So I just got an admin assistant… now what?
July 22, 2011 6:31 PM   Subscribe

So I just got an admin assistant… now what?

With a recent promotion I now have an administrative assistant working for me. I’m just not exactly sure how to approach setting up her responsibilities etc. Honestly, I feel kind of odd asking someone to work for me as an “assistant”. I have led people for years and delegate effectively on tasks, projects etc. It is feels awkward for me to ask someone to file, schedule meetings, etc.

I’m struggling with how to best utilize this persons time in a manner that:
Maximizes my benefit
Maximizes her job enjoyment

Any advice from anyone who has been an assistant or who has had an assistant would be great. What are the pitfalls to avoid and what went well.
posted by jseven to Work & Money (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I have many years of experience as an admin, including supporting someone new to having an admin.

Has this person been an assistant before? Have you seen a copy of their resume? That's probably a good place to start - skills in admins tend to vary wildly. It's okay to start off framing some tasks as "we'll try this and evaluate how it's working in a week/month". Check in about weekly on what's working, what sucks, if you need to give them more or less work. If your assistant is good, they'll likely suggest tasks they could take on.

Have you made a breakdown of how you spend your time? Are there tasks you particularly dislike / put off? That should help you identify low-hanging fruit to hand off.

I highly recommend getting your admin mentored by an experienced admin in your area / on your floor (your boss's assistant?). That person can help you figure out the lines of what's okay to expect from an admin and point out potential problems. If you haven't hired your admin yet, have an experienced admin on the interview panel and/or consider starting with a temp.
posted by momus_window at 6:54 PM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm jealous.

Now that I have gotten that out of the way, assuming this person has experience in this position s/he should be keenly aware and well-versed in his/her job responsibilities. My boss has an assistant and one of the big thing she does for him is manage his calendar. He gets meeting invites for everything and it can quickly get complicated, but she helps to make sure the important stuff doesn't get lost. She takes meeting notes, makes travel arrangements, prepares decks, takes calls, etc. She basically handles the bulk of the day to day stuff so he can focus on the stuff he was hired to do.

The surprising thing she does is help us - his direct reports and below - with stuff from ordering equipment, onboarding new hires, finding the right TPS reports, knowing who's who around the enterprise - getting things done. She runs interference for him, so instead of asking my boss for the 5th time where to find the envelopes for my expense report, I ask his admin. She's happy to oblige and we LOVE her for it.

There's a line there though, she's not MY admin. I only seek her out if I truly can't find or do something on my own - for example, she's the only one that can order business cards, but she keeps the department running smoothly.
posted by SoulOnIce at 6:56 PM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

You know how you say that you can delegate people to do certain tasks? This is the same thing. You're just delegating different tasks.

I'm an assistant, and the two big things I can suggest:

* If you have a filing system in place, talk to her about what you've been doing -- and see if she knows another, more efficient way to file things. If you still really like yours better, then explain it to her; if you like her method better, then let her take it over.

* If she has any particular strengths that you notice, use them. I'm good at writing, but so many of the people I've worked for aren't utilizing that -- they want to write their own letters and emails and such. I'd be thrilled if someone asked me to take over writing their basic correspondence.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:57 PM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Make sure she knows which tasks are "take care of this for me so I'm not bothered with it at all" and which are "bring this to my attention ASAP."
posted by luckynerd at 7:34 PM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I first had an admin assistant working for me, I asked her to let me know how she could help me -- what types of things did she normally do for folks in my position. I also Never, Never, Never asked her to get me coffee or do other personal tasks -- the workplaces I've been in where there are admins, they are responsible for helping the whole department -- asking them to do your personal tasks is not only not part of their job but it also impacts the rest of your organization.
posted by elmay at 7:39 PM on July 22, 2011

There was a thread last year on exec assistants that you might find useful -- Help Me Be An Amazing Executive Assistant. An executive assistant isn't exactly the same as an administrative assistant, but close enough to make the descriptions useful.

I'm going to paraphrase my answer on that thread. I've worked with about four exec assistants over the last nine years. I meet with a lot of people in my job, and my EA is doing a lot of gate keeping going on that may not be relevant for your job. So disregard the parts that don't make sense. Here is approximately what my EA does for me:

1. First and foremost, the EA manages my calendar. I don't even see my calendar invites (Outlook), my EA and her backup are my delegates and get all of my invites and decide what to accept and what not to accept. There is some telepathy involved in being able to decide what to accept/reschedule/reject without checking with me. My current EA will batch up the things she is unsure about and check in once or twice a day for 5 minutes for clarification. She will also make sure I've got travel time between meetings if I have to go somewhere and will try to give me some breathing room so I'm not in meetings back-to-back from 8 to 6.

