Assistants from hell

MOST are friendlier than Jonty Rhodes at a children’s charity event, but every so often you come across one who is as short-tempered as French president, Nicolas Sarkozy and meaner than an arthritic buffalo in a horse-trailer.

I refer, of course, to PAs – personal assistants – or as recent, first-hand experience bears out, personal assassins.

At the risk of whinging, my latest encounter with an assassin took place on a day that I rose at 03h30 to catch a red eye flight across the country, battled through peak hour traffic in a hired car – whose design overlooked the fact that most drivers have knees – and arrived 15 minutes early for my appointment.

Early? Indeed, I have been told that being early is as bad mannered as being late. So, having announced my arrival to the receptionist, I offered to sit quietly in the foyer and await the allocated hour. But – and, in retrospect, I conclude she is a sadist – the receptionist immediately alerted the relevant PA of my untimely appearance.

Within seconds, the assassin stormed into the lobby and squared herself before me, legs apart and hands solidly on her hips, “Haw! You are early!” she fumed loudly, fixing me with glistening eyes. We had not met before and, although she did not bother to introduce herself, I suddenly recalled a colleague telling me, some months before, that Mr Bloggs was “guarded by a pit bull”.

I jumped to my feet and attempted to apologise, explain, excuse myself… but she would have none of it. Snarling, she lurched closer to me and, leaning in for the kill, lowered her voice to a menacing, sibilant whisper, “Mr Bloggs is a very, very busy man. You can’t assume that he can fit you in whenever it suits you. You can’t just arrive and expect him to juggle his day to accommodate you. You have to respect how very, very tight his diary is. Why did you bother to make an appointment if you had no intention of sticking to it?”

Of course, that wasn’t really a question and before I could utter a word, the PA from hell spun around and, with an angry hand gesture, indicated I should follow her. As I trotted past the front desk, struggling to keep pace with the tyrant ahead of me, I swear I heard the receptionist emit a satisfying snigger.

Although Mr Bloggs was amiable enough during the almost four hours that I spent with him that morning, my experience of him and his organisation was all but ruined by the ominous presence of his intimidating keeper. Never taking her dark and hostile eyes from my face, she trailed us on a tour of the factory like a disapproving chaperone, lurked threateningly in the doorway during meetings and absolutely avoided addressing me directly the entire morning. I drank my first cup of coffee of the day at the airport that afternoon.

Recruitment experts stress that the core function of a top level PA is to “organise and control information in such a way to free her boss from many of the business processes”. They also say that she should also have the ability to work in a stressful environment in a calm and professional manner, and the skill to communicate with people at all levels in a discrete and courteous way.

The jury, it seems, is still out regarding the value of appointing a pit bull to manage your office – although the scars on my ankles (and in my soul) advocate against the practice.

(This article was first published as my column, If The Hat Fits, which was included in the Real Business supplement with Business Day in June 2007.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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