TEN THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT WORKING
WITH AN ASSISTANT
(or…What They Don’t Teach You in Business School)
A great assistant can make all the difference. Universities don’t teach how to find, work with, and achieve excellent results from a personal/executive assistant. They should, but they don’t. The fact is that all high-powered, busy individuals need a top-notch assistant watching their backs in order for them to achieve maximum success, not to mention making more money and enjoying more free time. Here’s the crash course.
Note: 95% of all assistants are women and therefore, I am using the “she” pronoun in this piece to simplify. I know many male assistants and could easily have used “he.”
- Be clear about your needs.
It’s okay if you don’t know 100% about what you need from your assistant. If they are good, she will help you figure it out. To get started, it is important for you to identify the Top Ten things you need your assistant to do. Write them down.
- Brief your screener.
If someone else is screening resumes before you get to meet the candidate, brief that person well. It might be your agent, business manager, lawyer, publicist, former assistant, or your mother. Even if you think they know what kind of a person you want and need in an assistant, take the time to discuss it with your screener. If you do this, you actually stand a chance of getting the right person.
- Be clear and realistic about your expectations.
Do you prefer a male or female? Someone who needs to travel with you all the time, some of the time or not at all? Smoker or non? Computer geek or is low-tech okay? Do you need someone 24/7 who can leave town on an hour’s notice or can a person with some personal commitments (spouse, child, plants, dog) do the job?
- Be prepared to get what you pay for.
We all know that New York and Los Angeles and most major cities for that matter, are expensive to live in. Being a professional assistant usually does not allow for spare time to do extra income-producing work. Be fair and even generous. Respectful compensation will translate into your assistant going above and beyond the call of duty – all day, every day. In New York City, an experienced, full-time assistant is paid on average $80K/year plus benefits.
- Interview your potential assistants and present realistic scenarios of your work together.
Ask your candidate how she would, for example, handle putting together a last-minute dinner party or what they would do to arrange theatre tickets for seven people for the hottest show on Broadway.
By spending some time talking, you will get to know if you would be able to be with them day-in, day-out. You will also learn if the sound of her voice is grating to you or if you are getting a “weird vibe.” Isn’t it better to find this out immediately? If possible and if time permits, bring the candidate back another day to spend a couple of hours or even a day in your work environment. Take all personal recommendations for assistants with a grain of salt. Only you know if you will be compatible.
- Communicate regularly and listen, especially the first few weeks. .
Okay, you’ve hired your new assistant. There will be a learning curve but with most good assistants, it is short. Experienced assistants expect to have to hit the ground running with very little training, but when issues come up and, of course, they will, express yourself honestly and clearly about the problem. Most assistants will try very hard to read your mind (I’m serious), but it is not always possible. Conversely, I encourage you, especially at the beginning, to check-in with your ssistant at least once a week, preferably in person but even by phone or e-mail, to ask, “How’s it going? Are you okay? Any problems?” Really listen to the answers. Taking this time at the beginning will short-circuit long-term problems. Bottom line – your assistant can’t fix it if she or he truly doesn’t know a problem exists.
- Behaving irrationally and unreasonably does not serve you.
Assistants expect high-powered employers to have high expectations and to be needy, demanding, opinionated perfectionists. Even high-maintenance. That’s fine, totally normal, and part of the deal. What is not as easy to work with are irrationality and unreasonableness, “acting out” your stress. These qualities are tough to negotiate around, nearly impossible. In your frantic life, there are things that are simply out of your (and your assistant’s) control – the weather, construction on the Turnpike, and your mother’s sudden illness. Life happens, and things are going to go wrong despite your assistant’s best efforts. I urge you to understand this and be judicious about when you lose your cool to the person who is trying to help you the most.
That said, all professional assistants know you are going to lose it sometimes, and that’s okay, too. We know to not take it personally, but repeated temper tantrums get old fast, especially when they’re unjustified. In that case, your assistant might just decide you are impossible to please and will quit. Some employers have a revolving door of assistants. Personally, that has always struck me as much more work for you, a busy business owner, to have to repeat the process of hiring and training someone new, as opposed to working with the able assistant you painstakingly hired in the first place.
Finally, know that it is self-serving to the assistant if everything goes perfectly for you. That’s your assistant’s goal. Always.
- Two heads are better than one.
Give your assistant the permission to speak up if she has a suggestion, an idea, or sees a problem. She is in a prime position to hear and see things that you do not. Openly encouraging independent thinking and creativity will bring out the best in your assistant and ultimately, serve your goals and needs.
- Ongoing communication is key.
Communicate with your assistant however you feel comfortable. Face-time, notes, e-mail, telephone – do whatever you must to communicate what you need, what you want, what’s important, and what isn’t. If you have told your assistant that the kitchen must always be stocked with blueberries and then you decide you want melons instead, please tell him or her. If the office needs a paint job before the end of the month and you realize it at 2AM, write your assistant a note. I promise you, your wishes are her commands as long as you communicate!
- Last but not least, be a nice person.
Decency and kindness go a long way. Offer feedback from time to time. As a high-powered person, chances are that you receive constant feedback. Not so with your assistant. Tell your assistant about the colleague who commented on the great job she did. Show appreciation for a job well done. Say thank you. Send flowers or have someone else send them with an appropriate note. Give a generous raise or bonus. Offer an afternoon off. Remember your assistant’s birthday. Give praise when deserved. Honest, positive feedback will come back to you exponentially.
Overall job satisfaction has to do with:
- Fair Compensation
When an assistant resigns, she is not quitting the company, she is quitting her supervisor. When the factors above are present, you have a winning formula for enthusiastic employee retention. Here are some examples….
- Respect – Asking if she has time to talk when you call your assistant at home and be sure it is about something that really couldn’t wait.
- Appreciation – Openly acknowledge how important your assistant is to the executive team and the company.
- Fair Compensation – Offer an opportunity for a bonus or salary increase for going above and beyond and for consistent excellent work.
- Flexibility – This factor is often more important than money. When an assistant has a mechanism in place to easily (without guilt or angst): attend a child’s school play, a funeral, doctor’s appointments, attend to a sick family member, etc., it can make all the difference in career satisfaction. If in doubt, ask your assistant.
Follow this roadmap and you are on your way to a mutually successful employer/employee relationship. Tell me what you think! Good luck.