The Workplace: July/August 2023

The executive assistant's time has come with the transformation of the secretary.

In the last 50 years, the support staff role has evolved dramatically, yet is most devoid of any high-level strategy. This started to shift in the 1980s with female emancipation, IT and the growth of universities. We set up our business in 1976. In particular, we levelled up, both with our own female staff and our mainly female candidates. We saw them as executives with futures.

By the end of the 80s, we were at the top of the tiny – albeit global – high-level secretary recruitment business. We set up a division called Career Development, which looked for openings for women in established executive roles. It failed. We set up the Push Division, based on the American Black liberation movement. Again, we failed.

At that time, we took on an Irishman called Peter Toner. He set up an association to help existing secretaries transfer to the modern workplace. It was called Fasttrack. One of the main challenges was transitioning traditional candidates and clients into a new less structured, but more demanding environment. Converting them from ‘re-active’ to ‘pro-active’. Toner also predicted the demise of the secretary. He called ‘her’ replacement the CCO – Communicator, Co-ordinator, Organiser. She is now known as the Executive Assistant or EA. Fasttrack did not fail. Now, 30 years on, the need for Fasttrack is back again.

Current market and societal dynamics echo the 80s. The office is about to revolutionise. The role of the PA will stay and those filling the role will come from the same section of the population. But there is one huge, tangible issue: attitude. However, this paternalist structure is bound to change, not through strategy, but enforced evolution.

How we helped change the PA into the EA

  1. In 1989, we commissioned Dr Diana Bisdee, an industrial psychologist, to write our first brochure. As a result, we were approached by Dr Sue Vinnecombe (now a professor and Dean of Cranfield), who had majored in women in work. The most striking result, she said, was that candidates wanted to be in control of their own fate.
  2. Clients wanted well-educated candidates. We defined that as A-level and graduate standard. We started to run seminars to persuade clients to design career switch programmes from support to executive staff.
  3. In the 80s, we noticed an increase of graduates being enticed into marketing roles at lower salaries.
  4. The arrival of email created two changes: execs learned to write, and spelling mistakes became pardonable. Shorthand was no longer important.
  5. The biggest change was seismic. Many said that computers would replace secretaries. They were wrong. Secretaries had the necessary keyboard skills and so took over from middle managers.

Secretaries with briefcases

Through the 90s, the glass ceilings imposed from above crashed. A woman’s ambition was no different from men at career entry-level. Secretaries showed that they could and should be allowed to progress.

AI will create changes just as radical as in the 1980s... This time it will be no different – only now, everyone will know their name”

Then something else began to happen: as predicted by Toner in 1990, secretaries became officially CCOs or EAs. As a result, business owners have become high net worth individuals and the cost of their support staff has been inconsequential. EAs’ salaries have risen.

AI will create changes just as radical as in the 1980s. It was the secretary that first truly understood the power of Microsoft Word. This time it will be no different – only now, everyone will know their name. The EA. Engaged, empowered and well led.

John Mortimer is CEO of office staff recruitment agency Angela Mortimer.

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