2. The EA is also my gatekeeper. More telepathy involved here, plus some diplomacy. I want them to be cordial and polite to everyone, but I've only got so many hours in the day, so there is a lot of saying no, or saying, "send an email". Anything my EA isn't sure about, she is adding to that daily "check-in" to get some guidance. Plenty of vendors will flat out lie about their relationship with me, so there is always someone to ask about. Also: my EA has editor rights on my mailbox, so she is sometimes sending emails as me or for me.

3. The EA is a walking to-do list for me. All of the EAs I have had used the same system: a steno pad, per executive (when shared across multiple execs), to keep a list of to-dos in chronological order.

4. Filing -- I don't care what the system is as long as they can find stuff for me when needed. I have no idea how they are filing things, but whatever it is, it seems to work.

5. EA for personal life. I draw a bright line with my EA that I don't want her scheduling or dealing with any of the stuff in my personal life (anniversaries, birthdays, personal travel, etc.); anecdotally, I see many other executives that do have their EAs deal with this stuff.

The biggest pitfall, in my opinion, is not delegating enough. All of the EAs I've worked with want to be busy and want to contribute, so me doing something that I could have delegated is sometimes a rub point with my EA. I've literally been hip-bumped away from a copier. Also, every time I've gotten a new EA, there was some amount of negotiation and trial-and-error over job responsibilities as we each got used to the other's work style.
posted by kovacs at 7:53 PM on July 22, 2011 [10 favorites]

Admins fall in 1 of 2 categories: Awesome or Horrible. You need to quickly figure out which one yours is.

My experience has been, the smaller the gap between your qualifications and his/her's, the more rewarding the experience will be.

If you are an Executive Vice President of a Fortune 500 company, and your admin is an art major looking to make a reliable buck, it's going to be a miserable deal for both of you.
posted by Kruger5 at 7:53 PM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I worked with an admin assistant. She was highly qualified and I gave her many detailed important tasks that were stuff I needed to produce weekly. I had her analyzing trading reports, making charts of data and a lot of work on Excel. She would draft letters for me, she would file, she would answer phones and what she was particularly good at was watching my back so to speak. She would make sure I called back certain people, she would follow up on things when I promised to send them to someone, she would arrange my travel and daily schedule, she would even keep track of my kid's schedules for little league and the like so that when I had a game to coach she knew not to schedule a late meeting, etc.

She became friendly with my then wife and would often tell me that my wife called, she talked to her for a while and that whatever mess one of my kids had made was taken care of.

Quite frankly, her skill level was such that if she wanted a promotion or to move into something besides being an admin she could have easily have done it and I was pushing her toward it, but she did not want to do it as she wanted pretty set hours with not much take home responsibility. I gave her a lot of work that I would have given to a new MBA hire. She was the stereo typical Staten Island girl from New Dorp High that you see in movies like Working Girl. Her boyfriend was a NYC fireman. SHe had the big hair and chomped gum. She also had an IQ of probably 130+.

I also asked her opinion on every person who came in for an interview. She would greet them at the front desk and usually spent about 5 minutes with them or more if they were early. She would chat them up and had a great sense of whether or not the person was a dick or an asshole or someone with whom we would want to spend the working day with. Great reader of people. She also knew a lot of folks around the firm and could keep me up on the inside type issues that I was clueless to. She knew the politics of the place and always reminded me before a meeting who to suck up to and who to ask about their kid's latest exploits etc. Although I no longer work for the firm, and it has been over 10 years, I still keep in touch with her.

She was a great gatekeeper. She was great at being the "bad guy" for me. "Sorry, Mr. Gunn cannot meet with you and your salesman until next month."

What I avoided doing was giving her personal stuff to do for me. She actually would ask, but I did not think it an appropriate use of her time and talent. There is an argument to be made that if I am using my time to do personal stuff, having an assistant do it is more productive for the firm, but...

There was the time she wore the red mini skirt and red tank top with the Santa hat and 6 inch red heals to the company Christmas party that I had to put her into a cab and call her boyfriend before she fell off the table on which she was dancing, but hey everyone over does it some time.

