Friday, October 19, 2007

Two slips and a gully (2 EAs and a secretary)

A few years ago, I worked with a very 'interesting' boss. He was the head of our group and he used to have 2 Executive Assistants and 1 Executive Secretary supporting him. Since group size was about 30, this meant that 10 % of the group was in his support staff. I used to wonder if this was really required. While he definitely needed some administrative support, 3 support staff seemed to be a bit too much. I used to suspect that some sort of 'pace bowler mentality' might have something do with this situation. Let me explain. In the game of cricket, if you are a pace bowler, you would feel very good when you see a few fielders in slip and gully positions when you are running in to bowl. In a way, it is an acknowledgement of your skill as a pace bowler. After all, fielders won't be deployed in those positions unless you have a good chance of forcing the batsman to edge the ball. So it makes sense. Now think of a situation where the batsman has been hitting you over midwicket frequently and you still insist on having many fielders in slips/gully. It this case it becomes debatable whether your demand is based mainly on logic/cricketing sense or on your need to maintain your self image as a good pace bowler.

This brings us to the larger issue of the level of admin./secretarial support required for senior managers. In MNCs, the trend these days is to reduce the number of support staff for senior managers to an absolute minimum level. In a high-tech world, many of the traditional administrative/secretarial support activities are not required. Self service is the norm even for senior managers. Some times this (i.e. operating without support staff) is also done as a 'cultural statement'. Anyway, this leads to savings in 'headcount' and it makes sense in most situations. However there are also situations where a significant part of the senior managers time gets wasted in administrative activities that could have been done by a support staff. Considering the very high salaries of many of these senior managers, some times this 'avoidable' wastage of time could prove to be more costly than the cost involved in employing support staff (especially when we consider the 'opportunity cost' of the time wasted by the senior managers). Also I feel that, in general, decisions based on 'total cost of workforce' are often better than those based on 'headcount numbers' though headcount numbers are easier to track and control. Thus it becomes necessary to examine whether the decision to reduce the number of support staff is based entirely on sound business logic (based on a cost benefit analysis).

It would be interesting to examine if the presence of support staff encourages some managers (especially 'old world' managers) to operate in a more hierarchical/less democratic way with the other team members and/or to feel that the other team members are not so important. An extreme example is the case of a senior manager who (when he has questioned by his HR manager about the high attrition rate in his team) claimed that he is not bothered about attrition as he can run the department with only two other staff members. When the curious HR manager tried to find out who these two 'critical resources' are it emerged that the senior manager was referring to his secretary and his driver. May be the presence of support staff increases 'power distance' in some contexts and in those contexts the 'cultural statement' that I was mentioning earlier might not be all that bad an idea !


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