How does a secretary improve your working life?
November 17, 2008 3:05 PM   Subscribe

I've just started a new job and have inherited a secretary. What should I be asking her to do? I've never had a secretary before, so I'm at a loss as to how I should be using her skills and experience.

I started a new job last Monday, and on Thursday my boss said "oh, I forgot to tell you, K is your secretary." I asked what that meant, and she said "To be honest, I don't know what she did for M (my predecessor, who left 6 months ago). K is close to retirement, so we don't want to make her redundant, so you just need to find things to keep her busy. She's not good at taking minutes though, so don't ask her to do that. She's an old-school type secretary." I have no idea what she's been doing for the last 6 months.

I had a brief chat with K today, apologised that I hadn't made time for her last week, and have a meeting scheduled on Wednesday to discuss her role and how she can support me / the team. But I need some ideas!

I've never had a secretary before so I have no idea what to expect from K. She's helpful and friendly, and competent on MS Office type applications (I think) and willing to contribute - I don't get the impression that she's happy doing nothing (but given my boss' comments, she's probably unwilling to admit how little she does at the moment, in case redundancy looms) But I want her to feel useful and valued - and I'm certainly up for anything that will reduce my workload!

- I touch type and almost never send letters (everything's via email)
- I've never done dictation - I think that I'd type something much more quickly myself than if I dictated it (and I revise a lot as I'm going)
- She's a secretary not a personal assistant, so picking up drycleaning etc isn't on the cards
- The 2 national forums that I chair on a regular basis are organised by the departmental administrator, not her
- I have lots of meetings, often around the country. Would a secretary book tickets for me? Print out and collate meeting materials? (But that still wouldn't be enough to sustain a fulltime post)
- What else would a secretary do?
- I have a small team, so I'm happy for her to become a team secretary rather than a personal secretary

Any suggestions / personal experiences would be welcomed!
posted by finding.perdita to Work & Money (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you have a filing system or any kind of records management, organising and maintaining that is a secretary's job.
If you don't have one, perhaps you need one.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:16 PM on November 17, 2008

It might be helpful for people to know what *your* job is.
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:20 PM on November 17, 2008

She can file for you, she can make phone calls for you and then transfer them to you, she can make appointments for you, she can keep your calendar, do your printing and copying, book your tickets, etc.

A secretary does anything that will relieve a boss of scut work. Also, secretaries are good at guarding the boss from unwarranted interruptions (let her screen your calls and sort your mail, etc.)

(I did stuff like the above plus did data entry, etc when I worked a similar position.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:23 PM on November 17, 2008

Best answer: What should I be asking her to do?

"Tell me everything my predecessor did."
posted by rokusan at 3:23 PM on November 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

- I have lots of meetings, often around the country. Would a secretary book tickets for me? Print out and collate meeting materials? (But that still wouldn't be enough to sustain a fulltime post)

This is often part of it. She can actually schedule your meetings for you, as well. Go through your business mail to pick out the stuff you really need to see, if that's an issue. I'm not sure what else.
posted by dilettante at 3:24 PM on November 17, 2008

Best answer: Most likely, the secretary would:

* Maintain your schedule. Your secretary can coordinate meetings (finding the best time for a meeting given the attendees' schedules), coordinate with others who are planning meetings so they can find a place in your schedule, or place appointments on your calendar. Some of these tasks aren't as necessary for a secretary to do in the world of Exchange, Notes or Zimbra, but you don't mention how automated scheduling is in your office
* Manage interruptions. Your secretary can triage incoming phone calls and office visits, sending only the ones along that you've scheduled (per above), blocking calls or visits that you don't want to take, and interrupting you in a way that doesn't waste time if the secretary thinks the call or visit is important but not previously scheduled.

* Coordinating purchases. Your secretary may not be a personal assistant, but if you need to purchase a batch of office supplies or engage in time-consuming dealings with your purchasing or accounts departments, it's certainly appropriate for your secretary to do.

