Finding the right admin for your team
From the baby learning to walk to politicians at the highest levels of government, we all need help from others to achieve our full potential. A successful person usually directs a team of people doing the work necessary for that success. Too often the selection of the admin isn’t as rigorous as for other members of the team. In the case of executive or administrative assistants, a special set of skills makes the difference between someone you really need on your team, and someone who is more or less keeping the seat warm.
Knowing what to look for
On my first day at a former job, my new boss said to me, “It’s so unusual to find a career admin with a business acumen like yours!” I could tell it was meant as a compliment, but I didn’t feel lifted up. There is a persistent myth in business that someone who is comfortable in the role of executive assistant — and isn’t using it as a stepping stone to another area — is somehow less important, less ambitious, or flat-out less intelligent than a person who has her eye on getting out of a support role.
There are legitimate reasons why someone might want to spend his or her life working to make someone else successful, and there is a very specific set of skills that make one uniquely qualified to excel in that position. In hiring the right assistant, beyond the basic desired qualities such as “detail-oriented,” “organized,” and “multi-tasker,” there are key areas that should not be overlooked in the search for an admin who will stay with you for the long haul.
Patience and dedication
Few people admit that admins do the grunt work, because no one likes to feel unimportant. But everyone knows that’s what the job is for, to take those grueling, time-consuming tasks off your hands. So a successful admin is one who looks at years of scheduling meetings and filling out expense reports as part and parcel of the career. I think someone working in a support role must find a good deal of satisfaction in getting those tasks done day after day, quarter after quarter, but there are inherent qualities of patience and dedication that make it possible for a person to commit most of their waking hours to the kinds of tasks typically delegated to an admin.
One of my favorite features of working at a startup is that if a better way to do something turns up, it’s a lot easier to switch to using it. That kind of flexibility is not only harder to find in a more established company, but is also expected and rewarded in the startup world. Even so, the successful admins I’ve worked with all had patience — a skill I’ve had to develop, as it definitely is not one of my natural traits — as part of his or her toolbox. Having the patience to listen, engage, and work with others to make a decision is very important in creating and sustaining a productive work environment.
Decades past the era of rooms full of women with typewriters and intercoms on their desks, the cliché of a secretary sitting at her desk and filing her nails still persists (1).
We all know the expectation: every employee must be busy doing something, anything, that contributes to the health of the business in every minute for which he or she is receiving pay. If someone still finds time to file her nails, the suggestion is that she is either lazy or had a boss hire her for some reason outside of real business purposes (the number of images one can find of secretary-as-seductress hints at what that reason might be). While either or both of those suppositions could be correct for any given employee, it’s also true that a critical piece of administrative support is being onsite and available at the drop of a hat. So in that way, an admin actually is paid to wait for something to do, especially a receptionist, whose main function is to sit at that lonely front desk, greet visitors, and direct phone calls. And there are some key differences between a warm body and a stellar admin in this area. You need someone who is able to shift focus immediately without losing momentum, who can find lower-priority tasks to stay busy during the lulls in your business cycles, and who doesn’t find it exhausting to be in a constant state of push-and-pull between projects that require hours of research, and tasks that need to be done posthaste.
Levels of empathy
A fair amount of training goes into building up a support professional. Depending on the position, it might take anywhere from a few days to a few months for someone to get comfortable with the expectations of the role. So it’s very important to make the best of that ramping up period by hiring someone who is going to stick around. One indicator of an admin that will be successful in the long term is his or her level of empathy, defined as “the ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings.” An employee with high levels of empathy will care about doing a good job, and will more naturally understand the politics that are inevitable in most office environments. S/he will also more easily learn to anticipate your needs, which is the kind of symbiotic working relationship that can really change your day from productive to magical.
Most of us have gone through that face-palm moment of realizing we’ve made a mistake. Whether it’s the regretful realization that the tight itinerary you booked is going to be completely thrown off by a delayed flight, finding out that your calendaring software doesn’t play nicely with that of the client you thought you’d booked a meeting with, or an error in the company’s favor on your expense report, no one likes to find out that they weren’t paying enough attention to the details after it’s too late. An experienced admin knows you can never depend on planes to stay on time, that you should call or email to confirm the important meeting a few days ahead of time, and that there are ways to double check that the numbers add up correctly. Recently I heard a story about an HR manager, with a degree in Human Resources, who had trouble getting a European contractor paid on time because you can’t just add someone who lives in another country to your US payroll. To be fair, payroll and HR are two very different areas of expertise, but having been in a position to make sure that kind of paperwork is filed properly and on time, I knew that I would have been able to anticipate that issue and avoid the problem altogether.
Take some time to find the right fit
Along with the skills, background, and personality traits I’ve outlined, I highly recommend hiring someone that you get along with, since you’ll be working pretty closely with your new admin. Take the time to go for coffee instead of the typical in-office interview. There are a lot of benefits to this kind of switch-up, the least of which is actually logging some steps for the day. Along with making you stand out as a potential boss, you’ll have a chance to see your prospective employee “in the wild” — and it could make the difference between hiring someone you wish you could let go of, and someone you can’t imagine living without.
(1) Illustration by Ron Leishman, via ToonClips.com (2) From the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.