Key Soft Skills for New Assistants
In this chapter we are going to cover all of the soft skills, key competencies and strengths Assistants need to create a successful mindset.
Creating a successful mindset for Assistants starts with developing your soft skills and key competencies. The strengths that will help you face the challenges in the role.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this is a big chapter of the guide. We cover a lot of key competencies that will help you succeed in the role. Take your time with this chapter, if you have to come back to the content a few times to work you way through the chapter and impliment some of the suggestions that is a great way of embedding your learning.
Here is what we are going to cover:
A crucial aspect of being an Assistant is that ability to organise everything backstage so that others can shine.
We are so used to being that support for others that quite often we are stuck in a bit of a rut with our own personal and professional development. I wonder if it stops us from putting ourselves forward and grabbing the spotlight now and again. It gets to a certain point in an Assistants career when we know the role well, and we are sitting comfortably inside the safety of our comfort zone.
The problem is that inside your comfort zone, there is the possibility to disengage from any challenge, to find yourself unmotivated and bored.
Don’t get me wrong, you’ve worked hard on getting to a point where you are comfortable but if you feel like something is missing. If you want to do more and seek more challenging work, you should get out of your comfort zone right now.
Here is why.
We grow professionally and personally if we do things that make us feel a bit scared. Set yourself a goal, something that will stretch you. Write it down, define what it is that you want to achieve and go for it!
We get to know what we enjoy in life. If we don’t try new things, we may never know what hidden skills we have, what we are good at, and what makes us happy!
I bet the last time you felt giddy with happiness you were at least a little outside your comfort zone!
We will answer those pesky “what if” questions that so often arise and come of nothing with actual real evidence of action.
You don’t know what you are missing until you try it!
Finishing something that we initially fear will result in a real sense of achievement.
The first time I got up on stage and spoke to an audience about Practically Perfect PA I was so scared I wanted the ground to swallow me whole.
But I did it.
I keep doing it, and when I get a round of applause at the end of my presentation, I feel like I have achieved something because I am so far removed from my comfort zone.
Breaking habits are a good thing, stepping out of our comfort zone might introduce new practices, but at least they are unique!
There is no better way to grow than doing the things that cause you to fear, breaking through that barrier will always lead to growth and a new understanding of what you are capable of doing.
It is easy to get bored in a comfort zone; you will miss adventure and excitement if you stay where you. Remember that each time you hit a milestone, you will have a ton of memories, experiences and knowledge to pull from next time you encounter another challenge.
It is a lot easier to say yes to more exciting work when you have put yourself out there.
Once you’ve pushed your self forward, you never know who is looking and trust me some people are doing the work you are scared to put yourself forward for, with much less skill and talent than you. You’ve got this, go for it!
In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take so even if we move slightly outside of our little box it is one step away from always doing what we still do, which isn’t good! After you take the leap, you will stand taller, you will have more confidence, and you will feel pride. All good things!
Don’t play small!
The possibilities for Assistants are endless, and you should never play small because of what you do in your career. You are not inadequate so never play small in your life. As Diana Ross once said, “You can’t just sit there and wait for people to give you that golden dream. You’ve got to get out there and make it happen for yourself.”
Having low self-esteem or confidence issues can be a real challenge in life, particularly in the office and particularly for assistants. We have a difficult job and if we are unable to stand up for ourselves this makes the role a lot harder. It can lead to feeling unchallenged, unappreciated and more importantly managed ineffectively by your Executive.
Although not all of us are blessed with unwavering self-confidence (I certainly am not!) There are areas within the role that every assistant should feel comfortable with and have confidence in their own abilities.
Here are my top three:
The skills that you have developed over the years are unique to you and make you stand out within the role and within your organisation.
These are the things that you are really good! Confidence comes from knowing what you are really good at. It could be, for example, that you are super organised, you are calm under pressure. It could be that you get on well with people and build rapport easily. It could be related to your IT skills or your ability to speak more than one language.
Whatever it is – you must be proud and confident in the skills that you have developed over the years. These skills make you a fantastic Assistant.
There are certain tasks that assistants need to be confident in executing – it kinda goes without saying.
From my experience I had to know how to manage diaries and emails, organise travel, work with Microsoft Office and be a strong gatekeeper for my Executive. I just had to be confident in these tasks and know that I could do them well.
