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advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

My PAs keep quitting

I’m the editor-in-chief of a highly respected, and internationally renowned fashion magazine. It’s a cutthroat industry – and I have a reputation for being very, very tough to work for. I admit that I’m demanding, unpredictable, and quick to find fault. But in my defense, I think the success of the magazine (and my career) speaks for itself.

      Of course I’m terribly busy. I have at least two personal assistants working for me at all times. The problem is, I just can’t seem to hang on to them! Even the least incompetent typically last only a year, maybe two at most. Then they’re off to some other, usually more prestigious job, in part because they can put their experience with me on their resume! For my most recent assistant, I even tried hiring against type – you know, frumpy and smart, as opposed to the clueless fashionistas HR usually sends. That one actually had potential too – but in the end didn’t even last 6 months! What can I do to make them stay longer? Am I reaching for the stars here??  – Regards, Miranda P.

In Organizations (1958), James March and Herbert Simon remind us that the ‘first decision’ for any organization is not a group, or collective choice. It is an individual one.

This is the ‘decision to participate.’

A person first chooses whether or not to cooperate with others in the pursuit of pre-determined organizational goals. They decide whether to become (or remain) organizational participants, in other words, or instead withhold their efforts, or contribute them to some other, more worthy enterprise.

In your case, it sounds like your PAs are choosing not to participate much sooner than you’d like.

Obviously there’s nothing you can do to make your employees stay. Like anyone, they’re free to leave whenever they want, no matter how successful you are, or prestigious your magazine may be.

There might be some things you can do to encourage them to stick it out, however.

I assume the pay you offer is commensurate with industry norms. If not, that’s a good place to start. Same goes for benefits, sick leave, time off, etc. It also sounds like your assistants have at least some inkling of what they’re getting into. As you say, you have a reputation. Nevertheless, better preparing your new hires for the demands of the job before they start may help.

But there may be more that you personally can still do.

You boast that both you and your magazine are very successful, and take pride in that fact. Wonderful. You would do well to remember that your PAs are hoping to experience a similar sense of success through their work. My guess is that your management style doesn’t allow for this. That combination of ‘demanding, unpredictable, and quick to find fault’ that you describe yourself as being is much more likely to leave employees feeling incompetent, unappreciated, and anxious.

Ironically, your predicament is probably compounded by the fact that working for you appears to open doors for your PAs. The professional gratification they seek can only be experienced after they leave you, in other words. You demand excellence, but offer nothing but a paycheck in return. No wonder your PAs can’t wait to move on. This would also account for why hiring against type didn’t work for you either. Fashionable or plain, educated or merely street-smart; everybody wants to feel as if they’re doing well in their chosen career. There is no other ‘type’.

So let your PAs share in your feeling of success. You needn’t hand out gold stars or kiss them on the forehead, mind you. Most adults are perfectly capable of recognizing when they’ve done an outstanding job. Just acknowledge it in some way – or simply thank them for all the hard work they undoubtedly do for you. And when they come up short (as they inevitably will), resist the urge to berate them like the factory hands of a hundred years ago.

None of this is to say you can’t still be demanding, either. It’s a common misconception that making employees feel good about themselves and their work means lowering your expectations. Far from it. Keep in mind that a ‘Let’s talk about how you might do better next time’—or even judicious pursing of the lips—can be as effective as the most withering rebuke. Also, if you’re the type of manager who assigns impossible tasks to your staff, and then implies their job is contingent upon their successful completion, please stop. That’s the stuff of movie cliché. In the real world it will only exacerbate your problem.

In sum then, you may be on the cutting edge of fashion, but it sounds like it’s time to update your management style.

Honestly darling, it strikes me as late 19th century.

[ 1 Comment ]

  1. MG

    Good advice. A couple of recently read quotes seem appropriate here:

    “Success is best when it’s shared.” – Howard Schultz (Chairman & CEO, Starbucks)

    “Before you become a leader, success is all about growing yourself. After you become a leader, success is about growing others.” – Jack Welch (CEO, General Electric)


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