I did have a clerk when I was a floor trader who did everything from keeping track of my positions, to checking trades, to fixing DK's to getting lunch and going to the bank for me. After the close he would come to the bar with me and he would be responsible for getting the drinks (I paid of course). One time, when there was a $275 million Power Ball type lotto jackpot in Pennsylvania (we were in Illinois, this was the 80s) 12 guys put in $300 each and we put him on a roundtrip flight to Pittsburgh to buy tickets and come back. We cut him in as an equal partner, but he had to fly to Pitts, take a cab to the nearest convenience store and buy about $3,000 worth of Lotto tickets. That actually takes a long time and the story he told was that the line behind him just for Lotto tickets was getting pissed. It was about an hour to do it and the regulars were starting to form a lynch mob. He said he bought a six pack for 4 different guys to get them to chill out.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:00 PM on July 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Tasks aside, the main thing you will have to build, and this takes time, is trust and rapport. Ideally after a getting-to-know-you period, you and your assistant will work like a well oiled piece of machinery.

Something you should find out right away are which things absolutely need to go your way, and which things need to go hers. Example: if she's been color-coding things a certain way for the last five years, don't go in with some magical new color scheme that you think is "better" unless it is super important to the way you work. Things that may seem trivial or backwards to you may be integral to the way she organizes her day around what you need.

There is a certain type of telepathy that evolves when you have a good executive/assistant team. She'll know what to do or what not to do simply by the look on your face. She's there to keep the daily minutiae at bay while you work on what you're being paid the big bucks to do. It just all depends upon what you define "minutiae" as, and how much of it you ever or never want to see.

You should always have an "open door" policy with her, and ideally have at least a 15 to 30 minute facetime with her just to see what's going on that might need more attention, what she needs more time to do, what she's bored doing, whatever. If you have her back she will have yours.
posted by contessa at 8:05 PM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm an admin, and the way I see it is that it's my job to make sure you can do your job. Let's say you're an accountant. It's your job to meet with clients and do their taxes (or whatever it is that accountants do). It's not your job to file paper work or make copies or schedule appointments. So think about what you are getting paid for and use your assistant for the rest.

Oh, and let her/him know when you're "interruptable". Every time I work for someone new, it always takes a while to figure out which calls I put through no matter what and which calls get a message taken. Some guys want to be interrupted for family calls or important clients, and for others, meetings are sacred and only interrupted if the building is on fire.
posted by dogmom at 11:14 PM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

What everyone else is saying. Also, start to think of the two of you as a team, where you happen to be the one in charge, but by no means "the boss." Think of yourself maybe as the quarterback, if you can get that analogy.

Don't micro-manage. Let your admin know what needs to happen and let them go. I've been in this position, and felt so much better regarded when my bosses didn't care how I got something done, so long as it was done.

Do use your admin strategically, but don't hide behind them. If there's a call you're dreading, that's your business, and you should handle it yourself.

Finally, communicate. Let your admin know what you'd like to happen. And make sure to say 'thanks' every once in a while.
posted by Gilbert at 11:26 PM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a lawyer and work with a very capable assistant. My situation is a little different from yours in that I share her with two other attorneys, both of whom are partners, so I need to be sensitive to their needs too. But my basic rule of thumb in deciding whether to do something myself or have her do it is to ask myself "Is this tedious?" If the answer is yes, and I'm not reading, she's got work to do.
posted by valkyryn at 4:49 AM on July 23, 2011

I would add that every year at bonus time, despite the fact that the company gave my assistant an official company bonus of 5% or so, I gave her a bonus out of my pocket as she really was part of the reason I was successful and felt I should share my success (and much bigger bonus) with her.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:06 AM on July 23, 2011

I can offer a negative example from my own experience as an admin: hire her, set her up at a desk as far as possible from you, don't communicate with her for three or four months, and then call an emergency meeting with her and the group head on the topic, "My work is suffering because the admin you gave me isn't proactive."

In other words, don't expect your admin to be a mind-reader, at least until you offer her some indication of how your mind works.

A second don't would be: never blame your admin for you own mistake, whether privately or publicly. Otherwise she will hate you, undermine you, take another job without giving you notice, and, in addition, you will actually go to hell.
posted by La Cieca at 10:50 AM on July 23, 2011 [7 favorites]

I just have two pieces of advice from my days as an Administrative Assistant.

1. Ask her. If she has done this before she probably has an idea of what things she can do for you and has ideas on how to make your work like easier. This will also show that you respect her and her abilities rather than just thinking of her as a slave.

