The Importance of Secretaries

Accessibility and Responsiveness

Skills, Knowledge and Characteristics

Personnel Policies

Environment, Infrastructure and Policies

Secretarial Duties


Kensington’s Approach to Secretaries

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Key Assumptions

Time and Task Audit



Corporate America and professional service firms are using fewer and fewer secretaries. There are some advantages to this trend :

  • managers and professionals have become more computer literate
  • e-mail allows direct communication between the parties.

Overall, however, this trend has gone way too far, at least for highly paid managers and professionals. Companies that pride themselves on becoming “lean and mean” have simply become lean and stupid. The scarce and valuable time of highly paid executives and professionals is being spent on things they don’t have the time for, they are not particularly good at, and that don’t add value to the organization. This is particularly true of CEOs, since the scarcest resource of any organization is the CEO’s time.

Accessibility and Responsiveness

A good secretary — one who knows what is going on and can handle routine questions — can dramatically increase her bosses’ accessibility and responsiveness. (In this essay, the feminine pronoun is used for secretaries simply because when we recruit for secretaries, more than 95 percent of those who apply are female.) For example :

  • “Mr. Jones, Mr. Smith is currently in a meeting. However, I know you and he have been talking about the ABC deal. If that is what you are calling about, I am currently typing up his comments on version 1.8 of the Term Sheet, and I will be faxing those to you within 2 hours. Is that acceptable?”
  • “Mr. Jones, Mr. Smith is currently in a meeting; however, Mr. Smith just finished a conference call with the seller’s counsel and bank counsel. They resolved all of the issues, and Mr. Smith is going to send a memo to them to that effect. I expect to fax you that memo tomorrow.”

Accessibility can also be increased tremendously if a secretary keeps her bosses’ calendar and can independently schedule appointments. Rather than playing telephone tag, it’s more expedient to call that person’s secretary to schedule a 1 hour meeting.

A few executives have such a relationship with their secretary. Such a relationship is unusual, however, because it requires an extremely competent and trustworthy secretary, as well as necessitating that the executive delegates to his secretary. Moreover, this kind of working relationship can only exist if it is long-standing (i.e., the executive does not have a new secretary every other year).

This assumes, of course, that she is accessible. If she is always on the telephone or in a meeting when you call, and she takes 5 hours to get back to you, then her value to the outside world is reduced.

Skills, Knowledge and Characteristics

The ideal secretary will most likely have most of these skills, knowledge and characteristics:

  • She should have a basic understanding of what her firm does and its industry. My favorite is when a secretary tells you she doesn’t know what business her company is in.
  • She should know her industry’s terminology. The firm should maintain a dictionary of definitions and acronyms that all employees are expected to know.
  • She should be organized and systematic. Struggling, flaky artists should moonlight as waitresses, not secretaries.
  • She should be able to draft and edit routine correspondence.
  • She should have basic research skills and know how and where to obtain routine information.
  • She should know how to use all of the office equipment. In addition, she (or someone else) should handle all service calls for this equipment.
  • She should be willing to work a reasonable amount of overtime, for which she should be compensated.
  • Secretaries with a “traditional” attitude are usually preferable to those with a “modern” attitude. If a secretary is a member of NOW, you probably don’t want to hire her.
  • She should be loyal to her executive (and vice versa).
  • She should be discreet. In her job, she will learn much confidential information, about both the executive and others. She should be able to keep her mouth shut.
  • She should be able to handle incoming calls with discretion. If the executive is out goofing off on his boat, she should not necessarily say this when the executive’s boss calls. Rather, she should say something more innocuous, while remaining truthful.
  • Most important is the desire and ability to take charge of clerical and administrative tasks — i.e., the “will to manage.” Since many executives don’t know how to instruct their secretaries to manage and organize his life, ideally she should know how to do this.

