The Major Duties of a Personal Assistant
The role of the assistant-to may be generally or specifically defined, not defined at all, or allowed to define itself. In some instances the position may not be related to the original reason for its creation. From an overall perspective, an assistant-to might be expected to perform the following duties or roles: informal organizer of the office, center of communication to and from the chief, informal interpreter of the boss to others and vice versa, confidant of the boss, and informal adviser.
The role of the assistant-to may be generally or specifically defined
The role of the assistant-to may be generally or specifically defined, not defined at all, or allowed to define itself. In some instances the position may not be related to the original reason for its creation.
From an overall perspective, an assistant-to might be expected to perform the following duties or roles: informal organizer of the office, center of communication to and from the chief, informal interpreter of the boss to others and vice versa, confidant of the boss, and informal adviser.
As an informal organizer, the assistant-to may be an errand boy or a person of considerable informal power and prestige. The assistant-to may be utilized for circumventing line organizations; that is, he may be an informal contact man, not only with lower levels of the organization, but also with outside persons and organizations. These activities may be dysfunctional in that they can create an atmosphere of uneasiness and make other executives feel undermined; people become concerned about what the assistant-to may see, hear, and report to his superior. However, as an interpreter of his boss to others, the assistant-to may ease certain tensions the chief was unaware of. He may not only help the chief understand other executives but also help other executives understand the chief.
In the area of communication, the assistant-to can advise other executives about the most convenient time to see the boss. Also, and perhaps more important, other people can consult the assistant-to,... about policy matters within their own areas of responsibility and authority because they want to sample the superior thinking without bothering him directly. The interpretive function of the assistant-to is important where the superior relies heavily on written reports without frequent personal discussions with subordinates.
One of the most important roles of an assistant-to is to act as a confidant to his superior. The assistant-to is likened to a sounding board on which his superior can test ideas, look for answers, and release pent-up feelings without unduly upsetting the entire office or organization. The same applies to levity. The boss may chaff under the expected decorum of his prestigious but isolated position. The assistant-to, without necessarily becoming a court jester, can allow his superior to be himself and relax a little.
The position of assistant-to and questioned them as to what they did that was significant organizationally.
One study surveyed men who either currently or for merely held the position of assistant-to and questioned them as to what they did that was significant organizationally. The responses highlighted three functions:
(1) To aid the boss in interpreting the information he gets from subordinates,
(2) To interpret the boss to those below him, and
(3) To initiate a flow of information about organizational needs that the chief might otherwise not receive. As the author of the study cautions, these may be the most important perceived functions but may not necessarily be the official functions. Where the assistant-to believes he receives the highest praise from his boss "... is as an observer and careful diagnostician of organizational needs. The assistant-to supplements the flow of information from subordinates with other information he believes to be important to the top executive.
The following general description of the role of the assistant-to provides some insight into the flexibility and multiplicity of uses of the position.
It serves as a reward, as an unofficial channel of in-formation, as an informal arm of authority, as a safety valve for the pressures generated by a necessary surplus of able and ambitious developing executives, as a protective office for loyal but aging members rendered unfit by changes they cannot meet or by other failures, as a training post, etc.
More specifically, the role definition and uses of the assistant-to position seem to be divided into four categories: operational, training, limbo, and special projects. The four are not necessarily mutually exclusive, however, and there may be overlapping. Let us consider the training function first. An assistant-to position can be used as a training-transition post.
A young executive who is being groomed for a middle or top management job could serve as an assistant-to a high-ranking executive. Not only does this sort of position give him a perspective on how things operate at the top, but it also provides him with an opportunity to become skilled in general management.
Another use for the position is for the transitional training of more experienced executives. For example, the chairman of the board of The Equitable Life Assurance Society has an assistant-to. The post is expressly for the purpose of training a seasoned executive for eventual transfer into a position of greater responsibility. An executive who is about to retire or be transferred may use an assistant-to position to train his replacement. Assuming that an executive replacement has been identified and is available, an orientation period as assistant-to can make a smoother transition for the new man as he moves into the key position.
It does not disrupt the orderly flow of business, and the newly designated executive can familiarize himself with the people and duties involved (and vice versa) without immediately being thrown into the breach. From the viewpoint of the chief, the advantage of using an assistant-to position for training is that he can tailor the training period and assignments to fit the assistant-to needs. The trainee decision-making and leadership abilities may be tested in selected instances. The most obvious disadvantage of using the assistant-to position for training is that the quality of the principal as a teacher may be such as to negate any good that might otherwise be obtained.