Otherwise I would not be good at my job. I think this is the same for every assistant. If you are unsure of your abilities in these areas it can lead to problems with your Executive.
For example if you are not 100% confident that you can move meetings and reschedule their diary without asking them first (even if they have told you they are happy for you to manage their diary) they will start to doubt your abilities and will start to move their own meetings around and cancelling things – trust me, this leads to chaos!
Communicating with senior members of staff
This is a tricky one.
It can be really daunting speaking to senior members of staff but if your Executive is a board level Director they will and therefore you will have to work and communicate with other senior Executives practically everyday.
You may find these Executives difficult to talk to, they may be really unapproachable and they may be (quite frankly) hard going. But, it is vital that you have the confidence to deal with them on behalf of your Executive.
You will have to be able to speak to them about meetings, deadlines, important information and you will have to make small talk with them – especially when they are hanging around outside your Executive’s office!
If you don’t feel confident in dealing with these types at the moment you will have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. If it is urgent, rather than waiting to speak to their assistant, pick up the phone and dial them directly. If it helps, plan what you will say first (write it down if that gives you a bit of a safety blanket).
Once you have pushed yourself to speak over the phone, take a trip to their office. It is much easier communicating with senior Execs if they know who you are and you have built a little rapport with them.
How do you gain confidence?
If you feel unconfident in any skills or tasks that are essential within the Assistant role it is well worth identify these and attending a training course or learning online. Have a real think about the areas where you do lack confidence and if it is affecting your performance.
You may be really good at covering up any confidence issues – which is fine in the short term but in the long term it is much easier if you spend a little time building your knowledge in these areas, pushing yourself to step outside your comfort zone and increasing your confidence.
- Talk yourself into confidence. I do this a lot. I talk to myself (mostly in my head but sometimes out loud too!) and I tell myself that I have got this. I can do this. I am not nervous; I am excited. I have the experience, and I have the knowledge to do this. These validations help me reframe my nerves so that they don’t stop me doing what I have to do even though I am nervous. Talking to myself also boosts my confidence because I am overcoming any negative thoughts that might be getting in the way.
- Think about your body language. A lot of research has been conducted around body language and confidence. Changing your posture can give you a boost in confidence (check out Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk on Power Posing) it can also help you hide any lack of confidence from other people. So when you need to appear confident, stand tall, head high, shoulders back and off you go! A five-minute power pose also helps so much!
- Put yourself in their shoes. This is another technique I use a lot to help me manage any negative thoughts I have. When I do something that requires me to be brave, to have confidence and to be vulnerable in front of people I often ask myself, what are they thinking right now? What is going through their mind? Usually, I answer that with, what would I think if I was them? It certainly wouldn’t be anything negative. It would be positive – because usually people are friendly and they respect other’s who get up and step outside of their comfort zone. Also if you frame it in a way that you are getting people on your side, then they are with you, not against you. When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes for just a while it makes you realise that they are not holding you back – you are!
- Visualise the end result. This is my all-time favourite trick to get through challenging scenarios that take me way out of my comfort zone. I visualise the end result. If it is public speaking, for example, I imagine the clapping at the end of the presentation and walking off the stage. If it is an event I have worked hard on, I make sure I plan something rewarding after the event and visualise feeling happy doing the reward thing I have given myself as a treat. I envision celebrating and the feeling of satisfaction. If I have to take part in a problematic conversation, I visualise the result again. I think about why I have to have that conversation, what I want to get out of it and what happens when I get what I want (I might not get what I wish to but visualising the result gives me the confidence to have the awkward conversation – to start the process).
- Be prepared. For me, lack of confidence raised its ugly head when I was unprepared. This is ten times worse when you are unprepared and stepping outside your comfort zone. So if you know, you are going to be doing something that requires you to be confident and feel brave. Prepare!! Preparation does help with your confidence because you have the knowledge, skills and expertise to back you up and your brain will know that you are prepared!
Before attempting any type of communication think about what it is that you are trying to convey.
Organise this in your mind and stick to the key points. If you need to, write these key points down so that you can refer back if the topic runs away from you.
This should be used in any form of communication from emailing someone to meeting them face to face.
Be clear and articulate.
Maintain good eye contact and avoid mumbling, if you have lost your train of thought, it is best to stop talking until you can remember your point.
