I have just spent the last hour looking through jobs that are currently available to assistants. It has been really interesting reading all of the different job descriptions, the skills that are required and the salaries attached to different levels of the role. The first thing I noticed is that most of the positions are fairly similar. The description lists all of the core skills (diary and email management, travel arrangements, expenses etc) followed by one or two more bullet points relating to tasks designed specifically for the role (managing in-house IT software, supporting certain departments, managing social media for the organisation for example).

I remember when I was job hunting. I would get incredibly excited reading the tasks which were outside the core skills and I would imagine all of the challenges this role would provide. Looking back on it, and certainly in my later years as an assistant,  I excepted the core skills as being part of the role but it was the extra stuff that got my work juices flowing. However this lead to quite a few disappointing experiences working in organisations. In some of my roles they had included more interesting tasks in the job description but they really wanted me to focus on the core work. This often made me wonder if I was over qualified or if I had too much experience?

I definitely felt in certain roles that I was over qualified. I had a vast set of skills that I had picked up through all of my previous jobs. In one role, during 1-2-1s with my boss, I pushed and pushed for more work but I could see the pained expression on my boss’s face. He had to help me feel valued in the role but at the same time I knew he would much prefer if I just did the basics and left him alone. In another role I was so fed up constantly asking for different things to do that I gave up and did what was expected of me – not much. I got pretty bored pretty quickly and left after just a year (it was a lloooonnnnggg year!)

I always say in the blog that once assistants become advanced in all of the core tasks we should push for more work, take on projects, manage staff and generally strive for more opportunities. But more often than not the feedback I receive from readers is the same – it is really hard to achieve this. Assistants can be incredibly proactive but bosses and the wider organisation don’t see them as anything more than the assistant (which really means they don’t see assistants as anything more than the core tasks we are required to do). We don’t have career paths in place, it is difficult to promote us and the majority of organisations do not have succession plans for their administrative staff. This of course leads to assistants feeling demoralised, unappreciated and ultimately unchallenged.

So I wonder if this is really down to the fact that many of us become over qualified for the role? If you think about the traditional career plan – administrative assistant or receptionist through to PA through to EA – what happens when you get to the point when you are completely comfortable with the core skills and want to take on more challenges – where do you go? If you take an accountant for example once they are qualified and have some experience the majority of them will tend to branch out into other specialities or they become project managers or they run departments. An accountant is never going to be over qualified because they don’t spend the rest of their days working on the same things they did as a rookie and they have career options. What happens to an EA who can manage a diary standing on her head? Where does she go and what work does she take on?

There is of course the other side of the coin, many assistants are happy with the roles they have. They enjoy and find the core skills challenging and don’t want to take on any more work and why should they? Then there are the assistants who are incredibly busy, have a varied role and would never say they are bored or unchallenged. Why should they strive to take on more work? They are probably bloody knackered! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.

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12 comments

  • LM January 26, 2015   Reply →

    So glad I saw this post and was able to read it. The article has pretty much summed up exactly how I feel. ‘Bored to death’ and ‘stuck in the mud’ is how I am feeling at the moment. Bored because I’m doing minimal work and feel like I am loosing brain cells by the nano second. Stuck because I have been at my current company less than a year and feel I can’t leave untill at least one year. However if I do leave what will I gain? Doing the same ‘core work’ at another company? With the hopes and empty promises of progression and moving out of the role of assistant?
    Thank you for the post, glad that I am not alone in my feelings. Will continue to look for opportunities to get more involved at work and try to stay positive.

  • Hayley January 27, 2015   Reply →

    It was very interesting reading this post and I can definitely relate to it!

    I have just taken on a PA job and I am currently half way through my 4th week. Having previously worked in a very fast paced PA role, what I have now walked into is quite the opposite.

    I am a PA to 2 Assistant Directors and also Admin support for both of their programmes. Neither of my boss’s are keen for me to manage their emails/diary. They both seem very self sufficient and don’t seem interested when I am pro-active and offer to help with things. I have very much been made to feel as though I am more of an Administrative Assistant for their teams and I do feel that the role was falsely advertised.

    I am constantly being told I have a massive challenge on my hand as the 2 previous PA’s left very quickly and struggled massively when trying to work with the two boss’s.

    I know It’s only been nearly 4 weeks but my motivation is very quickly fading away and would really appreciate some advise? 🙂

    • Practically Perfect PA January 28, 2015   Reply →

      Hi Hayley

      I’ve been in a similar situation to you. I thought the role was completely mis-sold and by the end of the first month it was very clear the job description had pretty much been made up! A number of PAs had left prior to me joining and the Director’s really didn’t understand the role. After much consideration I decided to stay in the job and I left after a year and a bit – I think this was a mistake. After a month you are still in your probation period so you can leave quite quickly, you don’t have to put the job on your CV and if it comes up in interviews you have a solid reason why you left. The job didn’t work out and it is one of those things. After a year it is harder to explain why you’ve left – it becomes your issue rather than the organisations. You will be asked what more you could have done to make the job work etc etc.

      It is a really tough choice to make, especially if it took a while to get the new position in the first place. In my situation I felt I would have been leaping from one disappointing job to another and at the time the economy was still very much in the middle of the recession. But looking back I had a pretty crap year at that company and I wish I had left as soon as I realised how bad the role was.

      I hope that helps a little bit.

