Thursday, August 23, 2007

Save the Assistants

They are often the unacknowledged heroes of the workplace – the assistants. Not many companies could get by without them. They know tons of critical stuff – from how to fix the office copier to how to set up conference calling with Switzerland to how to get a company party catered for 200 with less than 24 hours notice.

They are smart, tough and critical to the success of their bosses, and yet they can be treated like doormats. No wonder they set up their own Web site to vent their frustrations, share tips for success and yes, plan for their escape from the jobs they sometimes love and often hate.

Recently, Lilit from Save the Assistants reviewed my book, and that led to her asking me questions – and now me asking her questions.

1. Tell me about "Save the Assistants" it got started, what kind of topics you address, the goal of the Web site, etc.
My first job in New York after graduating from college was at a very corporate media firm. I had no idea how to be an assistant, and my company didn't really invest time in job training. The only reason I survived was because the other assistants all pitched in and helped each other navigate the day-to-day particulars of our jobs. I started wishing there were some kind of online forum or Web site were I could talk with other assistants. I'm from North Carolina, and many of my college friends were at smaller companies where they were the only assistant – they didn't get the same kind of office camaraderie.

After leaving the company, a former coworker, Ashley, and I, founded Save the Assistants. We wanted it to be a mix of horror stories, practical advice, success stories and other resources to empower assistants. It's helped us as much as it's helped our readers. We always regard our audience as a resource. They send us e-mails and post comments and help continue the conversations we start on the blog.

2. What is the biggest misconception about assistants?
There are two. The first is that assistants are incompetent or stupid – the misconception is usually that if they were smarter or better at their jobs, they wouldn't be assistants anymore. The second is that assistants are secretly plotting to take over their boss' job and will stop at nothing. That “All About Eve” mentality often makes bosses second-guess
their assistants' motives or not trust their assistant to do more complicated, interesting projects, instead saddling them with thankless administrative duties. The truth about assistants is somewhere in the middle of these two misconceptions: they're learning how to do a job, and eventually want to move up and get promoted, but understand that they have some ways to go.

3. So, what do bosses do that drive their assistants crazy?
The biggest thing assistants complain about is their bosses “not treating them like people.” What that boils down to is a boss who talks down to his or her assistant or sees the person only as a faceless employee.

4. How can a boss make an assistant happy and satisfied with the job?
It's amazing how far a little personal gesture can go. A boss and an assistant shouldn't be BFF outside the office. However, a boss personally congratulating an assistant in front of everyone at a meeting or sending the assistant a birthday present can do wonders for improving their relationship. People want to admire and be proud of who they work for, and they also want to feel appreciated for what they do.

5. What do a majority of assistants dislike about their jobs? What do they like the most?
Assistants hate unnecessary busywork, being condescended to, and not feeling useful to the company. Even though spending time as an assistant is necessary, it's way more beneficial to an assistant's career in the long run if she gets to take on projects and learn new things at work than if she sits around and make scopies all day. Give your assistant one or two meaningful projects in addition to her administrative duties, and you'll see her
approach all her work in a more eager way.

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