11 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT WORKING WITH AN ASSISTANT By Bonnie Low-Kramen
A positive and healthy relationship between a manager and an assistant is built on clear, two-way expectations, solid and ongoing communication, and a job description not set in stone.
A great assistant can make all the difference in a manager’s life. Just because an executive is a superstar financial advisor (for example,) it doesn’t necessarily follow that he or she is a superstar manager of people. Universities don’t teach how to find, work with, and get the most out of 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. Here’s the crash course for potential employers.
1. 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 feel like you need your assistant to do. Write them down.
2. Brief your screener. If someone else is screening resumes before you get to meet the candidate, brief that person well. It might be your HR professional, business manager, lawyer, co-worker, 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.
3. 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?
4. 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.
5. 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 meeting at the hottest restaurant in town or what they would do to organize an international travel itinerary. By spending some time talking, you will get to know if you would be able to be with them dayin, 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.
6. Communicate regularly and listen, especially in 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 assistant 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.
7. Support your assistant to receive supplemental training and professional development opportunities. Paying for your assistant to attend a conference or to take a workshop is a very worthwhile investment that will come back to you ten-fold. Making this investment not only strengthens her skill set but also builds confidence, self-esteem, and her network of colleagues who will help your assistant do her job better and better.
8. 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 child’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.
9. 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.
10. 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 your office must always be stocked with blueberries and then you decide you want melons instead, please tell him or her. If the Conference Room needs a paint job before the end of the month and you remember it at 2AM, write your assistant a note. I promise you, your wishes are her commands as long as you communicate!
11. Last but not least, be a nice person. Decency and kindness go a long way. Offer regular feedback both verbally and in writing. 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 or he did. Show appreciation for a job well done. Say “please” and “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.
In general, job satisfaction has to do with feeling respected, appreciated, and fairly compensated. In that order! These things make the difference between an unmotivated assistant who quits after six months and a world-class right arm who is loyal for twenty years.
Excerpted from “Be the Ultimate Assistant, A celebrity assistant’s secrets to working with any high-powered employer” by Bonnie Low-Kramen, former 25 year personal assistant to actress Olympia Dukakis. The author is also a founding member of NYCA, New York Celebrity Assistants. www.BonnieLowKramen.com