In this extract from her new book The Exceptional PA, Heather Baker shares positive perceptions of the assistant role
I see many instances of senior consultants, professors, company directors etc. who, because their administrators do not always have as high academic qualifications as them (e.g. a degree), consider their assistants as less valuable. In fact, PAs and administrators are usually much more capable and qualified with organisational and interpersonal skills – all just as valuable, but different.
The Value of Administration
It is an old-fashioned idea that administration is of less importance. Happily, many organisations and their managers and directors now recognise and understand the value of these employees.
Those who still harbour negative perceptions not only cause offence to the administrators and demean them, they also disadvantage their own position because a PA can do so much to help their manager succeed; that is their role.
However, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the fact that many PAs and administrators reinforce these negative perceptions with their behaviour and the way they react to the negativity.
If we are treated like children, we tend to behave like children. This can be overcome by changing our reactions.
Choose Your Reaction
In any situation we all have a choice of how we react. Some people choose to react negatively, passively, or aggressively; some choose positivity and assertiveness. It is not easy, however, to choose the positive option when people are treating us with negativity.
Let’s start with some basic problems. How many times have you heard people say “oh, she’s just a secretary”? Unhappily, I have also heard people say “oh, I’m just a secretary”. That word “just” being used again to demean someone … or ourselves. Remember the words we use can impact on the impression that we give. Never include the word “just” when you give your job title or describe what you do.
PAs and administrators should use positive language to ensure positive perceptions.
Don’t put yourself down; if you can’t do something, keep quiet and get trained. Accept compliments gracefully; if someone tells you that you look nice or they like your hair or clothes, say thank you.
Modify Your Behaviour
It’s also advisable to model people’s behaviour. If there are people in your organisation who you admire or aspire to be like, watch and listen to how they behave and speak, chat to them to get the benefit of their wisdom and experience. There’s no need to change who you are, just add their skills and qualities to your repertoire.
I used to answer the phone with “Good morning, Mr Bennett’s office; Heather speaking”, until a female senior manager pointed out that I should use my surname (have you noticed how junior administrators “never have surnames”?). I tried it: “Good morning, Mr Bennett’s office; Heather Baker speaking”.
I felt more confident, people changed how they interacted with me and also, I found that people would ask me questions other than “is he there?”
Speak Like an Adult
Let’s look again at how our reaction to other people’s behaviour can help reinforce positive perceptions. A PA in an insurance company once told me that she was upset by her manager’s attitude when she returned from attending a PA quarterly lunch meeting. He always said, “have you had a nice little jolly then?” Incredibly patronising. As she said, he goes on lunches nearly every day and those are considered business lunches, her quarterly meeting was considered a “little jolly”. “What could I do?” she asked me.
I asked her how she responded when he said this, and she admitted she would just laugh… going along with his “joke”. I proposed that, if he said it again, she say “yes, thank you; it was very interesting, and I have some ideas to put to you” (or something similar). It’s called “speaking like an adult”.
Remember that you are as important as all colleagues. Even if you are not at a high level in the organisation, your skills are still vital to help everyone succeed. Don’t put yourself down and don’t let people make you feel inferior – they can only do that if you let them.