Finding a personal assistant.

Life is never easy eh. On one of the forums for foreigners here in China the topic of  ‘personal assistants’ came up. How do you select one, training, salary range, etc. Somebody talked about his own experience, and talked about his new PA, and what her salary was etc. Also that now after 6 months of mediocre performance, she demanded a bonus(!).

Somebody who is in HR and training for a living, wrote this as a comment. I recognize practically all of it, having gone through a fair share of PA’s myself, since I set foot here in 1994. Here it is, unedited.

PA’s are actually my business. Providing training for them etc, to bring them up to a western standard. So this is not going to be a short reply.

The most common thing we see in China is that employers confuse their “PA’s” skills with those of a translator. She’s your voice, the person who tells you what things say (when you’re a foreign manager at least) and the buffer in a strange world.

Having been in China for five years, I gotta say, you are paying far too much UNLESS this person has the following:

Super human computer skills, not just average, able to use Office software at an extremely high level and NOT that crap level that most are taught in Chinese university, serious user levels

Able to do research and create reports that make sense, in a business world, no long diatribes, bullets, able to understand the research task and accomplish it

Able to hit deadlines,,, all the time without excuses

Able to prioritize tasks and keep things in order without losing her cool or being overly stressed out.

Able to communicate in your company’s chosen language, without a hint of your ever needing to go in and clarify her communication

Does she have critical thinking skills, offering problems and solutions and does she know when to offer her opinion and when she shouldn’t

Does she look professional, or is she a hello kitty wearing prima donna whose appearance does not speak well of your professionalism…

For example, my last PA had to take a test, now it’s true being a PA for me is not a picnic, because coming in candidates know that we train local staff into high level PA’s but here’s what we asked them to do and what happened,

1. Here’s six invoices, please put them in excel and tell us the total amount due, and define the six invoices by their due dates

2. Please write an email to Mr. XPZ telling him our meeting has been changed and is now going to be at X place at Y time, and CC Mr. Q, Mr. R and Ms. G

3. Please set up an ongoing appointment in Outlook to cover the above task and assume it will reoccur the same time each week for three months.

4. Please answer the following question: Your manager is in the air in flight and won’t land for three hours, so you can not reach him. Your company’s largest client has just shown up for a meeting with your manager, which your manager apparently scheduled without telling you. What do you do?

(Note: 4 straightforward, simple tasks. NOT rocket science right?)

We had PA candidates break down into tears, some got irate and offended at being asked. the ones who could even get close to getting things right, got second interviews and we paid 6000 to start, with a bump at three months of 1000. (Note: this is in RMB. 1 USD equals 6.8 RMB)

If a PA that I had trained, or within my organization was demanding a raise or “bonus” after only six months, she would be able to come to me and tell me why she deserved it. So consider asking your PA to do just that. Ask her what has changed about her role in the last six months that leads her to think that she requires a raise.

Ask her what she likes about the job and what she dislikes and try to ferret out if she’s actually working harder than you think she is (highly doubtful, we’ve seen the Shanghai PA Princess thing too often in my line of work, she gets the job feels important because she’s speaking English all the time and tries to make you think you can’t live without her)

When you’re asking questions, try to encourage her to be specific. If she can’t, then pass on the raise but be prepared to replace her, because she’ll seethe over not getting it. In fact bring someone in now to start assisting her, so you’re not left in the lurch when she walks.

I talk with managers all the time who are frustrated and ready to bring in foreign PA’s at roughly that same salary, local staff especially in that job role should be cheaper and should get some training to bring them up to speed, but should never be in a position where you feel you can’t do without them. ANYONE in any organization should be replaceable without angst, if the situation calls for it, you’re far too worried about losing her instead of focusing on what she’s done or will do for your business.


About Stranded Mariner

Marine Engineer and passionate sailor and cruiser, working in the marine business in China.
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