Why using a PA to manage your calendar may make you look like a muppet

by Ivan Mazour on October 27, 2013

My CalendarA while ago, I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about something – the intersection of two topics: PAs and calendar management. I realised that I had a very specific pet hate. That pet hate was getting passed over to a PA when arranging to meet someone. Every time I saw an e-mail being copied to “my PA”, “my EA”, or a newfound term to describe what used to be known as a secretary, my heart sank. Iwould take a few deep breaths, and silently hope that this would be the one time that goes smoothly. And then it inevitably wouldn’t.

Now this all may seem like an exaggeration. In fact on a first read, it might seem absolutely ridiculous. But consider my reasoning fully before judging.

First of all, what’s the point of a PA? The point of a PA is to simplify the life of their employer, allowing them to concentrate on matters they consider more urgent and relevant. On occasion, the role of a PA will include dealing with external parties. And in some cases that external party is me. Now the employer, when arranging a meeting, certainly does not want to cause additional hassle to this external party – or at least I hope so, so let’s assume that’s the case. The PA’s role is to simplify matters for both people involved. A project manager, as it were. Life with him or her (we’ll use her from this point on, as statistically this is more likely) should be better than life without her.

Personally, I come at this with the same approach – I want to simplify things for everyone involved. I want to make it easy for the person I’m meeting, I want to make it easy for the PA and I’m pretty sure I have a process that’s extremely effective. What I absolutely don’t want is 20 e-mails going back and forward. Even worse, imagine if I passed their PA over to my PA and then the two of them would sit there bouncing e-mails and asking their employers until they finally found something that worked. Just thinking of the wasted (wo)man hours gets me riled up. So that’s never going to happen.

Instead, I send them a link to my online calendar, and a starting date from which I’m available to meet. “Please suggest several free slots that work for both me and Mr. Smith, starting from the 11th of November, leaving at least half an hour for travel time.” Now I cannot imagine anything that is easier. I’ve just saved this PA half an hour of replying to e-mails. All they have to do is locate the slots, send them to me, and I’ll choose one. If there is only one, then they can send that, and we’ll go for that. In the word of the wannabe Russian meerkat, simples.

And yet, nine times out of ten, this clearly efficient process breaks down. The PA never bothers to actually read the e-mail. She sends a message saying how about the 5th of November, even though this is a week before I suggested, and clearly marked as a date on which I am Istanbul (true story). So I have to respond and ask them to try again. These days my response just says “Please re-read my e-mail.”

Then they get back to me, and I confirm a slot, and then I ask them to send a calendar invite. The last, final, rather basic step. I then inevitably receive something along the lines of “Meeting with Ivan Mansour at the ARts Club” (true story again). Firstly that is of no help at all as it doesn’t have the name of the person I’m meeting, secondly my full calendar is shared with a large number of people so that is embarrassing for them to see both my misspelled name and the two capitals in a word, and thirdly I frankly can’t help letting the PA’s lack of professionalism rub off on the person who she works for. Now the person I am meeting is almost certainly not like that – but the fact is that every member of your organisation represents you, and your PA more than most. They are a direct extension of you. So now any time I think of that person, I can’t help but remember that. They have been tainted, without even realising it.

So in this process, time has been wasted, the person they are arranging a meeting with has been disappointed and they have shown themselves, and hence their principal, to be unprofessional. And that’s just what happens regularly. But that’s not it. Then you have the situation when the PA forgets to tell their boss, or doesn’t actually put it in their calendar, and I’m left sitting in a restaurant for half an hour on my own, before having to walk out. Twice. (true story).

Now I simply don’t see a way to avoid this, other than to not use a PA for managing a calendar. Or to get someone extremely diligent and professional who will ask for a salary of 4 PAs. I have so far found only one, Petrina, the assistant to the CEO of Huddle. She is awesome. If only she had a twin. So my solution is simple. Don’t use a PA to manage your calendar. I have many friends and colleagues all of whom could easily hire one, but who choose not to. They understand that technology has perfected this aspect of our lives, and that it is simply not worth outsourcing it.

But they understand one more important point as well. Every e-mail is an opportunity to build a relationship with the other person. It’s an opportunity to see how they write, how they think and how they operate. It’s also an opportunity to show them how you write, think and operate. To demonstrate professionalism and to build a rapport. If our business life is focused on achieving great things, then we are always trying to identify the people around us who share the same approach. If you are willing to dedicate an hour to meet with someone, then that relationship is surely worth an extra ten seconds to exchange e-mails to set up a meeting. I enjoy those e-mails. They give you an insight into the other person before you even get a chance to meet them. They set the meeting up so you are not two strangers, but you are two people following on an existing discussion. They give you the chance to frame the other person’s view of you in the way that you view yourself.

So as a core principle in life, I choose to organise my own calendar. Yes it adds some extra work to every day of my life. But the benefits I’ve seen from doing it have been far far greater.

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Note for PAs.

If I have directed you to this post, then it means you need to arrange a meeting with me and I would like you to follow this process. Please read the points below and kindly follow them.

