In Praise of Powerful Admin Assistants

9495200The leaders that I coach have much self-confidence, a keen sense of urgency and an “I can do it” attitude. Just what you want in a leader. But look at what senior leaders are doing at work.  How are their 14 hour days unfolding – in front of their calendars or the photocopier or in conversations with clients, employees and stockholders? Smart leaders must ensure they don’t get entangled in daily operating routines which distract from their most important strategic value-add work. This is the important role of the excellent administrative assistant.

User-friendly systems and personal devices have fooled leaders into thinking that there is no specific talent required for administrative work. Everyone can now book their own calendars, sort and manage all incoming communication, and prepare all outgoing messages and presentations. In workplaces desiring more egalitarian cultures, executive assistants became iconic symbols of the out-dated patriarchal system.

It’s time to give administrative assistants their due – not as a symbol of someone else’s status, but as specialists who wield organizational and interpersonal skills that not all leaders have. If you already have an assistant, but don’t see their value beyond giving you basic secretarial support – take another look. Some assistants, living so close to the political fray become protective of their world-weary boss. They begin to think their job is to make your life easier. Instead of expanding their contribution, they shrink their own role and make no demands for their own development.

It’s time to resurrect our respect and status for strong administrators.  Here are a few ways to unleash the power of the administrator’s role.

  1. Daily “sync” with you. Spend a few minutes talking about your daily priorities, things that have popped up and how best to tri-age these unexpected demands. In really crazy-busy places, you should do this twice a day.
  2. Reciprocal trust and respect. Tell your assistant confidential information that will help him/her to do what is needed. Think of them as your delegate – your partner. They need to understand your intuitive decision-making criteria so they can act confidently without permission. They do this best when really get to know how you think and what you mean by best outcome. And listen to them: Get their opinion on people and situations. You are not asking for gossip – but real perspective on what’s happening “on the ground”.
  3. Stakeholder sorting. Regularly sort your stakeholders into the order they should be attended to. Introduce them to new contacts. Help your assistant to use the right words and tone to deal with interrupters who are low on your list. Let others know how much you trust your assistant and that you rely on them. Suddenly the time-sapping lobbyists and salespeople will shift attention from you to them. Make sure they are equipped to deal with this.
  4. Calendar boundaries. Your assistant must know what your personal boundaries are, for health of the business and for your own health. Don’t be embarrassed to say that you will not give up your lunchtime walk or your child’s 4 pm phone check in. Your assistant should know as a matter of fact which meetings can be shuffled and those that can’t. See the “daily sync” above.
  5. Permission to tell you what others won’t. You need a courageous assistant who can deal with people of all status – and most of all who can be honest with you. Regularly ask your assistant for professional feedback – what are the personal habits that he/she sees in you that make you less efficient? They are ideally placed to tell you what you can stop doing.
  6. Open opportunities. There are many exciting projects and meetings outside of your immediate work that you hear about. Open these opportunities for your assistant; ask what they would like to be part of. Show an interest in their continuing education and in finding them interesting and challenging work. No matter their “level”, pay attention to their career interests and talents just as you do for your highest-paid executives. Many assistants, given the chance, become leaders to rival their bosses.


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