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Australian Financial Review : October 17th 2006
FBA 061 BOSS CLUB, November 14 Fergus Linehan, artistic director and chief executive of the Sydney Festival Fergus was born and grew up in Dublin. He has been actively involved in arts since he was 14, founding his own theatre company after university. He was appointed to the role of Director of the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2000. Sydney Festival is Australia's largest and most attended annual cultural event. Hear Fergus share the challenges of managing this massive festival. Venue: Dockside, Cockle Bay, Darling Harbour, Sydney. Time: 6pm -- 8pm Cost: $59.95 (incl GST.) Ticket price includes drinks and canapés. The Glenlivet will be sampled at this event. BOOKINGS: Available online at www.afrboss.com.au/bossclub or call 1800 032 577. Proudly supported by: The Australian Financial Review www.afr.com Tuesday 17 October 2006 61 Work Space The power behind the corporate throne Executive assistants are not just secretaries and diary-keepers any more, writes Fiona Smith. Jo Jensen: 'You can't assist senior executives unless you understand the business environment you are in.' Photo: JESSICA SHAPIRO '' You will manage their inbox, and see things before the CEOs do.'' When Colleen Barrett started working at a law firm in the late 1960s as an executive assistant, her aim was to be ''the best damn secretary who ever walked the face of the earth''. She probably was. When her boss left a few years later to start up Southwest Airlines, he took Barrett with him as his first employee. Today, Barrett is president of the airline ± the largest carrier in the US ± and was ranked this year by Forbes.com as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. Barrett is the standard bearer for executive and personal assistants everywhere, proof that time spent at the side of a CEO can be a good grounding for a business career. In Australia, former assistants are now running business lobby groups, charitable foundations and their own businesses. Jo Jensen is one. She has just been recruited as project manager to develop the training side of a ''one stop shop'' for small business for the Victorian government. Now in the process of leaving her job as an executive assistant in the financial sector, she says most assistants come to the job with some sort of tertiary qualification and, perhaps, a postgraduate certificate in business. ''You can't assist senior executives unless you understand the business environment you are in,'' she says. Starting her career as a medical receptionist, Jensen spent time as personal assistant for trucking magnate Lindsay Fox and the former Victorian treasurer Alan Stockdale. Jensen fitted part-time studies around her work, attaining a commerce degree, and was asked to write the postgraduate course in administration at Swinburne University. She now lectures part-time for Swinburne's Graduate Certificate of Business (Executive Administration) ± for executive and personal assistants who want to build their skills ± and is completing a Masters in Education (Workplace). Executive assistants are generally more senior than personal assistants, and they work with one senior person. Personal assistants may have to report to more than one manager. Jensen, who will chair the Executive Secretaries and PAs Conference in Melbourne on October 23, says the roles of personal and executive assistants are changing, thanks in part to the deluge of daily emails. ''You are the director of electronic communications,'' she says. ''You will manage their inbox, and see things before the CEOs do. ''You have to be proactive and know what is important and what isn't, and what can be redirected for somebody else to take care of.'' Jensen says the average CEO will get hundreds of emails a day: ''It's scary ± something's got to give.'' She has spent 60 to 70 per cent of her time dealing with emails. Executive assistants also now manage their boss's diary, are often in charge of procurement and personnel issues, mentor other support staff, are the keepers of secrets and, in a global company, must be available 24 hours a day. They also have to carefully negotiate the politics of hierarchy as they act as the leader's mouthpiece ± or even de facto leader ± in the absence of the CEO. They have power by association. ''The scope of the role is huge,'' Jensen says. At the elite level, the rewards are substantial. Some executive assistants have their own personal assistants, company car, company credit card and salaries that can reach more than $100,000. The executive assistant to Richard Grasso, the former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, was paid $312,907 a year. The remuneration is a reflection of the high regard in which they are held by their bosses, who are often so dependent on their assistants they will not move jobs without them. It is also a recognition of the power they hold within an organisation. Often, no one is closer to the CEO within an organisation than the executive assistant. Recently, that relationship (sometimes described as ''a kind of marriage'') has landed an assistant in court to testify in a case involving the boss. Steve Vizard's executive assistant recently had to contradict her boss's evidence in court about the times he had met with his bookkeeper and said he had asked her to forge his signature on a document because he was out of the office. Jensen says there have been times when she has been privy to information she would prefer not to have known. ''Particularly in hard times, when you know people are going to be made redundant. You have to smile and look them in the eye when you know they are getting the chop. '' Julie Cogin, a senior lecturer in organisation behaviour at the Australian Graduate School of Management, says executive assistants often have problems getting other people in the organisation to accept the authority that the CEO has invested in them. While the boss may trust them to make decisions, others may see them as a secretary or diary-keeper. Cogin says the AGSM now offers a one-week residential course in advanced management development for the executive assistant, which aims to give them the tools to help build their power base within their organisations. ''If they are going to influence others, they have to build a power base,'' she says. ''They need connections and access to knowledge through other people.'' The course has sections on balance sheets and finances, project management and influence. ''One of the sessions we do is on strategic management, which allows them to have conversations that reduce the stereotype that it is a secretarial role, and have conversations with senior people and build their personal power.'' Cogin says she knows of one woman who moved into a management position within her organisation, but was impeded in her new role because she was still viewed as just the chief executive's assistant. This woman completed an MBA so she would have the academic qualification to back up the skills she had learned as an executive assistant. Since then, she has become the human resources director for a pharmaceutical company. Cogin says executive assistants run the risk of making decisions beyond their capability, and the responsibility lies with their boss to understand what the assistant can deliver and to make the boundaries clear. This would also prevent ''empire building'', where an assistant identifies too strongly with the office of CEO and starts making decisions as if they were in fact the leader. ''If you have a good relationship with an executive assistant, it is a formula that works. It is built on trust,'' Cogin says.