1. Go to the link I have shared with you. You will find my schedule, online.
2. Locate several slots that work for both your principal and me, allowing at least 30 minutes for travel time, preferably 1 hour.
3. Note that a blue bar at the top saying Busy means the whole day is busy.
4. E-mail me back with details of those possible slots.
5. Once I confirm one of them, please send me a calendar invite with the following information filled in:
6. “Meeting Xxxxx Xxxxxxx and Ivan Mazour” as the title of the meeting, with the Xxxx being your principal’s name. Feel free to change the order of the names if that is easier for your principal, I just need to see his or her name in there.
7. The address of the meeting filled in as the address field. If it is at my office you will find the address at the bottom of my email signature. Please make sure this is filled in. If it is at your office or elsewhere, please make sure the address is filled in in full, including postcode.
8. I will confirm by accepting the calendar invite. Please consider this my final confirmation.
9. Thank you for organising the meeting.

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Read my full story on the About Ivan Mazour page.

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Craig Edmunds October 28, 2013 at 7:43 am

Definitely agree with the hassle PAs bring to diary management; when I’ve had a small startup suggest it they just look like an idiot.

Do you actually enjoy the process of scheduling it yourself, or do you think an app that syncs with both calendars and some rules you setup would be an option?

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Ivan Mazour October 28, 2013 at 7:54 am

So that is exactly what I would love! Nice to see us being on the same wavelength, as always. If Google Calendar could sync up both calendars, taking into account location and travel time (all of which they have the tech for right now) then it could suggest those several timeslots automatically, removing the need for the PA. Then it will be up to the two individuals to vote on which ones they prefer, and the best one would be chosen. That would mean that the actual individual e-mails could be “Hey, would you like to meet?” “Yeah, sure that would be fun, shall we let GC suggest some options.” “Great, looking forward to it”, etc, and you could focus on actually building the relationship in the e-mail, rather than the scheduling itself.

Next startup?

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Monty Munford October 28, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Excellent piece, agree with every part of it…. especially the build-up of a personal relationship and timeframe within these emails that make the meeting better than it would have been.

As we know, tempus fugit.

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Ivan Mazour October 28, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Cheers Monty. Life is all about people, as we both know! So every second that’s spent on getting the right people into our lives is a second well spent indeed.

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David Mack November 6, 2013 at 10:53 pm

Hey Ivan,
Interesting post, largely agree. PAs worked pretty well when I was back at BarCap, the MDs I worked for couldn’t have been as productive without them. I think the key reasons are:

* Everyone’s calendars are visible to eachother
* Travel time / VC setup is a known quantity
* PAs are better paid and generally pretty savvy
* PAs understood their Directors/MDs people priorities really well, so could quickly schedule you into an appropriate slot

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Ivan Mazour November 7, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Hi David. Interesting take on it from a corporate point of view. Very valid points. I’d suggest:

1. Calendars can now be digitised and shared so it’s easy to compare without asking an additional person
2. Absolutely – travel is where PAs really win. The hassle of organising travel arrangements is well worth outsourcing. But I’m typing this from Istanbul where I’ve been able to arrange a number of meetings myself without any issues.
3. That’s true. The problem can definitely be solved with higher salaries. If you’re willing to spend £100k p.a. for an EA, you’re going to get an amazing person. I know people who do that, and their lives are amazing. But even then I’d still manage my own calendar, for the other reasons described in my post.
4. Absolutely – the longer you work with someone the better they will understand how you think. So the key would be to identify someone willing to be in for the long-haul, and make sure you pay them enough.

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Beth Kearns April 16, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Hi

I found your post most interesting

I always want to make this process as easy as possible for any guest of my boss. As you say, I use the time to make the most of this opportunity to build up a rapport and create the best impression of my myself (ergo my boss)

The problem is many PAs today are managing up to 10 calendars and are not kept informed of their bosses’s needed (by their bosses) and this ends up with the situations you describe so articulately

In the event of too busy or non-compliant PA’s – why not simply pick up the phone and have a 2 minute chat to set up this meeting? If the PA in question is too busy to pick up the phone or does not really understand, then you have a problem. But this way really helps me to help my boss and his guests

But then I am an extremely intelligent, diligent and watchful PA who expects to give the level of service required of her and wants to go the extra mile to make the process as perfect as possible – without the need for lots of extraneous information and boring emails!

Perhaps you should hire me as your PA and see how it works for you!

Best regards

Beth Kears

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Ivan Mazour April 18, 2014 at 7:09 am

Thanks for reading Beth, and for your response – one day I might just take you up on your offer!

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Pauline August 7, 2014 at 7:50 am

I’m hesitant to write this, yet I feel the preassuring need. I have never had any problems scheduling meetings for my users, nor do I see why this should be rocket science to anyone…? And, isnt a PA someones personal assistant, not a secretary that serves many?
What a load of whining bull you write. LOL
I think you have had some really horrid secretaries work for you, because this is not according to my own experiences, nor any of the other secretaries I know or work with. You have simply had some bad luck. Hang inn there.

