The Secretary aka Your Virtual Assistant vs Alexa: A Social History

The Secretary aka Your Virtual Assistant vs Alexa: A Social History

Consider the image your mind conjures up when we say the word ‘secretary’. Officious, bespectacled, formally dressed, acting as a gatekeeper to a key decision maker. Female? Now how about virtual assistant? Is it still the same image?

This powerful right hand position has a long and rich history and while recently pondering the importance of this position, I felt inspired to step back in time and see what we can learn from the British social history behind this business critical role.

But it hasn’t always been the case that the work was considered something anyone could do or as a drain on resources. Originally it was high status work – selected by royal appointment, and extremely well rewarded.

Effective secretaries or virtual assistants nowadays solve problems, troubleshoot, organise, project manage, give difficult messages, co-ordinate, negotiate, act as diplomats, delegate, commission and give clear instructions.

All of these skills are used to support leaders and operate effectively behind the scenes; they are difficult to measure but priceless. Anyone doing a difficult job facing myriad challenges would be wise to seek out people with these skills and keep them close by.

Which is why it all began with the Plantagenets, a dynasty like any other, full of intrigue, internal struggle, external threat and big plans to expand. A bit like a business.

From the latin, Secretarius – The Keeper of the Secrets

When a Plantagenet King found someone with impeccable judgement; who knew what to put in writing and what to say in private, what to lock away and what to destroy, he made an offer.

‘Will you be my secretary, write my letters and keep my secrets?’

The role came with prestige and power and if you did the job well you might very well be richly rewarded with land and titles. Nice work. With few people literate and few literate people to write to – it was a job for the elite.

And it stayed that way for a while, until the modern state started to develop under the Tudors. It was still for the elite really – but the need for secretaries expanded and for those who had what it took and were either close enough to royalty or knew how to get close to royalty, there was opportunity.

Setting up a new national religion, developing a world class navy, implementing the compulsory registration of births, marriages and deaths, and appointing Crown representatives to do a bit of local government needed secretarial support.

The kind of people to project-manage state expansion, set up scalable systems, and handle a ‘to do list’ for things that had never been done before. Skilled people with initiative and drive, along with a desire to serve the Sovereign.

The Welsh redheads snapped up some of the most famous administrators of power ever immortalised in fiction and on Sunday evening TV: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. Both were pivotal in matters both domestic and foreign. And both played for high stakes. Cromwell’s demise is said to come from Anne of Cleves debacle. This is a salutary lesson for anyone who organises important stuff for the boss.

Top Tip: You may have those stellar admin skills but rule number one, make sure you know what the boss likes.

These days we have grievance and disciplinary procedures to prevent people losing their head, but overcoming the challenges of running a business have not changed, nor has the importance of finding the right people around to support.

Right Man Right Time

It wasn’t just Henry who was good at finding the right people to help him. Put yourself in Elizabeth’s shoes. A woman who knew her father had killed her mother, had five stepmothers, a life under constant threat, a tenuous regal claim, faced rumours of a Spanish invasion and inherited a country torn apart by religious turmoil the likes of which is rather difficult to understand in modern times.

It was all a bit like stepping up to run Debenhams or looking at the Lego balance sheet in the mid 1990’s, other than it was by accident of birth she found herself having to run a country. The skills of a secretary were surely never more needed: prudence, temperance, fortitude and wisdom.

And she found it in her wise, cautious, trusted adviser Sir William Cecil. She had observed him and found him suitable for what she wanted …

‘that you will not be corrupted with any manner of gift, and that you will be faithful to the state, and that, without respect of my private will, you will give me that counsel that you think best. And if you shall know anything necessary to be declared unto me of secrecy, you shall show it to myself only, and assure yourself I will not fail to keep taciturnity therein. And therefore herewith I charge you.’

It was a job offer he accepted.

It seems she may have been a good judge of his character. Such was Sir William’s great administrative ability that he acquired the reputation as one of the greatest English statesman ever. This makes me think he must have also had some very good people supporting him. The historian Hilaire Belloc attributed him with being de facto ruler of the country. The partnership with the Queen was to last until his death in 1598, just a few years before her own. It is claimed that after he died, the Privy council did their best not to mention Lord Burghley (as he became) at meetings because it always made her breakdown in tears. The boss / secretary connection can be very intimate whilst wholly professional.

Over time the role of Secretary of State expanded as public service and the rise of the private secretary was seen as a separate office, but it was not until Queen Victoria was on the throne that the position was officially recognised in 1867.

What the secretary can learn from Queen Victoria

Any secretary who has worked with a difficult boss, may feel a kinship with her PA – Sir Henry Ponsonby. The job was by no means plain sailing and the royal demands were said on occasions to be of bewildering consequence. Her ‘methods of expression’ when angry were ‘exaggerated’ and one can only guess that ‘exaggerated’ was a diplomatic way of describing the ‘Boss in a rage’ AKA Queen on a Rampage.

There is a chapter in the account of his life ‘Henry Ponsonby: His life his letters’ called “The Ponsonby Method”, which may have some useful tips for anyone working with a brilliant but challenging boss.

Don’t Push It

“When she insists that 2 and 2 make 5 I say that I cannot help thinking they make 4. She replies there may be some truth in what I say, but she knows they make 5. Thereupon I drop the discussion”

The Three Step Rule

Take into account her passing mood and health issues
Understand she is exaggerating but won’t back down
Know that in time it will pass. Employ the ‘least said soonest mended’ rule


Trust in the Boss and that her good sense will eventually straighten things out. (Sir Henry had quite a high opinion of the Boss’s good sense so this rule only applies if the Boss does actually have good sense.)

