The Holy Grail of the Assistant Role – Business Communication

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The role of an assistant has fascinated me for years. I am in awe of people in this role, and hugely appreciative of my own team. I have recently been musing on what it all entails, and have concluded being an assistant is very much like being a priest!

Here I’m talking about your role as confidant, as someone often privy to top secret information, and as someone expected to then take that information and deliver on it…someone with special healing powers to make everything OK no matter what you have just been told – a real miracle worker.

Sound familiar?

Having spent a lot of time recently chatting with assistants at a number of events, some formal, some not so, I feel I’ve been taken into the fold… and I have come to understand the role so much more than I ever did before. I’d like to think I had a fair idea of what’s involved, however my own assistant obviously doesn’t share ALL her concerns with me, so I enjoyed the eye opener. As a thank you, here are a few tips on how, as an Exec Sec, you can really harness all the skills you have in these tricky situations.

My likening to a priest comes from my belief that both roles can be a privilege and a curse. Both are considered confidants and are provided with delicate information, yet often both are not fully briefed with the full information and can be far removed from the reality of the situation. Both are expected to work miracles, and in reality have to deal with the aftermath when these may not materialise.

The theme running through many a challenge is communication, and expectation. If someone expects a miracle, and doesn’t provide you with any tools to deliver one, how do you deal with that? Here we have a look at how to deal effectively with corporate communications, in a way that could make everyone’s lives a bit easier.

Managing expectations

The first and foremost potential communication issue that needs ironing out is around expectation. Miracles happen, right? All you have to do is wish for one, and pour your heart out on why you deserve one.
In the corporate world miracles are expected of assistants every day, and often they are produced, but sometimes just sometimes they are elusive. I’d suggest exploring the following boundaries to see if you can reign your employers in a little, and take the pressure off from having to make the impossible possible, every day.

In our Effective Business Communication course we cover tone and language and this is crucial when managing expectations. If you feel the need to stand your ground tone and language can be your best friend.

Tone, language and body language

Whether face to face, or on the phone, tone and language say so much. This is where you can regain a bit of power by being clear, assertive and to the point, keeping your mind on the end goal of what you are trying to achieve. Your role requires a lot of trust, and this is a valued position to be in, so consider how you can illustrate that you value this, and that you understand your position of responsibility. However, often over familiarity also comes with this role, and you can be spoken to as a sibling that your boss is used to ordering around, or an old friend to whom anything can be said. In many ways this is a compliment but it’s crucial to try and retain a balance to the relationship – too much jovial chat and expectations may stretch, as ‘Oh, she won’t mind’ or ‘It’s OK, he’s fine to do that…” become too common.

We know you’ll have a certain way of dealing with your boss, and their requests, but being more conscious of retaining control and managing the situation might just help bring a bit more structure to the table. We all know that: “It ain’t what you do, but the way that you do it, that’s what gets results”.

Listening skills and questioning skills

We believe you have the listening skills of a priest. You do. But, you don’t have as much time on your hands as a priest. You have spreadsheets to collaborate, documents to issue, events to organise, reports to collate, really you don’t have all day for meetings and for being called into an office every 5 seconds. Likewise your boss has a million things to get done in their day, and they’d be more productive if they didn’t jump around so much.

When you have time with your boss we’d suggest you each take on the roles of listening and questioning. Let them tell you what they need and you listen. Then make sure you question any elements, and they listen, before you leave the room. Gaining complete information in one sitting can save hours. Questioning the boss is something some people do have issues with, but I’d suggest you don’t see it as an interrogation, rather a fact finding mission, to help you understand each other more clearly.

Questioning skills are fundamental to effective communication. It might not be the way to go to question everything about the task they have just set, try to keep it productive and objective, but if you have concerns try to qualify them through gathering more information. It can also be a way of testing knowledge, as often unreasonable requests are made due to a lack of knowledge. A layer of questioning may reveal that this is the case, then you can help fill the knowledge gaps, to see if you can drive the task to a more practical solution. Questioning can help put you back in control of a situation as you are then directing the information provided and it also encourages further thought, so if you can anticipate an issue down the line, it could be better to question the rationale and clarify, and document how to approach these at this stage.

