Career development for Assistants: 5 common problems and how to solve them

Career development for Assistants: 5 common problems and how to solve them

Recently, the OpenMeet team had the pleasure of participating in the annual Practically Perfect PA Assist Conference 2017, where we ran a few workshops on career development for assistants: 5 common problems and how to solve them. This is the second of three blogs that we are producing based on all the great information and feedback we got from our workshop participants. Read the first one, on what to look for in an event supplier, and watch out for the third and final blog, on how to ensure organisations value PA work!

We wanted to explore what career development in the PA role looks like.

So we asked our attendees what they thought about their career paths, skills development, performance reviews, and any other developmental aspects of their jobs. They then discussed solutions to the 5 most common problems that were raised.

Here’s what they said:

PAs do not have a clear career path

Solution: Create a broad career plan for yourself. This is worth doing regardless of your role or industry, but particularly valuable in a role as variable as that of a PA.

  • Frequently assess where you are in your role compared to your career plan. Don’t be afraid to make changes, as long as you feel you are still moving forward.
  • Consult other PAs, your manager(s), and your organisation’s HR for advice in progressing your career development.
  • Look out for and take advantage of networking events and skills development wherever possible.
  • Consider going into related fields that will use many of the skills you already have, such as Project Management, or a role within your organisation that you have learned about through your PA work.
  • The PA learning curve can be very steep, and the role can be demanding. Recognise your efforts and abilities, and blow your own trumpet!

There is no specific PA skills development

Solution: Always plan your next few steps. Seek career development wherever you can.

  • Research the roles that could possibly become available to you, and how they could fit into a career plan. Think about what skills you would need to fill any gaps you may have.
  • Explore whether your organisation has a mentoring programme or a buddy system of some kind, that could give you exposure to different roles while you are a PA. Would it be possible for you to spend time with all areas of the business, in order to better understand the opportunities within different departments?
  • Ask your manager for any training suggestions they may have, and request training opportunities. Try saying that you want to develop your skills and presenting your manager with clear options to choose from, rather than leaving them with a vague idea of what you want.

PAs are often isolated in their roles, so the responsibility is on the individual to be continually motivated

Solution: If there isn’t a PA network in your organisation, create one!

  • You can also join external networks for more advice and to increase your connections within the industry. Participate in forums and events.
  • If possible, it’s worth trying to train managers to use assistants more effectively and efficiently – this allows everyone to work more productively.
  • Make sure that managers are aware of what PAs can do and are responsible for, in order to increase the chances of recognition for your efforts. Above all, make sure you point out your contributions!

PAs do not take advantage of Annual reviews

Solution: PAs should make full use of annual reviews, as well as more informal ones. They’re an opportunity to redefine your role to be what you want it to be.

  • Encourage more regular check-ins; this can help prevent annual reviews being as intimidating, as well as creating more opportunities to discuss career development.
  • Speak to someone at your organisation, such as HR, about providing more free content for training and career development purposes.
  • See also if internal and external PA networks have evening seminars and other networking opportunities available.

Organisations may not be aware of the benefits of developing assistants

Solution: PAs can sell the benefits of developing assistants to their organisations!

  • Think about how much money a company could save by training current employees, rather than hiring new people for tasks. For instance, PAs could sign up for courses that would allow them to give internal training on software such as PowerPoint.
  • It’s also important to explore what HR has to offer, as it’s possible that there may be career development opportunities already available.
  • Don’t forget that many PAs have a wide skill set even before extra training – it’s worth exploring where else this could be used.

Of course, it is important to remember that every situation will be different, and some of these points may be more or less relevant to different PA roles. The key thing we think you should take away from this discussion is the importance of PAs to communicate with their organisations, put themselves out there, and make their voices heard.

For more information on OpenMeet technology, please contact us here, or visit our blog to read more tips and advice about how to improve audience engagement at your meetings and events. Career development for Assistants: 5 common problems and how to solve them.

