The Perfect PA
September 1, 2007 5:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to be an executive personal assistant - for a very high executive. What surprises await me, and how can I perform perfectly?

I've never worked in a remotely corporate environment before, and this is without a doubt the best job opportunity I'll ever get given my lack of such experience and my desire to embark on a challenging career. It's a great opportunity for me to learn and to open the door to bigger and better things.

I'd like to astonish everyone with my motivation, talent, and capability but I'm worried that I'll make stupid mistakes due to my general ignorance of the environment I'll be working in and the tasks I'll be given - I've never even worked in an office before. My question is thus a someone vague one: please tell me anything and everything that will help me excel and make the most of this opportunity. What challenges will I be faced with? How can I get oriented as quickly as possible so I can be on top of everything all the time? How should I talk, act, and dress? I trust myself to adapt quickly, but please help me by telling me all the things that should be obvious but I've never been exposed to.
posted by xanthippe to Work & Money (35 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not likely to have any advice, but I think you're going to have to post what sort of industry it is.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:16 AM on September 1, 2007

Wow! Congrats! This is a tall order, since the primary function of a personal assistant is to read the minds of the people they work for.

Something about your demeanor made boss think he or she should take a chance on you. Don't overplay whatever that is, but do recognize that he or she really needs that apsect of who you are, so start there.

Be there on time. Don't surf the web. Expect to do sh*twork and never roll your eyes or act like you're too good to do anything. He or she wouldn't need you if there was someone else to do the boring and/or gross things. Don't leave the office without telling someone where you're going. Don't leave early, expect to stay late if boss needs something or if boss is working on something and particularly stressed.

My best advice is to soak up everything you can, and work very hard to anticipate the needs of your boss. Socialize with (kiss up to) anyone close to him/her so you can learn everything you can. Chances are good boss person has a quirk or two. If there's ANY way you can talk to previous personal assistant, he or she can really help you. If you can track them down, buy them lunch, it will be a well-spent twenty bucks.

Never, ever, ever gossip or let slip anything at all about the person you work for, especially between people who know him. Don't assume that the SO knows or should know your boss's schedule, friends, and/or significant personal events. Don't ever complain about bossperson and don't ever mention your job or your boss online.

Good luck!
posted by pomegranate at 5:45 AM on September 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I do what you're about to do.

The first thing that both of you need to do is figure out the workflow. Especially when it comes to the all-important calendar. My feeling is that you should always be in total control of the calendar, even if your boss is a Crackberry addict. Your boss should call you and ask you to put things in. Having all the data resident in one place and with one person will greatly minimize conflicts and collisions. Plus, keeping track of where the boss is at all times is important.

If you're on an Outlook/Exchange system, at the very least your boss' contacts and calendar should be shared to you. Ideally so should email, with you over time learning what to flag for boss attention and what to deal with on your own.

Learn discretion. You will hear a lot of things that need to be kept at the executive level.

Know birthdays--significant other, children, parents, people in the department. Also anniversaries.

Keep a notebook with you at all times. Date each page as you use it. When you finish one book, get another, keep the old one.

If you don't already have a cellphone, get one--see if the company will pay for it.

If your company has them, get a corporate credit card.

Set boundaries. Yes, you are a personal assistant, but you need to have your own life too. My boss i very good about calls/emails on evenings and weekends--emergencies only, or "can you please check on this on Monday morning."

Get personal details: doctors and their numbers, favourite restaurants, wine preference, meal preferences, mechanic, insurance carrier(s), stockbroker, etc.

Basically your boss' life is going to live in your brain. It's an exciting job usually, but definitely tough.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:05 AM on September 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

To me, the whole purpose of the executive assistant is to take care of the kinds of details that are important and time consuming, but would distract that executive from focusing on the work (s)he does best. And, they're tasks that another person CAN do for them. So basically, your function is to help make his/her life a little easier in that area.

I think the biggest challenge when you're new is that you HAVE to ask a lot of questions to fill in all the scoop, but ultimately, you want to get to the place where you can demonstrate your ability to find the answers to your questions on your own.