Listening is equally as essential as speaking. You should be listening to what the other person is saying and also try not to interrupt them.
Be aware of how you come across to others.
This includes your approach, tone of voice and body language. How we are thinking and feeling affects our communication style so try to remain positive even if you are in the foulest mood imaginable!
We all have difficulties at work from time to time but try to stay upbeat and offer solutions rather than just having a general moan.
It is also important to be aware of other people’s communication style, particularly for Assistants as we deal with all types of people from clients to senior members of staff.
Knowing how to adjust the way we communicate depending on the person we are speaking to is essential.
Know how to communicate with your key stakeholders (by stakeholders I mean those that you deal with on a regular basis and have an influence over your role in the company).
Think about how much of an impact these people have on your day-to-day work, how frequently you should communicate with them and which communication channel will be the most effective. I always find it useful to have a communication plan in place, mainly if I am working on a new project or with colleagues I have not met before.
It isn’t a grand document, merely a note detailing how these people prefer to communicate, for example, do they always call me even if I have only emailed them or do they only ever email, do they prefer face to face meetings or happy to receive a regular email update?
Once I know how they like to communicate I can adjust my style so that we can work effectively together. Having a small plan in place also means that you do not become reliant on one type of communication channel. I can overuse emails because they are quick and easy to ping out to everyone but if I am aware that I work with someone who prefers face to face communication I force myself to go and speak to them.
If you can think about the best way to get your point across to the audience you are addressing then you are effectively communicating, something that I am sure all Assistants can do.
I think it is hugely important for assistants to be proactive so that they are noticed and rewarded within the work place.
Proactivity, showing initiative and demonstrating your worth should eventually pay off with promotions and recognition. It isn’t easy (in fact it can be ridiculously hard!) and actually it can be quite difficult to know where to start.
How do you, as an Assistant, show initiative?
Where do you even begin?
Well there are a few areas within the role that allow assistants to show their initiative and here they are…
Managing your Executive’s time
Managing your Executive’s time is a core requirement and a great way for Assistants to show their initiative. I love this description of what Assistants should concentrate on when managing their Executive’s time:
I think a successful Assistant serves as a first line of contact or liaison with the rest of the staff and the client. Your supervisor, manager, or CEO can be a very busy person and their time should be protected from interruptions, not because they are too important but simply because they can provide a better response if they are prepared for the request or inquiry that is coming through. A good Assistant should be able to handle most requests in a way that not only gives the person the information or time they are requesting but also pulls pieces together so the manager or CEO can provide the best response.
Assistants can save unwanted intrusions on their Executive’s time but also act as a first response on issues. Assistants can proactively package all of the information they receive throughout the day and present this to their Executive during their one-to-one meetings.
Simple administrative tasks
Again this is a core requirement for any Assistant.
Take ownership of all of the simple administrative tasks, make improvements where possible and never let your boss do any of this stuff themselves. I always say if you can demonstrate that you have complete control over the basic elements of the role there is a greater chance of you being asked to take on additional and more interesting work.
Do your homework
Business acumen is so important for assistants to have and a great area to show initiative. If you are up to date on the office politics you can feed this back to your boss.
If you are aware of new policies coming into practice you can help transition your Executive and the rest of your department into the process. If you know of any events or news that might affect your manager, again, you can present the information in a way that will benefit them.
This doesn’t take any input from your manager and yet it will benefit them enormously.
Work with your colleagues
Another way to demonstrate initiative is to volunteer for things, take on extra work and always be there to help your colleagues. This approach can be exhausting. But, it will get you in front of people that can help your career and this approach will certainly show your Executive that you can work on your own initiative.
Just remember. Don’t say yes to every request.
Taking initative and being curious at work
Three exceptionally experienced Executive Assistants talk about how to take initiative at work to increase the career options as an Executive Assistant.
Taking initiative at work has led our three panellists to a more enjoyable and fulfilling assistant career as well as allowed their organisation to fully tap their skills.
In this session chaired by Nicky Christmas, former EA and now Editor & Founder of Practically Perfect PA, you will find practical ideas on how you can be a more proactive personal assistant or executive assistant.
This brilliant session was recorded at Europe’s largest event for Assistants, the Future Assistant European Summit.