Using networks to get stuff done

Using networks to get stuff done

Just last week I was reminded how brilliant PAs are at using networks to get stuff done. I’m lucky to be a member of a direct messaging group on Twitter made up of some very awesome and proactive assistants. I was on the website the other day and noticed that I had a load of new messages flashing away. When I took a quick peek I saw that one of the PAs had messaged the others to ask if they knew any courier services that could deliver to Germany over the weekend. It was a bit of a tricky and really urgent request. Within the space of an hour the assistant had the contact details for a courier service and had resolved the issue. I can only imagine how impressed her boss was! It showed me how powerful assistants can be when they tap into their networks. We don’t have the answers to everything (although often our organisations think that we do!) but with the help of other assistants we can basically rule the world! So how do we ensure our networks are there to help us get stuff done? Here are a few tips:

Top tips: Using Networks to get stuff done

Get to know your network

Assistants have access to many networks that can help with various aspects of the role. It is important to get to know the people within the networks. If you can all put a face to a name it really helps. If you can get out and about, attend networking events and get to know other assistants this really helps. If you are more of a social network kinda assistants ensure you like, share and comment on other assistant’s posts. Simply getting to know your contacts will make it easier for you to help each other out.

Give and take – networks need to get stuff from you 

This is really important. If someone in your network asks for help and you can help – do! If you have a great supplier that you can share with your network or any advice, training suggestions or something that you have implemented that works sharing this knowledge don’t hold back from sharing the information. Your network might not need that contact now, but it might come in handy another time. Giving back is the number one rule to networking!

Don’t beat around the bush – get stuff done quickly

We are a busy bunch and I think most assistants would prefer a straightforward conversation. If you need help, ask for it up front. This is one of the reasons we network in the first place! We get asked questions a billion times a day from colleagues so we are pretty used to sharing our knowledge and helping other people out. Don’t be shy! Your network will have the answers and if they don’t, they probably know someone who does!

Don’t rule people out – they have networks too! 

Assistants deal with all manner of issues so actually our knowledge is pretty widespread and our networks can be really big. So don’t rule people out because you don’t think they will be able to help – you never know and it is always worth asking the question. It is also well worth being a little creative with your networks. Try to network with people who might be able to help in certain areas. For example, I always found the post room staff to be incredibly helpful when I needed details for a new supplier – they see parcels, packages and couriers bringing new products in and out of the office all day long. They knew all kinds of stuff!

Assistants are naturally good networks, you might not think it, but we are! The nature of our role means we come in contact with lots of different people, companies and suppliers and we generally are pretty helpful types! So next time you need something remember using networks to get stuff done will help no end.

How to make a bad first impression better

How to make a bad first impression better

Last year I wrote a blog about how assistants should always try to make a really great first impression. You never know who you will end up working with, or for, so it is important that you take the time to make that first contact memorable for all the right reasons. Saying that, everyone has their off days and you can’t be ‘on’ 24/7. We’ve all made bad first impressions. But it is important, especially in business, to be able to make a bad first impression better! Here are a few tips:

Opinions are pretty fluid

People change their mind all the time. Try not to worry too much if you messed up the first time you met someone just try to be a little more like your amazing self the next time you meet them…. And a few more times after that. According to a Harvard study, it will take eight subsequent positive encounters to change that person’s negative opinion of you. So if you really do need this person to think well of you be on tip top form every chance you get in their company. 

Fess up

If you did something really bad when you first met someone then honesty is probably the best policy. Take the person aside, hold your hands up and tell them that you weren’t having the best day and that actually you are pretty ace once they get to know you. Honesty goes a long way so don’t avoid the person for the rest of your professional life. Have a quick conversation, nip it in the bud, fess up.

Follow up with an email

The saying goers ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and in this case you might find it easier to email your way into a better relationship. I can have bad days where I am socially awkward, I think most of us can, but I can be incredibly gregarious over email. Follow up any bad first impression with a lovely email expressing your joy in meeting that person and you might just save the day.

Accept that not everyone is going to like you

Losers! No, seriously, not everyone is going to realise how great you are. Sometimes you have to accept their opinion and move on. They may change their mind once they realise you know everything there is to know about the running of your office, but until then deal with them on a basic level.

