Personal Development Planning and the Assistant

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Kathleen Drum takes us on a journey of personal development

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where – “said Alice

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. ~Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Personal Development Planning

Most people think of personal development planning as something you do as part of your annual performance review at work, but I believe a personal development plan is much too important to leave solely in the hands of your employer.   If done well, it can act as a road map to your PA journey and unlike Alice, you will know where you are going!

But “I don’t have an annual review” I hear you say.  Just because your company doesn’t have a formal process, doesn’t mean you can’t initiate a review with your manager.  If you wish to progress in your role, attend PA conferences, trade shows and training, it is important to be able to demonstrate why you need this and how it will benefit your employer.   An annual review is a good place to start.

The Starting Point – A practical exercise

Every journey requires some research and preparation before you embark.  For this journey you will need: your current job description or last year’s performance appraisal (if you have one) and access to last year’s calendar and your diary.

This is the most time consuming part of setting up your personal development plan. The object of this exercise is to create a full picture of exactly where you are in your current role – a starting point for your journey in a concrete, factual, written format.

The way that works best for me is to create an excel spreadsheet with different column headings; you may find a mind map or other visual diagram works better; the choice is yours.

The headings for my spreadsheet are:-

  • Job description sentence (or performance appraisal objective)
  • Tasks that support the job description – with specific examples
  • Evidence of praise received (Emails, texts, etc)
  • Do I dread/enjoy/feel neutral about this task?
  • Why?
  • What can I do to change this/do more of this/get more proficient at this?

Fill out columns 1-3 first; columns  4-6 will be done later.  In the spreadsheet, put each line of the job description into a row.  (Keep the old job description intact, it can be used to contrast and compare in your performance appraisal). I suspect, like most organisations, some of the items on your job description will still be relevant, some will have expanded, and some will no longer be relevant.   Include them all. If your company does have a formal review process, with key performance indicators, or other measures, the same process can be applied.

Go through the work calendar for the previous 12 months, noting down any tasks that you do regularly,  taking particular note of those that were time consuming or difficult to complete.  Map the tasks against the most relevant row in your job description. You may have lots of items in column two against one item in column one.

If you don’t already have one:  create an email folder under your inbox, where you can keep emails of praise when you did a good job.  If senior managers praise you verbally, consider asking whether they would drop you an email – or email yourself with the details of the conversation as an aide memoir. Note down that praise in the relevant column against the task. (This is also a good way to check that you have included all the major tasks).  Practice receiving compliments with good grace and think about how you can turn those compliments into a platform for underscoring your hard work, accomplishments and aspirations.

You may have tasks that don’t relate to anything currently on your job description.  Add those in at the end.  If these tasks are something that you would like to continue doing, then create a “job description” sentence in column 1, that could include those tasks.  Use bold or italics to highlight this sentence as “new” to the job description.  If these tasks are something that you wish to stop – or delegate – highlight them in a different colour.  Score a line through any job description items that are no longer relevant to your role.

Your personal development plan is only part of a wider conversation about you performance over the past year – your annual review.  Whilst it is obviously important to think of your future, you will feel more confident if you can demonstrate that you have achieved the “mission critical” parts of your role: how you have succeeded in the job you were hired to do, how you have contributed to the goals of your manager and your company and how you have addressed any concerns raised in your last performance review.

Some ideas:-

  • What are three things you’ve accomplished since your last performance review/in the last 12 months?
  • What are your key goals for the next six months?
  • How have you improved the company’s bottom line (either through increased revenues or savings or through more efficient processes)?
  • What are some examples of positive feedback (internal or external), either written or verbal, that reflect your contribution?

Congratulations!  We’ve now established the baseline of tasks that currently make up your role – now we can tackle how you feel about these tasks.

As an example, part of your job description may include minuting meetings – in your task list you have identified  3 regular meetings that have to be minuted, which you don’t like doing. What can you do to change that?  Is it a lack of confidence as you have never received training on minuting?  Is it technical jargon that you don’t understand?  Is it that the Chair doesn’t run the meeting well?  Is it that no-one reads the minutes? Is it that you don’t have enough time complete the minutes quickly?  Once you can articulate the issue and provide a solution, you have the first step of your development plan.

Of course, you may have had the training and done all the right things but still not enjoy the task.  Be creative – is there a way to hand these tasks to someone else in exchange for tasks that they don’t like doing?  Perhaps an action list from each meeting will suffice instead of full minutes?  Maybe this task is one which you will have to continue as long as you remain in this role – but it is something to consider when looking for your next role!

Perhaps you have identified a feeling of nervousness about speaking up in a group –  your choices to change this could range from joining Toastmasters, to doing a public speaking course, joining a networking group or attending a PA conference.  Come up with as many different ideas as you can and list them all.  It is equally important to recognise that you may need assistance or training in the “soft“ skills side of your role, as well as the practical “hard” skills side.