A huge challenge we face as Assistants is moving from a position of support staff, where we take on any task assigned to us, to a more proactive position where we source our own work, take on projects that we think will make a difference and make decisions based on the best interests of the business and our Executives.
This is a big leap for many Assistants, but one we must take in order to move the industry forward.
How can you be more accountable at work?
This is a big question! What do I mean by being more accountable and why is it important for Assistants?
For me, being accountable means taking control of your own success, managing your workload, your career and your relationship with your Executive and your colleagues. It means, making decisions and taking ownership of the results.
It is incredibly important for us to be accountable for our work but, for some reason, this is something that we struggle with.
I think it harks back to the age old problem that we see ourselves as ‘just the assistant’, that we don’t really have the authority to question things and make decisions. We are given work to complete rather than put forward our own suggestions. The term ‘support staff’ doesn’t really help either because it suggests that we are there to only offer support, do the things that are asked of us and not much more.
This, my friends, is a load of rubbish! The role is changing, there are more opportunities for assistants than ever before and we must, must, must be accountable for our own success.
The benefits of accountability?
When you take control of your own workload, accept accountability for your actions and take real responsibility for what you are tasked with, well, the benefits are huge. Here are just a few differences you will find in your behaviour once you start to think about accountability within your role:
You will set yourself goals
You will recognise that you are the expert at what you do
You will recognise the power that you hold within your organisation
So, accountability – it’s a good thing right?! Yup, I’m probably talking to the converted here. But, the question is. Where do you start? Let’s have a look at how assistants, can specifically, be more accountable within the role:
What tasks do you have control over?
This is the first step to being more accountable. Have a look at all of the day to day tasks that are assigned to you. I bet there are loads.
These are the tasks that you should have complete control over. They may be minor things like picking up the post every morning, through to larger tasks like managing your Exec’s schedule. For every task that you have complete control over, think to yourself – how can I make each and every task a complete success?
What can I do to ensure the process attached to each task runs smoothly and is working well?
Make a list of these tasks and spend some time making them more efficient. You are accountable for these tasks and you should take responsibility for their success.
Be results focused
When you are more accountable for your actions it will lead to you being much more results focused, which in turn makes you more valuable to your organisation.
With everything you do, think to yourself what are the goals here, what are my objectives, what do I want to achieve and what are the useful outcomes.
This level of critical thinking is really beneficial to your business because you will constantly be looking for the return on investment in everything you do. If you find you spend ages on a task that is not business critical or adds value, because you are accountable for that task, you can adjust the process and make it more effective.
What areas can you influence?
What areas can you influence?
There are a whole load of tasks that you may not have direct responsibility for but you do have influence over. Again, if it helps, make a list. A task that springs to mind is working with suppliers. You are not the person that necessarily signs the contracts for new suppliers, but you do use them probably more than most so again take some responsibility for this relationship.
Let your Executive know if a supplier isn’t quite working, If they are great, let other people in your organisation know so they can benefit too.
Be honest about what you are doing and where you are with tasks
Being accountable for your work doesn’t just mean that you control the good stuff, it also means you are honest when things aren’t quite working.
If you decide to take more ownership of your work, then you’ll have to put your hand up when you might fall behind with deadlines or you are struggling with something.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you are working on projects that push and challenge you there will be times you need to seek advice from your Executive (just like any other member of staff).
Remember, you have to be accountable for all of your work
I remember one time I was working on a really brilliant, company wide, project. I was super excited about it and spending a lot of time working on the details.
One afternoon, my Executive called me into her office for a quick catch up. She told me that she was really proud that I was working on this big project, but had noticed that I wasn’t quite up to speed with my day to day tasks and I’d missed a few things that I had always done for her.
She was totally right.
Yup, I was having a great time working on this new task, but I had to take account of all of the other stuff I had to do. I let the ball drop, but being accountable meant I had to put my hands up, apologise and say it wouldn’t happen again. Being accountable for your mistake sucks, but it is as important as being accountable for your successes!
What training do you need to be in total control of your work?
Another aspect of being accountable and in control of your work is the realisation that you might need some help to make each task a success.
This is why it is important that you ask for training and your organisation takes your request seriously. When you are accountable you know that other people within your organisation depend on the results of your work so without training how can you perform to the best of your abilities?
Last but not least.
