Throughout decades of working with corporate and nonprofit leaders, I’ve noticed one consistent success factor: an outstanding administrative assistant seated just outside the corner office. While the executives’ backgrounds, styles, specialties, ages, and demeanors may vary, they almost invariably have found an organized, reliable counterpart who puts them ahead of the game.
You know you deserve a professional development plan, but there is only one person who can make it happen—you. If you wait for your boss to stop by to discuss your past accomplishments and future opportunities, you may end up waiting a very long time. Instead, make a commitment to yourself right now to start brainstorming about what you want next from your career. Then you can come up with a plan to make it happen.
Here Are Five Strategies to Get You Started
1. Recognize the value you bring to your boss, clients, and the organization.
Professional pride is not arrogance. It is confidence in your ability to deliver timely, high-quality results.
—Make a list of your outstanding abilities. This means specific skills, not general traits like “high integrity” or “dedication to excellence.” Think more along the lines of “organizing files for quick and efficient retrieval,” “planning proactively for meetings or projects,” or “timely and accurate expense tracking and reporting.”
Try to keep it to four main points, which we’ll call your “diamond of strength.” Most people have four core strengths, with other talents that fold into those main groups. If you are brainstorming and find yourself listing many strengths, that’s great; just list everything. You can group them into four categories later on.
—Illustrate each strong point with examples summarized in 3 to 4 sentences. Did you once save the day by arranging all the details for a last-minute client conference with 30 participants from four firms? What about the time you coordinated all the document editing and production for a new set of marketing publications? Perhaps you learned the new expense tracking system and trained everyone else in your department?
This is not a stroll down memory lane or a résumé-writing session. It’s a chance to recollect and reconnect with your own history. In the everyday stress of facing our task lists and worrying about the next deadline, we too often forget our past triumphs and the evolution of our expertise.
As you mine for gold in your work history, the uncovered nuggets will enhance your perception of your capabilities. Don’t discount an area at which you excel simply because it comes naturally. Everything you’ve learned through yesterday is part of who you are, what you have done and how you can accomplish even more starting today.
Your acknowledgement and appreciation of your skills is a first step toward effectively communicating them. Powerfully describing your skills enhances how other people view your performance and potential.
2. Enhance your status.
Are you a dedicated employee who does so much more than your job description? Do you keep everything running? Great! When asked about the discrepancy between your title or salary and your actual contribution, maybe you say, “It’s OK, I’m just here to do a good job.” Well, it’s not OK, especially in today’s economy; not for you, your boss, or your company. How can your boss fully appreciate or make the best decisions about your responsibilities and professional growth if he or she doesn’t have that information? That’s right, he or she can’t.
—Make sure your job description accurately and comprehensively describes your job.
—Write regular one or two page updates to inform your boss of your achievements.
Administrative assistants often meticulously document their bosses’ work and rarely create written descriptions of their own work. For example, while working on an operations improvement project for the president of a Morgan Stanley business division, I was very impressed by his administrative assistant’s knowledge and perceptive ideas. I invited Marta to lunch and we discussed her dream to become an “exempt employee,” which would offer her increased benefits, education reimbursement, and professional status.
As I worked with her, it became clear that she added more value than anyone knew, including her boss! We translated her notion of “calming down customers” into “taking the initiative to listen to customer concerns, resolve issues and follow up.” We completed an updated, accurate description of her role, built in professional growth objectives, and recommended the title of Administrative Coordinator. Upon review, Human Resources concurred, and she was promoted two levels and given “exempt” status.
The results speak for themselves. Marta was shifted to a role supervising her own staff and began to attend internal management training and pursuing university level classes. In this position, she could implement procedures to improve the overall quality of service. She not only contributed significantly more to the firm, but also became a role model for other women. These results benefited not only the individual, but the firm.
3. Nurture and expand your professional network.
Network on your own behalf and for your boss as well. By expanding your internal network, you can smooth the way to efficient and productive relationships for both you and your boss. By interacting with colleagues beyond your company, you can learn what is new in your industry, from software platforms to operational trends, to joint ventures between firms.
—Make a list of people who can mentor you, assist you in some way, or expose you to new ideas and opportunities. Create a plan for reaching out to them.
—Schedule lunches with internal and external colleagues once a week for the upcoming four weeks (or every other week for the next two months).
—Join an organization that provides opportunities to develop your career and make contacts with people in related fields and positions.
4. Partner with your boss to take on greater responsibility.
Many administrative professionals are surprised when I point out their leadership skills. “No,” they say, “I’m not a leader, I just work for one.” Oh really? Consider for a moment whether you’ve ever been in the position of coordinating the work of individuals across functions or even organizations.
- Ask your boss to think of one thing you can do to make his or her job easier. If absolutely nothing comes to mind, congratulations—you just reinforced your excellence; but if a suggestion comes back, remember, your boss's success is your success.
- Request project leadership. As you increasingly demonstrate your ability to achieve results, your boss can delegate higher level responsibilities to you. Start out with a project you feel confident about taking on, whether fully internal or with external parties. Determine the goals and the deadline— and then deliver. Nothing builds leadership skills as much as leading.
5. Set short-term goals for your professional growth.
Put aside the five-year plan for the moment. Achieving even a small success will increase your pride, value, and motivation. Vow to take some first steps, whether you want to elevate your standing at your current job or search for a new one. What professional skills do you want to acquire in the upcoming six months? How will you do it? Perhaps:
—Perform pro bono projects to build skills and make contacts
—Read books on new topics, or research them on the Internet
—Attend free workshops or Webcasts
—Register for an adult-ed evening class
—Watch DVDs or listen to audiotapes and podcasts
Administration is a career path, not a static position. From being the assistant to a junior manager, all the way up to "Chief Administrative Officer," you are valuable and make a positive impact on company culture and corporate results. If it feels too challenging to apply all of these recommendations on your own, no worries; there is no downside in getting some support. Admins, of all people, know that! Find a mentor to help you get on the right track, focusing on your professional growth and advancement.
Remember, admiration starts from within. But soon enough, it will feel pretty darn good when others reflect that admiration right back at you.