Secrets of the secretaries from investment banks

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Who would be the assistant to a bunch of highly-strung, highly-stressed, highly-intelligent, sometimes-arrogant investment bankers? Particularly at this moment in time when staff cutbacks mean assistants are expected to juggle multiple taskmasters and bankers themselves are under pressure to do more with less?

Meet the PAs (personal assistants) and EAs (executive assistants) to the bankers of this world. Many are as articulate - if not as highly qualified, as their bosses. Some are also possessed of wisdom beyond their status.

"I never wanted to be a trader," says Claire Casey*, a PA who spent 20 years working on the trading floors of investment banks across the City of London before moving into the not-for-profit sector earlier this year. "If you work in trading, it's short-lived. You start young and you work until you drop. You earn a lot of money and you burn out. I chose my lifestyle before the cash."

Casey says it's wrong to pigeon-hole all bankers as arrogant to work for. At worse, they're more petulant than patronizing - prone to flying off the handle in toddler-style tantrums before returning placidly to their screens. "You do get the odd prima donna who puffs his chest out, but that's inevitable on an 800 person floor," she says. "The real problem is that they're so highly strung that they get worked up over stupid things - 'Where's my pen?' 'My Blackberry won't work!' 'Why isn't my meeting room booked? They'll come over and and throw a tantrum and then it will all be forgotten three minutes later."

How do you deal with a banker-tantrum? Casey says she goes for a combination of implacability and efficiency. "While they're ranting and moaning, I'll get on and fix their problem. It's not worth pushing back and antagonizing them when they're accusing me of failing to book the meeting room they never asked for - it only makes it worse."

The worst 'secretarial' role in an investment bank is an EA, says Julia Raphael*, another banking PA now working as an office manager for a London hedge fund. "If you're an EA, you're a secretary to the entire team," Raphael says. "You have a whole group of people who want something yesterday and expect you to jump when they ask. If you're a PA, you have only one boss and they tend to be more senior."

How do you manage a barrage of mid-ranking bankers who all want help at once? "One of my skills is that I'm very calm," says Raphael. "I stay very calm and speak to them politely and let them know what my schedule is and what they can expect." It's easier to work as a PA or EA in a hedge fund than an investment bank, she adds "In a hedge fund you get to know people on a more personal level and it's much less stressful than banking."

How do the (almost invariably female) PAs and EAs in banks cope with being around young males on elevated pay packages? Casey says it's becoming more of a woman's world ("Look at people like Nicola Horlick and Helena Morrissey") but that she's cultivated the kind of demeanour which prevents her from being patronised by 20-something old men. "Mostly, they wouldn't dare be rude to me - I've been around too long. If they ask me to book a meeting room rudely, I'll suggest they'll do it themselves and often - although they're very intelligent - they're like children and don't know how to do so."

Banking PAs and EAs are paid well, with packages reaching £50k+ and assistants sometimes receiving a share of the bonus pool. Goldman Sachs paid ex-PA Joyti De Laurey a salary of £52k a year in 2002, when she famously stole £4m from her bosses at the bank. De Laurey was sent to prison but is now free and working for Prison Consultants, a consultancy which helps white collar criminals handle prison life.

"What I did was very wrong, but there's an element of temptation to working in the City," says De Laurey. "Everyone is there to make money - it's what drives people. Even if you work as a PA, you get paid well," she adds. "At Goldman everyone got a chunk of the bonus when the bank did well - from the MDs right down to the people in the post room."

*Names have been changed. 


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