Accountability has to begin with you. It is such an important competency for assistants and it will only become more valued as our industry moves away from a support role into a business critical role.
With every adjustment to your work style, you should speak to your Executive about how to implement these changes. Accountability is a brilliant competency to have as part of your career development plan and you could really flesh this out into specific SMART objectives.
SMART objectives and goal setting resources for Assistants
These free templates will help you stay on track throughout the year. Included in this bundle are:
- A List of SMART goal and objective examples
- A SMART objectives template
- Goal setting worksheet
Look at any job description for Assistants, and you will see the word discretion. It is a crucial skill for Assistants and something that we have to practice on a daily basis.
One slip and you are at risk of jeopardising your reputation and all the hard work you have put into building the relationship with your Executive.
So with that being said let’s have a look at discretion at work for Assistants and how we can display trust in every aspect of their role.
People want to know what you know
This is important to understand.
In any form of business, information is currency and people want to be in the loop. Every single one of your colleagues will know that you are privy to information that they do not have and in some cases, they will try to get that information from you.
It is your job to be discreet and keep your Executive’s confidence so how do you go about doing that?
Lead by example
This is an excellent place to start.
If your colleagues are sharing office gossip work out very quickly if it is harmless or if it should be avoided. Here is something I wrote on this subject a few years ago:
It can be difficult not to get involved in gossip and general office banter, it is fun, and it makes the day go quickly. I think some gossip can be harmless and I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that you shy away from joining in. What I would suggest is that you identify harmless gossip, such as what happened in the pub after work or sharing in a joke about a member of the team. Once you have defined the general good-natured discussions, you can quickly see when the banter turns into gossip that you should well avoid. For example, this could be people discussing other members of staff that aren’t there to answer for themselves, or events that are taking place in the company that influence jobs and or pay. If you make a conscious choice not to get involved in these types of conversations, your colleagues will notice and probably avoid discussing it with you further. Another suggestion is not to start any of this type of gossip, no matter how harmless you think it might be. If you initiate anything, people will assume you are happy to part with other possibly more sensitive information at a later point.
Use your judgement
We are privy to so much detail, and information about the business and everyone that works with us and, in many cases, Executive’s rely on their Assistants to disseminate this information using their judgement. To do this effectively, firstly you have to know the business inside and out.
You have to understand what is happening, who it is going to affect and how your Executive would want you to deal with the detail. If you do not feel comfortable sharing some aspects but not others or you are not quite sure of the tone you should take then do not say anything. Wait until your Executive is available for you to find out what messages you can share with your colleagues.
Otherwise, use your judgement. Your Executive trusts you to act on their behalf, do so wisely.
We are becoming more transparent at work
And that is a good thing; it is great to work in an environment where you feel like your colleagues are your friends, you know your Executive’s family and what they like to do outside of work.
We spend so much time at work it is fantastic when you feel supported and at ease. But, here comes the but! As an Assistant, you really should not be an open book.
Yes, for sure, share your personal life, but also you do need to maintain a level of professionalism that comes with the position that you have.
You are privileged to have access to so much information, and the only way you are going to excel in the role is to keep all of that detail private and confidential.
Assistants deal with a lot of high-level tasks, that mean something to the business. We operate in a high pressured environment, and if we make mistakes, they tend to matter.
So, trying not to take things too personally is hard.
If you also think about it, we work with people who are under a lot of pressure that can easily take their stress and anxieties out on us. I know the feeling well – when you start to flush, and your body goes all tingly, and you think to yourself ‘did they just say that to me!?’ and then you have to try really hard not to react. It is tough but growing a thick skin, rolling with the punches and not taking things too personally really will hold you in good stead as an Assistant. Here are a few tricks I’ve used to develop resilience.
Look at the bigger picture – what does it mean to you?
This has always been my first port of call when dealing with stressful situations. I’ve worked in some horrible environments over the years (customer service operator in a call centre and waitress spring to mind) and whenever I had to deal with a customer who was not happy I immediately thought of the bigger picture.
They want to vent.
It is making them better and actually, are you that bothered by this outburst? No? So don’t let it bother you because I get to go home and forget all about this person and their problem!
I took this approach into my Assistant roles. I looked at the bigger picture in every situation and asked myself what it meant to me. For example, if someone spoke to me severely, but that was unusual for them, I’d let it slide knowing they would probably apologise later and explain they were having a bad day.
