The changing face of personal assistant’s job

Stanbic Bank CEO's PA Andryne Wagitu on July 18, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

The personal assistant (PA) of these days is changing from being a PA to an executive assistant, whose job is reserved for senior management, to the chief-of-staff (CoS). The roles have also changed.

Andryne Wagitu serves as the personal assistant (PA) to the chief executive of Stanbic Bank. Her days are long and characterised by high adrenaline. Sometimes they are unpredictable.

She makes travel arrangements for her boss, sets up his meetings with top executives and organises his compact diary. Occasionally, this job eats into her time and sometimes tears her away from her family.

Yet this is the only place she would rather be.

“As PA, I manage both internal stakeholders and external stakeholders, that is staff, regulators, customers, guests and business partners. I handle the chief executive’s correspondence and all other matters about communication to his office. I am also responsible for organising his events.”

Highest level

The PA’s work is at the highest level of an organisation, providing administrative support to top executives including the CEO, senior directors, and even members of the company’s board.

The role, Ms Wagitu admits, has evolved from the traditional secretarial work that involved answering calls and typing out documents on behalf of the boss, to now feature high-level engagements. One must be an all-rounder, she insists.

‘‘I have to understand what the executive does to be able to support him well. There are times he will ask for my advice, so it is important to know about things happening around the bank and to articulate them.’’

Previously, Ms Wagitu worked as PA for a senior director at Amref. At Stanbic Bank, she was a business banker and relationship manager before moving to the chief executive’s office.

“This gives me an edge in my role.”

The job description of Mildred Maisiba, a former PA for 12 years, was to ensure that her boss, the CEO of Aga Khan Hospital, was well prepared for meetings and up to speed with events at the hospital. It was also her mandate to follow up on actionable items with the executive.

Mildred Maisiba worked at Aga Khan Hospital as a personal assistant. PHOTO | POOL

“It was my job to ensure that the office runs optimally, with all the supplies available. I made sure all visiting executives were well supported in terms of meeting arrangements, travel and accommodation,” she says.

When her boss was travelling, Ms Maisiba had to take into account the immigration, weather, economic, and even political environment of his destination, and advise him accordingly.

Senior HR expert Lucy Wariara agrees that the role of the contemporary PA has evolved from the traditional office administrative tasks of managing communication and setting up meetings to now act as the link between decision makers and decision implementers.

Senior HR expert Lucy Wariara. PHOTO | POOL

‘‘PAs ensure the boss has all the relevant and full information required to make a decision. This information is usually in form of intelligently analysed data on other psycho-social factors that may influence the decision as well as its implementation. This makes PAs researchers in their own right and important strategic cogs in the running of the organisation. They are key to eventual realisation of strategy.’’

Ms Wariara adds that by virtue of the role they play, PAs own their bosses’ decisions and their implementation by closing gaps. ‘‘A good PA is able to manage all stakeholders in the organisation by enhancing efficiency. They also act as monitoring and evaluation agents of commitments taken and their execution.’’

The role of PA is changing, redefined by technology, with executives optimising their processes to adapt to the fast-changing world.

The traditional PA roles of managing their boss’s diary, handling documents and letters on their behalf, taking notes during meetings, and handling travel itineraries have been taken over by technology.

Technology allows the use of emails, video conferencing tools for virtual meetings, electronic calendars for planning, and online booking for travel, eliminating the need for overreliance on an assistant.

“Unlike before, PAs and their bosses no longer need to organise and complete tasks through face-to-face office contact,” she says.

Access denied?

What has not changed, though, are the fundamentals of the job.

Owing to their seniority and even their security, some organisations limit access to their senior managers. It is the job of the PA to control this access. So, under what circumstances is this access denied?

Ms Wagitu explains: “There are times when you look at the matter and decide that it does not require the attention of the boss. While I will pass on the issue to him, I will usually direct you to the right person.”

“It is challenging when you decline someone’s meeting with the executive and have to explain to them. Naturally, people will be disappointed, and feel that you have blocked them. You must be assertive,” she adds.

To organise a high-ranking individual’s life, one must be organised themselves. Organisational skills are a must-have, and so are the ability to multitask and analyse situations.

“You have to be a graduate with at least five years’ experience in a similar or related role. Superb oratory and writing skills are a must. You must have a strong work ethic because you are representing an executive office,” Ms Wagitu.

If excellence is critical, integrity is not an option. ‘‘You are dealing with sensitive matters of the company. You come across and handle very sensitive information about the business, which you must protect. Confidentiality is key.’’

This job is as much about providing administrative support as it is about solving problems. Sometimes Wagitu is required to set up a meeting on short notice with an external stakeholder that she does not know. “In such cases, I have to do background checks by activating my existing contacts.’’

Yet even with prior planning, Maisiba adds not every piece of the jigsaw fits “because no day is like the other.”

She explains: “Items that are more crucial and more urgent than what you have in the calendar will always come up. You have to manage that. This is where knowledge of the institution’s core business comes in. This allows you to determine which requests to move forward and what to prioritise”

The repercussions of blundering are heavy, Ms Wagitu emphasises. ‘‘I am managing the chief executive’s matters and they have to be handled with care and accuracy.’’

In some cases, personal assistants are required to run personal errands for their bosses, such as fetching children from school or shopping for them. But to what extent can a PA go in attending to their boss’s private matters?

‘‘Some matters that touch on business and the boss’s [private] life are intertwined. Usually, these come in form of requests from either the boss himself or the stakeholders. I have to use my decision-making skills and experience to see what goes where.’’

The job also demands a great deal of flexibility as the practitioner works with the boss’s schedule. They have to be available to support them whenever needed. Calling a taxi for the boss in the dead of the night and responding to e-mails on Sunday mornings are not out of the question.

‘‘You are constantly expected to do things outside your job description. I am expected to work outside my normal working hours to deal with, say, emergencies. Often, this will take me away from my family.’’

In some instances, situations demand that she reschedules appointments when meetings have overrun.

While the career progression of a PA is not always linear, some professionals start as administrative assistants before rising to executive assistants. Some go on to become company secretaries.

Consequently, their remuneration tends to be attractive. In Kenya, a PA working for an executive in a top company can earn as much Sh300,000 per month, with those serving as company secretary raking in up to Sh580,000, according to recruitment firm Glassdoor.

On uptake of additional roles, collaboration is now a key component of a PA’s mandate, with the flexibility to work in departments such as communication, HR, Finance, and even logistics.

Recruiters and potential employers are focusing on hiring PAs who are not only qualified in secretarial work but also in other areas such as technology and business management.

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