Professional Training for Personal & Executive Assistants

I’m delighted (and hardly surprised) to find that a well-known company that specializes in all things etiquette & good taste has a section of its Web site devoted to office etiquette. My favourite of their “top ten tips”? Don’t eat stinky meals at your desk. This does actually make sense. These days we’re all in the cube farm together, and it can get pretty ripe if someone is eating oh, say, a tuna salad with roquefort dressing. Especially since most companies typically frown on lighting aromatherapy candles and/or spraying Febreze as if it were bug spray at a barbecue. But is this really cutting-edge advice for the beleaguered admin?!

This same arbiter of all things proper also offers a full-blown course of Professional Training for Personal & Executive Assistants. According to their blurb, “[our] training programmes provide Personal and Executive Assistants with the additional social and professional skills needed to stand out as confident ambassadors for their Executive and company.” Interested parties are told that price is divulged “on application.”

I would humbly suggest that if you stick with me you may just come away with more real-world advice, such as what to do when your boss is in a mood (when to crack the joke, when to hide in the storeroom), how to prolong your post-holiday “glow,” or how to sneak naps in empty conference rooms… This may not qualify as training you’re going to want to add to your resume, but it just might help you keep your sanity when all around you are losing theirs! And if that won’t make you a “confident ambassador,” I don’t know what will!

The Executive Admin Secretaryotype Quiz

Which one are you?

Which one are you?

Ok, folks! I thought I’d share a little game I just made up – it’s called The Executive Admin Secretaryotype Quiz! All you have to do is answer the following question, then read the descriptions below (don’t cheat!). Some of you may be far too young to remember some of these great characters, but you can look them up! Or plug in some characters of your own in the comment box!

If you were a fictional secretary, which one would you be?

  1. Karen Walker (Will & Grace)
  2. Dolores Landringham (The West Wing)
  3. Miss Moneypenny (James Bond)
  4. Tess McGill (Working Girl)
  5. Jennifer Marlowe (WKRP in Cincinatti)
  6. Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Ironman)


Your Secretaryotype and what it means…(!)

  1. The Dabbler. I don’t need this job, it’s just something to do between blackouts. If I answer the phone, don’t expect me to take an intelligible message. But don’t worry – I probably won’t answer the phone.
  2. The Seasoned Veteran. I’m quietly, unassumingly unflappable. Tough as nails. I support the POTUS, after all!
  3. The Soul of Discretion. I like to pretend that if 007 were to crook his finger, I’d leave this job in a second. But we both know I’m a lifer. The nation’s secrets (and its spies) will always be safe with me.
  4. The Climber. I’m willing to get in on the ground floor and work my way up. I’m after my boss’s job and her man. In fact, I’d like her whole life!
  5. The Second Wife. I do my best to make sure my boss looks good, give him confidence, and stand by him through thick and thin. Only his real wife knows him better.
  6. The Shadow CEO. I run the show so my boss can follow his every whim. I’m far more suited to the position, and as much as I sometimes resent all the fun he’s having while I do all the work, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think…

Disclaimer: I would actually argue that the best admins embody at least a smattering of each of these characters (and then some). On their worst days, they can be The Dabbler. On their best days, they’re The Shadow CEO. The rest of the time they put on and take off more hats in one day than some people wear in a lifetime.

To CC or not to CC…that is the question…

CC-ing (so named from when we used actual carbon paper to make a copy of a letter or memo) can be a slippery slope. Back when we dealt with real carbon paper, it wasn’t as convenient to include the entire universe in our business. But with the advent of email, it’s all too easy to abuse what used to be a fairly straightforward practice.

The major reasons we usually CC someone are:

  • We believe they need to be at least aware of the issue in question, but they are not being directly addressed for information or advice.
  • They are our supervisor and have requested that we CC them on everything (I hope that’s not your supervisor!)
  • We want to impress/amuse/warn/influence someone who is not directly involved in the issue. Note: this is often the case with the “BCC.”
  • We are lazy and hit “Reply All” on every email. (Eek! Stop that!)
  • We feel that erring on the side of inclusion is the best policy.
  • Why not???…

As with most things administrative, the art of CCing is not rocket science, but it does have its nuances. There is only one fundamental question to ask before you hit “SEND.” Does this person need to be included in this conversation? The question is simple, but the answer may not be. For instance, there are times when it’s prudent to include someone because of their relationship to others in the conversation, to solicit “buy-in,” or just out of respect for their position. But for the most part, try considering each email thread as if it were a conversation or a face-to-face meeting. Because it is. Most meetings include decision makers and those responsible for execution. That’s it! All too often we waste time opening and scanning messages we didn’t need to be copied on, or chasing down information about issues that we should have been copied on.

In fact, the only case in which it’s best to err on the side of inclusion is when it comes to assistants. Even though many assistants have access to their bosses’ email inboxes, it’s still common courtesy (and more efficient) to keep us in the loop from the outset. For one thing, we’re usually more accessible than our supervisors and can often either answer your question or prod our supervisors to do so. And for another thing, we can get a little grumpy if our boss asks us about something of which we have no knowledge because we weren’t CC’d!

So, to recap – emails are conversations, not pep rallies, and it’s the EA who does the “doing” most of the time – make our lives easier by keeping us in the know!