Managing your boss’s schedule like a mega star

In my mind, the single most important aspect of our role is to save our Executive’s time. Saving our Executive time means they can spend that time on making the organisation more successful. There are loads of different ways we can save our Executive’s time, but I think it all starts with the fundamental task of diary management.

Most assistants manage their Executive’s schedule and most Executive’s live by what is in that schedule. So, if we can take control of our Executive’s diary we can really add value. Here is the Practically Perfect PA guide to managing your boss’s schedule like a total mega star!

Create a routine for your Executive

Who doesn’t love routine. Children absolutely thrive on it and Executive’s are not that dissimilar (*ahem*). It is really important that your Executive starts each day knowing what they have to achieve. If they have a familiar routine each day it means that they can start achieving stuff pretty quickly. I really like the do / build method outlined in this article. Basically, the do / build method means that you block time for ‘doing’ tasks, such as answering emails, attending meetings or writing reports, and you block time for ‘building’ tasks such as training, brainstorming, networking or strategic thinking. Every day your boss should have time for doing and time for building. Ideally, it should be the same time every day.

All well and good you might say, but what happens when you need to schedule an important meeting outside of your Executive’s ‘doing’ hours? Obviously, with any routine you have to be a little flexible. If there is a board meeting that has to be at a certain time you will have to adapt your Executive’s schedule but this should be the exception. You are the gatekeeper of their diary and your job is to aid their productivity so try to stick to the routine as much as you can. There is so much research that suggests routine is the key to good time management. Creating a routine will certainly keep your Executive focused and productive.

Blocking time for specific tasks

Within your Executive’s day to day schedule you should block time for specific tasks. This should be reviewed on a fairly regular basis. For example, they should have time in the morning to review their schedule, this could be on the train into work or it could be over coffee in their office with a do not disturb sign up. This time should be blocked in their diary. They should have time each day to review emails, prepare for meetings, catch up on reading and importantly some time for them to have breathing space (for lunch or just to think things through). These blocks will be at the same time every day so that they do become routine.

Keep meetings to a specific time

Meetings are a necessary part of your Executive’s day, but they should be completely necessary. Before accepting any meeting it is important to understand what the meeting is about. Would a call or email exchange be more time effective? If the meeting should go ahead schedule it in the ‘doing’ block and then specifically in the meeting block. External meetings should be blocked together (one morning per week perhaps) with time added for travelling.

There are recurring meetings your Executive will have throughout the week. Make sure they are at the same time each week and try really hard not to move them. Most meetings should last no longer than 30 minutes. Your Executive’s time is precious, so do try to bear this in mind when people are asking for longer meetings (you know who I mean!) You could introduce stand-up meetings with your Executive’s staff (this will keep things moving along swiftly!)

The Doctor’s waiting room

I don’t know about you, but when I phone up to get a Doctor’s appointment, I am given a time slot and that is that. I can come in and wait during the open hours surgery, but otherwise, I have to take the appointment I am given. Okay, the reception staff at my local GP don’t have the best customer service skills, but I take the appointment I am given without much complaint! Now, I wouldn’t suggest you have an open hours surgery for your Executive but you could block some time for your Executive to have an open door policy that allows people to come in with ideas and a catch up chat. Otherwise, tell your colleagues and clients when your Executive has an appointment available (obviously, give a few options) and stick with that time slot. Your Executive only has so many hours in the day and you should only make appointments that fit in with their routine… Unless it is an emergency!

Email Management

The saying goes that unless you own your emails they will own you. It is really important you do everything you can to reduce the amount of emails your Executive receives in the first place. Once you have control of the inbox, you can schedule time for your Executive to action and reply to the messages.

Work in progress

Your Executive’s schedule is a work in progress and must be accessed on a regular basis. Can you adapt the schedule for certain activities or planned events? Does your Executive need more time for extracurricular activities? Is it working and what isn’t? What can you do to help them save even more time?