Personnel Policies

The firm should have intelligent hiring and personnel policies for its secretaries :

  • The first should be willing to pay well for excellent secretaries. The good ones are worth every penny they are paid.
  • There should be a sufficiently low executive/secretary ratio in the firm. Now that many executives are computer literate, many firms do not need one secretary for every executive. Many firms, however, have carried this idea to a ridiculous extreme. On Counsel Connect (a former bulletin board for lawyers), for example, many law firms boast that they have a 7:1 lawyer/secretary ratio. This is ludicrous.
  • The firm should have sensible human resource policies for secretaries — high standards for hiring, written job descriptions, performance reviews twice a year, and annual salary reviews. Ideally, there should be a career path for the best secretaries to be promoted to administrative positions.
  • Applicants for secretarial positions should be thoroughly tested before hiring. Tests should include typing speed, ability to copyedit (spelling, grammar and punctuation), the operating system, word processing, and perhaps spreadsheets.
  • The firm should be smart in how it hires secretaries. Too many firms simply pick secretary A because she types 65 w.p.m., while secretary B only types 55 w.p.m. If typing is most of what she does, then perhaps this makes sense. If, however, she performs the wide range of clerical and administrative tasks that we propose, her typing speed should not be the most important criterion for selection.
  • The firm should provide good training for the secretary, both initially and regularly thereafter. As the secretary progresses in job responsibilities, additional training should be provided. In addition, as software packages are upgraded, it makes sense to provide short training courses in the new features (and perhaps a refresher course on the old features).
  • Since longevity is what an employer should be looking for, the firm should tie a portion of her compensation to an annual bonus.
  • Most secretaries should be full-time. One otherwise savvy executive, Phillip Villers, doesn’t have one full-time secretary, but rather two half-time secretaries. When you call him, inevitably the other secretary — the one who is currently not in the office — knows what is going on. This is dumb, dumb, dumb.
  • It should go without saying that extensive use of temps is probably not a good idea, unless their tasks can be segmented from the longer-term, higher value tasks that we describe in this section.

Environment, Infrastructure and Policies

To attract quality secretaries and maximize their effectiveness, the firm should provide good infrastructure for its secretaries:

  • The secretary should be physically near her boss. Ideally, her cubicle should be immediately outside her bosses’ office. One executive we know has his secretary in another city. This is really, really dumb.
  • Her cubicle should be large enough to allow her to work productively. Office space is expensive, but not so expensive that productivity should suffer in order to save some rent.
  • She should be provided with state-of-the-art office equipment.
  • When there is too much work for a secretary to handle, she can arrange for temporaries to come in and assist her.
  • For firms where the executives routinely work evenings and weekends, secretaries should be hired specifically to work evenings and weekends.
  • There should be well thought out and consistently followed systems — e.g., for maintaining paper files, which subdirectory to store computer files in, how to name computer files, etc.
  • The firm should create a manual that provides basic administrative and secretarial information. This manual should be updated regularly.
  • A checklist of responsibilities should be developed so that everyone knows who is responsible for what.
  • If your firm has more than a few secretaries, it often makes sense to standardize how you interrelate with your secretaries. If, for example, everyone has the same policies about opening mail, then when a secretary leaves or goes on vacation, it will be much easier for another secretary to step in.
  • If several secretaries will be doing word processing for several executives, a standardized list of proofreading symbols should be developed, and the secretaries should be instructed to insist that all executives follow these standards.

Secretarial Duties

The duties and responsibilities of a good secretary will most likely include:

  • She should handle routine administrative office procedures. Every large company has various forms to fill out. She should handle all of these.
  • She should be proactive in setting up administrative systems and in proposing changes to how things are currently done.
  • She maintains a tickler file for herself and her boss to make certain that nothing slips through the cracks.
  • Once a day she and her boss should have a short meeting to discuss what should be accomplished that day and what was accomplished the day before.
  • In most cases she should maintain the executive’s “People to Call” and “Things to Do” lists.
  • Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual checklists should be developed for the executive and his secretary.
  • She (or someone else) should make certain that office supplies are regularly ordered.
  • She arranges conferences, luncheons, and other personal functions.
  • She is able to sit in on meetings and take minutes.
  • Working with a travel agent, she should be able to handle all aspects of an executive’s trip.
  • While he is traveling, she should check his e-mail (assuming he does not do so). She should handle routine responses.
  • When her boss is on the telephone during office hours, she should answer his telephone (as opposed to voice mail answering daytime calls). Voice mail is great for evenings and weekends, but it should not be a substitute for secretaries during office hours.
  • For regular callers, in most cases she should know what the caller is calling about and be able to handle routine matters.
  • She should develop a warm and friendly relationship with frequent callers. If this is the 17th time you are calling her boss, and she doesn’t recognize your name, something is wrong.
  • She should greet visitors in a warm and friendly manner. She should take their coats, escort them into the conference room, ask them if they want coffee, etc.