2. Notice how I said "work life" up there? Not personal life? Yeah. I quit my last admin assistant job because over the course of about 6 months I became about a 75% personal assistant and 25% administrative. "Find the cheapest place I can buy these tires for my new car." "Sit on hold with southwest airlines for 4 hours to figure out what flights are available for me to use these free tickets over the 4th of july weekend" (spoiler alert: no flights were available, it was july 2nd). "We're out of dog food at the house." His boss called me when I left because the other sales guy I worked for was really upset I was leaving, by then I was plenty mad and had no problem telling them how my boss was using company resources (me). Yeah I burned that bridge but it turns out I wasn't the only company resource he was abusing.
posted by magnetsphere at 1:23 PM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I feel kind of odd asking someone to work for me as an “assistant”.

I was an admin/executive assist for 3+ years. I also have a music degree, played viola in a symphony, aced calculus & computer science, and wrote a python pagescraper last weekend.

So I guess the first thing I would say to you is: Don't assume that her role (as your administrative assistant) defines her capabilities. Assume that she has untapped potential & abilities. Give her an opportunity to develop skills that will help you & help the organization. My boss was a talented presenter. He wanted someone who could develop great visuals to go with his presentations, so he gave me that task. I was in charge of his slides. They weren't great at first, but I read books and learned about design, bought tools and went to conferences. I practiced and learned. By the end, my boss's presentation slides were professional-grade (really). Not corporate crappy Powerpoint.

There were a whole bunch of situations like this. He gave me all kinds of tasks, all over the map. And through all those tasks he gave me, he learned my strengths and talents... and he also was able to learn he could trust me. With anything. So give her work. All kinds of work. If you can let her do it, let her do it.

My next piece of advice is: DON'T MINIMIZE THE IMPORTANCE OF THE ADMIN WORK BY BEING APOLOGETIC ABOUT IT. One of the things that always bugged me was the idea that people looked at my job as unimportant, just because some of the tasks I was given were not complicated. Copying & filing is not a difficult task, but if it's not done right, it's a giant pain in the ass for everyone. Be appreciative, not apologetic. Give her the work, and if it gets done right, thank her.

Here's a quick sidenote about the social landscape of your company: People will say things to (and near) the admin assistant that they won't say to the boss. This can be extremely valuable. If you can develop a relationship of trust with your admin, she will watch your back, and she'll tell you what's going on that you might not know about.

A couple of things that will make her job easier (some of these were already mentioned above):
-Give her a list of "always interrupt me for these people" people.
-Give her a list of "never interrupt me for these people" people.
-Give her face time each day so she can get your direction.
-Let her know what the signal is for "do not disturb" vs. "it's totally okay to interrupt me". It will make her life easier.
posted by eleyna at 3:57 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nthing don't expect your admin assistant to be a mind-reader! I think at the beginning, it will really benefit you to have daily check-ins with her, or at least a few times a week. I've worked as an admin assistant, and it's always worked out the best when we got on the same page at the beginning, and developed a good relationship.

It's really all about tone: It's fine and expected to ask your admin assistant to schedule meetings and file-- but just do it nicely, say please and thank you, and allow room for clarification, especially in the beginning.
posted by Rocket26 at 7:10 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Respect her as a person as well as her opinions. Make your needs clear and ask your assistant for advice when you aren't sure how to proceed filing/organizing something. Don't be dismissive if she knows a better way to do things. Explain what your priorities are and ways she can best help you. Ask her to pay attention for the first few weeks for any ideas she has on how to keep you organized and efficient.

Provide a list of ongoing tasks that she can work on when there's nothing else to do, so she's never bored. If things are really busy and she's working hard, be sure to acknowledge your appreciation by taking her out for a lunch, buying her a coffee, etc.

Be gracious about mistakes and always take the burden of error yourself (ie: "Sorry I should have been more clear that I wanted you to do x not y, next time remind me, ok?"). Make your expectations clear but don't browbeat or obsess over projects you've delegated.

Ask her about her career goals and projects you can give her to help her aim towards them. Accept and move on if she says something along the lines of, "I took this job to do mindless work".

If you treat her as someone you respect, acknowledge her hard work and ask her opinion, you will end up with a loyal assistant who will be very glad to work for you and will be willing to go the extra mile. You can't imagine how few people can live up to these expectations.
posted by SassHat at 1:43 PM on July 25, 2011

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