A Danger to Business


Food For Thought for PLC CEOs

I thought that ‘rank inflation’ was an issue faced only by the armed forces and possibly the police;  colonels doing what majors used to do a generation ago, that sort of thing.  In civilian terms, we are all aware of the rib-tickling ‘Environmental Disposal Operative’ (dustman!) but I am alarmed to report the arrival on the scene of a potentially dangerous creation.

Those of us of a certain age will remember the days of the Managing Director’s Secretary, a person whose powers were inferred by the job title – secretary.  Sure, she (and it usually was and still is a female) did a degree of gate guarding so her boss wasn’t worried by trivia or interrupted by phone calls which could be handled more quickly and more effectively elsewhere.  As companies grew and directors’ time became more in demand, she found herself combining business with personal diaries and so the Personal Assistant cum super-secretary was born.

Unsettlingly, the latest metamorphosis at the very top of business has created a beast now known as the Executive Assistant.  This terrifying creature (a secretary, remember) usually inhabits the outer office of the CEO of larger listed companies.  Promoted, usually from PA and with neither executive training nor executive experience,  she revels in her new found power.  Properly trained for the role, she will be an undoubted asset to both her boss and the company.  Sadly, most receive no developmental training in people skills at all.  They chuck their weight around and generally make everyone’s life around them an utter misery.  To compound the deterioration in just about everyone’s working environment (something of which they are blissfully unaware) they demand help from all and sundry and take credit for themselves where it should rightfully belong to others.  It gets worse.  I am aware of two cases where these over-promoted little Hitlers actually prevented access to the CEO from fellow Main Board directors with – at least in one case – potentially price sensitive information to impart.

So, how does one deal with this phenomenon?  Firstly, the executive assistant promoted from within should be sent on people-skills management courses.  Usually, she will be the first contact other CEOs have with the company and it is important that this first impression is positive.  The executive assistant appointed externally should be very aware of what goes on around her and endeavour not to make enemies.  Both should remember that, whilst people like generally like to be helpful, any adverse activity by the newcomer could create the environment where others will be only too willing to give them a helping hand down, and at a time of the others’ choosing!

To the CEOs, I say simply this.  Get your EA to make list of the decisions she has made and, perhaps more importantly, the people she has kept from you and her reasoning.  Inspect the lists daily and right any wrongs forthwith.  (Remember, if she has not been trained and developed, your EA is an over-promoted typist, nothing more.)  If you don’t examine these lists, your reputation will be dead in the water long before you realise it.  If your non-executive directors advise you to change your EA then there IS something wrong already.  Sort it out.

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