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Ivan Mazour August 7, 2014 at 7:53 am

Hi Pauline. I believe you mean “pressuring” rather than “preassuring” and “in” rather than “inn” – but thank you for reinforcing my point!

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Emily August 7, 2015 at 4:24 pm

Hello Ivan,

I don’t normally comment on these sorts of things, but I do feel the need to on this. How many PA’s have you experienced this with? It sounds like you are stereotyping a whole bunch of PA’s because of a few bad experiences, most PA’s I have dealt with in no way make all of the mistakes you have identified and it is a little bit insulting that you think it therefore means all PA’s are ignorant when it comes to instructions.

I completely understand that if you are asking one thing, and getting a completely different response, then it can be frustrating, but most personal assistants (and ALL of the personal assistants I have dealt with) actually make their managers job significantly simpler, and would automatically read your email and follow your instructions.

ALSO, what would you do if your diary and the other person don’t have the same availability? Would you then be happy to exchange emails back and forth trying to move other commitments to make sure the meeting happens in the right timeframe? Surely you are just wasting your own time and the other person’s time, when it could be spent on significantly more important matters. PA’s have knowledge of what meetings can and cannot be moved, and therefore can usually get a meeting set up fairly quickly.

I think the point that I am trying to make here, is maybe stop being so ignorant and assuming that just because you have had a bad experience, does not mean that the PA role is insignificant and unhelpful, when it is in fact a full time job. Maybe you just have a lot of spare time so can manage your diary and emails and travel and expenses and events yourself? but rest assured that is not the case when it comes to most managers.

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Ivan Mazour August 7, 2015 at 7:09 pm

Hi Emily, thanks for your comment. Your point is completely valid, I write based only on my experiences. And the article is clear about it being related to using a PA to manage your calendar, and arrange meetings, not to do with other tasks, such travel and expenses, for which the role can well be very valuable. But there’s been a very clear pattern of negative experience, whenever someone forwards me to their PA to arrange a meeting, and a pattern of positive experience every time we do it directly.

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Alicia August 13, 2015 at 12:48 pm

Hi Ivan,

I love this article! As a PA who wants to do continuously improve this is perfect – if you don’t know what annoys someone about their PA, and more importantly what annoys their clients, then how can you change it?

Ivan, any further critiques you have of the PA industry would be welcomed.

I also agree with the PAs who detail the excellent experience they’ve had with certain PAs – I’ve worked with some of the best, some of the worst – the difference is staggering. Agreed on the typos and glib meeting titles. Inexcusable.

With kind regards,
Alicia

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Ivan Mazour August 13, 2015 at 3:42 pm

Thank you for the kind words Alicia – it’s been interesting to see quite how polarising this article has been, with most people having a very strong opinion. My dream PA would be a perfectionist who would be truly upset if she/he misspelled someone’s name, and understood the reason behind it. Sounds like you have a great attitude. Thank you for reading and commenting!

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Kaz February 8, 2017 at 11:03 am

Well, I do indeed at times agree with the diary management scenario. When my boss copies me in on an email introducing me as the ‘holder of his calendar’ I do get a chill down my spine. I perhaps do not know the person trying to meet with him, what end of the country, what the meeting is about, how long for, is food involved etc? So to start with I have to become a detective and plough through the email chains to try and establish these things. I regularly offer up access to calendars/screen shots for those less IT savvy or simply a list of multiple options, and often the person liaising chooses one where the boss is clearly in Outer Mongolia! So it is definitely a two way issue at times.

I work as a ‘PA’ in a fashion, the diary management is the least enjoyable part of my job. However if you sent me your diary I would use that, why wouldn’t you? So I would say these PA’s you have come across are just incompetent or over busy PA’s/EA’s/Secretaries? As with any job/role out there good, competent people and incompetent ? My ‘boss’ uses me to complete vat returns, liaise with accountants and solicitors go out on site and to manage multiple projects, attend board meetings and complete research etc for him. The diary management is a smidge of what I do and suspect most PA’s are the same unless they work for a larger company and handle multiple people. I feel a little sad that my position makes people think all I do is book travel and look at a diary.

Funnily enough I was just researching diary management, which is how I came across this post from 2013, I wonder if your opinion has changed or if you are still dealing with frustrating PA’s!? 😉

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Ivan Mazour February 10, 2017 at 9:21 pm

It’s really refreshing to read your thoughts Karen – the pain you describe is the pain I usually feel the other way around. It’s rare to find someone with your approach managing calendars. Typically it’s just a mindless “can you do Tuesday at 3pm” when I’ve already made it clear that I’m away that whole week. As you say, being an EA is so much more than managing a calendar, and my thoughts in this post related very much to that aspect specifically, not to the other work EAs do. I actually have a trusted person who I’ve worked with for almost ten years who may once have been an EA but now is very much an operations and finance director – doing all the things you mentioned and more. But travel and calendar management I do myself, and I’d like to think that will be the case always. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

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