Get to know your boss so you can begin to anticipate what is needed before you have to be asked. Become proactive rather than reactive. Bosses typically LOVE that kind of thing and it inspires confidence. Be a problem solver, a problem resolver, so that your boss knows you can handle things. In the end, if you do your job well, an assistant can begin to feel indespensible.
posted by Sabine3283 at 6:12 AM on September 1, 2007

I worked as that type of assistant for a very short time, and I certainly can reiterate everything pomegranate said, especially: "Expect to do sh*twork and never roll your eyes or act like you're too good to do anything." You may be asked to do things you would never think of, but you are there to serve. However, also stand up for the real job you were hired for -- if the off-the-wall requests start to dominate your time and take away from your more important duties, try to respectfully remind the boss that your other duties may be neglected and then ask him or her to let you know which one is the priority. I tried to cater to every whim and neglected some of the more mundane but very necessary duties of the position, which is what hurt me in the end.

As far as how to talk, act, and dress, do all of those as professionally as you can. If the boss says it is okay to be more casual in dress, great, but I think it is much easier to loosen up than to class up. Even if he lets you be more casual, though, try to stay professional. You are there to work, not be this person's friend and hang out. They may be friendly toward you, but you are "the staff." You will certainly also be representing this person to the outside world, business contacts, etc., so think about the image he or she is trying to present and try to reflect that in your own appearance and demeanor.

As far as impressing them, it has been my experience that the best way to impress is to focus on the job you were hired for and do it well before trying to wow them with your creativity or new ideas. Prove that you are capable first before branching out.

Finally, always keep in the back of your mind that you may not be in this position forever but that you might want this person as a reference for future opportunities. That will remind you to keep doing your job well and, if personal conlicts do arise, to remain professional and respectful.

Good luck with your new position!
posted by natb71 at 6:27 AM on September 1, 2007

Others have posted wonderful advice, but I'd like to add one thing. Work on developing a thick skin. You may have a boss that's polite and considerate and wonderful. But often the traits that get someone to the level where they need a personal assistant are aggressiveness and decisiveness, and they're not necessarily warm and fuzzy people. This goes double if you're going to be working in a media field. Think ahead of time about how you'll handle it if your boss snaps at you or yells at you for something minor. As I said, it's not a guarantee, but just in case it's better to think about how you'll keep your cool ahead of time.
posted by MsMolly at 7:59 AM on September 1, 2007

You are the gatekeeper for your exec and lots of people will want to talk to him/her. Be wise when playing favorites and be strong.
posted by k8t at 8:14 AM on September 1, 2007

Always being on time, well-rested, and sharply dressed is more important in the corporate environment than anywhere else in normal life. Sounds basic, but you'd be surprised how many people miss the basics. As Scott Adams said, you don't get promoted - your clothes get promoted, and you just happen to be inside them. Also, being on time and well dressed consistently is harder than it looks - you have to do all sorts of crazy shit like do laundry regularly and go to bed at a decent hour every night. Can you tell I found this difficult? Flylady ( was a lifesaver for me at establishing good habits. I recommend her all the time.

Also, being organized is really important when your job involves some mind-reading. If your boss needs a certain email that so-and-so sent 6 months ago, it will make you look very good if you can locate it quickly.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:14 AM on September 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

-- Write every task down. Don't be a person who has to be asked twice to do something.

-- Have a "get it done" ethic. Once given a task, just do it, without returning to your boss for endless clarifications or excuses about why it hasn't been done; see A Message for Garcia.

-- Understand the industry. Understanding the industry in which your boss works, and understanding what things are important to your boss, may be critical for you to anticipate what your boss wants and make the right decisions.

-- Understand and accept your place. Never let on that you don't want to do something your boss has asked you to do.

-- Don't judge your boss. Depending on the industry, you may see some things that shock you, along the lines of "you wouldn't want to see how sausage is made." Whatever you do, do not let on that you judge anything that your boss does. That's not your job.

-- Don't surf the web.
posted by jayder at 8:18 AM on September 1, 2007 [5 favorites]

For the worst-case scenario, you might want to watch Swimming With Sharks. Pretty over the top (though not by much in the entertainment industry), but it might give you some insight as to the overall power dynamic inherent to such a job.
posted by Rykey at 8:51 AM on September 1, 2007

There's a fantastic book on this called 'How to be a Kickass Assistant.' It was written by the woman who was George Stephanopolous' assistant in the White House.
posted by chickletworks at 9:09 AM on September 1, 2007

Great advice in this thread.

I wanted to reiterate a few things:

- Don't ever let on that the crappy task you just got is something you would rather not do. Just do it just as well as you would anything else. Yea, it sucks. But if you do a lot of tiny/crappy tasks really well, that will allow your boss to trust you with bigger and more important stuff next time.

