For all of you that could not attend the Assist Conference this year I wanted to share my presentation with you – Reward and Recognition within the Assistant Industry.
This session was actually crowd sourced by the Practically Perfect PA readers. We conducted a survey last year and one of the questions asked what session would the readers like to see at a conference. We had a lot of responses around the area of recognition for the work that assistants do and the lack of reward. I wrote a blog about this a few weeks ago and shared some of the responses to that question. To be honest it was pretty depressing – yes we did receive replies that simply stated ‘I love my job’ but on the whole assistants felt undervalued.
So out of that survey this session was born. I want to look at the assistant industry as a whole and talk about the various reasons why we are not recognized or rewarded and then I want to finish on a positive note and look at what we can do to change this!
I want to start by saying the return on investment from assistants is substantial.
Melba Duncan in her now widely referenced and widely excepted article – The Case for Executive Assistants published in the Harvard Business Review said this:
Consider a senior executive whose total compensation package is $1 million annually, who works with an assistant who earns $80,000. For the organization to break even, the assistant must make the executive 8% more productive than he or she would be working solo—for instance, the assistant needs to save the executive roughly five hours in a 60-hour workweek. In reality, good assistants save their bosses much more than that.
This is an incredibly powerful statement. The fact is that time certainly equals money when it comes to our return on investment but it doesn’t end there.
We give our companies and our executives, who are often unapproachable and disconnected with the rest of the staff, a human face. We know what is happening before it happens; we are able to solve problems and create a calm environment. We manage our executives; we understand the needs of the company and we manage complicated tasks. We don’t carry much cost – particularly when it comes to training us up. The very best assistants have learnt on the job and have learnt by their mistakes.
So for me it goes without saying that our role is indispensable. We save our bosses time, which enables them to be more productive which in turn, makes the organisation more money.
All of this translates into a monetary value and should therefore appear somewhere in our remuneration packages.
It’s not just me saying this either – in a survey conducted back 2013 in by the Office Team in the States
94% of senior Executive said their assistant was important to their success at work with 44% saying their assistant’s contributions were ‘very important ‘ and 50% saying they were ‘somewhat important’.
So we know how hard we work. We know that our contributions have a monetary value. Our senior executives know we help them achieve success – so what’s the problem – why do we even have a session on recognition and reward?
Because we don’t feel it and we are not treated in the same way as other professions with those credentials.
According to the 2014 National PA survey conducted by the Office Show 78% of those that answered the survey felt that being a PA is undervalued as a professional career choice.
44% said they felt slightly underpaid
and 51% said they didn’t feel confident asking for career development budget.
These are not great statistics are they? But I doubt many of us in this room are surprised as we have been grappling with this problem since office work began and the typing pool was invented. So what are the reasons we feel so undervalued? Before I give you a few examples that I’ve experienced can you please discuss with the person next to you if these statistic resonate with you. Do you feel adequately recognised and rewarded and if not, why?
The old fashioned view of the secretary or the ‘mad men stereotype’ – yup this is really common and despite dropping the job title something we still have to deal with
Billable staff receive reward and recognition. Support staff do not. By billable staff I mean for example if you work in a law firm it’s the lawyers if you work in insurance it’s the brokers. I used to work in insurance and also for an accountancy firm so I’ve heard this one a lot over the years and I must say it really annoys me!
Your executive likes the way things work and doesn’t’t want to let you go. Some people enjoy the status quo and Executives are no different. Why promote an assistant who is making your life a whole lot easier?
There is no career development structure in place for assistants. Again this is fairly common. This made me want to put the need for assistants to put their career development at the centre of everything they do and will be discussed throughout the day. Assistants are not mentioned in succession plans, they work in organisations that have development in place for the majority of staff but not admini staff and they often don’t have appraisals or job descriptions.
There is too much structure in place with competency models that don’t reflect your role. For most professionals having a lot of structure and support from their organisation is a good thing. They know what to expect if they work hard – eventually they will move through the grades and with it will come their rewards. How different is this for assistants. These structures don’t reflect our traditional career path and can stop us moving beyond our ‘grade’ without a substantial job change.
And last but not least good old fashioned gender politics. I once heard Lucy Brazier say that one of the challenges we face is that most assistants are female and work in care giving type roles – so nursing, teaching etc. This image of females as care givers can stop us being seen as professionals. Over your career how many times have you been referred to as the office wife? I know I have…
As much as I would love to put the world to rights on some of these issues I only have 30-minute presentation and I think we will flesh out some of these issues during the course of the day.
But I think we are all in agreement that something has to change. The industry has to change because 78% of assistants feeling they are undervalued not personally but as a profession is too high.
So I am going to focus on one area that we can all improve and that is ourselves as individuals. What can we change in our day to day role that will help us feel more recognised and hopefully rewarded?
I just want to say these tips will make you better at your job but I’m not telling you these things because I want you to support your boss better or think about the needs of the organisation – that is really a bi-product. I’m giving you this advice because it is going to help you! I’m selfish like that – and I make no apologies for it!
So using the assist conference themes I am going to give you some examples of how you can firstly change your own behaviour to enable you to gain more reward and recognition.
