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What Makes a Good Boss (and What Makes a Bad One?)

When it comes to what managers look for in their PA, the characteristics that top the list are (according to delegates and speakers at the Today’s PA Conference) trust and integrity, and excellent communication skills.

We wondered if PAs felt the same way.  So in Today’s PA Survey last year, we flipped the question and asked what made a great boss and what PAs themselves would look for in a manager.

Good Boss …

Here, in no particular order, are the skills and characteristics that our respondents considered necessary in a good boss: 

Excellent communication skills

Unsurprisingly, this is the number one quality that PAs look for in a boss.  Communication takes so many different forms (verbal, non-verbal, written, telephone, email, WhatsApp, text) that bosses and PAs both need to be excellent communicators in order to get the message across and – and this is key – avoid misunderstandings! 

Trust and Integrity

Combined with respect, these qualities were cited by managers and PAs as essential in any office relationship – proving that it’s definitely a two-way street.

 Good people skills

Understanding, kindness, and empathy were three words that cropped up a number of times.

Whether it’s understanding that PAs need a life/work balance (and realising that sometimes life gets in the way) or showing appreciation to anyone who goes that extra mile, being able to relate to others in an honest and sincere way is a must. 

Organisational skills

Strategic thinking, planning, and project management skills were seen as necessary qualities.   The ability to delegate effectively was also highlighted as vital!  This can be a tricky area for PAs as there could be various reasons for managers to feel reticent about delegating work: lack of trust, lack of understanding, or even a lack of confidence.  PAs need to adapt to the situation and show by example that they are there to help and support their manager.

 Leadership and collaboration skills

As well as essential leadership skills (decision-making and ability to motivate and inspire) PAs felt that a manager should be able to collaborate with others, fostering a “team environment” with those around them.  Being proactive rather than reactive is seen as another skill – as well as allowing the PA to also be proactive, with a high degree of autonomy to do their job. 

Listening Skills

Listening skills go hand-in-hand with great communication skills.  Managers need to be able to listen to (and take note of) ideas, suggestions, and even problems, recognising the value of their wider team. 

A Sense of Humour

Not essential but, as one PA said, it’s the icing on the cake!

… Bad Boss

Asked what makes a bad boss, our PAs didn’t hold back, with the range of undesirable qualities going from being untrustworthy to getting involved in office gossip!

Other negative characteristics include:

Poor communication/listening skills

Just as good communication was seen as essential for a good boss, a lack of communication skills topped the list for a bad boss.

Examples given were:

  • Little or no explanation (or worse, contradictory instructions) when delegating work.
  • Lack of attention when discussing issues/priorities.
  • Listening – but not hearing!
  • Secrecy
  • Being unapproachable and operating a closed-door policy
  • Not keeping PA (or team) in the loop

This last point was highlighted as a major issue by our respondents as PAs are unable to do their job if they are not kept up to date with what their manager is doing.  Some reported bosses arranging or cancelling meetings without explanation, and constantly arriving late.

If a PA is not able to explain or defend their boss’s actions, it makes everyone involved look disorganised and incompetent.  As one respondent put it, a PA should never be blinded-sided by anything coming out of their own department. 

Lack of Leadership Skills

When the boss’s leadership skills are less than great, it impacts on the whole team – but none more so than their PA.

Problems included:

  • Micromanaging
  • Indecisiveness and an inability to make decisions (or panicking into decisions)
  • Trying to please everyone – resulting in nothing getting done.
  • Being reactive in own work – with negative effect on others’
  • Promoting a culture of fear (blaming, aggressive and intimidating behaviour)
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Using disciplinary measures inappropriately 

Lack of Social Skills

Inconsistent and irrational behaviour, bad manners, and unappreciative of team efforts (even taking credit for the work of others) are only a few examples of non-existent people skills. 

Lack of Respect

This takes many forms – from bosses only being interested in their own egos, to undermining and belittling the team with negative comments (such as “so simple, even a PA can do it”).

On reading our PAs’ comments, it seems that much of the “bad boss” behaviour described above could be classed as passive aggressive, or even bullying.  Unfortunately, it also reveals that many still do not understand the role of the PA, keeping them in the dark or resisting any attempts at assistance. The sad fact is the only person this hurts is the manager themselves.

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