If someone always spoke badly to me, then I’d address it because that behaviour is not acceptable. Work out what is important to you and go from there and remember it is their bad day, not yours!
Keep busy with work that matters.
When you do feel like you things are not going the way you want them to then it is always worth focusing on the work that keeps you busy, makes you happy and is essential to the business. In this space, you can tell yourself that you are worthy and what you do in the organisation matters.
Confidence is such a great skill to develop for Assistants because it gives you a shield when other people are trying to hurt or upset you. Having faith in what you do and knowing what you do matters really will help you be more resilient.
Maintain a positive outlook.
If you have received some negative feedback, always try to maintain a positive outlook. Even if you think the feedback is unfair, it is worth listening to what they have to say and taking any actions you believe are necessary to up-skill or improve in the role. If you try hard, you can turn any negative into a positive.
The best way to do this is to listen to the entire feedback with interrupting and remain calm. When they have finished, ask for specific examples of the behaviour so that you don’t repeat the mistakes and then say ‘ I hear you, I’ll do better next time’. After that, you can leave the office and go vent to your friends and family!
Seek out your network.
If you have a strong network in your office, then this is the place to go when you need a little motivation and back-rubbing. This is where a tremendous Assistant network comes into play because we all get how hard the role is and how much pressure is put on our shoulders.
When you feel something personally at work, you should always have someone to talk to even if it is your friends and family (they have to listen!). Sometimes you need that affirmation that you are doing a good job!
You are not your job.
This is my last point. When you are being criticised, remind yourself that your work is being criticised not you personally. You are fantastic, inside work and outside work and nobody can take that away from you. Give yourself some perspective.
You are not a brain surgeon. You are not saving lives (I don’t think anyway!), you are not pulling people out of burning buildings so although your job is essential, it is not REALLY important.
Perspective will help you build your resilience and not take things too personally.
I always want to make this point.
It is up to you what environment you work in. If you feel like you are continually being criticised unfairly if you feel like your Executive is continuously making you feel uncomfortable and unhappy or they are misbehaving this is very different. You should address the situation because it is not on.
You don’t have to work in a toxic environment.
What does resilience mean?
So I think this is an excellent place to start. I think the best description I have found for resilience at work is from the Forbes website:
Resilience means anticipating risks and feeling comfortable with change. Resilience involves limiting damage during turbulent times, absorbing hard knocks, regrouping and bouncing back when the worst happens. It’s the ability to start feeling better and bolster your confidence after a setback. It’s remaining engaged in the midst of shifting challenge.
I must say this perfectly sums up the skill to me and shows why it is vital for assistants to have resilience. We are always faced with changing and challenging situations.
We have to rely on our self-confidence to bounce back from worst-case scenarios and more often than not we will be asked to help when colleagues want to limit damages (or should I say we are asked to clear up the whole sorry mess!)
I think most assistants are resilient types; it seems somewhat ingrained along with being organised and enjoying writing a list or two! Like any core soft skill resilience can be enhanced, let’s have a look at a few areas that can improve resilience.
I bang on about communication a lot, don’t I!?! It is, for me, the key to being a successful assistant and although a critical skill in its own right is also the centre of every other aspect of the role.
As the description said, resilience is about anticipating risk – this will only come when you can freely communicate with your Executives. If the challenges are coming from your Exec, it will always be helpful to have an open dialogue so that you can find out what pressures they are under and what you can do to help.
Another one of my favs! If you are aware of any issues that might crop up within the organisation, then you will be much better prepared for any stress that follows.
Forewarned is forearmed as they say! When challenges arise, your business acumen will come in useful when dealing with the issues.
You will appear engaged and know to handle a crisis.
Having a strong network before internally in your organisation and with other assistants, clients and suppliers is pretty crucial these days.
It comes into its own when you are in crisis mode. Having a network to fall back on when something goes wrong is so helpful.
See challenges as opportunities.
I think the most resilient people are also optimists. It helps if you can see challenges as opportunities which I know is easier said than done!
Once the crisis is over it is always worth sitting down with your Executive and looking at how the challenge was handled, how did you react and what you could do in the future to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Next up in our series of blog posts on core soft skills, I am going to look at diplomacy and tact for assistants. Assistants have to possess several soft or interpersonal skills. Some are essential. Some are nice-to-haves and others can be handy but not always necessary.
