How PAs can shape CEOs of the future

Published on: 19 Aug 2014

Adam head shotBy Adam Fidler

Adam Fidler is a PA Trainer and offers his two-day programme ‘From Good to Outstanding’, through Pitman Holborn in London. He is also a regular guest speaker at secretarial events at home and abroad. Twitter: @adamdfidler 


Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with the Chairman of a Board in a medium-sized organisation and we were trying to define what makes someone ‘CEO material’. Naturally, we surmised that a CEO must have a passion and flair for the business and be technically competent in their field. But what was it that makes a CEO inspirational, and above all, someone that others want to follow? 

We established that some senior managers had ‘it’ – whatever the ‘it’ was – and some didn't. Some seemed to be able to learn the ‘it’ and elevate themselves and transition into being CEOs, but some, dare I say it, would never make the grade, no matter how much training or coaching they received. 

I’ve worked as PA to several ‘number twos’ now (Deputy CEOs, Executive Directors) who have gone on to be CEOs, which has helped me identify what qualities differentiate those that make the grade and step up the corporate ladder, from those who don't.

I do believe that it's often down to things like body language and the way they engaged with the people they met. It was more than just emotional intelligence; it was gravitas, professionalism, corporateness and, above all, acting and being the role they were employed for. It’s not surprising really when we consider that 93% of what we assume about people is all about non-verbal communication. 

To succeed, CEOs need to exude ‘smartness’ and make an impression when they walk in the room; they need to be noticed – and this is before they even open their mouths. CEOs are noted for their presence (whilst PAs are noted for their ability to be discreet). In today’s speak, the up-and-coming CEO needs the X-Factor; and you’ve either got it or you don't. And, even those that have ‘it’, need some help on their way up to finally be accepted as the CEO, particularly if they are ‘home grown’ or internally appointed. 

I’ve talked previously about ‘what’ and ‘how’ in relation to PAs and spend a lot of time on my training programmes going over this. The reason it’s so critical that the PA demonstrates good behaviour (good ‘how’) is that they become, ultimately, a role model for their bosses. Especially to those bosses who are new in the CEO or number one role. 

Excellent PAs demonstrate the niceties and behaviours their bosses may need to learn – and this ‘reverse mentoring’ as it has often been called, when recognised by the CEO – is one of the most important jobs of a Senior PA. Simply, the Senior PA helps their boss ‘make the grade’ and is the one that will give them a friendly word of advice, about their annoying habits, or the small things, that when added up, could be their (the boss’) downfall.  

So, PAs should think about their behaviours and set the bar high – for they never know just who is observing and looking at them as their role model. This may never be openly discussed between PA and CEO, but believe you and me, when you set the standard, others, including the CEO, often follow suit. It should be high standards all the way for the PA, as they set the tone, culture and climate of the organisation.  And as we all know, culture starts right at the very the top.