You are your Executive’s time manager so make sure you have regular meetings (which you can schedule in their diary) to review how it is going. Getting to a point where you have your Executive in a productive routine takes time but it is worth it. Your Executive will be much better at their job, and you will be a total rock star.

We are thinking about running a one day training event for Personal Assistants on time management and making your Executive more productive. The event will be in London in Summer 2017. Please fill in your details if you are interested in attending. 

The keywords to help you land your next PA role

If you are anything like me, the new year brings a lot of soul searching and a nostalgic look back at the 12 months past. I have spent many a January reading self help books, joining gyms, going on diets and making resolutions that are generally forgotten around the middle of the month. Don’t even get me started on the many ‘dry’ January’s I’ve started only to be scuppered by a large glass of Rioja. With a new year comes a new you and I know that a lot of readers will be looking to find a new job in 2017.

Looking through the varies jobs boards for assistants there are plenty of opportunities out there. But where to start? Well, as we all know the first step on the long and winding road to a new role is to dust off your CV and update it with all the stuff you’ve been up to over the last few years.

Read More

Win a free place at the Assist Conference 2017

We have a very special giveaway for Practically Perfect PA readers this month.

We are offering one lucky reader the chance to attend the Assist Conference for free. Yes, that is right – a whole day of fantastic training specifically for assistants – completely for free! The conference is taking place on Friday 24th February in London. More information on the programme and the speakers can be found on the Assist Conference website.

To enter the competition please complete the contact form below. Remember to add your contact details so that we can get in touch with the winners. We will announce the winners on the 9th February.

Assist Conference 2017

During the conference, we will be discussing all of the important tools that assistants need to succeed in the role – now and in the next 5 years. Taking place on the 24th February in London for only £300+VAT. If you would like to book your place on the conference, check out the programme or the speakers, please do make your way over to the website.

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Getting buy in from the boss

 

 “Succeeding in business is all about making connections.  Business is all about personal contact. No matter how heavy your workload is… Everyone can and should be a Networker.” Richard Branson

Generation Y makes about 50% of the current workforce.  Millennials belong to a Show and Tell Culture.  This is a culture which embraces tooting your own horn and showcasing your productivity.  I grew up in a different age where working hard and being humble were par for the course for the PA.  There was less sharing of information, silos in place and limited collaboration.

The modern PA must embrace the current culture in order to remain connected, current and relevant.  It is imperative to be proactive about self-promotion in order to showcase your skills, achievements and personal brand.  The role has changed and so must we.

Have the confidence to take the lead, be proactive and have a conversation with your boss.

My top tips before you request Buy-In are:

  1. Adopt your bosses preferred communication style i.e. The language of leadership. The main thing about getting buy in for anything is to speak the language of your boss and company and highlight the ROI (Return on Investment).  Highlight WIFM (what’s in it for me) and help them to see that you will gain skills and knowledge that will be essential for future growth.
  2. Illustrate the benefits of networking with peers and the exchange of best practice. Time out of the office can improve creative thinking and problem solving, it also provides an opportunity to meet new people that can help with resources and connections.    External networking will broaden the playing fields.
  3. Be mindful of your end goal – you need to tie in your request for L&D to your current position and how it will prepare you and your boss for the future. Will you share your learning with other Assistants thus increasing the ROI?  Will the request tie in with one of your appraisal goals?
  4. Be prepared to negotiate if necessary. If your executive is adamant that they can’t contribute 100% of the funding or timing, then outline that you are willing to pay for X if they pay for Y.   Likewise, if they give you a half day, you will take the other half as annual leave.  It is about give and take until you prove the benefits.  If you request to attend a Training Day and they say that time away from the office is the main issue, then you need to make the conference seem as undisruptive as possible.  You need to reinforce that your work is under control and manage expectations.

Managers ultimately want to hear about bottom lines and how you how you successfully planned and smoothly executed your teams’ success in achieving annual targets.  Like everything in business, it’s about negotiation for both funds and time.