-Learn how to handle criticism well. Things will go wrong, and perhaps your boss will yell - or he will be disappointed, which is much worse. Handle that well, i.e. fix it if you can, and do all you can to never repeat the mistake.

- You are the gatekeeper for phone calls and appointments, and your role is to allow your boss to do the important things that he/she does well without so many distractions. As such, you are in one of the most powerful positions in your boss' life. Don't let it go to your head, but think about it when you feel under-appreciated.

- Ask early on who should always go to voice mail and who is worth interrupting an ongoing phone call for. Who can get bumped if appointments conflict, and who is important enough to where their meetings are hardly ever moved? Who are the problem callers? Keep this in a list form and use it, it can be a life saver when deciding what to do.
posted by gemmy at 9:24 AM on September 1, 2007

No crying. There's no tears in Executive Baseball. That is, unless someone dies.
posted by cior at 9:56 AM on September 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great advice, thank you. I have a pretty good grip on the main idea - know my place, accept it unflinchingly and do everything that needs to be done with a good attitude.

I'd love to hear more about the small, logistical aspects of the job, though - some things that come to mind are dress code (female, corporate - this is actually the thing I'm feeling least confident about); what language is appropriate to use in certain sticky situations that may arise (when making telephone calls etc. on behalf of the boss); and how get the information i need to do my job well without being exhausting or annoying him with questions. More is always welcome.

Also, what computer skills should I try to acquire?
posted by xanthippe at 10:05 AM on September 1, 2007

And what systems do you find useful for organizing information, remembering small details of tasks i have to execute, and generally keeping myself on the ball all the time?
posted by xanthippe at 10:07 AM on September 1, 2007

Here's my advice as an exec with a PA:

1) Ask them how they would like things handled - Understand the simple things like how they expect the phones to work, whether they do lunch meetings, who is on the list of people that can interrupt them, etc. Don't make assumptions, simply ask how they'd like certain things done. Especially important is asking when they need something done by next week or before the 1PM meeting...

2) Keep confidential information confidential - You will hear or be told a bunch of stuff that is confidential. Maintaining this secrecy is paramount. If your exec is good, they will trust you and share the big picture so you are aware of the upcoming reorgs, changes, etc. Break this trust and you will find yourself out of a job.

If you are matched with an exec that treats you poorly, don't put up with it, leave. An exec and their PA should be a team, working together for the benefit of the workplace.
posted by Argyle at 10:13 AM on September 1, 2007

Oops, one last thing.

PAs have a 'rank' within the PA world in line with their exec. This needs to be respected when making arrangements. Working with the other PAs and developing personal relationships with them is helpful in arranging calls and meetings. Even covering phones is important work between PAs. Or so I am told by my PA. ;)
posted by Argyle at 10:17 AM on September 1, 2007

You might take a look at The Executive Assistant's Toolbox blog.

For organizing information and keeping on top of tasks, I find that nothing beats David Allen's Getting Things Done. It's a system that focuses on clearing out your stuff, defining the next action you need to do to keep your (or your boss's) projects going, and organizing those actions according to the tools or places you need to do them. The idea is to get all your "stuff" out of your mind and into a trusted system, so that you don't have to worry about forgetting something. The system is more important than any particular paper organizer or computer program to implement it--though if you use a Macintosh, OmniFocus (coming soon from the Omni Group) is designed to implement the Getting Things Done (GTD) system.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:58 AM on September 1, 2007

some things that come to mind are dress code (female, corporate - this is actually the thing I'm feeling least confident about); what language is appropriate to use in certain sticky situations that may arise (when making telephone calls etc. on behalf of the boss

Take your dress cues from your boss. If he's always dressed to the nines, so should you be. If he's very casual, you should still dress in something formal enough that would be acceptable in upscale restaurants or office buildings; you never know when you might have to put out a fire at a moment's notice, and you don't want to show up at the Four Seasons in blue jeans. Dress slacks and a top at the least, and keep a jacket handy.