Diplomacy (or at the very least tact) is an absolute must-have.
In my mind diplomacy is ‘the art of dealing with people sensitively and tactfully.’
It is the ability to communicate with people using an approach that considers their feelings and potential reaction to the situation. It is a skill that allows assistants to find common ground with every person at every level of business. For these reasons, it is sooooo helpful if assistants can be diplomatic.
But, let’s face it, diplomacy and tact are not natural skills to master – the world would be a much better place if everyone were diplomatic! Sometimes it can difficult to find common ground or to be able to communicate with someone that is demanding.
Here are a few suggestions that may help you be diplomatic in those high-pressure situations we often face as assistants.
Think before you speak
Oh, how annoying! This is easier said than done, isn’t it!? When a senior manager wants to get time in your Executive’s jam-packed diary and won’t take no for an answer, it can be pretty challenging to take a step back and think about what you are going to say.
But this is where diplomacy skills come in very very handy.
Just take a few seconds to think about where this person is coming from (they are probably stressed on a tight deadline and need a decision from your Exec before they can complete their work) and adjust what you are going to say according.
Get to know people
Professional diplomats are also professional networks (they have the best parties). They get to know people, and so should assistants. Understanding what is happening around you, what pressures people are facing and having a general sense of priorities in the workplace will enable you to be more diplomatic in your choices and your communications.
Telling everyone about your great promotion while a load of your colleagues have just been made redundant will not make you a popular person in the office! Merely being aware of what is going on will help enhance your diplomacy skills heaps!
Pick your battles
This is a piece of advice I have recently received from a mum of three small children, and it very much applies to assistants as well!
Diplomacy is not just about communicating effectively; it is knowing when to walk away from conflict, when to get the task done simply or when to stand up for yourself and be heard.
If you decide that conflict is inevitable, there are a few simple tricks that ensure you stay on the right side of tact.
- Keep to the facts
- Deal with the issue at hand, not the person and the many reasons they annoy you
- Decide what do you want out of this conflict and what you hope to achieve in the process
- Don’t raise your voice
When you disagree with someone, have the resources to back up your opinion (you might want to do something this way, but I want to do it that way and here is why)
You may think to yourself that this whole diplomacy thing seems like a lot of extra hassle when you have enough going on as it is. It might seem like going out of your way to being helpful to, well, idiots.
But Assistants must be able to communicate with everyone in the highest pressured of situations. As a gatekeeper, you must mitigate the amount of … yes, I’m going to use that word again… idiots… that get into your Executive’s office. If you are, using our example, able to either deal with the Senior Manager’s request yourself or calm him down before he sees your Executive, you will have saved your boss all that unnecessary hassle.
A lot of our time is spent managing relationship and have diplomacy skills certainly helps that process.
This is a question I have faced many times during my career. Your personal life can affect your work in so many ways; it could be anything from a few late nights that make you feel tired in the office to have real stress at home that does impact your performance. How do you stop what is happening at home from interfering with your office persona?
How do you stop your personal life affecting your work?
Here are a few of my tips if you ever feel less than 100% at work…
Try to use work as a distraction from what is happening at home by really getting stuck into the tasks you have. If you are not entirely focused on your work, now is an excellent time to do the jobs you have been putting off because they are a bit dull.
Do you have any filing or a load of photocopying to do? Use this time to get those basic tasks out of the way.
If you are not very busy at work, this is the time to get busy. Ask to sit in on meetings or do errands for other members of staff, anything to keep your mind off of your problems at home.
Concentrating on other things can quite often cure the little worries you have in your personal life and put things into perspective.
Do talk to your trusted colleagues at work but try to keep this restricted to lunchtime or over a coffee away from the office. It is good to talk through your problems, and they may be able to help you with your work but don’t make this a regular occurrence as you don’t want to be seen to be too reliant on your colleagues.
If you are “tired” and by tired, I think you know what I mean (you’ve been socialising a little too much)! Remember you only have to get through 8 hours at the most. Drink lots of coffee, take regular breaks, go straight home after work and have an early night!
