understand the root cause of the issue in order to find an effective solution. It is simply not enough to assume that people will self-educate on an issue they find unimportant let alone how to unlearn bad habits regarding a profession. ”Education on the role and impact of business support professionals is crucial. The most important topic I feel leaders need training on is how to utilise assistants. HR leaders need to push this and also make it mandatory for assistants to be given budget and time to develop their professional skills.” – Lesley, PA in Finance – UK

Alternatively, tangible evidence demonstrating the commercial value and impact of assistants is a ‘quick win’ and potentially an easy way to enable difficult bosses/colleagues to understand your value in a language they are familiar with – numbers. Tracking financial impact throughout the year is crucial, if you’re an Assistant Room member you can access your free impact tracking document HERE. ”Sharing insight to executive managers with examples of how money is saved by efficiency within your administrative staff is easy if you know how.” – Toni, Administrative Specialist in Health-Tech – Texas, USA

In addition to the above, peer to peer education at a PA/EA level is also important and has been a key part of everything we do at The Assistant Room from our BLOG POSTS, to our PODCAST SERIES where we discuss the challenges and achievements experienced by assistants from around the world, to the uncensored PA panel discussions we host within our MEMBERSHIP. Taking ownership of your career can only be done by you and creating positive change by demonstrating a strong and determined persona should inspire those around you. ”EA’s need to be uplifted by understanding the possibilities available to them. They need to be lead in a way that gives them confidence in knowing there is more, you just have to be willing to ask the question and take the initiative to do more.” – Amy, EA in Tech – Utah, USA

”It is important to do your due diligence and assess the validity and authenticity of individuals with a ‘voice’ and ensure that the narrative you become part of is charged with empowerment, confidence and positivity.

Personal Brand

What exactly is personal brand and why is it important for business support professionals? Simply put it’s what people say about you when you’re not in the room. An understanding of your personal brand can be learnt from an in-person encounter at a networking event, an interaction at work, something you post, comment on or share on LinkedIn. The lesson to learn is that everything you do has an impact. The reason it’s important for business support professionals? When you are already fighting against the tide, being not only responsible but clever about your personal brand effects more than just you, it effects the way our industry is perceived. ”Social media is such a powerful tool, we need to utilise this and constantly demonstrate who we are, what we do and how important we are to our companies. We are an extension of the Executive team – we fill any commercial gaps and enhance their ability to achieve success.” Emma, celebrity PA – Dorset, UK

Aligning yourself with the right people who professionally represent the business support industry will call time on the individuals who parade as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is important to do your due diligence and assess the validity and authenticity of individuals with a ‘voice’ and ensure that the narrative you become part of is charged with empowerment, confidence and positivity. ”I believe we need to as a collective, stand up and speak up and let the masses know that we are strong, we have voices, we are SKILLED PROFESSIONALS. The role has grown exponentially in the past 50+ years. We are WARRIORS!” – Brandi, EA in Tech – California, USA

Our own commitment to furthering the validity of business support professionals around the world means that we will continue to create content across our WEBSITE, via our PODCAST and through our MEMBERSHIP defining the role of PAs and EAs in an accurate and relatable way. These pieces of content will bring to life the reality of what it takes to be a successful business support professional with zero fluff or wishy washy commentary. We pride ourselves on representing our global profession the right way so keep coming back for regular content helping you to define and build your personal brand.

Courage

We need to speak more in detail about the duties we do in our roles and be clever about the terminology we use to represent our industry.

Confidence and courage is a key component to the success and perceived value of anyone in any position. ‘Fake it until you make it’ and ‘practice until you perfect it’ are phrases to live by and certainly help in re-establishing your position within the workplace, debunking some of those common misconceptions we have addressed in this article. ”Assistants need to start speaking for themselves, have enormous amounts of courage, be more participative and not just work in the background. Be more open and honest with what you want from your career and be demanding with HR on training and development needs. Career progression will only happen if you make it happen.” – Shagufta, Administrative Assistant in Tech – Mumbai, India

Having the courage to speak out with clear and defined terminology around the impact of business support professionals is how as an industry, we can collectively start seeing change. Articulating the reality of the profession, avoiding whimsical, irrelevant and unprofessional descriptions such as ‘miracle worker’, ‘badass assistant’ and ‘mind reader’ does us absolutely no justice. If you’re reading this, shaking your head and thinking that there is no harm in defining us ‘miracle workers with magic wands’, explore other ways you can accurately describe what you do. Ask yourself, ‘how can I articulate my commercial impact in a way that others can recognise and understand?’. Let’s face it, magic wands do not exist but the ability to strategically decision make and influence those around you under pressure is your real power. ”We need to speak more in detail about the duties we do in our roles and be clever about the terminology we use to represent our industry. Honest conversations need to be had and we need to be accurate in defining our commercial power.” – Josh, Business Development Support Officer in Social Care – London, UK

”Remember that those individuals who don’t understand your role and find it ok to belittle or try and drag you down aren’t actually important enough to have a PA anyway.”

The truth about the PA industry is that change begins with us. A culture shift needs to happen and it needs to happen now with involvement from not only each other but bosses and organisations too. With education, a focus on building your personal brand and developing the courage to stand up for who you are and flex your professional integrity, our hard work will start to pay off.

One final thing to leave you with. Regularly hit with some of those common misconceptions? Remember that those individuals who don’t understand your role and find it ok to belittle or try and drag you down aren’t actually important enough to have a PA anyway.