Maximize your best tool - your administrative assistant

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Dear Joan:
I just met this morning with the administrative assistants of our department and was surprised to find out that they are getting “bumped” off of their manager’s calendars. I explained to them that they are just as important as any other meeting and should stand their ground to get face-time with their boss.  

Can you please get the word out that managers need to make time to have a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly exchange with the person that manages their business schedule/life? The OP (office professional) is most often the glue that holds the team together…and the first impression to outside vendors and contractors.  If managers don’t take time to provide feedback and direction, then they shouldn’t lower their performance review rating because the OP is not capable of reading minds to perform up to the level of their expectation. Communication is a two-way street no matter what role you play within the company. 

Thanks for spreading the word! 

Answer:
Your letter is timely, since I’ve been bumping into the same situation lately. There is a common theme: the manager/executive is double booked, swamped with emails, and is faulted for not being accessible and having slow response times. So what does s/he do? S/he stops meeting with the administrative assistant and cancels meetings with their team.  

This short-sighted solution to “save time” only makes matters worse. Without an assistant’s screening, peers insert meetings electronically into the leader’s calendar. Interruptions increase because staff doesn’t have the opportunity to vet problems in a staff meeting, or discuss them in a one-on-one session. Details get missed because no one is anticipating what is coming around the corner next week. And those emails just keep piling up. The manager can’t find enough hours in the day to stamp out all the fires that spring up. 

Some people reading your letter will say, “You’ve got to be kidding! They HAVE assistants and they aren’t USING them?” In most cases I’ve described, the problem isn’t that they aren’t using their assistants—they don’t have them in the first place. Cost cutting has gone too far. Before the recession it was common to see three or more executives sharing one administrative assistant. Now, it’s common to find one for an entire team of people, or none at all.  

In the case where there is one assistant for, say, a team of eight, individuals tend to do the work themselves because they don’t want to overburden the already crazy-busy administrative assistant. Or, sometimes the senior-most person takes up so much of her time, everyone else backs off.  

With so many people working remotely, an administrative assistant is a must. S/he is indeed the “glue,” that holds all the spinning parts together; a central clearing house and communications hub and coordinator.  

I have seen some best practices for leveraging administrative professionals. Here are a few:

  • Calendars. Have a short, weekly huddle, either in person or on the phone. Go over the calendar for the week and discuss the details: What prework must be done? Who should be notified? Who do you need to talk to in advance of a meeting? The assistant should be working at least two to three weeks ahead of you, anticipating what arrangements/ actions need to happen.
  • Follow ups. Following up is one of the toughest things to keep track of in a fast-paced environment. An assistant is a huge help here. Rely on your assistant to keep an electronic pending file, so s/he can notify you with enough lead time to get something done, call someone, or prompt you to check to make sure something is completed. To make this work, you have to have frequent touch points—verbal, text, email—so s/he can keep the pending file up to date. Most leaders, who try to do it all themselves, end up dropping balls as they run from meeting to meeting.
  • Scheduling. Don’t do your own scheduling. A good assistant is “command central” when it comes to managing your time. Meetings can be coordinated with other critical events happening on the same day, as well as travel time, lunch plans, building in time for project work, etc. If you do schedule something yourself, let the person know it is pending until you can check to see if your assistant already booked that time.
  • Communication. If your assistant knows what you are working on, why it’s important, who you are working with, and how it all fits together, s/he can be your right arm. When someone calls, s/he has some knowledge to guide them (and possibly removing the need for you to call back). She can decide what is critical and what can wait. S/he will provide insights to situations you haven’t thought of and help you solve some problems. S/he may even be able to sort through your email, putting it in electronic folders, or at the very least scanning it to spot urgent issues, or responses s/he can do for you.
  • Delegate. A good assistant should make sure you are spending your time on the right things. If you are making your own copies, coordinating your own travel itineraries, doing your own routine research, you are taking value-added time away from the things you should be doing. For example, asking an assistant to do some online searching for information can save hours. An assistant with good writing skills can draft an email for you—it’s much faster for you to edit than to create from scratch. 
If you aren’t maximizing your assistant, it’s time to have a planning meeting with him/her to decide how to change your behavior. If you have an assistant, who isn’t performing up to standards, consider finding one who can. Once you have a professional by your side, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. 


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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