Can you talk to your manager? If so do. I’ve had times that I’ve needed to speak to my boss and explain why I’m not performing to my best. They had noticed and appreciated my honesty. My manager said I could leave early and get my issues sorted at home and start again tomorrow. It helped greatly.
Quite a lot of companies I’ve worked for have offered support through a helpline which covers quite a few issues from money problems, to legal advice to counselling.
I’ve used the hotline a few times, and it does help. Even if the information is a bit generic, it can point you in the right direction.
Plan something beautiful for the weekend ahead even if it is time spent in your home relaxing. If home is the problem, try to go out or do something that makes you feel relaxed.
Trying to get the most out of your weekend will mean you can feel refreshed once you are back in the office on Monday.
If you do need time off work to get your issues resolved do take time off that you need. Take a personal day, a holiday or phone in sick. If you need the time away from the office urgently, then your manager should understand.
If they don’t, then I believe that says a lot more about the company ethos towards its staff than you!
It is essential I think to keep your work life and personal life separate and sometimes this means merely putting on a brave face and getting on with the day.
If, however, you are overwhelmed with your own life do try to talk to your manager or HR. If it is not a regular occurrence, your company should understand and help you and provide excellent support.
Here are my ten top tips on talking with power at work:
- Remember that Assistants represent their boss always. This is not the case for your colleagues. In any form of communication, try to channel your manager’s authority by using the same tone that they take in emails or conversing over the phone.
- Christine Jahnke, a speech coach and the author of The Well-Spoken Woman, said: “Once you are in the room, recognise that you belong there.” This is such good advice for Assistants. There is a reason we are at the meeting, even if we are there to take the minutes. Speaking with authority is mostly believing in your voice and having the confidence to voice an opinion. This is easier said than done, but the first step is to think that you belong in that room!
- Plan what you are going to say before you say it. Assistants are already well trained in getting information to their boss’s in small doses, in-between meetings and on the hoof. So we should be quite concise and articulate anyway. Planning what you say before you say it will add to the clarity of your message and will make you look like you know what you are talking about – the key to speaking with authority!
- Take a breath! This is something that I am still working on. I can speak very very quickly so I must work at my pace and I have to remember to breathe! A measured pace, when conversing or speaking to a group of people, will make you appear controlled and thoughtful.
- I often find people who have confidence in their authority rarely flaunt it. I usually try to add humour and personality to my communications in the hope people assume I am confident in my jurisdiction. I find this works as an Executive Assistant in charge of who sees my manager. I know I have the power to decide what meetings he takes and what goes in his diary, so I try to project ease when dealing with these tasks. I think it makes my colleagues and our clients connect with me on a level that we might not have if I was only articulate and polite. I think it makes me look naturally authoritative when it comes to diary management.
- Speak to your manager about your authority. How much do you exactly have and how many decisions can you take without their consent? With the power that you have try to own it! Take pride in your decision making, think of yourself as the expert in that field and remember that you will be judged on the performance of those tasks.
- It is easy to get upset when your authority is being challenged. This will happen at some point in your career as an Assistant – trust me! The best piece of advice I can give is to try your hardest not to let it upset you. Don’t let the person know you are angry or hurt; this will, unfortunately, undermine your authority. When you feel your blood boiling say that you will take what the other person has said on board and respond later. Then hot-foot it to the privacy of the ladies room to sort yourself out! We have all done that, I certainly have! As much as you want to be liked at work the most important thing is that you are respected, so keep a check on your emotions and have confidence that your authority in the matter at hand will be enough.
- I am terrible for this but speaking with authority does not come with lots of ‘errrrrr’ or ‘uuummmmm’ or ‘I think’. It also doesn’t help if you fidget or play with your hair. Again, traits that I have – I did have the nickname ‘Bridget the fidget’ growing up! I’m still working on this one, but once you have cracked it you really will sound more authoritative!
- In areas where you have no authority don’t try to speak with authority, there is no need to overcompensate. Stick to the tasks and decisions that you know you have control over. Your authority will undoubtedly be diminished if you are overstepping your boundaries.
- The best piece of advice I’ve had about speaking with authority is to remember the power of silence. We have all been in conversations when we have been nervous and try to fill as much silence as possible. It does come across as lacking confidence in an obvious way. So instead you should make your point then stop talking. A pause before you answer a question is good too because confidence in your authority means that you are about to say something worth waiting for. Trust me this works!