Gemma Walton lists her top 10 attributes that make assistants into great VAs
As a Virtual Assistant (VA), I’m often asked by employed assistants how I made the leap from my corporate role to freelance, and whether I think it’s something they could do. The idea of running your own VA business – and the flexibility, autonomy and variety that comes with it – can be alluring, but so many assistants are convinced that they could never do it, because they feel they haven’t got the skills, attributes or courage necessary to be successful.
I’m here to tell you that 99 times out of 100, they absolutely have.
A Virtual Assistant can come from almost any background – I’ve worked alongside some amazing VAs from events, marketing, logistics, finance, healthcare and more – but if you have worked in an executive support role, you are likely to have a plethora of transferrable skills and traits which can help equip you to become a great VA.
There are the obvious ‘hard’ skills, including diary management, travel planning, project management and more, but even more crucial are the ‘soft’ skills that are critical to setting up and running a successful business and keeping your clients happy.
So, because all organised people love a list, I’ve listed my top ten attributes that can help to set an assistant on their way to becoming an amazing Virtual Assistant.
Top Ten PA to VA Attributes
1. Assistants work on their own initiative
Being a self-starter is critical as a freelancer – when you’re running your own business there’s no-one there to hold your hand and to tell you what to do. You’re the CEO, the marketing team, the IT helpdesk and everything in between, and you need to be able to learn fast and hit the ground running.
There is a common misconception that assistants merely follow instructions – that they are told exactly what to do, and how, by their executives, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Executives are often too busy to give anything more than scant instructions or a hasty telephone briefing, and a strong assistant will constantly be thinking on their feet, deciphering the most basic scribbles and turning them into actionable plans, creating systems and processes, making suggestions for improvement, heading up projects, and always, ALWAYS getting up, showing up, and thinking ahead of the game.
2. Assistants are thick-skinned
As the saying goes, ‘it’s tough at the top’, and that’s equally true whether you’re an assistant or a VA. Both require a tough hide when it comes to dealing with strong personalities, setbacks, long days and big decisions. But if you’re adept at handling the boss’s meltdowns when their team haven’t delivered, or when their flight is cancelled for the third time (and at not taking it personally when they rant in your direction), you will be more capable of handling challenging clients and standing firm on your rates, your worth, and what you will and won’t accept in business.
3. Assistants are decisive
Anyone who has ever had to sign off on a board paper or a project while their boss was at 30,000 feet or stuck in a meeting will know that assistants are decisive. Running your VA business successfully requires these same skills – making informed decisions quickly for the benefit of your company, weighing up the positives and negatives, and acting with confidence.
4. Assistants are politically and commercially astute
I recently asked one of my clients what stood out for her as the most transferrable skill from assistant to VA: political and commercial awareness was top of her list. Assistants who are used to navigating a highly complex and political corporate landscape are likely to be more adept at operating thoughtfully and effectively with their clients when they make the move into VA world. In turn, clients trust that their VA will represent them effectively with their end clients and add value to their business as a result.
5. Assistants are great communicators
As a Virtual Assistant you need to be able to communicate effectively with a range of people from different backgrounds and industries, as work can come from almost anywhere (your milkman and your hairdresser are just as likely to be potential clients as your former CEO!).
It’s critical that you are able to adapt your communication style to suit your audience in order to engage with the people you’re selling to and working with, and the same is true as an assistant. Being able to communicate well with your directors isn’t enough – your stakeholders will range from consultants to contractors, and from cleaners to Chief Executives, and being adaptable at all levels is a true skill for both the freelance and employed Assistant.
6. Assistants are quick and accurate
Ask any client what they are looking for in a VA, and they’ll almost certainly tell you that a key requirement is someone who works quickly and with precision. If you charge by the hour then time is money to your clients, and so it’s incredibly important that you work efficiently while also maintaining accuracy. Assistants are held to the same high standards; I have yet to meet a top assistant who couldn’t spot a rogue apostrophe at 500 paces, even while working at 500 miles per hour!
7. Assistants are well-connected
If I had one tip for anyone from an executive support background looking to become a VA, ‘nurture your network’ would be it. As an assistant you will come into contact with a range of people from numerous organisations in your day-to-day role – these are the people who will become your champions when you make the leap to freelance. Having a ready-made group of people willing to recommend and refer you is worth its weight in gold – you are who you know!
8. Assistants can manage multiple projects and stakeholders
This point almost goes without saying, but the ability to spin multiple plates is such a transferrable skill – I don’t know a single VA who only has one client, and so an ability to handle any number of stakeholders, tasks and deadlines effectively will stand you in great stead for freelance life. And if you think this is something anyone can do, think again! Assistants are the best of the best at this, and it’s a marketable skill your clients will expect and value.
9. Assistants are great negotiators
When you’re a freelance VA, it’s an inconvenient truth that people will ask you to discount your rates, work outside your usual hours, or handle tasks you wouldn’t normally do. The same is true for employed assistants – you’re often asked to work outside your remit, whether that’s in terms of time or task, and an ability to negotiate with your boss, or your clients, on what you are willing (or unwilling) to accept is critical.
In fact, many clients will respect you all the more because you do negotiate. It reflects a degree of business savvy that will ultimately allow you to negotiate on their behalf, too.
10. Assistants are courageous
I know this is a top ten, but I’ve actually saved the best for last – courage and confidence are the biggest differentiators between a successful assistant and an unsuccessful one, and the same is true for VAs.
Being self-employed means you will need to push yourself to do things you have never done before (the first time I was asked to do a 60-second ‘pitch’, I think I almost died on the spot), be strong and sure of yourself and what you’re offering, offer your clients challenge where appropriate, and to step out on your own into the big wide world to grow your business.
And having worked alongside some of the best assistants in the world, I can say without a doubt that as a group, they’re some of the most courageous people in business. If you have the confidence to challenge a CEO who is trying to fill their diary with more than they can handle, or the courage to sit on a leadership team and speak up in meetings, you’re better equipped than most to handle tricky clients, difficult conversations and the complex world of the freelancer.
The Next Step
While having all of these things doesn’t automatically mean that someone will a be successful VA, it’s a fantastic foundation to build on, and I regularly see employed assistants successfully making the switch to freelance because of the grounding they have in these areas. All it takes to mobilise your skills into action is a little faith in yourself and a double dose of bravery, and you’re up and running. Be brave – magic happens at the end of your comfort zone!
And if you’re still not convinced that you could escape the 9-5 and set up on your own, just remind yourself of my all-time favourite quote from The Wolf of Wall Street, who definitely had a way with words:
‘The only thing standing between you and your goal is the story you keep telling yourself about why you can’t achieve it’.
Start telling yourself a different story, and once you do, I promise that you’ll never look back.