Once you have done this for all of the tasks on the spreadsheet, a picture will start to emerge of your current strengths – identified by those things you do well, enjoy and receive praise for – and your weaknesses – those things which you find difficult  or need improvement.  I have emphasised the word current, because you can always improve in all areas.  Rather than dwelling overly much on your weaknesses; choose one weakness that you wish to address but focus your attention on improving your top three  strengths – this will give you confidence when dealing with things that you are not so good at.

Areas for development NOT part of your current role

As this is your personal development plan, think about the other things that you do, outside your current role, that you wish to develop.  Have you discovered a talent for planning and running events?  Great at using twitter or other social media? Interested in developing your writing skills?  Add them to the list.   If there is an opportunity to develop these talents within your current company, think about how you could move your role in that direction – and what you would need to delegate or relinquish to achieve that.  If you don’t feel there is an opportunity where you are now, you may need to consider moving forward with these options in your own time.

How much are you willing to invest?

You’ve set the baseline for your current role, and identified the skills on which you want to focus.  How much money are you personally willing to invest in your development?  How much time are you able and willing to commit?  Be honest with yourself; scale back your advancement plans if necessary.  In the current economy, most company budgets for training are stretched and whilst there are items that your employer may fund – for example, the minute taking course – others, such as joining Toastmasters, may need to be self-funded. Joining an association (or two) or participating in networking events may be a lower cost, but you will still need to invest your time to make it worthwhile.  Be clear about how much you will spend personally on career and advancement and on what.

If your organisation is unable to commit funds to cover all training costs, they may be able to cover part of the cost – if this is something you want to do, signalling your willingness to commit personal funds and taking responsibility for your development shows your manager that you are serious about your career and your career progression.

If the company is unable  to commit any funds, they may commit to time – for example, attending a trade show could count as part of the normal working day without having to take annual leave, as could leaving early once a week to attend an evening course, when you are paying for the course yourself.  Get creative and inventive with options.  It is also important to remember that “No” often means “not now”.

You may need to revisit this conversation more than once to get what you want.  Thinking of yourself as part of a group is also useful – rather than spend money on sending you to an external minute taking course, the company may be more willing to have a trainer come to site and train a group of PAs.  A corporate subscription to Executive Secretary magazine is also a useful  bargaining chip for training – benefitting a group of PAs brings the cost per person down and can be spread across more than one department – in addition, as the person who brings this idea to your manager you gain respect for “thinking like a boss” and putting the benefits to the company first.

Preparing to meet your Manager

As with all things, the key is in the preparation.

Set a meeting time in the diary

Allow an hour and ensure there is space for your manager to prepare as well.  Try and choose a time and date when he/she will be less harried and able to give you his/her full attention.  Draw attention to the meeting (either verbally or by email , depending on your manager’s preferred style).  You may not wish to title the meeting “performance review” – perhaps rephrase it as “Workload update and role progression”  … or any other phrase that will ensure your manager keeps the meeting.  Resist the temptation to move or cancel it in favour of others.  Your personal development is important; becoming more effective in your role will save your manager time and the company money, affecting the bottom line. Definitely worth keeping as a priority!

Identify the outcomes

What do you want to achieve from this meeting? If your job description has changed, one of the outcomes could be to ensure that an updated job description is agreed and filed with HR.  The others could revolve around  the themes mentioned above, paid training, time off in lieu, payment of subscriptions or association fees.   Good business practice suggests that salary increases should not be attached to performance reviews but should happen separately; as we are talking about personal development in this article I will stay away from salary negotiation – that is an article in itself!

Compile the evidence

Hard copy examples of emails received in praise, costs breakdowns for training courses in house versus external, costs per person and per department. Managers love concrete practical examples that will show a good ROI (return on investment) for the company.

Practice your meeting conversation

You have called the meeting, you are effectively the Chair. Think about the flow of the meeting, and prepare your introduction and practice in advance if you are anxious or nervous.  Remember that this is a conversation, and your Manager may be equally as nervous as you.  Set the agenda and give it to your manager in advance so that they also have time to prepare; this will provide a framework for the meeting .

During the Meeting

Keep to the topic at hand!  This is not the time to discuss your manager’s appointments for next week; this is about you and your career – which, in the long run, will benefit your manager and the company.  Be honest about the things that have gone well in the year, and the skills that you wish to improve.    Take notes of everything agreed in your conversation, and also those things which you didn’t get an answer on straight away.  Do not be afraid to revisit those questions again.  If you don’t currently have regular one-to-one conversations this is also a good time to suggest them.  If this type of conversation is new to you and your manager, you will need to judge whether or not this is the time to raise your longer-term ambitions and development, or perhaps wait until you are more settled with your regular one-to-one meetings.

After the Meeting

Follow up on any actions you have agreed with your manager, set timeframes for when you will complete them, and get ready to move upwards in your career!

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About Author

Kathleen Drum

Kathleen Drum is the Senior Editor of Executive Secretary Magazine. Her mission is to bring thought-provoking, timely and inspiring articles to administrative professionals around the world; empowering them not just to succeed in their roles, but to excel. As a former Assistant, Kathleen understands the issues and opportunities that face the profession, and the people within it. Her administrative experience ranges from the site office to the executive office and includes Crossrail, one of the largest construction projects in Europe, and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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