Secretarial Managers' Networking Breakfast

Secretarial Managers' Networking Breakfast - from business support structures to agile working

Published on 9th October 2019

This week, the Business Support team at Ambition held their third Secretarial Managers Breakfast and had a superb attendance by senior Business Support leaders from across Professional Services.

The team at Ambition created this event a year ago to provide a forum for Business Support Managers to share ideas, challenges, successes and innovation. It struck us that holding this position within professional services firms can be tough and often quite isolating, due to the need to manage up and down consistently. 

Secretarial Managers spin so many plates at once – they are involved in the proactive business planning and strategy of their firms, creating the right working culture and employee engagement. They are continuously managing expectations from their teams and partners, and are always under pressure to increase efficiency - often in standalone positions. Creating a network of peers is really important because it provides a much needed sounding board. This event also gives Ambition the opportunity to share our market insight and knowledge around subjects, such as attracting and retaining talent and candidate motivators. 

The agenda is always set by the delegates. The event has proven to be a huge success and we had to operate a waitlist this time round due to being full to capacity! 

As always, there was lots of lively debate (and laughter), and the feedback we’ve had from everyone around how much value is taken away each time is immensely pleasing. Our mantra at Ambition is ‘building better futures’ and we certainly think this event underpins this.

Some of the topics discussed at the event included:

Current business support structures and utilising additional resources

One thing that is very clear on the back of this discussion point is that there just isn’t a standard business support structure within professional services, instead, there are massive differences and variables. Some firms employ admin hubs and all admin tasks are routed through here, firm-wide. Some firms employ Team Assistants or Junior PAs within each practice area to take care of these tasks, both of which work effectively.

Some firms still have Secretaries although it was widely agreed that this job title is outdated now and not attractive to candidates. Most firms have PAs but with widely differing allocations – from 1:4 to 1:11 in some cases.

The EA role or job title has been bought into some firms and everyone agreed that this can be a very valuable resource, usually supporting in a 1:1 or 1:2 capacity at Senior Partner level. However, the consensus of the group was that these roles need to be very high performing, business partnering positions with value-add services to Partners, and not awarded due to longevity of service. Internal expectations around promotion into these higher-profile roles need to be managed closely as it's not a rite of passage. There are still some firms that operate on a completely flat structure.

Document Production was a hot topic and again the structure here varied from outsourced, offshored or home working, to non-existent. It seems there is still a big need for strong technical assistance when it comes to documents and that perception of outsourced functions is not great from a fee earner’s perspective. Despite the stats showing that technical ability is of a high standard, there is still some work to do around this.

Billing was high on the agenda, which again, varied hugely from firm to firm. Some PAs have 90% billing in their roles and some minimal. Some firms have a revenue controller per practice group who does all of the billing and some firms hand billing over to admin teams. There is no blueprint for what works. It was agreed that billing needs to be a big part of the business support function because it gives PAs a great insight into matters, and what is happening with clients.    

Attracting and retaining talent

We discussed why business support professionals leave individual firms or professional services as a whole and what could be done to retain talent. Main motivators to leave firms tended to be based around lack of recognition, lack of progression or being unable to take on more responsibility. People tend to leave the professional services sector due to a perceived lack of innovation and flexibility, particularly around the softer/fun benefits that other sectors offer such as, agile working, office pets, quicker progression and wellbeing initiatives, etc.

It was really pleasing to hear from everyone about some of the great initiatives that firms in professional services are offering around areas such as, mental health awareness and recognition for business support teams; wellbeing walks are being organised at lunchtimes, financial rewards are available for recognition of great work, and simple quick wins such as shout outs and recognition via newsletters and internal intranets are very much top of the agenda. There seems to have been real strides forward in this area since we started the forum a year ago.

There was also a lot of discussion around appraisals and the processes in place. It was agreed that this area was often an onerous task and, more often than not, was counter-productive. It was interesting to hear that many firms have started to take a different approach, such as holding ‘career catch up’ chats and setting objectives per quarter, rather than annually, and appraisal gradings being entirely removed, all of which had been very well received across the board. This meant that people could focus on taking ownership of their careers rather than what ‘number’ they were going to be awarded.

How can Fee Earners be encouraged to utilise PAs better?

This applies particularly to junior fee earners who are, so self-sufficient when they join firms,  they are the partners of tomorrow. If they aren’t utilising support staff now, what does this mean for PAs in the future? 

Lots of ideas were shared around this subject including getting PAs involved in trainee forums and inductions so fee earners appreciate the value business support can add. Other ideas included PAs running ‘know-how’ sessions and ensuring Partners communicate to fee earners how much help is available.

It was also agreed that PAs should take responsibility for making this happen by asking more questions and feedback of fee earners and partners. This will enable them to manage up and take on tasks that might not typically be considered within their remit.

Agile working

This has been a key topic of discussion for the forum over the past year and it was really pleasing to see that there has been some movement in this area. When we started the event a year ago there was little or no capacity for agile working for PAs, but there was for fee earners and partners. This was a source of frustration for all concerned as candidates were leaving professional services due to the lack of flexibility. It was felt that this showed a lack of trust from partners, and given that PAs manage partners’ clients and inboxes, this didn’t make sense. 

However, around the table and across the sectors, there have been sure signs of more flexibility being shown. Working from home can be hard to manage and monitor, but for the most part, where occasional remote working has been offered, it has been utilised in a positive way and not abused. Certain parameters were discussed and assessed on a case by case basis, and it appears to be moving in the right direction. It was agreed that firms would be backed into a corner in the future, and would have to offer regular working from home options to all employees, simply due to a lack of available space as firms grow.

Ambition would like to thank all the attendees for their candid conversation and lively discussion, and positive feedback post-event. We are pleased everyone is getting so much out of these sessions and having fun at the same time.

If you would like to discuss any of the topics covered in more detail or the business support market in general, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

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