Homage to corporate angels
The secretaries are back, thanks arguably to the hit US television drama Mad Men, which revolves around a New York advertising agency in the 1960s replete with the period’s misogyny and political incorrectness.
Actually, the secretaries have never left. They have evolved with the corporate world and have become – in one guise or another – even more crucial to the operations of the modern markets, acting like unsung heroines and angels of the boardrooms.
Hence, a little reward may be long overdue. “The ‘Hong Kong Page Personnel EA of the Year Award’ is an opportunity for all executive assistants (EA), personal assistants (PA) and secretaries in Hong Kong to be recognised and rewarded for the great job they do,” Chris Aukland, regional director of Page Personnel in Hong Kong, said at the launch of the award on April 25, which co-incided with Secretary Day.
“An EA who is exceptional at their job is a valuable asset for any busy senior executive and this award was created to give those EAs an opportunity to be acknowledged for their efforts,” Aukland added.
The search aims to find the best of the best, with the winner receiving a HK$30,000 “holiday of a lifetime”. Application for the contest, based on a Facebook competition, closes on June 15 and the winner will be announced at an awards ceremony in July.
In a way, the award pays homage to the ideal qualities of the best secretaries, EAs and PAs: excellent organisation and communication skills, outstanding time and project management skills, initiative, honesty and discretion, and an ability to cope – and even excel – under pressure.
But how do secretaries view their work, and what is required of them? “The three Cs – be careful, be considerate and have good communications skills,” says Jessie Lau, a secretary at Linklaters.
“Prioritise tasks, be flexible and helpful, and it is hugely helpful if you can speak foreign languages fluently. Nowadays, in our globalised world, knowing one or more foreign languages – such as Korean, Japanese or French – is a great asset in this line of work,” Lau adds.
Elsan Man, secretary to the chief operating officer and general manager commercial at Air Hong Kong, has well-formed views on her role, and what is required.
“Being a PA today, you don’t only need routine secretarial skills, but also excellent interpersonal skills,” she says. “This is due to the fact that communicating between departments is also very important as you are really a bridge between your boss and the rest of the office.
“A lot of information and feedback your boss will not get to hear – because of the nature of office politics – but I will. And I will then filter what my boss needs to know, without omitting anything important,” Man adds.
Attention to detail is also crucial. “You also have to look professional, as you are the first contact point when people come to see your boss or even when you talk on the phone. Good grooming and telephone skills are essential, as both give people a good impression of you, your boss, and your company,” says Man.
This line of work also requires adaptability. “My boss changes every few years, so I need to adapt to each boss’ individual work-style swiftly, in order to get in step with him or her and start on the right track. This is not easy as bosses have different backgrounds and even nationalities,” Man adds.
“But most importantly, you must also know your boss like the back of your hand, regarding both his work and – to a degree – personal life. This includes knowing something about the family members and even the maids and pets,” Man says.
A diverse range of skill sets is required, and a high emotional quotient is equally important.
“Strictly speaking, this role is not only secretarial,” says Man. “Otherwise, you would only need to take care of office work. My role needs to take care of much more. You really do have to be a multi-tasker and an all-rounder.”
Thus far in her career, Man has served eight bosses of varying ethnicity. “Some were local Chinese, and also Indian, British, and Canadian. Some of them were Hong Kong residents, so I didn’t need to do much for them to start with, but others were hired from overseas, so I was required to help with the relocation arrangements – unpacking, setting up their landlines and internet, arranging the required paperwork for hiring domestic helpers, and much else besides,” she says.
Staying abreast of the latest technology can help considerably. “Thanks to the miracle of the internet, information can be found so conveniently. For today’s working environment, having a smartphone is almost indispensible. The boss will e-mail you to handle tasks after office hours or even over the weekends. Going the extra mile is what I do,” Man says.
Kirsty Pocock, personal assistant to the chief executive officer at AZ Electronic Materials, loves her work. “I am very lucky and get on extremely well with my boss, so we have a good working relationship, which I think is key to a successful director-assistant partnership,” she says. “I think my friends would also say that my personality fits well with this line of work, and I confess that I really enjoy the organisational nature of it – colour-coded spreadsheets and all.”
For Helen Lee, PA at Simpson Marine HK, it’s a great line of work. “The best thing about being a PA is knowing that I’m not constantly stressed with the burden of contributing to the bottom line. There is no sales target, no performance targets with year-on-year growth, hence my job security is not as volatile. For this reason alone, I wonder why the world is not full of PAs,” she says.