* Odd jobs. This can be handling copies, stuffing envelopes, filing receipts, running documentation places in the office, managing incoming mail, etc.

But -- regardless of the awkwardness of the situation -- you should ask her for an assessment of what she's historically done. There may be some sort of weird infrastructure snag in your office ("We don't have a meeting room schedule??") or bureaucratic hassle ("We have to submit forms in triplicate to three different individuals to buy a box of pens??") that she may specialize in getting around to avoid wasting your time.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 3:27 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Definitely travel arrangements, and filing for your travel expense reimbursements.

Printing, photocopying etc.

Answering your phone if you're away or on the other line.

Are there other bookkeeping/admin functions your team needs done - making sure invoices get paid, office supplies get ordered, contracts get set up properly, etc?

Ask her what she did for your predecessor and what she's interested in doing.

If you can establish a good relationship, and she's been around for a while, she may have a lot of good insight into office politics and how to get things done efficiently in your workplace. Depending on how big/bureaucratic a place you work, this can be very helpful.

On preview, others said most of this and scheduling meetings with multiple participants is HUGE and very handy to have someone to cover.
posted by yarrow at 3:30 PM on November 17, 2008

Your secretary may be inherently capable and willing to keep you out of troubles you don't know about. Just as when it's your turn for a watch on a ship, you assume the last person knew his job and you maintain course and speed until you understand the situation.
posted by jet_silver at 3:33 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it might be helpful to take a look at her job description, which will be on file at HR. Find out what she's officially doing there first, then ask her what that translates to in reality.
posted by MrVisible at 3:45 PM on November 17, 2008

ask her what she did for your predecessor. if that sounds hunky-dory, have her do that for you too. adjust duties as necessary.

also, it's a temporary solution, but with the holidays coming up, there are surely holiday mailings and the like to coordinate.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:55 PM on November 17, 2008

As an American, I've never worked with a "Secretary" but I have had a departmental or group "administrative assistant". They are great at managing schedules and acting as a single point of contact for administrative items. They arrange travel and reimbursement. they know who to contact if the phones don't work, or you didn't get your expense check this month.
posted by Megafly at 4:05 PM on November 17, 2008

Best answer: You mentioned a role as "team secretary" as a possibility. Considering that she is close to retirement and seems to have time for more work, I'd ask her what tasks and responsibilities she'd most like to add. Allow her to follow her interests and strengths, if this fits with your team's needs.
posted by Snerd at 4:53 PM on November 17, 2008

My dad has a secretary/PA, so there were some "pick up the drycleaning" type jobs, but in terms of administration:

* Book tickets - often looking for best prices
* Fixing things that went wrong - for instance, cancelled flights
* Schedule and coordinate meetings
* Get paperwork out
* Contact people on behalf of dad
* Look for the best people to help dad in whatever he was looking to do - for instance, if the computers broke down
* Managed filing
* Did bookings for events, equipment, etc

There were likely a lot more. She basically is the arms & legs of the operation and she's helped our family a lot over the years.
posted by divabat at 4:56 PM on November 17, 2008

How close to retirement? If we're looking at a few months, ignore my comments. A year or more, she should step up.

Do you have the kind of job where you are in a large organization that sends out tons of "communications" and rolls out new "tools" all the time? K can be the one to sort through the communications and take all the mandatory trainings and then give you the short version. She should also learn the "for dummies" version of a lot of what you do, if there are juniors and staff that need to be trained in those things.

And, yeah, if she's an old-school old-timer, she should have bales of "institutional knowledge."
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:58 PM on November 17, 2008

First I would pick her brains as to the institutional memory she must have. She can tell you who really is in power or who can get things done. She can do the travel arrangements as you stated. She can follow-up meetings with a thank you letter you sign. She can follow up on promises you make on the road such as, "I'll send you those figures as soon as I get back to the office>" She can send the figures. My guess is she can maintain spreadsheets and graphs such as weekly sales figures by office or salesperson,etc. She can maintain a contact list.