      Nicky x

  • Jessica January 27, 2015   Reply →

    I am currently a C-Level EA in the Boston (USA) area. Most days I love the daily challenges, but some days the everyday tasks are so frustrating. With nearly 20 years of administrative experience, I would say that I am generally overqualified, but I consider myself a “career EA” with no intention of changing positions. I am, however, enrolled in a degree program at a local university, as many companies require an EA to have a Bachelors Degree anymore (crazy, in my opinion). [This may allow me to advance into a larger company with better pay and more visibility.] I recently had a writing assignment in one of my courses where I had to discuss my career path, and realized exactly what you wrote about in your article: EA’s don’t HAVE career paths, generally. And that is a very sad thing. A lot of companies want you to just do the core work, and offer very little opportunity for taking on more or an avenue for advancement. The best advice I can offer an administrative peer would be to work for a SMALL company, where there is more of a chance that taking on additional responsibility would be encouraged and appreciated.

  • SC January 27, 2015   Reply →

    After 20 years of being in the SUPPORT STAFF role (Office Manager, Executive Assistant, Legal Assistant, Senior Administrative Assistant) I returned to school and finished my bachelors degree in accounting at the age of 53 years old. Two weeks before graduating college, I accepted a job as a Senior Administrative Assistant in one of the 4 accounting firms for a high level partner. I had been unemployed for one year and as we know, companies and agencies hold that against the applicant. What a total disappointment – a job full of empty promises and no hope whatsoever of any type of career development or advancement. The company will not pay for the CPA review course because I am support staff, which I find hypocritical because they encourage career development and growth. Not true! I am angry, frustrated and bored to death. I have begun to network and search and this time I will be selective and not just settle for any job. I will continue to stay positive and seek for an office management position that will use of my financial background.

  • Helen January 28, 2015   Reply →

    The most satisfying PA jobs I have done have been 1:1 roles with projects but these are becoming increasingly thin on the ground. Companies want PAs to look after more and more people. I saw a job yesterday which involved looking after seven directors! It is impossible to do more than manage diaries, book travel and hotels and process expenses in these type of jobs. You end up being pulled in too many directions and workloads are huge.

    Many jobs require degree educated candidates but offer no progression. Once you work for the person at the top there is nowhere to go. I’ve also come to the realisation that many people think you’re just a dogsbody who answers the phone and types a few letters. Shockingly, I’ve been referred to as a ‘dogsbody’ three times in my career (by three different people).

    Sadly, we also work for people who have never done our job. If they had, they would realise that it is not the doddly little job that it looks like and fending off all the crap jobs that no one else wants to do gets a bit tiring after a while.

    I’m very glad to now have the opportunity to get out of the PA/Admin ghetto.

  • Mrs Anna January 28, 2015   Reply →

    One way of progressing is to work for a boss who has their own specialisms, and to take on more assisting in those areas so that they can delegate tasks to them. 15 years ago I got a job working for the Ops Manager/Company Secretary of an organisation, which involved minuting Board meetings, at which I proved to be a master! As I worked with her, I proved myself capable of being able to manage more and more of the admin around Board meetings. My next job was working for a larger organisation, again for someone with a mixed Ops Manager/Company Secretary role who was looking specifically for a PA who would assist him in his Governance role. I quickly proved myself able to take on responsibility for most of the admin around Governance and he delegated to me almost entirely the tasks for one sub-company. I found myself putting together the initial drafts of agendas, minutes and even on occasion drafting up board reports. In time, through company changes, this put me in a position where I could have continued to specialise in Governance, but I was in a sector where that would have resulted in my becoming it was in a niche market that tended not to have separate Company Secretaries, and I felt that it would leave me trapped in too narrow a role. Therefore, I moved back into a wider PA role but again it was for someone acting as Company Secretary for a complex organisation, and my current boss is over the moon about how much Governance I am able to take out of his hands. I have an even broader range of initial draft reports to research and write for him, which adds hugely to the intellectual stimulation and interest of my work. These kinds of specialisms, be it in Governance, finance, HR, property management, will become more and more key for PAs to develop as technology allows bosses to do more and more of their own basic work which would once have been our core duties.

  • NI January 29, 2015   Reply →

    The fourth paragraph of this basically sums up where I am now. I work for a brilliant company and with great people but I’m stuck. I don’t have a defined career path and am never a candidate for promotion or the kind of mentorship that leads to promotion. It’s hard to deal with the imbalance in management and I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to do now.

  • Rachael February 1, 2015   Reply →

    I would like to eventually take on more tasks, but I find myself trying to master my current diverse role. So, I tend to want to focus on gaining the knowledge to do that. I attend Webinars, conferences, try to learn of new technology helpful in my field, and will literally have to push myself to attend public speaking groups. Once I have the confidence I’ve mastered, I’ll move on to another goal and take my knowledge and experience. At the moment, I’m working on my self confidence, building a brand, and finding tasks I need to do to gain it. Love, love, LOVE your posts/emails. Thank you!

  • Moi February 10, 2015   Reply →

    Another ‘spot on’ post Nicky! Thanks.

    I always think it comes down to a lack of appreciation of our skills and experience, and that many of us view being a PA/EA as our profession, and don’t have a problem with that. I love my job.

    My Boss understands this and is great, so gives me other projects outside of my core work, as does another of my Directors. But the organisation at large often sees me as ‘just’ a note-taker, coffee-maker and diary-juggler. I am all these things of course, but I have finance, HR, event planning, office management and IT skills.

    I have been told often that I am ‘just a PA’ and should ‘know my place’. I resent this. I DO know my place, and it’s not as low as they think it is!!

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