Leveraging the Executive’s Time

If an executive uses his secretary efficiently and maximizes her effectiveness, he is leveraging his time and maximizing his contribution to the organization. Here are some of the ways an executive can use his secretary to leverage his time :

  • Understanding Goals. She understands the professional and personal goals of her boss and helps him achieve those goals.
  • Being Informed. The executive should keep his secretary informed on most (if not all) matters.
  • Authority. The secretary should have the authority to make routine decisions.
  • Executive’s Whereabouts. She should know where her boss is at all times. Something is wrong when she says that she has no idea whether he will return that day.
  • Calendar. The secretary should at least know, if not keep, her bosses’ calendar. The firm should have a group calendaring system that allows her and her boss to read and change the same calendar database. Such system should provide automatic replication so that he can take his calendar with him on a notebook; any changes he makes while traveling are automatically uploaded to the server when he returns.
  • Appointments. She should have the authority to make appointments and telephone appointments for her boss without checking with him first. (This obviously requires that she knows his calendar.)
  • Telephone Calls. The secretary should place telephone calls for the executive. Let’s assume the executive has 30 people to call that day. Most likely, he will reach fewer than five, and he’ll have to leave messages for the rest (say, 25). Assuming two minutes to dial the number, let the phone ring, listen to the voice mail recording (which are usually too long), and to leave a message, that’s 50 minutes a day of the executive’s time that can be saved.
  • Processing Mail. His secretary should process all the incoming mail for the executive. She should open all mail, throw away the stuff she is certain he won’t be interested in, and date stamp the rest. At Kensington, for example, for most of our incoming correspondence, the secretary makes a copy and files the original. That way, we can spill coffee on the copy, or even lose it, and it doesn’t matter. All incoming deals, for example, are logged into our deal database before anyone sees them. After a secretary has processed all of the mail, she can meet with the executive and discuss it.
  • Arrange Conference Calls. Let’s assume you want to have a conference call with seven busy people. You could easily spend 2 hours of your time, and a week of elapsed time, setting up the call. Instead, let her do it.
  • Preparing Agendas. Let’s assume you have a regular meeting or conference call. An agenda is prepared for each occurrence. Let the secretary prepare the agenda and fax it around. Let her sit in on the meeting or conference call, and then let her write the agenda for the next meeting.
  • Meeting Preparation. The secretary should prepare all of the papers necessary for meetings. All of these should be properly assembled and organized in the room where the meeting will be held.
  • Reports. Even when an executive will write a report himself on his computer, in many cases it makes sense for her to handle setting up the file, complex formatting, tables, graphs, hyphenation, spell checking, and document assembly.
  • Dictation. Even for a computer literate executive, dictation is, in many cases, desirable.
  • Expense Reports. The secretary should do her bosses’ expense reports. If the executive has been traveling for 10 days, visiting 5 cities, he can easily spend an hour preparing his expense report. It is better if the secretary does this and then has her boss review it.
  • Length of Relationship. The length of time that a secretary and an executive have worked together can maximize her effectiveness. It takes at least a year for a secretary to fully understand how her boss works, and vice versa. If an executive has a new secretary every few years, his productivity will suffer.
  • Will to Manage. She should have the desire and ability to take charge of clerical and administrative tasks — i.e., the “will to manage.” Since many executives don’t know how to instruct their secretaries to manage and organize his life, ideally she should know how to do this.
  • Personal Life. To some extent, the secretary should manage her bosses’ life, particularly if he is not as good at following through and meeting deadlines as he should be. For example, she should make certain that all telephone calls are properly handled — he returns the call, she handles it, or the call is delegated to someone else. This is called “boss management.”
  • Personal Aspects. She should handle as much personal aspects of an executive’s life as possible. An executive can easily spend more than 5 hours a week on routine personal matter — running errands, parking, pick up dry cleaning, shopping, etc. — that can be done just as well by his secretary. The executive can then use these 5 hours a week that are saved to make his company more profitable. Entrepreneurs in particular make little distinction between their business and personal lives.
  • Financial Affairs. In many cases the secretary should handle routine aspects of the executive’s financial affairs. It might make sense for her to pay most of his bills and to organize his receipts for his accountant.

