How to hire a great personal assistant in three easy steps

Personal assistants are as diverse as the business leaders they’re attached to.

Some serve primarily as gatekeepers. Some manage an office. Some are event managers. Others again help their CEO be the approachable, open-door leader they always say they are.

But while an increasing number of assistants are tertiary educated, there is no qualification for what makes one a personal assistant. And given the independence of the role and its highly specialised nature, it’s not like you can easily train someone up if they don’t have a clue what to do.

We spoke to Sarah Riley, the managing director of office support recruiter Page Personnel, to ask her how you can hire a great assistant from the get-go.

1. What is it you want a PA for anyway?

For the busy business leader who wants to hire an assistant, the first step is to figure out exactly what he or she wants from the role, Riley tells SmartCompany.

“If you’re hiring an assistant and you don’t know what you want them to do, it’s hard for them to be successful,” she says.

“Some people want diary and email management, some people want the assistant to do events, to administer other staff, or to drive a project like an office relocation project. It’s such a diverse skill set, and you need to know exactly what you want.”

Once you know what things you want your assistant to do, it’s easier to get one that just fits the bill.

A recent survey found 56% of hiring managers expect their office support staff to leave the business in the coming year. This is made more likely when the fit between an assistant and the role they’re expected to perform isn’t perfect.

“Plenty of businesses get someone who they think is doing a great job, when in fact, that assistant isn’t happy because he or she has 40% more capacity they could be using for more high-level roles,” Riley says. Workers who don’t feel their skills are being utilised are unlikely to sit still.

2. The search – how to tap the hidden market

The market for office support staff is highly competitive. So finding a suitable assistant might not be as straightforward as you think.

“If you put an ad on SEEK, what you’re relying on is the best candidate going on SEEK, scrolling through the dozens of advertisements put up every single day and seeing your advertisement,” Riley says. “But the best candidates aren’t searching that hard.”

Specialist recruitment firms are able to peruse both the active job market (through job boards) and the passive market, which is made up of all the executive assistants who aren’t necessarily looking for another job but would be open to it if given the right opportunity.

“We have a database of people we can use to turn around a shortlist very quickly,” Riley says. “We also use social media advertising on LinkedIn and Facebook, which helps us tap the passive job market.”

Given the importance of the role – most leaders spend more time with their personal assistant than they do with their spouse – it pays to get the best person.

3. The ultimate competency test: your assistant should help you be you

The best assistants help their business leader do more of the things they want to do.

It’s important the assistant fits the culture of the organisation, and the image you are trying to project.

“If you hire someone that you think fits the bill, but doesn’t gel with the organisation, they will negatively impact your relationship with your suppliers, peers and staff,” Riley says.

A business leader who prides himself on an open-door policy isn’t helped if upon hiring an assistant, his staff can no longer get a meeting. An executive who struggles with leaving work on time isn’t helped by an assistant unable to make sound judgements about urgency.

Good assistants are both flexible and able to take the initiative.

They’re also master communicators.

“An assistant is representing the executive. So they need to communicate in the same way the leader would.”

An assistant, ultimately, should help an executive be themselves by limiting the amount of time spent on the trivialities. “There’s absolutely no question that an effective assistant will have a huge impact on your efficiency,” Riley says. “If you get the right one, it can add far more value than you anticipate.”


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