“He is a man of few words, and fewer reactions. While the fragrance of dew drops room freshener might soothe him, this mess would make him scream,” says Martha Janet of her boss, a managing director of an IT firm, as she hurriedly separates the tabloids and supplements from the newspapers on the table.
Having worked as a personal secretary to three bosses in 21 years, 42-year-old Ms. Janet feels it is the ability to analyse and understand people in position, and the notion of indispensability associated with personal secretaries that make the job very special.
Cornerstone of business
The profession has been the cornerstone of business right from the days of dingy little office rooms, and it continues to enthral storytellers and movie makers who often portray them as crafty players in board room struggles even as the reality of the profession is seldom captured.
From planning the boss's travel itineraries to attending important calls, and keeping a tab of all his engagements, these secretaries do it all.
Formal letters have become casual informal mails and coarse files have disappeared, but handling the boss' mood during long working hours even while managing affairs at home, remains the most fundamental challenge for personal secretaries.
“When I started, people told me personal secretaries would soon become redundant. Twenty years have passed but firms still look for them,” says Surekha Johnson, executive secretary at Murugappa Group.
“The pay then used to be less and there were no prospects for advancement,” says Shireen D'Costa, who began work as a stenographer in a city-based company. “From finding a hostel that would accommodate personal secretaries to convincing my family, especially about the coming late part – it was quite a task,” she says. “I used to have two diaries, one for my boss and one for myself, and my mother would keep checking both,” she recalls.
Veterans like Barbara Frantz (65), who was a personal secretary for over 45 years, remember times when work was mundane, and compromises had to be made. “When computers came, I wanted to work on them as I knew they would make work easier, but my boss hated them and I had to be content with the electronic typewriter for years,” she says. “And while my husband would keep complaining that I spend all my time at work, my boss's wife would amazedly tell me, ‘how do you handle my husband so well, I just can't'.”
The habit of flagging mails, keeping notes and reminders also gets repeated at home, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, adds Crystal Rubert, senior executive secretary at Isoft.
The work scenario has evolved dramatically. “The stereotype of short-skirted secretary taking short-hand dictation from a grumpy boss is absurd,” says Mary Margaret, secretary at Scope International. “It is all e-correspondence now,” she adds. “I feel bad sometimes, because while I know how many spoons of sugar my boss takes in his tea and on what days he would prefer coffee, I would not know such intricacies about my own family members,” says Usha Reddy, secretary at KCP Limited.
And grievance forums do exist, Ms. Reddy says with a laugh, “All employees' complaints are routed to us,” she adds.
Maintaining confidentiality is important as is being aware of what is happening around you, the secretaries say.
“While you can prioritise some meetings depending on how well you know your boss's inclinations, making decisions on internal board room meetings is a strict no,” says Ms. Johnson.
A welcome trend is that now many software companies try to empower secretaries by giving them more responsibilities of data analysis, managing meetings and the privilege to work from home especially to suit the profile of bosses who travel frequently, says Dhanalakshmi Mani, a secretary at an IT firm.
But conservative companies stick to old rules, says Ms. Johnson. “The increments are regular, but a secretary in that company always remains a secretary,” she adds.
“I just keep reminding myself of one thing to keep me going on- I have to take care of the smaller things, so that the boss can focus on bigger tasks, and that is what I do,” says Ms. Johnson.
Keywords: Murugappa Group