…When Life Happens…

“Life” has happened to a large majority of the planet recently. Whether it’s surviving the Mayan-Apocalypse-that-wasn’t, or Christmas with the family, or New Year’s Eve, we’ve all had to contend with things that are out of the day-to-day. Some of us have had more personal challenges of one stripe or another. When life happens, the important thing – in the context of executive assistant work – is to be even more vigilant about your own organisation so that you’re able to trust in your systems more and your brain less. Your brain may well be foggy, pre-occupied, and potentially distracted by emotion. Realise that you’re not your usual “on-top-of-things” self, and (a) give yourself a break, and (b) compensate accordingly!

  • Write things down! Don’t assume you’ll be able to remember anything in the state you’re in.
  • Cry if you want to (it’s your party) – but do it in private if at all possible. (This is not just for the sake of your own professional image, but it avoids you getting into lengthy conversations which just keep whatever’s bothering you front & centre.) Cry, let it out, and then move on until the next time you feel like crying. The times will become fewer and farther between.
  • Plan some fun things to look forward to after work and on weekends. Get creative, go to a movie… you’ll know what to do!
  • Get really methodical – make liberal use of checklists, even for processes you’ve completed a thousand times. Don’t make your brain do any more work than it has to.
  • Be proud knowing that, for the most part, you’re keeping it together and avoiding any unnecessary scrutiny from those you support! You’ve got enough on your plate, don’t you?!

So here’s wishing everyone a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year – together we’ll set ourselves up to win, whatever comes our way!

You Need Your Own Stuff!

It used to be that, not so long ago, we could count on huge closets full of neatly arranged legal pads, pens, pencils, hole punches, file folders, scissors, envelopes, and paperclips. It was our job to make sure the closet was stocked, but we pretty much had free reign to order what we wanted, and to treat the supply closet as our own bottomless supply of cool stuff. Yes, cool. I’ll be the first one to admit that one of the things that finally sold me on making my main living as an executive assistant was the easy availability of office supplies! I could easily spend hours at Staples or OfficeMax — the best office supplies are an elegant mix of packaging and functionality, and demonstrate some of the most ingenious design solutions you can find! But I digress…

These days, things are different. No more supply closet. We’re lucky if we have a couple of file drawers dedicated to some bedraggled boxes of cheap pens, and a few packs of Post-It Notes. We order from online catalogs that are restricted to “contract” items (read: “boring”). Given this frugal purchasing approach (and, honestly, who can blame companies for putting an end to the office supply party?), we’re left with only one sane option: bite the bullet and buy our own.

I know, it sounds like sacrilege, but think about it for a moment. We’re not just talking about pens and paper, here. These are your tools. Do you want to write all day with pens that skip and feel alien in your hand? Of course not! So, don’t. My tools of choice? Filofax A5 Malden organiser. Mont Blanc Meisterstuck ballpoint pen. Uniball Signo Micro 207 pens. Moleskine lined notebooks (for taking down messages, assignments,etc. – I like to keep track of what I did when). Pentel mechanical pencils in 0.5mm. I’m not so picky about highlighters, so I use the company-approved variety.

So do yourself a favour. Take a trip to your local stationer or big box office supply store and stock up on the things that please you. (And make sure you save the receipts so you can prove ownership in the event you ever decide to move on and take your supplies with you!)

Some of the tools of my trade: Filofax Malden A5 organiser, LAMY Safari pen, and GTD Tools zip pouch

How Many Hats Do You Wear?

Most positions in corporations today require specialization. People are defined by their titles. I’m a Marketing Analyst. I’m a Project Manager. I’m an Engineer. We all have particular strengths and weaknesses. We have different ways of learning, communicating, and interacting with the world. For instance, we’ll say “I’m a numbers person,” or “I’m totally right-brained.” Taking our proclivities into account, we pursue a career that is in line with our strengths. Occasionally, in performance reviews, we are asked to work on certain areas that don’t come easily to us, but our chosen path is fairly narrow, and we are expected to progress vertically through our organization.

There is, however, one corporate position that is an exception to this rule, and I bet you already know what it is. An executive assistant needs to demonstrate competency in a wide variety of areas. Not just different, but often polar opposite skill sets are required. In order for us to fulfill the basics of our function, we need expertise in at most, if not all, the following areas: shipping & receiving, catering, bookkeeping, arranging travel, event planning, psychiatry, logistics coordination, project management, desktop IT support, diplomacy – and all with a level of attention to detail that assures nothing falls through the cracks. The buck truly does stop here on the administrative assistant’s desk.

We, as admins, are expected to progress horizontally. We are asked to broaden our abilities, and never more so than now, when companies are desperate to get “lean and mean” in order to improve the bottom line. This isn’t all bad news for the admin. Advancing through an organization vertically is not for the faint of heart. Sure, the salary is definitely higher the further up the ladder we go, but those of us who’ve chosen to pursue a job in the administrative arts are willing to make that trade-off. We still get to learn new things, interact with a variety of interesting people, and have the satisfaction of completing tasks at a rate that would make most people’s heads spin!

Stay tuned as we delve further into our required areas of expertise and, as always, we encourage sharing and participation so we can all learn from each other!