The seven traits of a successful PA

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An assistant taking a phone call in a modern office.


The role of personal assistant is a demanding one. It requires a PA to match the pace and rhythms of their manager’s day-to-day schedule, while also staying several steps ahead of them. To achieve this balancing act, we generally find that PAs need some key character traits.

Whatever the needs of a Principal, PAs must be prepared for all circumstances and ready to pre-empt the next move. Having recruited PAs since 2001, we generally expect our best PAs to possess these seven characteristics:

Communication

Strong written and verbal communication is crucial for a PA. Everyone has their preferred form – email, text, phone call, face-to-face – even when dealing with a largely uncommunicative manager. No matter the manager’s preference, a PA must ensure that they are relaying all information back to them.

Some executives prefer for their PAs to attend all meetings with them. If this is the case, it’s crucial for the PA to make thorough notes to discuss post-meeting. They will then be able to pull them apart and prioritise action points. If it’s a virtual meeting, the advantage is that a PA will be able to record it to refer to afterwards.

If a PA does not attend meetings with their boss, it’s best practice to sit down together afterwards to discuss everything that has been touched on.

A PA will also often represent their boss to key stakeholders or be required to ‘gatekeep’. For this reason, we typically look for a PA’s communication style to be diplomatic, discrete, and for them to remain calm in the face of high pressure.

Example interview questions around communication:

  1. Can you give us an example of a time when you had to relay complex information to someone in simple language, and how you achieved it?
  2. How would you approach a conversation with a frustrated colleague or client on behalf of your manager?

Resilience

A resilient PA will quickly become an invaluable support to their team. Most of us, at one time or another in our careers, will occasionally be presented with the challenge of dealing with tricky situations and people. These might be clients, managers, time-sensitive projects or make-or-break presentations. PAs, however, see all of these regularly.

Not taking things personally is key, quite simply because they’re so frequently in high-pressure situations and more often than not (rightly or wrongly), on the receiving end of a frustrated individual or team.

Example interview questions around resilience:

  1. How do you manage your stress levels in high-pressure situations?
  2. Can you give an example of a time when you have juggled multiple deadlines?

Efficiency

It goes without saying that a great PA must be organised! They will implement organisational structures into their work and stick to them. By keeping their work life neat and tidy, a great PA will maintain a clear head and be ready for all situations.

Email management often plays an important role in a PA’s typical day: by organising all their emails into set folders, they can be broken down by sender or task and stored in each folder. Alternatively, there are apps to help automate inbox and diary management, ensuring that all emails are on hand when they are needed.

It goes without saying that every PA monitors their to-do list with pinpoint accuracy. Every time a new task comes up, PAs should think about its priority within their workload, then place it accordingly in the list. This reduces the chances of forgetting something and will help with time management.

Taking on the most difficult and time-consuming tasks at the beginning of the day minimises stress levels and maximises the standard of work.

Example interview questions about efficiency:

  1. How do you organise your workload?
  2. Tell us about a time you improved the efficiency of processes at work, and the results.

Proactivity

If nothing else, a PA must be proactive. It’s vital that they can stay ahead of their manager, regardless of the situation. This often means reviewing the meetings their manager has at the beginning of the week, and ensuring that all requirements, such as travel, agenda and rooms, are considered ahead of time.

There may be a time when a manager is out of the office or away on annual leave, leaving the PA to manage their affairs. As the first point of contact for clients and contacts, they will need to maintain high levels of professionalism to ensure that they are acting exactly as their boss would do in each situation.

Example interview questions about proactivity:

  1. Can you give us an example of when you foresaw a potential issue and were able to avoid it ahead of time?
  2. What methods do you use to stay on top of upcoming deadlines and events?

Positive attitude

Not only can the PA role be incredibly stressful at times, but a busy team will look to their PA as a constant. So, a successful PA must be able to approach every situation with optimism, working logically through each problem to find a solution. By keeping calm and staying upbeat, they will be able to complete tasks to a higher standard.

A PA is often required to represent their manager and company either on the telephone, via email, or face to face. Therefore, they need to be comfortable engaging in small talk and networking, always remaining polite and courteous. A PA will also be expected to stay positive and have that can-do attitude at all times, as this will play a huge part in staff morale.

Examples interview questions:

  1. Describe a time when you faced a setback. How did you address and move past it?
  2. Describe a challenge you’re most proud of overcoming?

Self-motivation

Personal assistants work with time-stretched senior managers, so cannot expect praise every time they complete a task on their to-do list. Self-motivation is therefore key to PAs being able to progress with their workload.

The most effective PAs will set themselves goals for the working day, aiming to complete a certain number of tasks on the list before taking the next coffee break. Working hard may look like it is going unrecognised, but it is always noticed.

Examples interview questions:

  1. What do you do to get yourself into a work mindset after a break?
  2. Describe a time when you set a challenging goal for yourself. How did you stay motivated to achieve it, and what were the outcomes?

Discretion

Discretion is one of the most important behaviours of a personal assistant, particularly private PAs. They will be exposed to a myriad of personal and professional confidences as a PA, and this unique characteristic will see the best assistants go far in their careers. A gossip might find their credibility is tarnished early on, while those who understand confidentiality will shortly prove themselves to be indispensable.

Example interview questions:

  1. In what ways have you maintained confidentiality while working in a team environment, and how do you ensure that information remains secure and protected?
  2. How would you handle a situation in which you discover a colleague’s confidential documents left behind in the office?

Looking to hire a PA? Get in touch with your requirements.

Looking for a PA job? Tiger Recruitment can help. Submit your details or see our available jobs now.

Author Jane Leese Tiger Recruitment Team
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