Movie producer Scott Rudin has six assistants (“Boss-Zilla” by Kate Kelley and Merissa Marr,The Wall Street Journal,September 24-25, 2005, p. A6):

In Rudin Productions’ New York office near Times Square, his time is surgically managed by five assistants, who are classified by duty. The executive assistant, or “No. 1″ in Rudin shorthand, manages the schedule and travels with the boss. … The second-ranking assistant occupies the “hot seat,” manning phones and helping Mr. Rudin hunt down people he wants to speak with and dodge the ones he doesn’t. The third-ranking assistant handles “documents,” including faxes and emails. No. 4 keeps an eye on Mr. Rudin’s personal business and three homes, in New York City, Quogue, Long Island, and Washington, Conn. A fifth keeps tabs on the theatre and art worlds, informing him of new shows and upcoming exhibitions… . Yet another assistant handles telephones and errands in L.A.

A good secretary can reduce the annoyance factor of interacting with someone else. She can make things go so smoothly that _____. We’ve learned the hard way that in choosing who to do business with, and which professionals to hire, the quality of their secretary — as well as the quality of other support staff and his infrastructure — as an important consideration. We even dumped a lawyer we were using because her secretary was such a ditz (in this case, he was her son).

Kensington’s Approach to Secretaries

Many disagree with our analysis. One friend of ours dismisses most secretarial assistance as “pillow fluffing.” (This friend is equally foolish in other areas.) In some cases this resistance is Puritanism, particularly about secretaries doing personal errands for her boss. Moreover, many let the fact that secretaries do cost money overly influence their decisions on secretarial functions. For example, many law firms have sought to reduce their overhead in order to lower their hourly rates. The usual result, however, are lawyers doing things that a secretary should do, and the total bill is now higher, not lower. (Speaking of attorneys, we have noticed that every one of the premier buyout attorneys we know has a superstar executive secretary. It almost seems as if you cannot be an outstanding buyout lawyer without such assistance.)

Cost-Benefit Analysis

In determining the appropriate level of secretarial support to provide to an executive, it often helps to quantify relationships. Assuming that the quality of the work done by the secretary is equal to the executive’s, the ratio to consider for a given task or responsibility is :


CE is the opportunity cost (i.e., value) of the executive’s time, TE is the time required for the executive to perform the task, CE is the fully loaded cost of the secretary’s time, and TS is the time required for the secretary to perform the task. The numerator is the cost to the organization to have the executive perform the task, while the denominator is the cost to the organization to have the secretary do it. If this ratio is greater than 1, it is preferable to delegate the task to the secretary.

One should use the value of the executive’s time to the organization (as opposed to the cost of his time). By definition, the value of this time should be greater than the cost (otherwise, you should get rid of him). If you have a hot shot software developer that you’re paying $100,000 a year, for example, and he works 2,000 hours a year, the value of his time to your company is a lot more than $50 an hour.

The fully loaded cost of your secretary’s time should use, including benefits. One does not use her opportunity cost if you assumes that you could hire another secretary at the same cost. However, the less fungible a secretary is, the more you should use her opportunity cost to the organization, rather than her cost. Let’s assume the opportunity cost of the executive’s time to his organization is $240 an hour. The cost of the secretary’s time, fully loaded, is $20 an hour. This would mean that any task in which the secretary takes no more than 12 times as long to complete should be done by the secretary. Using this analysis, you can see that most executives are currently under delegating to their secretaries. You can also see that is most cases firms should hire higher caliber secretaries, and provide more training, than they are currently doing.

To the extent that the quality is different, then you have to adjust the answer. On clerical and administrative matters, the secretary is better trained, and has a better eye, and thus is more likely to do it right the first time. On other matters, the executive will produce better quality work, and it thus may not make sense for him to delegate it to her, even if the ratio is much greater than 1. (Of course, another way to think about this is to measure how long it will take the each of them to produce work of equal quality.)

In addition to adding value to the organization, our philosophy on utilizing secretaries can also enhance job satisfaction. Let’s assume an executive has been working particularly hard. One perk you can give him is additional use of a secretary (or a personal assistant) to do some of his personal errands. Even if there is not a strict economic payoff, the increased job satisfaction may be worth it in the long run.

