Your PA can be a vital business asset – a seamless organiser, guarder of secrets and appeaser of bad moods. We talk to those who’ve found the perfect partner

For every trail-blazing broker, there is likely to be a person working quietly behind the scenes, smoothing the path to success. In many cases, this is likely to be a personal assistant. This person can be an indispensable asset in a broker’s busy life – providing the organisation and quick thinking that can make the difference between a bad day in the market and a fantastic one.

The current economic climate means that competition for the role of PA is fierce, however, and brokers are spoilt for choice. But the trick is to find that person who will be a perfect fit for both you and your business.

Bluefin’s chief executive Stuart Reid, who has worked with PA Faye Bennett for the past five years, believes that having a top-notch PA is a vital business tool. “It releases you do the job you are paid to do. It helps with diary management – making sure that you are where you are supposed to be, doing what you are supposed to do. They arrange your calendar and in some ways help with your memory. No chief executive is known for having a great memory.”

In fact, some brokers couldn’t imagine their professional life without their number two. Perkins Slade associate director Lynn Richards-Cole has worked with her PA Jayne Pinfold for 11 years and describes the relationship as a “magic formula”.

She says: “She is completely embedded into my whole business life; she knows my clients, my prospects and my business associates. So if they can’t get me, it is fine to talk to Jayne because Jayne will sort it, she will solve the problem. She has built up trust not just with me but with the people I deal with.”

What it takes

But when wading through a pile of CVs and references, it can be tough to pinpoint the perfect candidate. LV= managing director John O’Roarke believes that selecting the wrong person can be disastrous – wasting both time and money. “It can really undermine your efficiency. I think I would be 20%-30% less efficient if I didn’t have a great PA. She is confident managing my to-do list. There are so many things that can slip and they often have financial consequences.”

To become a PA, the current standard qualification requirements include GCSE English and Maths, while a good secretarial or business course is a plus on any resume. An ability to manage diaries, take minutes at meetings and maintain exemplary record keeping is vital – but the perfect PA should be able to offer that little bit extra.

“You need to be completely efficient, organised, have energy and a buzz about you, strong initiative and strong interpersonal skills – the sort of stuff that means you can adapt quickly to any new challenge that is thrown at you,” Bennett says.

Reid prioritises career history, a work ethic and an ability to adjust swiftly to a new management style. “You need someone with experience who understands that each chief executive is different; they do things in a different way and expect different things. You need a person who is prepared to work hard, because it can be quite a tough role. The toughest challenge is putting up with the moods and grumpiness that is inevitable from any chief executive,” he laughs.

O’Roarke believes that it is not enough to be organised and efficient, and argues that a keen business instinct is a major must-have quality. “The last thing you need is somebody who is going to sit there worrying about filing and typing. You actually need a business person in the role and also somebody who is not afraid of making decisions on your behalf.”

The ability to multitask is also a prerequisite. In addition to being PA to Biba chief executive Eric Galbraith, Lindsay Campbell organises the annual Biba conference. “I don’t want to give her a big head, but she runs the place,” Galbraith chortles. “She’s not only my PA but she runs the largest insurance conference in the UK and is company secretary in Biba. She is a very important person in the organisation.”

You’ve got a friend

Qualities such as loyalty, composure, discretion and diplomacy also need to be at the top of any broker’s wish list. A PA must always exude professionalism. Campbell explains that she feels her role is an extension of Galbraith’s. “If the PA’s role falls down, then that is reflected onto the boss. The main thing is to be his shadow, his number two. The challenge is to keep on top of everything.”

And while a person may have organisational skills, the right personality and a cool head, this is of little value if they prove to be a blabbermouth once they’re in the pub. “As the PA to the chief executive, you can’t be the person that goes out every Friday night and tells the company secrets. You are a guarder of secrets. You have to be more guarded than other people, make certain sacrifices and be aware that you are somebody that knows more than everybody else,” Bennett says.

Perhaps most importantly, a broker needs to click with their PA. Reid says: “A good working relationship, an understanding of each other and actually getting on with each other pays huge dividends.” Often the test of a good relationship is getting through a trying time: Reid and Bennett cemented their close working relationship when dealing with the upheaval of selling the business to AXA.

“That was a huge thing to take on,” Bennett says. “Only a small group of us was aware and, because of that, my role was depended on even more because I was responsible for sorting out legal documents and so on. During that period I worked late to do everything that I could.” She adds that in such a scenario, a good relationship is crucial. “You have to get on – if you don’t, everything will go to pot.”

Developing a good rapport often means the PA becomes the person an executive most relies on in the bad times. “My PA needs me sometimes and I need her, and not just in a business sense but sometimes when external problems arise too. Having an understanding of each other’s lives can help,” Richards-Cole says.

She believes her PA Jayne proved invaluable when she was at a low point in her life. “I went through a bereavement and you don’t quite fire on all cylinders for a while. The right PA can step up at that the point and cover for you.”

Pinfold adds: “I had to make sure her clients were still looked after, keep them informed, make sure the day-to-day activities still happened and also ensure that I was there to support her.”

Finding and keeping ‘the one’

But a great PA with massive potential is unlikely to stay if they are not treated with courtesy and respect. Before joining Biba, Campbell encountered some nightmare bosses in other sectors. “I have worked with some very difficult people. Sometimes difficult is good and challenging, and I’ve stayed with some. But some were just outright rude. The worst I came across was one person who expected me to pay for prostitutes and hotels and keep it away from his wife,” she says.

Bennett points out that it is difficult to achieve a good working relationship if there is not effort on both sides. “Stuart and I have worked well together for over five years; we get on really well. But I have a lot of PA friends who work for bosses that are really cold. They go in and leave their job at the end of the day and they can’t bear it. I actually enjoy coming in every day.”

She adds that brokers may fail to hang onto a talented PA if they don’t make the effort to cultivate a good relationship. “There is quite a high turnover for PAs generally. It is hard to find somebody that has been with someone for over five years.”

Sometimes, if you present a good persona to the world, the perfect PA can come knocking on your door. “Jayne actually chose me; I didn’t choose her,” Richards-Cole laughs. She explains that after Pinfold saw her giving a speech while she was chairman of Biba West Midlands, she applied for the vacancy of PA because she wanted to work with someone who “had a sense of humour” and seemed “human”.

So how can a broker know when they have found the one? Richards-Cole believes that while all brokers should look out for an exceptional candidate, they also should rely on their gut instinct when interviewing someone – only they will know whether they can work well with the person in front of them. This makes it more likely that you will lay the foundations for great teamwork in the future.

Pinfold spells out the dynamic of a great working relationship. “It is like it is a partnership. She is not the boss and I work for her. We work together.” IT