advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

My PAs keep quitting

I’m editor-in-chief for a highly respected, and internationally renowned fashion magazine. It’s a cutthroat industry – and I have a reputation for being very, very difficult 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 she didn’t even last 6 months! What can I do to make them stay longer? Or 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 or group isn’t a collective choice. It is an individual one.

This is the ‘decision to participate.’

A person must first decide whether to cooperate in the pursuit of pre-determined organizational goals, or instead contribute their time and energy to some other, more worthy enterprise.

In your case, it sounds like your PAs are opting 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 how 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, time off, etc.) It also sounds like your assistants have at least some idea 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.

There is one other thing you personally might still do, though.

You boast that both you and your magazine are very successful. Wonderful. Keep in mind that your PAs hope to experience a similar sense of success in their work…but I doubt your management style allows for this. That combination of ‘demanding, unpredictable, and quick to find fault’ is far more likely to leave them feeling incompetent, unappreciated, and anxious.

Ironically, your predicament may be compounded by the fact that working for you seems to open doors for your assistants. You demand excellence, but offer nothing but a paycheck in return. No wonder they can’t wait to move on. This also explains why hiring against type doesn’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. Simply acknowledge all the hard work they undoubtedly do for you in some small way. And if on occasion they do come up short (as they most certainly will), resist the urge to berate them like the factory hands of a hundred years ago. A gentle ‘Let’s talk about how you might do better next time’—or even a judicious pursing of the lips—can at times be as effective as the most withering rebuke. 

In sum then, you may be on the cutting edge of fashion, but it may be 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)

    Reply

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