In a wide range of careers and workplaces, the very first step from entry-level to management happens in a similar way: Before an employee is placed in charge of a team or given responsibility for multiple direct reports, she’s assigned to an assistant. In some offices, the employee hires the assistant with partial or total control over the process. In others, the employee is simply tasked with managing the assistant, but not hiring or promoting him when the time comes.
If you’re approaching this unique and narrow window in the arc of your career, there are a few ways to make sure both you and your assistant gain as much as possible from the arrangement. And there are also a few common mistakes that can lead to misunderstandings and bad feelings on both sides. Keep one primary rule in mind above all others: Treat your assistant as you would wish to be treated if you were in her position. And as a secondary rule, always put the needs of the company first when making any managerial decision. Here are a few simple ways to put these broad rules into action.
Managing an Assistant
- One of the most unexpected problems facing new assistants and bosses has to do with time management. No matter how busy you may be, or how the pace of your business rises and falls, sometimes there just isn’t very much for an assistant to do. Recognize this and handle the lulls in a practical, useful and realistic way. Don’t ask your assistant to sort paper clips, and don’t get angry if you catch her surfing the internet when you haven’t provided her with any other assignments. Instead, put some thought into her career development and find meaningful tasks that can help increase her value to the organization.
- Teach, don’t dictate. The role of an assistant isn’t what it was fifty years ago. While some businesses make a lifelong career out of the assistant role, most companies now use this role as a pipeline or springboard to greater responsibility. Your assistant may be fetching you coffee, but over the long term, that’s not why she’s here. She’s here so she can learn about the business and advance to the next level.
- Reward attitude. At the assistant level, decision-making involves minimal responsibility. But if your assistant accepts minor tasks and makes small decisions with energy, commitment and follow-through, make sure you notice and give praise as necessary. Point out—and help her bring out—her areas of specific skill and talent.
- Chat. Small talk is an art, and a habit of superficial conversation can bring surprising benefits to relationships, morale, quality of life, productivity and harmony in the workplace. So talk to your assistant when you can. As you do, recognize that your professional demeanor, your topics and the rhythm and register of your conversation are all setting an example.
Get Ready for the Next Stage of Your Career
Your interactions with your assistant, the mistakes you make and the ways you learn from these mistakes will all help you grow as a leader. And ideally, your relationship with your assistant will prepare you for the more challenging management responsibilities that lie ahead. Visit LiveCareer to learn more about training and supervising others, improving your leadership skills and rising to the level of responsibility that matches your ambition and experience.