When dealing with sticky situations, resorting to curse words and profanity automatically lowers your status to the person on the other end of the phone. As difficult as it may be at times, always maintain an air of decorum, and be professional. Keeping a calm and professional demeanor gives you an aura of imperturbability. Be equally civil when dealing with wait staff, cleaning crews, caterers, etc. They will go out of their way to please a customer who is not condescending to them and is approachable. It will also tell your boss that you are as adept dealing with the custodial staff as you are with captains of industry.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:17 AM on September 1, 2007

Two experiences I've had regarding the assistants of *very* highly placed executives:

1) In the middle of an important, but month-long, project one called me out of the blue simply to say she would be leaving her desk for 2 hours due to a medical emergency and gave me another number to call if something came up.

2) Two months after leaving a phone message requesting a return call, another women called back to say she had found the message note that had fallen behind her desk and apologised profusely.

Both of them were semi-famous for their spectacular diligence.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:16 PM on September 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

PAs have a 'rank' within the PA world in line with their exec. This needs to be respected when making arrangements.

I want to reiterate this, and kick myself for not having thought of it. It really is a strange thing--my role as EA gives me a certain precedence, depending on whose EA I'm talking to.

When in doubt, my rules for telephone/email etiquette are:

- Mr X and Ms (not Miss or Mrs unless directed) X unless or until they tell me otherwise--this goes for the EA to Mr X or Ms X as well. And always refer to the other EA's boss as Mr/Ms X.

- Ask, don't tell. ("Hi Ms Y, it's dnab calling from Ms. X's office. She was wondering if it would be possible for her to meet with Mr Z on $project. When would be the best time for him?". Less formally, when a relationship has developed: "Hi Connie, it's dnab calling from X Lastname's office. Can we get on Mr X's calendar next Tuesday or Wednesday?")

- Always follow up with booked meetings 1 day in advance. I usually do it by email, because we've moved to email by that point--but not always. Depending on the level of the person in question, it needs to be a phone call. ("Dear EA-to-X, I would just like to confirm that MyBoss will be coming to your offices to meet YourBoss at $time. Please let me know if YourBoss needs to change anything."

- Always mind your p's and q's. Any request should include a please, and always finish with a thank-you (on phone calls) and 'best regards' on emails. Always couch responses in terms of 'thank you for giving me the opportunity to help you'. Don't say those words, but get the tone across.

Bear in mind that these become less formal as you develop relationships. There are some EA's I can call and say "Hi, it's dnab. How's Tuesday for lunch between MyBoss and YourBoss? Thanks!"

- Always, always remember that you speak with the voice of your boss. This is useful in situations where you need to get stuff done, but remember the pitfall: your actions will reflect on your boss.

- Speaking of, learn your boss' voice. You will be writing emails on his/her behalf. Learn how they write them, and who gets what level of formality.

- Track relationships. Who do you send gifts to? Who is made to wait for ten minutes in Reception (note: we don't ever do that, but some people do)? Who gets access whenever they want it?

Computer skills:

Outlook (assuming you're a Windows-based org). You need to be a ninja--know how to schedule, how to recall emails, how to share calendars between your boss and yourself, how to file email for easy retrieval, etc.

Word. You need to know how to format quickly and neatly. Tables are my particular bugaboo. Also, get your hands on your corporate communication standards manual, if it exists.

Excel. You will be working on spreadsheets. Learn the fundamentals of how formulas work.

Powerpoint. I hate the damn program, but I have made it cower in fear of me. Learn it, understand it, breathe it.

Also learn whatever in-house systems you use, especially CRM tracking (ACT, SugarCRM, whatever).
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:26 PM on September 1, 2007 [4 favorites]


Educate others. If you know someone has a meeting with your boss, ensure that they know how your boss likes information presented. Keep an eye out for quirks--for example, some people hate it when subordinates bring coffee into meetings.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:28 PM on September 1, 2007

Here's a little truth that you might not want to hear right now, but put it in a shoebox and take it out again in six months.

The fact that you are getting this job with no prior corporate experience is not strange or unusual. Being a personal assistant is a shit job, and it can only be tolerated by people with some kind of predisposition to put up with it, the most common being desperation, insecurity, and ambition coupled with complete cluelessness about how to climb the ladder.

So here's advice from someone who has had all kinds of different corporate jobs, low-level and also higher level. Look out for yourself. Outside of Hollywood, personal assistants usually don't get promoted to good management jobs. They get promoted to slightly less menial administrative jobs. Those who are truly ambitious have a crisis of conscience and maybe a nervous breakdown, go on a trip, and come back with a list of personal principles scrawled on the back of an envelope in crayola (crayola, because, you see, the list was written in their childhood bedroom during a visit home for Thanksgiving, or something). In other words, they use the stress and the condescension to push themselves to figure out who they really are and what they're really after.


