How to Be a Good Assistant

Having spent years in assistant roles, it has been intriguing recently to manage new assistants. Compared with prior posts, helping to manage has me seeing many ways that I could have improved as an assistant in the past.

Assistant’s desktop, by Fenst, on Flickr

So if you’re trying to train your new manager, or yourself, here are some things you can do to help make your own job easier as an assistant.

  1. Clarify Expectations. Sit down and ask in your first few weeks, What do you expect of me? What are the baseline skills I need to know? What do you hope I’ll ideally be able to do, over time?
  2. Meeting the Urgent – Wisely. “What’s urgent on your plate today?” When your boss looks stressed, note that you’re busy working on XXX, but ask if there’s anything else you can do. Offering to take on small-but-urgent tasks doesn’t overwhelm you, but lets your boss feel better about their own overstressed work.
  3. Target Your Initiatives. Showing initiative and brainstorming ideas that you love is great, but the boss may be too busy to even think straight about them. It’s even better if you can suggest an acceptable solution to that nagging problem the boss is facing — and offer to implement it all by yourself. Having a great idea for Y when the boss is thinking of X just makes the boss set your idea aside as “too much for now,” and leaves you both frustrated. Save it for a time when the boss is more relaxed, and offer to lead the project yourself!
  4. Keep a done list: If you can make a growing list of things you’ve done and tasks you do regularly, it helps remind your boss what you contribute, and also makes a great resource for when they write you that brilliant reference letter in the future.
  5. Keep a to-do list: Know what’s on your boss’ list and offer to take on a mix of things you like (to keep your job enjoyable) and ones that you know they don’t like (wins you bonus points!). On top of that, throw in a few fun goals of your own, and keep it all on a highly visible list of things to do. Turn in new stages of projects or reports regularly; this makes your contributions visual, and helps your boss trust that you’re still focused on their priorities even when you’re working independently.
  6. Shift the conversation. “That sounds great! But I’m wondering if it’s better if I handle it this way for you.” I can get vexed when students contradict me, but sometimes they’re right. Presenting your ideas briefly and compellingly goes a long way; but make sure you’re willing to do any additional work before you propose the idea.
  7. Do your core tasks. I mean, really. The first step is to more than meet baseline expectations. Know what the basics are and get those done, then negotiate tasks off your boss’ list and your own wish-list. If you’re offering to help with other things but avoiding that one thing… at least do some of it first.
  8. Keep a Good Attitude. Show up on time, stay the day, be evidently working, produce regular and measurable outputs, and stay positive, on average. This makes the boss much more supportive when you’ve got a special request.
  9. Communicate in advance. Don’t ask to run out without advance notice, if you can help it (often, you can’t!). I form a mental map several days in advance of what work to do at what point, and suddenly covering for my assistant to go out and do her masters coursework would throw off all my plans for her. Not something that can be helped, but the more notice, the better.
  10. Make it up. If you need time off, a good employer should give it to you; take on some extra work, turn in something substantial, or stay longer, to reassure your manager that you’re committed to working hard, and that it benefits them even when you have to step out for a bit.
  11. Lend a hand. Reach out and offer to help with X, when you see your manager working on it. This is best if you’ve just turned in your regular work. Once you’ve offered to go above and beyond, it’s easier to ask for favors and breaks later.
  12. Ask and listen. Ask, what are your priorities? Where is this organization headed? What do you hope to do in the future? It’s hard to time this right, but sometimes it’s possible to broaden an existing one-on-one discussion during downtime onto a broader scale. I’m a big fan of communication, trying to match what my department is doing with the school, as well as to communicate my priorities and any constraints, urgent tasks, upcoming events, or opportunities down to my assistants. It works best, obviously, when everyone’s on the same page about the goals and accomplishments of each group as well as the whole organization. (Workplace conflict over means and goals… well, that’s a whole ‘nother issue!)

That’s what I’ve learned so far (as of Spring 2013). Do you have any other suggestions for people on the assistant side of the equation?

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