Now for me personally I find this really hard. I was very much brought up by parents who thought children should “wait until they are asked.” This mantra was so heavily instilled in me that I never really asked for anything until I realised, probably in my mid 20s, that this approach to life wasn’t doing me any favours. It certainly wasn’t doing my career any good. I would wait to be asked to work on projects or take on extra work – assuming if I worked hard in the back ground that eventually my dedication would be notice and rewarded. It very rarely was.
So my first point is look at your own behaviour – what do you want to achieve in this role and in this organisation. Could you be a little more vocal about your development and your skill set. How often do you put your hand up for work and how often do you talk about your career goal.
Also don’t make any assumptions that you know what your boss is expecting from you or your career development. You need to find out what their expectations are for your future. This is really fundamental because if if your expectations do not align with their expectations both of you will have to change for your relationship to work.
The next theme is around proactivity. Let’s now look at how you can be more proactive in order to gain reward and recognition.
I love the “show and tell” element of American education. They have show and tell from an early age where they come in front of their peers and tell them something they are proud of – their parent, their pet rabbit, their latest piece of finger painted artwork. Whatever it is they get up and talk about their passions.
We need to adopt a ‘show and tell’ attitude in this industry, because we are too busy getting on with the job and not sharing our achievements. Many of us certainly don’t share our accomplishments with the one person that really needs to know and that is our Executives.
I used to get really frustrated that one of my bosses didn’t know what I was doing all day. She really didn’t and when it came to appraisals we would have these really short conversations along the lines of ‘well I think this year has gone well. You’?’ and I would say’ yes, it’s been good’ and then we would inevitably talk about what needed to happen the following day.
When I took a step back – around the same time I realised that not asking for things wasn’t working – I understood that my boss was incredibly busy, she had her own problems and wasn’t going to be able to give me a decent appraisal or recognise my achievements without me telling her.
So, after some advice from my mentor, I started sending my boss weekly emails detailing what I had achieved that week. The email wasn’t particularly sales-y but I did make sure that I put down everything that I knew would impress her. Initially I don’t think she quite knew how to respond to these emails – in fact she didn’t’t respond at all. But over time I noticed she had obviously been reading them because in our daily catch up sessions she would know what I was doing as much as I knew what she was doing. She also started to ask if I wanted to get involved in projects that before she never would have mentioned. She began to realise how much I did, how capable I was and ultimately it made a huge difference.
The other good thing I found from writing these emails was when it did came to my appraisals I basically had a diary of everything I had done over that time period. This really helped the conversation flow. What I learnt from this was that good work doesn’t always speak for itself so you have to speak up for it!
Another area that will help you gain recognition is if you can get your work in front of the right people. I good place to start is by volunteering your services on a really visible project.
In my last role as an EA a group of colleagues including my boss decided to do mo-vember. As my boss, the COO was the most senior member of staff doing mo-vember he volunteered me (as they do) to co-ordinate the efforts. We made a ton of money for charity and held a party afterwards to celebrate. During the party everyone was telling my boss how great it was and how everyone in the office had come together to support the guys. My boss was wondering how we could build on this momentum so we started a charity committee and I offered to help knowing it was a very visible role. He sponsored the committee and volunteered a few more members of staff. We did a number of fundraisers and events which I was right at the centre of.
So as I said it is important to make yourself visible but it is also important that you make yourself visible to the right people.
The underlying theme of the conference is putting your career goals at the centre of everything you do. One of the benefits that does come out of being properly recognised and reward is that organisation’s tend to see their staff as an investment.
If we are not seen as an investment then we have to see ourselves as one. That is why it is so important to keep your career goals at the front of your mind and constantly work on how you are going to achieve your objectives. You need to know that it is okay to develop yourself and that you have to take time out of your busy schedule to develop your skills.
My career development and reward – not necessarily recognition – has come from job-hopping.
The longest job I had was just over 3 years. I was promoted in that role and would have stayed longer if I wasn’t made redundant. Other than that most of my jobs have lasted around 2 years because after two years I felt like I was no longer being challenged and had no further to go with that Executive or in that company. This was quite frowned upon at the time and I always made sure I had an answer during interviews if my job hopping ever came up.
I still think it is without doubt the easiest way I found to progress my career and get a better salary and according to a recent survey, from Accountemp, it is much less frowned upon than it used to be and losing its stigma with 57% of 18-34 year olds saying that changing jobs every few years can help careers.
The reason I’m offering this as a bit of advise is because it sucks having a manager or working for a company that don’t invest in you and don’t take your career seriously. If you are in this situation you’ve got to ask yourself if trying something new within your organisation or in another organisation is maybe a good option.
A lot of the thought leaders in our industry are referring to us as ‘strategic business partners’. I agree with this approach if only because it moves us further away from the ‘secretary’ stereotype and towards a professional and well regarded part of the organisation. Also, I’ve always believed that your job title shouldn’t’ define you so even if you are regarded as ‘just the assistant’ it doesn’t mean you have to act that way. Think of yourself as a strategic business partner and the scope of opportunities really does open up for you.
To tie everything together I want to ask the most important question that you will be asked today and it is worth thinking about – do you see your current role as a career or is it just a job? Either answer is fine, you just need to know but this impacts everything you do. In my early career I definitely just had a job but once I realised I wanted to move on up my outlook completely changed. There is a huge different between someone who has a job and someone who has a career. If you want to have a career you have to work at it – particularly in our industry.