What’s The Best Piece of Advice You Have Ever Received?

As PAs, I’m sure we have all been on the receiving end of some lovely helpful tips (some not so helpful!) from various people throughout our careers.tip

The best piece of advice I have ever been given was from my dear Nana. She used to be a secretary and told me many a story of travelling into central London every morning on the tube. One day she was telling me how she had been typing up an invoice for some machinery that her company supplied. She had been given the incorrect amount, but didn’t notice the error since she had no idea what this equipment was. Her boss went berserk and couldn’t understand how she had got it so wrong.  She exclaimed how she didn’t know what it was that she was invoicing and made him take her round to the warehouse to show her what it was (no health and safety in those days!). That way, she would be sure to not make the same mistake again.

She told me “the more you know about your company’s business, the more you can help your team”.

knowledgeThis stuck with me since the day she said it. It sounds so obvious, but I speak to so many PAs who seem to have a complete lack of interest in what their teams do on a day to day basis.  And the worst thing is that they don’t want to know. In my opinion, this is laziness at best. How are you meant to know if that document needs to be sent by courier or email? How do you know if the person who wants to speak to your boss is worth interrupting him for?

Now, I try and get involved with as much of my company’s business as I can. I sit in on meetings if I have time, and I take notice of news articles which could have an impact on us. And I always say “us”, not “them” – I’m part of the team, after all.

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received? And the worst?

Objective setting for a PA

As a mentor, I get asked time and time again about objective setting for a PA. Do objectives even matter for a PA?

They most certainly do matter. Whatever you put down gets recorded for your whole career. I’ve known objectives set by a PA when she had just start with a firm come back to bite her in the behind when she was applying for a promotion several years later.

In my opinion, objectives need to show that you care about the firm you work for. They need to show that you really want the firm to succeed.


A company I once worked for held Department Presentations every 6 or so weeks. smartThese were 45-minute sessions where departments showcased their areas and explained how they fit into the rest of the firm. Not only were they a good way to understand what the departments did, but knowing their role within the firm proved invaluable. One of my objectives was to attend at least 4 of these presentations throughout the calendar year. It was Specific (no confusion around what it was), Measurable (HR kept record of attendees in each presentation), Achievable (who doesn’t have time for a 45 minute presentation once a quarter?), Relevant (it helped me understand the bigger picture), and Time-Bound (one year!).

 Adding value

Something I always ask myself when setting objectives is “do they add value?”. When I was at school, I remember one of my objectives being set as “carry on as you are”. At the time I thought I was wonderful and brilliant. Now I think back and wonder what I ever had to work towards.

Are you able to set an objective where you are adding value to the firm? Are you able to make a process improvement in any way? I sometimes view objectives a little bit like a political manifesto. If your boss reads them and signs them off, then he has effectively given you the authority to pursue them. Do you have forms that need a physical signature? Maybe you could change process to sign it electronically? Did someone in your team ask you to help out with something that you could look into doing on a regular basis?

I think the main thing to remember here is that to achieve your objective, you need to show that you put every reasonable effort into achieving it. I once spent weeks and weeks trying to put in place an electronic approval system, only for the whole thing to be pulled at the very last minute because of budget cuts. In my view, my objective had been met. I’d found a solution to a problem. It was beyond my control that it could not be put into practice. I could even prove that I’d made efforts to overturn the decision to cut the system.


I’d love to hear what objectives you put down. Do you achieve them? Do you come across obstacles such as red tape or a disinterested boss that prevent you ever achieving them? Do you not bother with objectives and just like to come in, do your job, and go home? Whatever your view, I’d love to hear from you.

Does a PA need a degree?

Generally speaking, to do a PA or office administrator role, you do not need a degree. There are so many things that you pick up on the job that a degree simply couldn’t teach you. I have personally found that experience by far outweighs any administration-related qualification. On top of that, a great deal of the job really comes down to having a bit of common sense.

scrollA degree wouldn’t teach you that a taxi to take your boss across London to Heathrow airport at rush hour will take twice as long as normal.

A degree wouldn’t teach you how to politely get rid of an annoying salesperson who keeps calling for your boss and all he says to tell them is to “**** off!”.

A degree wouldn’t teach you that if you shake the printer toner, you can get another 10 pages out of it.

Then why is it that so many employers still request that their secretarial staff have a degree in order for them to be considered for a role at their company?

I can only think that it’s a way of ‘filtering out’ the deadwood applicants. If someone is smart enough to have a degree, then surely they’re smart enough to arrange your calendar? I’d personally have to disagree on that one, but what other measures are there?

I once applied for a job and the job agency executive asked me if I had a degree.  I said no, and asked what degree the position required. This was met with a long silence, followed by a lame response of “anything”. I made my pleasantries and wished her a good day.

So would aspiring secretaries go to university just to be able to get an interview to be someone’s PA? Someone once asked me:

If you’re smart enough to be a graduate, why would you want to be a PA?

I was intrigued and offended in equal amounts at this statement. For starters, you need to be really on the ball to be a good PA. You have to be smart. Much of your job is fire fighting and dealing with emergencies (like when your boss misses his flight, or the photocopier breaks down).

However, I reluctantly agreed that they had a point. If I’d spent 3 years studying for a degree in Law, I would want to use that degree to it’s full potential and become a lawyer. But then I found out that there are specific qualifications that you can get to be a PA or office administrator. Like an Associates Degree in Office Administration or a Postgraduate Certificate in Business Administration

In addition to this, I have recently started a Physics degree with the Open University. What does Physics have to do with open scienceoffice administration, I hear you ask. Well, nothing. But having just been through the process of applying for a new job, I was amazed by the number of people who were genuinely impressed that not only was my degree in Physics, but that I was doing this off my own back, in my spare time. I really do think that it helped get me interviews over other candidates, despite it having absolutely nothing to do with being a PA. It just showed that I had initiative and was a self-starter – two things that are virtually essential in being a good PA.


So, to answer my initial question: does a PA need a degree?

No, but it certainly helps.