Also be aware that your body language can play a part in asking questions…a raised eyebrow, a tilt of the head can all suggest you are questioning what has just been said.

Adding your input and standing your ground

If questioning has revealed something you don’t like the sound of, then what? You have to be given the chance to voice your opinion, before returning to your desk to perform the impossible task. Your position requires trust, and you should remember that this works both ways. You are trusted with a lot of key, often sensitive information and you are trusted to do your best by your boss. This in turn should mean that they trust your judgement. It may be that you haven’t really had to challenge your boss, and you find it awkward when it comes about, or it may be that you’re not a fan of confrontation but either way remember that they do value your opinion, so offered in the right tone, they should listen. If you feel passionately about something, in most cases this would raise a flag with the employer if you have built a trusted relationship.

The important thing to remember here from an employer’s point of view, is fight for the things that matter. Sometimes trivial day to day things can get in the way which means that everyone is askew from the bigger picture. Approaching your employer regularly with small niggles will mean they won’t listen properly when you have a serious concern – but when you do really stand your ground on something you might just put a stop to them expecting the impossible.

Communicating outcomes across the business

When the miracle has been requested, and you’ve managed expectations slightly, to turn it from a full blown miracle into a mini miracle, how do you document and communicate that back? A written document which defines the actions and anything that needs noting as context, is invaluable. This way you have something to refer to in the next meeting and a defined checklist, rather than an endless invisible and moveable list. This reduces the confusion over accountability and also focuses the mind on the task in hand.

Often when you’re working on the task you’ll need to co-ordinate with others within the company, and when it comes to documenting and communicating information around the business, they key can be in the presentation of the content. Learn how others like to be communicated with, and mimic that for your best success rate. This will get you much better engagement than a blanket approach. If your boss is a spreadsheet fiend, it stands to reason he’d read a spreadsheet rather than a 10 page word document – that’s what’ll get his attention. If a colleague prefers to Skype rather than have face to face meetings, work with that and adapt to their style. If the company blog is widely read that might be a better way to inform staff of news, rather than a poster on the noticeboard, or a round robin email.

Organising tasks

MS Office can be a godsend for helping to keep projects on track when collaboration is key. Booking follow up meetings, conference calls/Skype calls, with accompanying agendas, setting deadlines and sharing progress reports – all these tasks are made easy. Once you really harness the power of what MS Outlook can do you’ll never look back. A handy tool we like to use is the ‘Read Receipt’ in Outlook so there’s nowhere to hide for those elusive colleagues, who you often need to collaborate with to help you perform your miracle.

Presenting Progress

Once all’s said and done and your mini miracle has been performed, it’s likely you’ll just move on to mastering the next one – but wait – celebrate your success first! Inform those involved in the project that it has been successfully completed, share any key results and thank people for their involvement. It’s important others do know what you have just achieved and you don’t hide your talents under a bushel. Find a quick and easy way to report this, using the templates and technology at your disposal, and then shout from the rooftops “hallelujah”. You did it, and you’ll do it tomorrow and the next day – but it’s no big deal, because you are a miracle worker, after all.

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About Author

Claire Lister

Claire Lister is the Owner/MD of Pitman Training Group (www.pitman-training.com). Pitman is a market leader in the PA and secretarial training industry, delivering exceptional results for tens of thousands of students each year. Pitman also provide training in areas such as IT, accountancy and business skills. As a passionate advocate for education and franchising, Claire thrives in helping others succeed. She says “Our mission is focused on helping people achieve their employment goals, to provide them with more fulfilled futures. I love being a part of creating more successful businesses and individuals around the world with a truly global brand”.

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