Speaking to assistants at the Assist Conference back in February I was surprised at how many of the delegates worked for multiple Executives. I would say the majority worked for two or more bosses. I knew the traditional one on one assistant position was on the decline in most organisations but I thought that the majority of board level Directors still had a dedicated assistants – this just isn’t the case anymore.
You know that sinking feeling when you come back from a long break (Happy New Year by the way!) and you have a vast number of emails to sort through, you have loads of paper work to read and everyone wants you to deal with their urgent issue first? Yes, well, welcome to the life of an assistant! That sinking feeling is an every day experience for us. We look at our packed to do list and we have to make a decision which tasks to tackle first when all of the work is a priority with imminent deadlines. We also have our colleagues interrupting us with their own urgent questions and multiple bosses wanting attention. Of course we also want to please and be helpful; no wonder the role of an assistant can be quite overwhelming! Due to the nature of our job we have to remain flexible while handling multiple priorities so how do we do this and where do we start?
Is it actually important?
Over the years I have come to understand what people mean when they ask me to do something “urgent”. There seems to be a varying degree of how important something actually is. Is it really urgent or have they left this to the last minute? Is it really urgent or are they just a bit over dramatic? Is it really urgent because they want to be a priority? Is it really urgent but the work you do then sit on their desk or inbox for the next week? The answers to these questions are unfortunately determined after you have completed a few tasks for these individuals. However once you master how “urgent” urgent actually is according to these colleagues it is easier to handle their expectations and priorities and schedule your work. The secret is for Assistants to look like they are dealing with the work urgently but actually you are dealing with the work as a normal day to day request.
The boss comes first
Many assistants are now taking on work outside of the 1-2-1 support for an executive. We all seem to have added lots of strings to our bows but I think the priority still has to be the support we provide our bosses. This should be made very obvious when taking on extra work and we should communicate this to our colleagues. We must also make our bosses aware of the extra work we take on. When it comes to juggling multiple priorities we really shouldn’t be dropping any tasks for the boss. They do write our performance reviews after all! Make sure you have clear communication with your manager so that you both have the same expectations when it comes to additional projects.
Make yourself organised
As you all know I love, love, love a list and I pretty much live by them so you will be correct to assume that I think the best way to handle multiple priorities is with lists. Getting really organised, working your way through tasks and being focussed will ensure you have a little wiggle room to say yes to your colleagues urgent requests: this will make you appear really flexible and really helpful. If you are up to your neck in work that day you can at least let your colleague know when you can take on their work and when you will deliver the results. Flexibility has to be on your own terms otherwise you will just find yourself drowning.
Roll up your sleeves and get the job done
Sometimes you just have to dig deep and get the job done which means working longer hours to make sure you meet all of your deadlines. It also means not putting off the rubbish tasks until the last minute. In fact it is a good idea to get the rubbish jobs done as quickly as possible so that you can take your time with the fun stuff. I always like to help the colleagues that don’t often ask me for things or delegate much work. I think all assistants should have a little time put aside to provide support for those under real pressure.
You can’t do everything
Assistants can’t be flexible if they take on every piece of work that is left on their desk. Colleagues will take advantage and ultimately you will be working all hours without any help or support. Not good. If you have colleagues that are lazy and do take advantage you have to push back and say no. Your time should be used to support your executive first and foremost and then you can take on extra work and help others as and when you can. It is so much fun being able to help with additional projects or work with different departments so do try to be open to various opportunities, remain flexible and helpful in your approach but also remember that flexibility has to be on your terms and inline with your workload and priorities.
Over the years I’ve had a number of roles that have required me to work for more than one boss. I’ve been Executive Assistant to the CFO, COO and Company Secretary. I’ve been PA to a Director and Administrative Manager for a whole department. I’ve even been Account Manager for 12 Committees.