- Pay attention to which of your boss' business contacts see you as more than an assistant, and copy down their contact info so you can ask them for a job later. (You will keep that info at home, of course, because when you quit or get fired, you may not have the chance to send any emails or take anything with you.)

- Make as few enemies as possible, and that includes people who your boss is enemies with, or people who your boss thinks that you should be enemies with. Your boss has different goals than you do, i.e. your boss already has enough important friends that he can decide to make (or keep) enemies if he chooses. You need all the friends you can get.

- Make sure that you learn skills other than administrative bullshit. Typing fast, and basic Word, Excel, Outlook, stuff like that...using them well is key at your level (and, in some situations, may be important for higher-up people too), but it will never be enough on its own to get you a better position.

- Make sure you get a good feel for the way the entire company works, even parts that you don't technically need to understand. People who can explain step by step how the sausage gets made are going to be able to find themselves a job somewhere in the process.

Best of luck in getting what you need out of this situation as efficiently as possible.
posted by bingo at 12:29 PM on September 1, 2007 [7 favorites]

In any corporate environment it's important to treat the people lower down the organisation hierarchy with respect too. Always say hello to the doorman, please and thank you to the juniors in your department. Be nice to the people who do all the crappy jobs, no matter how junior they are or how little their job impacts on yours. There'll come a time when you'll need to get something done urgently with help from others and it'll be so much easier to get the help you need if you're known in the building as a friendly person rather than a stuck-up witch.
posted by essexjan at 12:59 PM on September 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

I've also working in this position at various firms. I agree with almost every single bit of advice upthread, and just have a few thoughts.

- Double check all morning appointments before you leave work the evening before. Nothing sucks more than arriving at work to find your boss already stewing about the morning meeting that got fouled up because you hadn't reconfirmed with the caterer or some such.

- Cultivate perfect grammar and a friendly, but professional tone in your emails. Address other executives and their assistants as Ms. or Mr. until they lower the formality first.

- Become very knowledge about the helping staff available at your new company. Be the IT guy's best friend, find out about in-house computer trainers and research staff, and know which long-time assistants are available to mentor you. Whe I first worked at a high powered financial firm, I would have been lost without the help of two long-time assistants who informally trained me. Also, when your boss breaks her Blackberry for the fifth time at 6:30 on a Friday night, you want to know who to call to get a new one ASAP.

- Be gracious to your boss AND to everyone else. Accept praise and criticism with an even manner. Do not, of course, let yourself be railed at, abused, or demeaned. But getting things wrong and being corrected is par for the course in the job; accepting this will make every smoother.

- I agree that you should take your dress cues from your boss. Also note that other assistants at the same level or in the same department may have different dress codes worked out with their bosses and may vary dress widely. In general, I've noticed that the ones who dress more professionally - i.e. suits instead of a blouse and slacks - are the higher-paid, better regarded ones. This is a general guideline, though, as the very best assistant I've ever had the pleasure of observing wore the same brand of (well-cut, flattering and professional) slacks and same tailored pull-over every single day, just varying the color and material, and always accessorized by a cardigan, strand of pearls and flats.

- Every executive I've worked with needed a bit of training on working with me. This sounds counter-intuitive, but as someone else mentioned, being a good assistant is part and parcel with being a good team. As you begin your role with your new executive, take some time to not only listen to his/her instruction, needs, preferences, but to speak about your own. (Some of my needs, for instance, are to be able to turn off my Blackberry at a certain time, to be copied on scheduling emails my boss sends so as to not be in the dark about appointments she may later expect me to organize, and to be able to have personal effects on my desk, like pictures and plants.)

- And yes, keeping a running list - a notebook for PDA with this info is essential - of preferences about even the tiny things is essential. You should know this person as well as or better than their own family does.

Finally, separate your self-worth from this job. Being an assistant can start to make you feel like a second-class citizen in other areas of your life. If you notice this happening, take a good long look if there are reasons to continue in the job. In the best of all situations, you'll find an executive who is a good human who recognizes the worth of the assistant helping her be a more effective executive AND you'll have activities outside the office that are truly the center of your life. (The best assistants I know are a writer, a world-class gardener, and a jewelry designer.)