With his responsibilities being both social and political I don’t suppose Sir Henry ever put pen to paper without thinking if he was to restrain, encourage, guide or adapt. On his death the Queen was to write to his widow,

“It is very difficult for me to find words to express how deeply grieved I am at the sad termination of dear Sir Henry’s long and trying, tho’ I think and believe painless illness …. [he was] universally beloved by all, high & low. He was always so kind, so fair, so just and I miss him terribly…”

And that is how it is when the job is both done well, to the satisfaction of both parties and those they work with.

When women became secretaries

As the Industrial Revolution progressed so did the tools of the trade. The first secretarial school was opened by Sir Isaac Pitman. Here, men could qualify as shorthand writers to ‘professional and commercial men’. But secretarial work, once the domain of the church or army man was to undergo a revolution:

  • Administration of a company is an expense
  • Expenses should be kept to minimum
  • Effective cost cutting is rewarded

And so it was, as educated middle class women began to enter the workplace there was an easy way to save shed loads of money. It went like this – why not employ women as secretaries at a fraction of the cost and claim a bonus off the boss?

Along with lower pay, came a downgrading of the job. It was a time when middle class women with an education entered the workplace on the understanding that once they got married it was ‘game over’ for paid employment. Such was the force of social convention it was not until the sixties that this unwritten termination clause stopped being the norm. And so it was that the ‘working woman’ was not a good long term bet, and whatever men did behind the closed meeting room doors was likely to remain mysterious and inaccessible. It was hard for a woman to be taken seriously.

The Way it Was

The office looked and sounded different. Manual typewriters clattered, keys got tangled if bashed too quickly, and until the electric typewriter, using a manual gave you finger strength a rock climber would envy. Copies of letters were created by using carbon paper. The eraser that never worked was replaced by magical TippEx, then IBM invented a miraculous machine that could correct documents using a sophisticated ribbon arrangement. A ‘great leap forward’ in office life. Even as late as the eighties secretarial schools would teach how to count out a Memorandum on a manual typewriter to make sure it was centred and aligned correctly. There was a pride in the old fashioned ways.

In 1978, early in her professional career, Gill Weller joined the International Wool Secretariat. She was employed as PA to the Director. Not only sought after for her administrative skills, she was also qualified in textile design from the Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels – now Heriot Watt University.

But she was also the sixth generation of a mill owning family founded by Quakers in 1806. She knew more about the industry than most on the management team having worked in the family mill. She could spot errors in technical info easily, and it wasn’t just theoretical knowledge. Having learnt on fully functioning machinery from the height of the Industrial Revolution she could set up any loom on the market. But when she started as Director’s PA it was bottom rung work, dictation was taken twice a day – over sherry – and the typewriter was manual. This was the calibre of secretaries keeping things together at organisations across the country.

From the middle of the last century, these bright, talented and educated women started to fight for their work to be taken seriously, as professionals, on a par with men with a desire to break out of the limited set of opportunities that had been made available.

And although women still battle for equality and still get paid less, the working environment is mercifully very different from fifty years ago thanks to the pioneers that went before.

But just because you can now be an astronaut or a welder, doesn’t mean you should. If job satisfaction and your particular skills are all about getting things sorted, providing stellar support, making things run like a well oiled machine, and managing disasters before they even appear, you are not going to be very happy about being blasted into space.

Which could raise some problems. We now live in an age where men type, and a new type of personal assistant has rocked up on the boulevard.

Alexa, stop asking me questions

So is it the case that the 21st century virtual assistant be a small speaker unobtrusively plugged in somewhere in the office? Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple are all developing the technology. We are going to move from the ‘search’ engine, and into the next big thing, the ‘action’ engine. Imagine this: you say – ‘schedule a meeting on Thursday’, and on Thursday you walk into the meeting room and say ‘start the meeting’. Right people, right time, right room, and the right presentation ready for you to lead the meeting. Seamless. And cheap. And no need to dial up the remote contributors. The futurologists say the voice revolution has just begun.

Even as you read this virtual assistant (AI) exists to:

★ remind you of appointments
★ give travel advice using real time traffic data
★ search information picked up from conversations and locations
★ use biometric information
★ read emails and apps to give about flights, tickets, deliveries etc

and more. The cloud is the limit.

So where does this leave the secretary of the future? Will AI kill the office star? Well, no, actually. It leaves the secretary of the future freed from re-scheduling meetings aka ‘time-wasting, head-banging frustration’. And that means opportunity. Perhaps a very big opportunity.

Let’s take a quick look at what high level secretaries/ virtual assistants do when they are not rescheduling a meeting. This list is not exhaustive.

Understand what is happening at high level discussions then translate strategic instructions into practical solutions and concrete action.

Review and analyse information, research available options and report back with suggested options and reasons for the decision.

Develop business acumen and relationships with subject matter experts to develop value to your company.

Create new processes as the need arises, and spot new connections to help a business grow.

Act as point of contact for the team, up down and sideways. Mentor, provide guidance, and a listening ear.

Manage time as an asset and find ways to make meetings productive and effective.

Be the eyes and ears of the boss, report on morale and know how to get the best from people.

Negotiate conflicting demands on time with grace.

Make decisions in the absence of the boss.

Lead the way. The new economy is all about service. Secretaries and virtual assistants understand this. Others may not.

Deal with change and tackle unfamiliar tasks without blinking.

Be loyal and faithful.

Secretaries have been doing all this stuff for millennia. Alexa may have a way to go yet.

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