advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

My PAs keep quitting

I’m editor-in-chief for a highly regarded, and internationally renowned fashion magazine. It’s a cutthroat industry and I have a reputation for being very, very difficult to work for. I’ll admit I’m demanding, unpredictable, and quick to find fault. But in my defense, I think the success of the magazine (and that I’ve enjoyed in 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 can’t seem to hang on to them! Even the least incompetent only last 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 refers. That one actually had potential, but in the end she didn’t even make it 6 months! What can I do to make them stay longer? I don’t think I’m reaching for the stars here…  – Regards, Miranda P.

In Organizations (1958), organizational theorists James March and Herbert Simon remind us that the “first decision” for any organization isn’t a collective, or communal choice. It’s an individual one.

This is the decision “to participate.”

Organizational members must decide whether to cooperate in the pursuit of pre-determined organizational goals, or instead contribute their time, energy, and efforts 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 them stay. Like anyone, your employees are free to leave whenever they want, no matter how successful you or your magazine may be. However, there are some things you can do to encourage them to stick it out.

I assume the pay you offer is commensurate with industry norms. If not, that’s a good place to start (same is true 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 them for the demands of the job before they’re hired may help.

And then there is one other thing that you personally might do.

You boast that both you and your magazine are successful, and highly respected. Wonderful. Just keep in mind that your PAs hope to experience this too – the sense of achievement and the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. Your management style, however, doesn’t seem to allow for this. That combination of “demanding, unpredictable, and quick to find fault”? It’s more likely to leave them feeling incompetent, unappreciated, and anxious.

Mind you, I’m not saying you have to hand out gold stars, or kiss them on the forehead. Simply acknowledge all the hard work they undoubtedly do for you in some small way. And when they do come up short on occasion, as I assure you they will, resist the urge to belittle 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 be as effective as the most withering rebuke. 

Finally, your predicament may be compounded by the fact that working for you seems to open doors for people, ironically enough. You demand excellence, and yet offer nothing but a paycheck in return. No wonder your PAs can’t wait to move on. This might also help explain why hiring against type didn’t work for you either. Fashionable or plain, educated or not; everybody wants to feel as if they’re doing well in their chosen career. There is no other “type.”

To put it bluntly then, you and your magazine may be on the cutting edge of fashion, but it seems it’s time to update your management style.

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


  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)

  2. Derek Steel

    The arrogance of this Miranda P. is pretty ugly; actually reminds me of the traits associated with child or spouse abusers.

    “Demanding” may be understandable and maybe even desirable when it comes to achieving excellence–but “unpredictable” and “quick to find fault” and “very, very difficult to work for” (all of which M.P. seems to wear as badges of honor) are all giant failures of personality in a manager.

    “Unpredictable” means you’re a loose cannon that only engenders fear, not motivation. Some managers try to pass this off as “dynamic,” but really it’s just a primitive tactic that only undermines the productive confidence that a more consistent management style might cultivate in a PA. “Unpredictable” also means you probably haven’t made your expectations and goals clear, and/or that you have trouble sticking to a plan, or worse that you don’t even have a clear plan at all and are just “winging” it. (Wonder what *your* bosses would think of that?)

    “Quick to find fault” is also a jerky and unhelpful quality, especially if untempered by some measure of also finding merit in the PA’s performance.

    The most effective managers lead and motivate their employees toward excellence by pulling them up, not by beating them down. The work can be demanding, grueling even, but “subordinates” of all kinds who feel supported can generally put up with a lot and may even enjoy the challenges of hard work and long hours in pursuit of excellence–but not if the manager is an unpredictable, judgmental, unsupportive, undermining jerk.

    You can believe this or not, but the proof is right there, in the fact that nobody likes working for you and they all move on.

  3. JG

    I give the subordinate credit for offering such measured, practical – and excellent, USEFUL – advice. This particular person (sorry NW, if you’re reading this) seems to be beyond help as she takes pride in her arrogant manner with her assistants, believes all problems lie with them and is unable to imagine solutions.

    Her only hope is to wait for an AI-generated PA programmed for her terribly busy, unpredictable and quick to find fault work persona. Until then, I suspect this unfortunate pattern will keep repeating and NW will take a perverse pleasure and even pride in the effect she has on her incompetent (in her mind, at least) and hapless PAs.


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