You'll know if your executive begins to treat you less like a valuable employee and more like an object. And if that happens, you must speak up. It can be scary. (Heck, one of the hardest things I've ever done in my entire life was make an appointment with my boss at the time - a hard-charging, cigar chomping bear of a man - and sit down behind closed doors in his office and tell him he had treated me badly. I was gripping the seat of my chair so hard I swear I nearly busted my knuckles.)
posted by minervous at 1:02 PM on September 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Your boss has different goals than you do, i.e. your boss already has enough important friends that he can decide to make (or keep) enemies if he chooses. You need all the friends you can get.

At the same time, if your boss finds out that you're cozy with his enemies, you may be out of a job. If your boss detects that you are networking with an eye toward moving on in your career, to the detriment of your loyalty to your boss, you may be out of a job.

I would not regard this situation as one in which you should aim "get what you need" and move on. You will be well-placed to learn a lot about the industry in which you work. Strive to do a good job for your boss, and you will do well for yourself. Going into it with a "get mine" attitude is completely backward --- if that's your attitude, you will fail.

You will probably be shocked to know how rare a breed a good assistant is. It's a job that requires an extraordinary combination of precision, diligence, intelligence, and common sense, and that combination is rarely found in the sort of people who are applying for that job. If you have that combination of skills, you will do very well.
posted by jayder at 1:03 PM on September 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

bingo makes some good points. I've been places where high-level exec assistants are anything but short-timers. They've either worked their way up the administrative ladder, or they've been with their executives since they were Jr Executives. If you are being hired as an exec assistant with no administrative experience (and you aren't part of a small team of EA's serving that exec), then that is probably a strong indication about the corporate culture, and you should prepare yourself accordingly.

One tip. A big part of your role is providing a buffer between your boss and all the people who want a piece of his time. In that role, you will be given the job of blowing some people off because their agenda is not part of your bosses short-term priorities.

Because this task has been delegated to you, your boss will not get a direct read on how his actions are being received and may not be able to adjust his stance if he's risking alienating someone. You can help here by giving him a heads-up if he is about to push someone too far. You will be able to get a better read on whether someone you have been stonewalling on your boss's behalf is getting fed up if you deliver the news in person or by phone (ie, not e-mail, voicemail or IM). If that person is another exec, you'll need to read the reactions of their assistants when you interact with them.
posted by Good Brain at 1:51 PM on September 1, 2007

General suggestions about the corporate world:

- Set reasonable expectations up front, every time. Let's say you know you have another two hours of work on that presentation your boss has coming up. Never say you can have it done in two hours. That two hours of work is only two hours if you're locked in a cave alone with a perfect T1 connection, no software problems, no jammed printers, no coworkers, no additional responsibilities or email and no phones. You don't live in that world, so build in time for interruptions, late deliveries, emergency projects, etc. And then build in even more time.

- Always keep your cool. If you find yourself losing it, politely let whoever is upsetting you know that you will be right back and then go cry/scream/curse out of earshot and take some deep breaths. Also, it's really tempting to bitch to others you work with but don't do it, it always gets back to the wrong person. Call your best friend from school or your mom but don't talk shit to work friends.

- When other people are losing their cool, speak slowly and carefully and lower your tone of voice. It's amazing how soothing the tone of voice trick is even just by itself. Repeat back to them their complaints or fears without any of the inflammatory language, which not only helps to calm them down but also to focus on the issue and not the emotions. Get them to look at what needs to happen going forward to fix the problem or make sure it doesn't happen again and carefully confirm the steps to be taken with them. Send an email to wrap up and reiterate those steps afterwards.

- Email = documentation. Get everything in writing. If something is communicated to you verbally, repeat it back to them in writing. Save everything.

- If you find yourself getting behind or overwhelmed, speak up as soon as humanly possible. If you sense trouble ahead ask immediately what projects can be set aside. Ask for help prioritizing from your boss, ask for help with projects from coworkers, etc. and also try to help others in similar situations when you can. Favors are currency, which sounds terrible but is actually kind of sweet in practice.
posted by cali at 4:06 PM on September 1, 2007

Another former PA chiming in -- and in fact, at one point, I could have written this question myself!

