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Today’s PA Survey 2017: Top Skills that Make an Outstanding PA

The Today’s PA annual survey helps shed a little light on the role of Office Professionals within today’s workplace, and always reveals some surprising results.  Last year, we focussed on aspects such as the image of the PA, and recognition of the profession from outside the industry.  For our 2017 survey, we wanted to concentrate more on the skills, talents and abilities that make an outstanding Personal Assistant.

Having had an insight into what business leaders look for in their PAs, it was interesting to hear from PAs themselves on what they felt were the qualities needed to succeed in this challenging and multi-faceted role.

As a starting point, we asked our focus group consisting of PAs, EAs and managers to compile a list of the ten main skills and competencies essential for PAs and EAs. We came up with the following list (in alphabetical order):

  • Ability to prioritise, to judge situations and decide what’s important/not important
  • Assertiveness
  • Being proactive, ability to take the initiative
  • Excellent communication skills (verbal and written)
  • Flexibility, being able to handle continuous change and shifting priorities
  • Forward planning, being able to anticipate colleagues’ and boss’s needs
  • Good organisational skills
  • Staying calm in stressful situations
  • Strategic understanding of business and manager
  • Up to date technology skills

Respondents then ranked these in order of importance from one (most important) through to ten.

Over 250 PAs and EAs took part in the survey, representing a broad range of organisations (private, public, and charity sector), from small family firms through to large multinational companies.

Overall, and across most of the categories, excellent communication skills (both verbal and written) came out on top.  With so many business communications being via email, Skype, or WhatsApp, the ability to write clear and concise (and unambiguous) messages is a fundamental skill.

Communications skills were closely followed by good organisational skills, ranked second overall, and within most of the individual groups.  The notable exception was for PAs with more than five years in the role.  This group saw organisational skills as the most important, followed by forward planning in second place, and the ability to prioritise in third.  Communication skills were in fourth place, compared to the opposite group (PAs with less than five years’ experience) where this skill was seen as the top priority.  We assume that that seniority in the role may play a part in this.

Within other groups, and in total across all categories, forward planning was thought to be third important, with the ability to prioritise rated fourth.  However, many PAs felt that first-class time management was the principal skill in their role, not just for managing their own time but that of their boss (or bosses), too.

Being pro-active, and being flexible were rated fifth and sixth respectively, with respondents saying that a “can-do” attitude and resourcefulness were both crucial in a role where you always had to ‘expect the unexpected’!

Interestingly, strategic understanding of business and manager was ranked as seventh. This was surprising, given how much a PA/EA needs to be aware of their boss’s priorities and objectives in order to work effectively as an assistant.  Despite this relatively low ranking, a number of PAs felt that the ability to see the bigger picture – what one PA referred to as “dancefloor versus balcony” – should form a major part of the skillset.


Another surprising result was that up to date technology skills were rated quite low on the list (eighth overall).  With today’s workplace increasingly reliant on technology, good IT skills – for all office professionals, at all levels – are now a must-have.  Many offices are now paperless, and more and more are moving on to the cloud, giving employees greater flexibility and the ability to work anywhere in the world.  This, together with the explosion of organisational apps means that bosses and PAs can constantly update task lists, work schedules, and diaries, and access relevant documents and information at any time from any device.

However, as many PAs pointed out, as far as technology goes, it’s very much a case of what works for you and your boss.  If your manager is more “old school” and prefers pen and paper, then you may not need to be a tech geek (unless you want to – and of course, you can try to convert them with a simple app on their mobile – if they have one!).  On the other hand, if your boss is completely switched-on and loves their gadgets and IT, then you yourself need to be across all the latest developments.  It depends on your boss, your organisation, and the industry you work in.

Nevertheless, most office professionals use Microsoft Office which has evolved over the years and is now a powerful office tool.  As we have been using it for so long, we feel we are pretty familiar with it. The problem is, being creatures of habit, we all tend to use the same functions we’re familiar with, that is, the ones we’ve been using for many years. This means that we’re only using around one-tenth of its current capabilities. Mastering some less common features and certain short-cuts in Microsoft Outlook, Word, PowerPoint and Excel can save you up to 1½ hours a day and this is something absolutely worth learning.

At the bottom of the list overall (and towards the bottom of the list in all categories) were assertiveness and the ability to stay calm in stressful situations.  Both go hand-in-hand, and are important skills for a PA to master.

Knowing how to remain calm in stressful situations is all part of looking after yourself, and controlling, as far as possible, your working environment.  Being assertive in your role means being aware of both your own workload and that of your boss, minimising interruptions, and saying “no” as positively as possible (without making it sound like “no” – suggesting ways around problems, re-organising times for unscheduled visitors). This can remove much of the “time stress” around you, allowing you to remain calm and focussed in any and all situations.

Although some of the results in our 2017 survey were a little surprising, and certainly not what we anticipated, it was fascinating to see that both PAs and managers valued the same qualities and characteristics in the role.  Many of our respondents’ comments echoed the range of skills highlighted by our expert panel, with confidentiality, integrity and trust as being seen as the most important qualities for any office professional.  Others added that a willingness to learn – about the work of their department, the organisation, and the industry – helped them understand their role and gain greater job satisfaction.  Also mentioned was a positive attitude, a readiness to get involved, help colleagues, and “muck in” when necessary – part of the team dynamic that our panel looked for in potential PAs.

The personality fit, regarded as vital by our panel, was also seen as essential by all PAs.  All felt that a strong working relationship with their boss was the key to success, as was the ability to enjoy the role, and take pride in being an excellent Personal Assistant – without seeing it as being “just a stepping stone”.

But according to many of our respondents, the top skills and competencies needed by all PAs and EAs are (in no particular order) patience, mind-reading, and, above all, a sense of humour!

Thank you to all those who have completed our survey!

Today’s PA Team

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