Getting buy-in IS ACHIEVABLE and I managed to successfully get the following approved:

  • Business Cards
  • Internal & External Training
  • Magazine Subscriptions
  • Membership to Networking Clubs & Associations
  • Support for an Internal PA Network
  • Support for External PA Awards
  • Revised Job Description
  • Salary Increase

Business Cards:

I was the first PA within my last company of 30+ Assistants to request Business Cards.

I explained to my boss that I had attended a conference without any and had to write my name and details on scraps of paper which did not feel or look very professional.  My boss totally got it, but I had to further explain to HR for the final approval.  Once it was understood that I needed them in order to fully execute my role and be an effective brand ambassador it was signed off.  Moral of the story – if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Internal & External Training:

The first external conference that I ever attended was Square Meal Venues and Events. On the day I reverted to ‘show and tell’ and picked up the annual catalogue of restaurants for both of my bosses which greatly impressed them.  Square Meal is a free conference, which I attended during lunch time, over time I was able to extend the hours as they could see the benefit.  This eventually enabled me to then request paid internal and external training.

Magazine Subscriptions:

In the past when I asked for subscriptions to magazines to be paid by the company I made a point of bringing in the magazine and showing the value that it gave to me.  The main benefit was that I became aware of venues, technology and training which could help us all in my daily role.

Membership to Networking Clubs & Associations:

I’m originally from Dublin so in order to get up to speed as a PA in London I started networking via The PA Club.  I figured if my colleagues were members of other associations for their profession that I had an equal right to pursue it.

I explained that I would be networking in my own personal time in the evenings and how I could add value to the role.   If I was ever impressed by a particular restaurant or hotel I would send them the link or bring them in the hard copy brochure to examine.  Over time I managed to add several hotels to our Globally Approved Travel Program, which enabled all global staff to benefit from discounted rates and also obtained supplier discounts for our intranet company benefits portal.  My connections also enabled me to secure last minute table bookings – the value of which was priceless.

Internal PA Network:

When I saw the need for a PA network within my company I submitted a full business proposal to both my boss and the Head of HR – I described the benefits and ultimately the ROI by introducing a culture of sharing best practice and tips.  I highlighted what was in it for everyone and the bottom line and it was approved by both.

Support for External PA Awards:

At the start of 2015 I set myself the personal challenge of entering several PA of the Year Awards.  I figured that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. At the very least it would be a fantastic way to network with peers and widen my circle.  It was also an optimum way of educating and showing my friends and colleagues that I took my role and profession seriously.  Perhaps some of your clients or competitors PAs attend training or enter PA awards? If so highlight this and what is going on in your industry.

Revised Job Description:

A lot of managers and indeed HR are not fully aware of our entire role so I took it upon myself to revise my job spec which was generic and very minimal.  The best way for me to do this was to do an internal time management course.  At the end of the course we had to keep a 2-day log of all the work we did.  It proved to be highly beneficial as our job can be hard to quantify at times as we are spinning many plates, but this gave me a concrete example of everything done over 2 days.  I forwarded it to my boss as a ‘show and tell’ of my job spec and also of the benefit of attending the internal training.  It then enabled me to broach the subject of editing my job spec.

Salary Increase:

Most companies will actually want an up to date and accurate job spec and this can be used as a valuable appraisal document for measuring progression/performance and edited accordingly.  Just because something has always been a certain way does not mean that it has to remain so.   We need to have a job spec based on our actual remit and duties versus an inherited job spec full of clichés.  Over the course of the year I collated a ‘show and tell’ file of all of the internal / external training I had attended and any work related achievement.  When it came to appraisal time I then had a working file to draw on.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”.  Nelson Mandela

People buy people, make sure that your boss and company are buying you.

What is your experience? Do you have any other top tips to impart?

The Assist Conference 2017

Do you need to convince your boss to pay for training and to attend the Assist Conference?  Don’t worry, we have done all the hard work for you and produced a business case document. Places are still available for the conference. To find out more information and to book your spot head on over to the Assist Conference website.

This blog has been written by Jennifer Corcoran, Virtual Assistant and Stylist. You can find more details about Jennifer on her website www.jennifercorcoran.me

Photo©John Cassidy The Headshot Guy® www.theheadshotguy.co.uk 07768 401009

How can assistants add value in the workplace?

