I’ve often been asked to give advice to assistants who work with a self-reliant boss. I have experienced this myself and it can be really frustrating. I’ve worked for Executives who have employed assistants because the business expects them to have one, I’ve worked with managers who are unable to or are unwilling to delegate work and I’ve worked with Directors who are so highly organised they don’t need the extra support. In all of these circumstances I was left with either menial tasks or literally nothing to do. As I said, this was frustrating but it is was also extremely boring! Here are a few methods I used to wrestle work from my self-reliant bosses.

1. Keep in regular contact with your boss

After a few attempts at asking a self-reliant boss for work it can be very easy to give up and spend your day doing very little. This approach, although easier, isn’t going to do you any favours. The other approach – constantly asking your manager for work is going to annoy them – which again isn’t going to do you much good. The first step I would take in this situation is to schedule regular meetings with your manager. Daily contact is ideal.

During these meetings don’t push your manager into delegating work to you. Instead go through their diary with them, with each meeting ask if there is any work that needs to be completed, any paperwork that needs to be printed off or any presentations / reports that you can help draft. Put the emphasis on what you can do to support them rather than demanding work from them. They obviously don’t understand your role so you need to demonstrate what you can do to make their day easier to manage. Once you have a grasp on what they are doing every day the next step is slightly easier.

2. Be proactive

This is the most important advice I can give any assistant with a self reliant boss. You really do have to proactively look for things to do. You have to watch your manager, understand their daily routine, when they are most productive, when they are distracted and when they are doing tasks that you should be doing. Once you understand this you can subtly start to complete those tasks before they get a chance to. I’ve often seen the surprise on a self-reliant boss’s face after they have been told by other members of staff that I’ve helped answered their query before the boss has had time to deal with the email or voicemail message. The more often this happens the more they rely on you just doing things.

3. Ask for additional work from other departments

If you have a particularly stubborn and self-reliant boss another approach I have used is to ask other departments – particularly those that come under my Executive’s leadership – if they would like additional support. You do have to be careful in this instance because the Department Head could take advantage and give you a load of rubbish to work through (although sometimes I have taken that work because I have been so bored!) Ideally you want to be working on some good quality tasks that showcase your skills. You want to work really hard on these tasks, create a good impression with the Department Head and really support their team. Mention to your manager that you are helping other departments and mention to the other departments that you would like them to give feedback to your manager. Three things will happen – you will have something to do, you are improving your business acumen and gaining a better understanding of how your organisation works and finally your manager will begin to see that you are capable of supporting them.

4. Be honest

My last point is this. As difficult as it is to be honest with your Executive (it is much easier to grumble to your friends outside of work) in this instance you do have to be really honest. If it has got to a point where you are literally sitting at your desk with nothing to do you should make an appointment with your manager to discuss the situation. Remember to come into the meeting with solutions, don’t just present your manager with this problem and expect them to solve it. Changing people’s behaviours is really difficult so it will have to be a joint effort for both of you. Come to the meeting having reviewed their schedule and the way that they work, have a list of tasks that you think you can manage and talk them through how much work you think you can complete during the course of the day. In the meeting demonstrate how proactive you are and how capable you are of taking on extra duties. If you have a job description use the tasks described on the document as the bare minimum amount of work that you expect to have. I think during this meeting you will have to be very assertive but it will pay off.

If you do work with a self-reliant boss, changing their behaviour is not an easy process but it is vital that you try.

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5 comments

  • Jane January 30, 2015   Reply →

    Very interesting! You should do a post on the flip side of this, as in a boss who is so not self-reliant its almost ridiculous!

  • Sil January 30, 2015   Reply →

    I was in that situation for 3 1/2 years!! I tried everything from being proactive to ask for work from other people (Yes!! I was given loads of rubbish no one else wanted to do) and I eventually discussed the situation with my boss. His answer was like “yes, I know you’re not using your skills, but that’s how things are, I’m sorry”. So, I used my free time to study online and I got a degree in Marketing 🙂

  • Yuliia January 31, 2015   Reply →

    Important to be proactive, agree! Real bosses appreciate too much experience and professional aproach of their assistants. Be honest in every situation, this help to solve a lot of issues!

  • Padmarekha Nirkhe February 5, 2015   Reply →

    Really good article. I have worked with such bosses for nearly 5 to 6 years practically doing nothing all the day. I have tried all the tricks suggested in your article from being honest with the boss to being proactive and asking for additional work from the departmental heads. It hardly worked. My situation changed only when the boss changed. Now I am a full time PS with additional portfolio of the department.

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