Key Assumptions

Our analysis is based on two key assumptions :

  • that the significant amount of executive and professional time that will be saved will be spent by these people working
  • this additional work time will benefit the organization.

If executive spends his freed up time golfing with his buddies, then he should pay for the secretary, not the company. In addition, if his freed up time is spent working, but on tasks that don’t benefit the company, there is a problem.

Time and Task Audit

Once a year, every executive and manager should do a time and task audit. They (or their secretary) should keep a detailed time diary of what they did and how long it took to do it. Each task should be analyzed to determine :

  • whether the task should have been done at all
  • how much value did the completion of this task contribute to the organization
  • whether it should have been done by someone else in the organization, such as the executive’s secretary, or perhaps outsourced.


I am certainly not advocating a return to the “good old days.” It’s ridiculous for an executive not to be computer literate, or be unable to operate office equipment when his secretary is gone. It’s equally dumb when an executive cannot locate a letter because he doesn’t know how the files are organized. What we are saying is that the optimum solution is when an executive properly leverages his time through intelligent use of secretaries, while at the same time being self-sufficient so that he can function effectively when his secretary is gone. We advocate combining the best of the old methods with the best of the new. We are particularly disdainful of ideological and Puritanical approaches, such as “you should pick up your own dry cleaning, rather than have your secretary do this for you.” Rather, such decisions should be based on rational, objective economic analysis, and nothing else.

Some would say that we have described a super secretary, and that such individuals are rare. They are indeed. However, since most firms don’t know how to properly utilize their secretaries, and don’t seek to hire the few super secretaries, you have a reasonable chance of finding and hiring one.

The analysis in this § 3.16 is applicable not just to secretaries, but also to hiring and managing administrative assistants, office managers, bookkeepers, personal assistants, housekeepers, even a chauffeur — in short, all support staff.


When I posted this essay on a bulletin board, we received one particularly good comment:

While this section is a salutary exposition of the role of a Secretary, it displays a “one size fits all” aspect that is somewhat misleading.

There is a significant difference among the differing roles of secretaries which are functions of who and what the “boss” is and what kind of organization the boss operates within.

The well-organized chief executive or senior partner/rainmaker requires an Executive Secretary, an Administrative Assistant, and one or more secretaries. Rarely does one individual fill all the roles well and it is important to separate the roles as quickly as possible in the organization chart of the enterprise as it grows.

The Executive Secretary is really the office equivalent of valet, butler, major domo and social secretary. An executive secretary does run errands, shop for the boss, and make sure that coffee and lunch or snacks are available and properly served. The executive secretary also runs the secretarial establishment and is the office manager for the immediate administrative family of the boss. The executive secretary has both the power and skill to delegate when appropriate. If shopping for the boss is more important to the boss than keying a report, the executive secretary shops at a lower level secretary type. Executive secretaries have always been with us although they have usually been men.

The Administrative Assistant is a creature of the post-Korean War era. The administrative assistant is just what the name implies — an assistant to the executive and responsible for dealing with the corporate or enterprise bureaucracy. The administrative assistant is the chief of staff who organizes the day to day operations of those reporting to the executive so that the executive receives the information required to make executive decisions in a timely fashion and that the executive decisions are then implemented throughout the organization in a timely fashion.

A Secretary is the person who performs the myriad of daily chores that nibble away at an executive’s time much like some kind of corporate piranha. Secretaries work for the Executive Secretary and cooperate with the Administrative Assistant. They must be selected as appropriate representatives of the executive and the enterprise. They must be personable and have impeccable telephone manners. They must also thoroughly understand their role in the enterprise in general and with the executive for whom they work in particular.

Since most executives spend much more time with their executive secretary than their spouse, an invisible and conscious barrier must exist eternally between them. The relationship must always remain an employment relationship sharing a common goal, success of the enterprise and the personal success of the executive. The relationships between and among an executive and his executive secretary/ administrative assistant/secretary are similar to the relationships of a military commander with their executive officer and top NCOs.

Richard Branson’s essay on personal assistants

Read James’ essay Statement of Mission.

August 4, 1997, version 1.5 | List of other essays written by James Mitchell | Copyright notice

Cite as “The Importance of Secretaries??? by James Mitchell. August 4, 1997, version 1.5.