Being a personal assistant often means doing more than what is stated in your job description. I often joke that, if my job description could be summarised in one sentence, it would be ‘Do whatever my directors ask me to do.’ This might mean doing more than what is generally expected of me, or completing tasks in co-operation with individuals on an employment level above mine.
In a previous blog post, I shared five tips every personal assistant should know. Here are some more things that I have learnt in my three years as a personal assistant that would have changed my life had I known them sooner:
1. Get the bigger picture
My director often asks me to collect information or compile some statistics on a particular matter. This sounds like a simple enough instruction, but I have found that simply carrying it out with no further thought as to the context in which it will be used leads to me having to correct or recreate the result a few times.
Tip: Ask for the context! If I receive a vague instruction, or an instruction that obviously forms part of a greater project, I ask about the context of the task. This allows me to better understand what my director would like to do with the information I provide, which means I can construct my thoughts, and my work, accordingly.
2. Get the co-operation of the people around your superiors
Executives often forget that they have to inform their assistants of certain things, because they get so accustomed to their assistants already knowing their schedules. They sometimes arrange meetings while not in the office, or make some changes to an existing schedule, and while the meeting participants are informed, the assistant is sometimes forgotten. Of course, this is not on purpose, but it has caused me to be unprepared for a large meeting, and on occasion, I’ve had to put my planned duties aside in order to be readily available.
Tip: Get input from the people around your superiors. I approached the managers working closely with my director and asked them to please inform me whenever he schedules a meeting himself, instead of scheduling it through me. They gladly send me a Skype message asking: ‘Do you know that we’re meeting at 10am today?” and I can quickly react if I did not know. This allows me to be prepared for meeting assistance and to plan my day again, if necessary.
3. Learn to recognise key words or phrases
Have you ever been in a crowded, noisy room where you can barely hear the person next to you, but then you hear someone calling your name from halfway across the room?
In a similar way, I have taught myself to immediately pay attention when I hear my directors saying the words ‘coffee’, ‘schedule’, ‘off-site’, ‘print’ and ‘call’ even when completely focused on my work and without actively listening to a conversation. My desk is placed in such a way that I can act as a type of reception for visitors, and as a gateway to the directors’ offices. Therefore, while I cannot hear the discussions being held in their offices (privacy is important), my desk is close enough so that I am still able to hear when they call me or when they need something.
Tip: Learn to recognise specific words or phrases. I’ve learned that the words mentioned above usually indicate that one of my directors will be approaching me to take some kind of action soon. In fact, when I hear my name, I save whatever I am working on so that I can react quickly when they actively call me. Try to learn the words or phrases often used by your directors or managers – the ones that are likely to indicate they will be calling you to action soon.
4. Improve your typing skills
A large part of being a personal assistant is taking notes during meetings. Meetings on executive level can be quite difficult to follow if you are not familiar with the phrases used or the topics discussed. I remember feeling lost for the first few months in my job, even though I knew the basic operations of the entire company. While I learned the executive jargon eventually, I could not let my lack of comprehension negatively affect my work. Luckily, I type very fast, which allowed me to type everything that was said by everyone in the meeting.
Tip: Improve your transcription skills. Even when you can type very fast, transcription is a particular skill that needs to be learned. In order to improve in this regard, I asked my husband to read me stories, which I would then try to type as he read. Today, I can type fast enough that the speaker does not need to stop and wait for me to catch up anymore. This has greatly improved my skill when it comes to taking minutes at important meetings.
Another quick tip: Learn when to speak up. If you think that you missed an important discussion point, or a decision that was made, you probably did. Get the speaker’s attention before the meeting continues to the next topic, and ask if they could repeat the important point or decision made. If the point is not important in their opinion (or no decision was made), they will tell you and can then safely continue with the meeting. Rather ask, than risk your final minutes being incomplete, as this will reflect poorly on you.
5. Learn to interpret what others mean or want
Many people are not specific when giving instructions, or they think that they are specific and don’t realise that you don’t understand. Other people give you specific instructions, but then keep sending the work back and asking for more information.
As you get to know your directors, you will start to recognise how they express what they really want. When my one director asks me to help someone else with a particular job, she actually means that the person should send the end result to me, so that I can edit and quality check it before sending it to her. When my other director asks me to find a venue for a morning meeting, he wants to go to a quiet coffee shop that serves a great breakfast (if the meeting starts before 09:00).
Tip: Learn from previous experiences and remember what the further instructions were. I have gotten to know my directors well enough to interpret what they want. They know that if they ask me to do something, I will understand what they mean. However, there are still some instances where I need to ask for more information, and that is perfectly acceptable.
To read the original blog post, with the first five tips, click here.