“Personal” Secretary

My first encounter with a secretary was Wilma at Dorr Oliver in Mumbai. It was 1980. Wilma was secretary to our boss R Natarajan. But Natarajan did not object if we used Wilma’s support occasionally when we would need to prepare urgent quotations. Wilma was a stenographer. I used to dictate sitting in a revolving chair and Wilma would come back to me in minutes with a neatly typed quotation on Dorr Oliver letterhead. For a while, I used to feel like her boss.

One day, I was dictating a quotation to Wilma for supply of two 50 HP mechanical surface aerators. I was halfway through dictating the opening paragraph (Dear Sirs, Reference to our meeting ….. blah blah). I paused for a minute to respond to a telephone call. When I was about to resume, I saw that Wilma had folded her steno pad and was about to get up and leave. When asked, she said “Mr Modak, I know the rest. You said 50 HP aerator – right? I will now type our standard specs for 50 HP supply with terms and conditions and come back to you. I was impressed how smart she was but at the same time felt a bit redundant. I thought if Wilma knew how we size the aerator using our standard catalogues, (that wasn’t too difficult) then she won’t even need Mr Modak to prepare a quotation!

Secretaries can be real smart. I remember Mr George at Shah Technical Consultants (my next employer). George was a superb stenographer, but I think his additional function was to feed all the office gossips to the boss whenever he was in his room for taking dictations. He always had a “cunning smile” when he used to come out from boss’s cabin. So, George was not just a stenographer but an informer. We were always careful when talking to him.

When I was studying at Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok, one of the two office secretaries was Khun Ratana. Ratana was a dedicated and hard-working person with amazing calm and patience. Those days, she was a secretary to Professor Thanh, Chairman of the Environmental Engineering division. She was so loyal to him that she joined him later after he left AIT in his company as a secretary. When I used to be in Bangkok to work with Professor Thanh, Ratana used to take care of all the hospitality, right from airport pick up, hotel accommodation, even shopping and drop. She was like a solid rock – someone you could rely on and trust. I used really envy Professor Thanh for having a secretary like Ratana.

But it’s not just the efficiency that maters but the personal chords that the secretary strikes with you are equally important. I remember Rose, secretary to Hari Sankaran at IL&FS Ltd in Mumbai. Whenever I would call her to check Hari Sankaran’s availability, she would recognize my voice right in the first instance and start conversing with me “Yes, Dr Modak”. When I would go and visit Hari Sankaran, Rose would serve a coffee of my “type” without me asking. You feel at home with such gestures and warmth shown.

While working with IL&FS as a consultant, Hari insisted that I have a secretary and allotted Kermene Sonak, his earlier secretary. Kermene was of the rank of an executive secretary and was used to take pressures from her boss who would call her 24×7, especially for rerouting and cancelling of his flights, rebooking the hotels and making changes in the appointment schedules. So, working with me, must be a big relief to Kermene and we got along very well. Kermene was an efficient, sophisticated but an emotional person. She was extremely courteous to my guests. She knew where to fix lunches and dinners depending on who I invite. On international travels and hotels, she was the best. It looked like she knew the “world”.

The stenographer secretary era is now long gone. Secretarial function is now more towards on maintaining the schedules of appointments, reminding the boss that today is his marriage anniversary or get him seats for a concert even if the display shows “house full”. A secretary is expected to do all impossible tasks. A friend of mine has an amazing secretary and whenever we meet and are stuck with something, he would say “ leave it to her – she will take care”

Some people believe that a secretary is like your “other wife” – a person who not only supports you in the work but sometimes even emotionally. I know a friend who confides in more to his secretary than his wife, and even takes personal advice. And there are occasions where wife communicates to husband through a friendly and trustworthy secretary. So, no wonder that all male bosses have a female secretary, of course with very few exceptions.

I never had a secretary while running Environmental Management Centre over past 25 years. I did try and look for a secretary for a while but couldn’t find one. Sometimes, if I did find someone good then the salaries were rather steep that I could not afford.

I shared my experience on secretaries with my Professor Friend.

He said “Well Dr Modak, I never had a secretary in a traditional sense, and I don’t think I ever will. I always had a research assistant who would do an additional secretarial function while working with me. Having someone bright and enthusiastic around you makes life far more interesting. I need intellectual conversations and not just support for coordination etc.”

As we walked in his office, I saw a research assistant in his cabin sitting with her laptop on a roundtable. Anita (her name) was applying for a PhD program in the US and wanted to get research experience with Professor.

Anita got up from the chair and spoke

“Professor, Mr Singh from Colgate Palmolive had called. He wanted to discuss with you on new trends in sustainable packaging. I looked up in your schedule of meetings and gave him an appointment for next Friday afternoon at 3 pm. Hope this is OK”

Thanks Anita said Professor.

Anita had more to say

“Professor, I thought of sending Mr Singh a couple of your publications on this subject in advance. I queued few of your publications in my mailbox. Once you OK, I will email the publications immediately so that he is aware of your work before speaking“

“So thoughtful of you Anita,”  said the Professor.

I  could see that Professor was happy to see Anita’s proactive stance

Anita continued

“Professor, call also came from home reminding you to pick up salads – as some guests are expected who prefer healthy food. So, I checked with my friend who supplies great salads. I chose a few online and ordered for home delivery. Its raining now and will be a bother for you to walk to the salad shop. By the way you have forgotten your umbrella”

Professor was impressed.

Anita looked at me and smiled

“Dr Modak, your coffee will be ready in 5 minutes. I was looking forward to meeting you today as I just finished a draft on circular supply chains. Could we discuss ? I have a PowerPoint slide deck to show the major points that I have researched”

Wow, I said to myself. To me this was a different secretarial experience.

I decided to follow my Professor Friend and look for a research assistant like Anita.

Anyone interested? And I am very serious.


Image sourced from https://www.careerquest.edu/blog/difference-between-secretary-and-administrative-assistant/


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  1. Dr. Modak, seriously, I would have opted to be your Secretary, which is an exceptional case as you rightly said. And you may not regret also. But I live in different world!

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