I would discuss with her what she wants to do and what is her perception of the scope of her work. She may be quite willing to do persnal assistant type jobs such as pay your bills, order birthday gifts on-line for your family, etc.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:09 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree with Snerd that you should ask her what kinds of tasks/responsibilities would be interesting for her to add to her role. Especially since she may not have been doing a lot of interesting work recently. (When an admin person's boss/person they support leaves, they often get saddled with other people's grunt work, even though supporting those other people isn't in their realm of responsibilities - that can make the secretary very grumpy. Especially when those people are just dumping work they don't want to do on someone else, versus actually being someone who is at a level befitting of or requiring a secretary.)

Some secretary/admin types do basic document formatting/desktop publishing (e.g., formatting Word/PowerPoint documents to a basic company standard).

This should go without saying, but please remember not to treat your secretary as a second class citizen. Once the two of you establish a rapport and system, she can really make your work life easier. Piss her off, and everything you need will take twice as long and will be done to the bare minimum, or worse, depending on their level of professionalism.
posted by melissa at 6:12 PM on November 17, 2008

Not only does she know what she'supposed to do, she likely knows what you are supposed to be doing.

My dad used to be a corporate officer. After he left his secretary was hired away to be a corporate officer at one of the biggest computer periphrials companies in the world.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:30 PM on November 17, 2008

Best answer: I am a secretary or, in fancy pants terms, an executive assistant. My primary responsibilities include:

-Managing calendars which includes coordinating meetings and conference calls, making lunch/dinner reservations (business and personal) and obtaining tickets to sporting and other special events (business and personal)
-Arranging travel (flights, hotel, ground transportation, preparing a printed itinerary and including any detailed agendas, directions, securing visas etc as necessary) mostly business, but sometimes personal
-Processing expense reports
-Copying and distributing research materials, memos, and presentations
-Preparing presentations, generally in PowerPoint, which includes creating graphs, charts, and attractive formatting
-Preparing packages and documents (business & personal)

I could go on, but essentially my job is to make my report's job and life easier, whatever that entails. I would chat with her about her expectations and what a typical day/week is like for her and ask for her input on ways she can assist you. As long as you are respectful and appreciative, most support staff members will do anything for you. I'm not suggesting you should be high maintenance by any means, but you should also not hesitate to ask for anything you need that sounds reasonable to you. I find that it takes people awhile to get used to having an assistant and it might take you a bit to transition from doing everything for yourself. Please feel free to email me with questions.
posted by katemcd at 6:35 PM on November 17, 2008

That's weird. katemcd just gave my answer. I am also an admin assistant. I also do all of the things she listed above. I was also going to say that my job is essentially to make everyone else's job easier. I second everything she just said.

Basically, anything that's annoying and takes up your time (travel arrangements are definitely on the list) - ask her for it.

Also - ask for her opinion. She will probably give you good advice.
posted by eleyna at 6:51 PM on November 17, 2008

Great to hear the feedback from all, including admin assts. My team has a secretary and I'm not at all used to using one so I've had a hard time "letting" her do stuff for me. That said, I echo the above about knowing politics and processes for getting stuff done. She's awesome at it due to her tenure and she's also wonderful at her job.
posted by TravellingCari at 8:12 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Take her out to a nice lunch, it will make her less freaked out that you're going to fire her.

Then do everything katemcd said.
posted by sondrialiac at 10:56 AM on November 18, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks all! I took her out for coffee yesterday for our meeting, and took your suggestions on board. I think she's been feeling under-utilised and under-appreciated, so she was keen to tell me what she could do for me; she's also going to take on some of the team support work as some of the things she did for my predecessor won't work for me (dictation / typing type stuff) and come along to team meetings. I think the foundation for a good relationship is there - I'm looking forward to having someone to help me out (and provide valuable insight into how the politics work), and she's looking forward to having more structure to her job and feeling like she's part of a team again.
posted by finding.perdita at 2:40 PM on November 20, 2008

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