One of the most important people in my team is my Personal Assistant (PA). Notice that I didn’t call her a secretary. In a smaller company like, staff often bear multiple responsibilities and almost certainly have to have a wider range of skills than in larger firms. This point of being able to do a lot of different tasks within the job description is, for some people, a major attraction of working in a smaller company. However, it’s also one of the biggest impediments to finding a good PA.

My PA, I’ll call her “H” san, is probably one of the best schedulers, salesman deflectors, and mind readers in the business. We have worked with each other for 3 years, and have developed a business relationship where she feels confident to comment on various business decisions and I feel confident in listening to them. I know that a lot of foreign shachos have similar relationships with their PA’s as well.

But – an important note here – I do think that this private “bouncing of ideas and close feedback” should not get confused with the actual operations of the company. In my opinion, it is clearly the responsibility of the shacho when the PA relationship usurps the authority of the other business managers. I have seen several times where a non-Japanese speaking CEO of a foreign firm has abrogated contact with his Japanese business managers, assigning the task to a trusted PA who unfortunately has little or no “face” in front of the other managers. A PA still in her 20’s and with no substantial business experience is not an appropriate channel of managerial communication. If interpreting is needed, the task should be shared and an effort should be made to bring in at least one key manager who does speak English.

I’m a demanding boss and my PA’s skill set reflects that I guess. I like to cram my days with customer and personnel meetings, then write proposals and contracts in the evenings. She knows that I like to have a full schedule at least a week in advance, and has a fairly good idea of what materials I need and who I should take with me from the company. She is particularly good at convincing people (usually CEO’s) that I want to meet to meet me. We team up well on this level, with me coming up with an introduction to the CEO from my personal network, and her working with the CEO’s own PA to make sure that we actually get time with him. It’s actually rather surprising how many CEO’s in Japan allow their PA’s to book people without prior permission. H-san knows this and does a great job of circumnavigating the gatekeepers.

So as you might have gathered, my idea of a good PA is almost to have the person operate on a sales and business level. In my case, H-san’s efforts on the sales level has a real return to the bottom line of the company. However, as a bonus, she is also great at checking contracts and organizing the company’s corporate governance documentation. Of course, as we get bigger we’ll hire someone to do these things as a full-time job, but at the moment, her activity saves the company time and money.

I understand that there is a Secretary Day in Japan. To be honest, everyday is PA Day for me – in as much as that I try to remember to always thank her for a job well done, and to check things out before complaining – after all, she’s usually right!

Thanks, H-san…!