What it takes to be a successful secretary

It’s often said that an executive is only as good as their secretary, executive assistant or personal assistant.

Handling the day-to-day administration for a person, team or network, a secretary is the “eyes and ears” of a company, privy to unique and powerful insights about the company culture, performance and future direction. It can be a rewarding and exciting career path for any professional.

What does it take to be a successful secretary? It’s important to understand everything that’s expected from you in the role, seek opportunities to go above and beyond and continuously upskill, keep up with new software and technology, hone organisational skills and increase overall knowledge related to the industry that you are in.

Qualities that make a good secretary

A good secretary has various qualities - both hard and soft skills that help them succeed in a role. These qualities can be learned and developed with a little bit of dedication. These are just a few of them:

  • Organisational skills: a strong ability to be organised, keep a clear head and keep track of everything from deadlines to essential files.
  • Professional communication skills: clear and friendly communication, along with a personable phone manner.
  • Initiative and drive: the ability to take the initiative, work independently and seek out new opportunities.
  • IT literacy: knowledge of software such as Microsoft Office Suite, Outlook, Adobe Programs and typing skills is required. A bonus would be knowing about other software that could help with the day-to-day work.
  • Honesty and discretion: A secretary often handles expenses, petty cash and other sensitive topics, it’s important that employers can trust a secretary fully.
  • Time-management skills: Working on several projects means a lot of multitasking. This requires the ability to manage your own time and ensure that you can deliver on timelines.
  • Being a team player: better if you have a flair for championing a teamwork ethic and fostering teamwork within a team.
  • Remaining calm under pressure: an ability to cope with stress, deadlines and multitasking, often dealing with several stakeholders at once.
  • Professionalism: a skill needed for dealing with internal and external stakeholders.
  • Project management skills: skilled at managing all the moving parts of any given project.

Besides these soft skills, most employers expect a secretary to be educated to at least matriculation level, followed by secretarial training. Typing speed is an important skill for many employers.

If you can touch-type, your speed will improve the more typing you do – you’ll need to be able to type anywhere from 55 to 80 words per minute, and faster is always better.

Related: How to use the STAR technique to excel in job interviews

What are the characteristics of a good secretary?

Learn to anticipate needs

The most successful secretaries work towards helping others when they ask for it, then anticipate what might be needed for the future. Be proactive and search out ways to anticipate requests and needs from others. Paying attention to detail on assigned tasks can help you anticipate what will be needed in the future. 

Be meticulously organised

This one is important both for yourself while juggling multiple tasks and for others that you are working on. Come up with various systems to stay organised, whether handwritten or using organisational technology. Being organised is especially helpful if part of your job includes making travel arrangements, managing people’s schedules, or organising multiple events. 

Keep detailed notes

In meetings or on phone calls,  keep detailed notes on what is said and requested for later reference. Keeping these notes for reference will mean that you have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on - and will be seen as the go-to person to get the details that others may have overlooked or forgotten. 

Focus on clear communication. 

Work on your communication skills to communicate directly, clearly and with intent to any stakeholders you interact with. Being able to write a concise email and speak well both internally and externally will be a huge advantage, given that a large part of your job is about communicating effectively.

Related: Year-end review: 10 questions for self-reflection

What does a secretary do?

There will always be different elements to each secretary’s job description. However, generally speaking, a secretary is responsible for supporting various aspects of the business, often taking care of administrative tasks from taking meeting notes to managing schedules, organising events or making travel arrangements. 

It is a varied role and depends a lot on whom the secretary is supporting and what type of company they are working for. Given that broad job description, one of the most valuable assets a secretary or business support professional can have is the ability to think on their feet.

Secretarial and business support work is demanding and requires someone who can wear multiple hats and multitask well. 

What does the career path for a secretary look like?

An ambitious secretary can refresh their career every couple of years, once they have mastered the latest role and developed it. This is the perfect time to take on more responsibility, developing the project management and supervisory aspects of a role. 

Entry-level secretarial jobs generally have lots of room for growth, and a secretary can evolve into being an administrative assistant, executive assistant, office manager, administrative coordinator or other senior administrative roles. With specialised knowledge of a department, industry or company, effective secretaries should see themselves moving up an exciting career path. 

The alternative is to make a lateral move within an organisation to other departments or look to new pastures for the following external challenge. Project management and human resources are two sectors that many secretaries find themselves well-prepared for with transferable skills sets

Focus on commitment and resilience

Employers look for stability on a secretary’s CV. This demonstrates highly prized attributes like resilience, the ability to make considered choices, commitment and reliability. 

Choosing a career path as a secretary can be fulfilling, and successful secretaries often become essential parts of the organisation.

Ready for your next career step? Check out these current job openings or submit your CV now.