Published here September 2007.


Musings Index

What should a Project Secretary do?

A few weeks ago, someone asked me why we did not include the job of project secretary in our Issacon list of Project Management Job Descriptions. This came as quite a surprise because I thought we had pretty well covered the map so far as job descriptions go. And, yes, I have certainly worked on larger projects where a person was assigned full time to the task of serving as a project secretary. So I hastened to cover this omission.

But what are the duties and responsibilities of a typical "project secretary"? I wasn't sure, and I couldn't recall any documentation in the various and numerous project policies, procedures and manuals that I had used, even developed, throughout my project management career. The obvious source of information, of course, is the Internet. A Google search for <"project secretary"> produced about 139,000 results.

Too many to be useful, but here are a few samples:

[Wanted:] Project Secretary for commercial general contractor, duties include maintaining job files correspondence, ordering and sending drawings, tracking all documentation, validating insurance, change orders etc. Employment subject to drug testing & background screening.

That last requirement is probably corporate policy. All the same, that sounds scary. We'll pass on that opportunity.

Project Secretary: Do you have great Project Secretarial skills, a winning personality, and the desire to work with a leading Engineering firm on an international project? This is a 2-3 month temporary role, based in [Large City]. You will be working alongside technical experts from a variety of cultures who are currently completing an overseas project. In exchange for your flexible manner, solid admin experience and willingness to just 'get on with the job', you will enjoy working in great offices with a competitive pay rate.

That sounds more like it, but it really doesn't tell us what we'll have to do - and only for 2-3 months?

How about this one:

[We] are looking for a motivated and forward thinking temporary Project Secretary to support the team in their busy head office. You will need to be team orientated as the group requires a lot of co-ordination and organization, but you must also be able to work on your own and take initiative.

That sounds like they really want an assistant project manager but at a "secretary's rate of pay"? But then they go on:

As the only administrative support for this team you will need to be forward thinking, self motivated and happy to help out with any tasks required to ensure the smooth running of the project at all times.

That probably means keeping up the supply of fresh coffee ... But wait a moment, they go on:

Duties include:
  • Answering phones
  • Greeting visitors and directing visitors to various site offices
  • Typing/processing of documents and presentations using Word and Excel
  • Arrange and prepare for company meetings both in and out of the office
  • Diary management for meetings and conferences for the team
  • Arranging meetings and co-coordinating diaries for all of the team
  • Maintaining office filing system (both paper and electronic)
  • Any other ad hoc admin duties to ensure the smooth running of the team.

Now we are getting closer to the actual work required. Note that they mention "smooth running" a second time. Translation: "No coffee and you're fired". Ah, well, the job was only temporary anyway.

Let's try another tactic. A second Google search with the entry: <"project secretary" +duties +responsibilities> produced a more manageable number of only 782 responses, of which the following are samples:

Project Secretary: Under occasional supervision, performs varied and complex administrative and secretarial work requiring knowledge of practices and procedures of the department and communicate with staff and the general public. Performs related work as required [including] performing a variety of complex or specialized secretarial and administrative duties that include composing and/or preparing reports and correspondence, researching and compiling data, scheduling meetings and appointments, maintaining calendars, preparing meeting materials, maintaining computer record-keeping operations, establishing and maintaining filing systems, etc.

That sounds more interesting and "secretarial", but then the ad goes on with other requirements that sound like a whole administration staff.

Then there is this one:

We are currently completing projects with a total capital value in excess of $2 billion. [We need a] Project Secretary [for the following responsibilities]:
  • General project administration covering documentation, categorization and control, project meetings, work orders management and secretarial duties.
  • Filing of documents
  • Handle travel arrangements, preparation of itinerary
  • Participate in event organizing
  • Responsible for multi party conference call
  • Handle meeting arrangements
  • Process expense claims
  • Candidate must possess a Bachelor's Degree in Administration/Management, Secretarial or equivalent or engineering.
  • At least 5 year(s) of working experience in the related field is required for this position.
  • Preferably junior executives specializing in Secretarial who are familiar with technical terms and project cost control
  • Relevant experience in administrative and management environment
  • Able to take notes and minutes of technical meetings and discussions an advantage but not necessary
  • Preferably applicants that are able to commence work in short notice.

That sounds like they really want an executive assistant to a senior program manager, especially for handling $2 billion worth of project work.

So we are not a lot closer to a "typical" project secretary, although we do have some pointers. How about referencing a general secretary's manual for identifying normal secretarial duties? For this we turned to the Professional Secretary's Handbook by Dr. Fed S. Cook and Lenore S. Forti. Okay, it was published in 1971, but it should be pretty solid because "Ten of the country's outstanding professors of secretarial training spent the equivalent of 40 man hours trying ... to define the term 'secretary' for a research study."[1]

These authors came up with no less than fifty-six different jobs/duties that they ranked in order. Apparently that was too much for The National Secretaries Association who subsequently winnowed that down to twenty-one duties. Nowhere does that list mention fetching the coffee - unless it is covered under the general heading of: "Perform routine duties without supervision."[2]

The Handbook then follows this with eighteen chapters of helpful advice to an aspiring secretary, starting with "Personal Development and Business Etiquette". No mention is made whether the secretarial advice is for men or women. However, the presumption of the authors seems to be clear because this chapter starts out with the statement: "This chapter discusses good grooming, good posture, personality, and poise." And goes on to explain that: "Your Appearance Is Your Greatest Asset. This does not mean you have to be born beautiful ... and one final word - when bending or stooping, please do not bend from the waist. Please do gracefully bend or stoop at the knees. The 'derriere' up in the air is not an entrancing sight."[3]

Good advice indeed. We don't want the flow of project work interrupted by unseemly poise. But at least we now have a comprehensive list of what work is expected of a secretary and how it should be done.

(Note: A project secretary job description can be found at:

1. Cook, Dr. F. S., and L.S. Forti, Professional Secretary's Handbook, Dartnell Corporation, Chicago, 1971, p5
2. Ibid, p14
3. Ibid, pp17-19
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