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What's the difference between a Secretary and a PA?

Ah, the age old question. It's obviously one of life’s biggest and I'm pretty confident that philosophers the world over discuss this topic secondary only to "What is the meaning of life?".

I've discussed it a fair few times myself with friends and colleagues who find amusement in rattling my cage, usually after one or two well deserved glasses of something lovely after work. It's not that I consider either one to be superior or indeed inferior to the other, and to be fair I can only speak from my own personal experiences. However, I do feel that there is definitely a few notable differences from the traditional secretarial role to that of a personal assistant, and I think it's important for anyone that is considering a career down either of these paths to have a relatively clear idea of these differences, although I'm sure it varies from employer to employer.

For one, yes they both require the same basic office skill set of the usual administrative abilities such as typing, answering calls etc but I would argue that as a PA there are certainly added levels of responsibility and therefore trust. I also found that as a PA my days became much more varied. I may be arranging meetings, creating a PowerPoint presentations, or liaising with clients and senior board members one minute, to running out the office looking at possible venues or meeting with estate agents to look at new office spaces the next. It's great fun. Before I jumped out and actually set up on my own and became my own boss, I must admit in many ways I already felt like I was. Of course, I would be asked to do specific tasks but I also had many of my own micro projects on the go too and, because as a PA it's so important to build up a high level of trust, I was mostly left to get on with it; making decisions, managing my time, managing others, delegating, liaising with anyone and everyone about, well, pretty much everything, etc. I was trusted to know what needed doing, the best way to do it and when it needed to be completed. So with these extra tasks came an added level of responsibility, one which I didn't feel as a secretary.

When I first became a PA/EA I remember thinking how much fun it was - I loved my new and varied tasks. I found that I loved diary management because it not only allowed me to exercise my secret fetish of organising everyone and everything to an inch of it's life ( retrospect, it may possibly be one of the reasons I had children...) but I loved liaising with other PA's, directly with the clients and other senior members of our company and growing the professional relationships I began to develop. 'Good Morning, Mr Smith, one moment please', soon became 'Morning, John, how are you? I'm great thank you. Let me see if he's available...' A subtle difference to many but one that I was really very proud of. I also loved really getting involved with the business; understanding it and it's objectives at a more senior level. I felt like I was directly contributing to it’s success.

I also think if you're a PA that works predominantly for one person, you often work very closely and therefore get to know he/she pretty darn well, even becoming a little protective over him/her and often fielding unwanted calls / meetings / tasks so they can maximise their productivity. Therefore, you learn to know what they need often before they even know themselves, becoming proactive rather than reactive to your boss' needs or that of the company. By the way, I believe it's this ability in particular that sets apart an exceptional PA from a good PA...

I was interested to gage a consensus of opinion on this topic and during my research I did find an argument on a couple of forums that there is actually very little difference between the two roles, and it depends on a number of factors such as the company (it's structure, it's size, etc) and the employee (abilities, preferred level of responsibility, etc). Some even argued that where they worked there was no difference at all except the title and therefore the salary bracket.

However, I read on the following statement which I'm inclined to wholly agree with;

"The difference between a secretary and a PA is vast, in terms of the expectations of both employer and candidate, so recruiters confuse the two at their peril.

"To put it in crude terms, a secretary should be able to competently take a message for the manager she supports. In contrast, a PA should take the initiative to resolve the issue, carrying out further investigation or delegating responsibility within much wider boundaries.

"Very often they will also assume a project management role; keeping their superior informed but taking decisions daily to see projects through to completion with a minimum of supervision."

Admittedly, this extract dates back to 2005 but I think this makes it non the less true.

Both positions are clearly open to interpretation and the characteristics of the two roles can differ. However, I think this lovely lady who wrote a blog for can have the last word on the subject (mainly because I agree with her!). Take it away Vicky Knox;

"What I like most about being a PA is that it's not just about being there for one or two individuals to arrange their travel or deal with their emails (which however are still very important!) but also about being involved from start to finish, being part of the bigger picture."

Amen, Vicky. Amen.

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