Executive secretaries: Super fixers only need apply

They're not a new invention, but they do deserve more recognition, discovers Annabelle Thorpe
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Combine typing, answering the phone, sorting mail and organising diaries and you have a pretty accurate picture of a standard secretarial job. But throw in some drafting of reports, researching material on the Internet, liaising with clients, finance directors, chief executives and the press, a dash of office management and a healthy dose of information processing and what do you have? Welcome to the world of the ExecuSec.

Judith Turner has been PA to four chairmen of Shell UK. At first she was unsure whether to apply for such a senior role. "But I bore in mind what the principal of my secretarial college had said to us: `Never be afraid of a job which is a bit beyond you; it's the only way to find your potential and capablities'."

Executive secretaries are often thought to be a new invention, due largely to the increasing numbers of graduates going into secretarial work. "Not so," says Anne Hoben, who has worked as an executive assistant for several years and is now PA to the chief executive of a Civil Service agency. "This sort of job has always been around - it may have been called office manager or administrator, but the fact is that at the top of most organisations there's one person responsible for looking after the top man or woman and running their office."

To be an executive secretary is to reach the top of the tree. Most chief executives or managing directors need an assistant capable of more than simple secretarial tasks. The rewards are high - anything from pounds 20,000- pounds 30,000 and there is usually a good degree of responsibility and autonomy. "Obviously I do some secretarial work," says Hoben, "but to be honest we do employ someone to make the tea and do the photocopying and more basic typing. Much of my job is about making my boss's life easier - and that takes time. If I'm making up an information pack for him I have to make sure everything is in it. If I'm drafting a report, or writing a letter that he'll put his name to, it has to be absolutely perfect."

Diana Blois-Brooke, PA to a partner of a successful London property firm, agrees. "People who are at the top of their profession have so many different strands to look after they just want things put in front of them and to know that they are right, that they don't have to check everything. My work is not about getting through endless numbers of letters, it's about making sure my boss has everything he needs - that he sees what he needs to deal with and that he isn't bothered with what I can see to."

Initiative is the keyword, Hoben says. "I have to think about what my boss needs to see, what I have to do and what I can delegate. I also have to think on my feet - if a press release goes out, our office is inundated with calls. I field all the calls I can and make sure my boss only talks to those people that he needs to."

Hoben believes that the ability to understand the role of an executive secretary only comes with time and experience. "I did a full-blown secretarial course and have spent years understanding how offices work, the general dynamic and how to work most effectively."

"ExecuSecs are in high demand," says Jo Tomazou of Gordon Yates, a recruitment firm specialising in PAs and ExecuSecs. "The rates of pay reflect that. A top-class ExecuSec can expect to command anything from between pounds 10 and pounds 13 an hour and is assured of work once she has proved her abilities."

It may be recognised financially, but it is not always the case in the office. "It can be a bit of a no-man's land," says Blois-Brooke. "You're expected to be better than a classic secretary but you're often still looked down on. Attitudes could be better."

Hoben agrees. "A lot of people don't understand what goes into the job - and that goes for new recruits as well. Often people think just because they can type they can run a whole office. What they can't prepare for is the unpredictability of a day. There's no quiet couple of hours to get your thoughts straight about the day to come - every day you hit the ground running."