Here are some of the things I wish I'd known before I got started, or which would have been helpful if I'd learned it earlier, that I haven't already seen covered here:

- Teach yourself to be the best travel agent ever, if this will be applicable and go through you and not a corporate travel dept. As an EA, I had to book everything for my boss... juggling not only his preferences re seat on the plane and what floor of the hotel, but keeping layovers short (but not too short), having the rental cars booked on the ground, getting mind-numbingly detailed itineraries prepared, managing the airline and hotel points/miles programs... ad infinitum. I'd thought I was fairly sophisticated when it came to travel, but I was a babe in the woods, and there's little as demoralizing as getting your boss stuck in Dog Gulch (pop. 47) Regional Airport overnight so he misses an important meeting the next day.

- Learn the phone. You'll likely get a very sophisticated multi-line phone system at your desk, with options like voice mail, message forwarding, call forwarding and recording, speed dial, conference calling, and even more. There is no better occasion to RTFM than this one. Get the receptionist to help you learn the very minute options and processes (dittoing what minervous said, specifically make the receptionist a best friend, because he/she is the first filter to your boss, and you are the second and final, and he/she can be an ally in catching calls and visitors).

And what systems do you find useful for organizing information, remembering small details of tasks i have to execute, and generally keeping myself on the ball all the time?

- DNAB's advice about keeping a notebook was also a system that worked really well for me. Totally low-tech, but I kept a spiral notebook always running, and carried it with me every single time my boss and I had a conversation or sat in the same room. A busy executive will be juggling a hundred things at once, and when he learns he can offload that stuff to you, he will just pop off non sequitur action items and expect you to handle it -- and there's not always time to duck out for a pen and paper. Even when a meeting didn't produce an action item for me, brief notes like "Weekly staff meeting, main topics X, Y and Z, no follow-up needed" helped me when reviewing to-do lists.

In my notebook, I'd mark through an item with an X in highligher when it was completed or didn't need action. Every day started a fresh page, and busy days I'd go through five or more pages (front and back) -- just jotting down my own tasks, things to put in the calendar or email someone or to remind my boss, or whatever. The notebook was my final authority if I was ever confused or thought I'd forgotten something or needed to refresh on a project or task. And I saved every single notebook, and it's not just for posterity...

- ... CYA. Always, always, always CYA. I'm sure your new boss is the most legal and upright and moral ever... but if he's not? You don't want to be the low-hanging fruit. "No, Senator, I didn't realize it was illegal to employ four-year-olds in manual labor. I guess my assistant didn't forward me the memo from the Labor Department..."

But, it's not just C-ing your A against illegal or unethical activities... it's effectively executing. If your boss wants Report X done on Date Y, and Manager Z has told you by phone that it's all going fine... don't be the weak link when the report is two weeks late and Manager Z can come back later and say, "Gosh, we sure don't remember things the way xanthippe does, I'm certain that our team communicated that there was going to be a delay..."

Document your conversations. Follow up IMs and voice mails with "Hi Blah, just to confirm the conversation we had earlier today by phone: you and your company will be delivering Project X to my boss at the meeting on Date Y, and if there is to be a delay you'll let us know in writing by Date Q," etc. It keeps people honest and on their toes.

- Telephoning on behalf of the boss was a big challenge for me, both making and receiving calls. I was happy to speak to people on the phone, but what was hard was executing when I was calling someone who didn't want to speak to my boss... or receiving calls when my boss didn't want to speak to them.

When I was ordered to duck calls, I found that when the caller was upset that he was being avoided (and they know, trust me), what worked best was for me to continue to use the exact same verbiage, "Mr. Bigwig is in meetings all day today, but I definitely will pass the message on as soon as possible... Yes, he has indeed received the previous messages... I'm sorry that I can't provide his direct number, it's a company policy..." etc etc. -- but adopt an extremely sympathetic tone, so the person feels that they are being heard.

Make it a policy to never tell fibs to cover for your boss. That might sound like a no-shitter, but sometimes it would be so much simpler and could be very tempting. For example, if he's in but not taking calls, say "he's not available" -- don't say, "I'm sorry, he's away from the office." Trust me that it can come back to bite you in embarrassing ways. Find ways to use vague language to convey the message you need, even if the caller is escalating.

If someone wants to contact your boss and is unsatisfied, that person should not be allowed to take it out on you or harass you. I was in a political environment and had to deal with very angry people on occasion, and using my kindergarten-teacher voice was the only way to handle it -- but the minute someone starts swearing or treating me as anything less than a professional, my response was "I'm sorry you feel that way I'm receiving another call and have to disconnect now goodbye" *click*. Always take the high road.