Firstly, happy New Year! Last year was a mixed bag wasn’t it?! I hope you all had a lovely break and are looking forward to the year ahead. As usual, we have a packed schedule for 2017, starting with the Assist Conference in February.

Today I am writing about one of the key themes for this year’s conference – using your tool kits to add value within your organisation. I used to struggle with this during my career as an assistant. Sure, I worked on projects that contributed to the success of the organisation but I had many skills that were not used because nobody knew I had them and I didn’t proactively promote them. It took a while, and a thoroughly excellent boss, for me to gain the confidence to promote my skills, to go into meetings and say ‘actually, I can do that’. The first time I was given a project outside of my usual role was nerve racking, but I did a good job (I saved my organisation a lot of money) and from there I had more confidence in my toolkit, my colleagues did and my Executive did. Which meant I got a lot more interesting work and was able to add value in different areas. The moral of the story is that assistants have a huge amount of skills and can add value in a number of areas within the workplace, we just need to have the confidence to promote ourselves.

During the conference, we will have a session on confidence in the workplace, but let’s look at areas assistants can add value. This article from Eat Your Career, suggests 6 ways to add value and I think it is a great place to start for assistants. The 6 areas are:

1.    Save money
2.    Make money
3.    Improve efficiency of a process or procedure
4.    Improve quality of a product or service
5.    Fix an existing problem
6.    Prevent a future problem

Saving money and making money.

Assistant’s work with suppliers on a regular basis and can easily research and suggest new suppliers which might save the organisation money. Every year it is well worth reviewing all of the suppliers that you use and renegotiating your contracts. You will inevitably save your organisation a little money and potentially you could save them a lot.

Making money for your organisation is a little trickier. Well.. Actually, maybe not. You save your Executive a lot of time. Time that they spend building relationships with existing clients and making new clients. So effectively, you do make your organisation money. A LOT OF MONEY. Not many of your colleagues can say that!

If, however, you would like to make money for your organisation in a more traditional way think about networking. There are lots of opportunities for assistants to network either through industry events or through specific assistant events. While attending these events it is always worthwhile thinking about how your organisation can benefit other’s. What can you sell at these events. This is how your Executive thinks while attending networking events and you should act the same.

Improving efficiency of a process or procedure.

Again, this is an area that Assistants can ace. We are heavily involved in the day to day process and procedures within our organisations. If there is an area that you think can be improved then it is well worth speaking to your Executive about making some changes. Sometimes, it is worthwhile just making the change – if you can – and tell your Executive after. That my friend, is proactivity!

Improving the quality of a product or service.

To improve the quality of a product or service firstly you need, you have a good understanding of what your organisation does. Business acumen is so very vital for assistants, but many of us probably do not know all of the ins and outs of our organisation. What are the top products, who are the clients, what services does your business offer them? Once you have a greater understanding of what your business does you will have the knowledge to participate in conversations about the business and make suggestions. You have regular contact with your Executive and you have access to reports and documents so you are in a good position to add value in this area.

Fixing an existing problem, preventing a future one.

Assistants are natural problem solvers, most of us will have this skill in our toolkit. We are really well placed in the organisation to see problems and prevent future ones from occurring. Just think, how often we are called upon to sort out the problem with the photocopier? Our colleagues come to us with all manner of issues, so why not take the time to solve these issues so that they don’t happen again. This really can add value to the organisation and aid productivity.

Assistants add value everyday.

Often without really knowing it. We are hugely valuable to our organisations. We have so many skills that can be put to good use. During the Assistant Conference, we will explore these skills in greater detail and help you unlock your potential. Places for the conference are still available so do check out the website for more information… Here are a few more details below.

Assist Conference 2017

During the conference, we will be discussing all of the important tools that assistants need to succeed in the role – now and in the next 5 years. Taking place on the 24th February in London for only £300+VAT. If you would like to book your place on the conference, check out the programme or the speakers, please do make your way over to the website.

How can assistants add value in the workplace?