And, I've already practically written a novel here, but one last thing I feel worth reiterating is DNAB's comment about Outlook/Exchange (or whatever system you will be using for scheduling and email): You must become an absolute ninja. I wish beyond wishing that Google Desktop had been available when I was a PA, because in finding that one email about that one conversation with that one guy from that one conference, it would have been a lifesaver.

(Oh, and make it a habit when replying to email to either open a new window to draft the content, or to delete the recipient address(es). Accidents can happen, and you do not want to send an unfinished/unspellchecked email from your boss' account.)
posted by pineapple at 4:26 PM on September 1, 2007 [5 favorites]

Learn how to give driving directions of parts of the country you've never even heard of. I understand Google Maps now specifies left/right turns instead of east/west, which helps a lot. But still - there is a certain art to being able to answer "I'm on the 66 right now - can you give me directions to Airport X?"

(Ask for landmarks passed by, or a passed street's name. Work from there.)

You will have to fetch coffee or water at least once. Make up your mind early on whether or not you will voluntarily fetch a glass of water for your boss when said boss has been talking on the phone for way too long.

Find out how to handle family phone calls and visits. Take them immediately, take a voicemail, interrupt a meeting?

You will be seen as an extension of your boss, a representative of sorts. And so, you have to seem neutral to everything. You don't want to be extremely chatty or friendly. Be friendly, but also be very professional. (I used to pretend to be a friendly machine that spoke preset dialogue)

NEVER roll your eyes or show displeasure. If you want to, only in the confines of a toilet cubicle where no-one can see you.
posted by Xere at 6:20 PM on September 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've held similar positions in the past and would like to second the recommendations to anticipate your boss' needs. Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate. And it's all about making yourself indispensable.
posted by dhammond at 8:17 PM on September 1, 2007

Just like to underline what several people have said: Document, Document, Document. Even if you think you will never need it, document it. Put it in writing, not only the business end of it (confirming things in writing, etc.) but any kind of interaction with your boss that could possibly have any ramifications for you or your career. This advice, which was given to me in one of my first jobs, has been invaluable. Once, in a later job, I had a supervisor who was, to put it very politely, a horrible manager. He admitted he didn't know how to supervise non-technical people in an IT dept. I had documented just about every conversation we had ever had and either emailed it to my home email address and then deleted it, or typed it up and took it home with me. This became the basis for my rebuttal when he gave me an extremely negative review, which wasn't based in reality. I was able to refute, in excrutiating detail, every point that he made, with date, time, sometimes his exact words, etc. It resulted in him being required, by HR, to defend what he had written, which he couldn't do. So, I repeat -Document, Document, Document .
posted by la petite marie at 9:32 PM on September 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, what computer skills should I try to acquire?

Learning to do mail merges into Word using data from Excel and Outlook can be really useful. I'm not a PA, but I still get asked about contact information for people all the time by my boss, even though he has access to the same database I do. Setting up templates in Word to quickly export all kinds of information into a nicely-formatted document is one of the things that gets me a lot of props from people.
posted by gemmy at 9:34 PM on September 1, 2007

Somewhere in your company there are the "Black Belt Admins". These are the support professionals that know everything - absolutely everything. Find these super-admins and develop a mentor relationship with them.

You are asking for their help, so expect to reciprocate when you have a contribution to make. Usually, this means you're doing their scutwork and your boss's too.
posted by 26.2 at 9:28 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

if he's in but not taking calls, say "he's not available" -- don't say, "I'm sorry, he's away from the office." Trust me that it can come back to bite you in embarrassing ways.

Great advice.

Screening calls really is an art form. It takes a lot more skill than most people acknowledge. Callers can be very persistent and tricky, and the diplomacy of handling calls well is highly prized in an assistant.

An important distinction, in my experience, is between how you screen calls from people who are not very important to your boss, and how you screen calls from people who are important to your boss, but your boss can't speak to at the moment.

For the person who calls but your boss doesn't care much about, the "she's not available" line is fine. In corporate/business lingo, that's essentially an admission that the recipient can't be bothered with the call at that moment.

But there are some people who are important enough to your boss that the "she's not available" line is insulting. With such people, you need to be more specific and diplomatic than just the boilerplate brush-off. Find out from your boss who those people are.
posted by jayder at 9:47 AM on September 2, 2007

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