I absolutely loved Joan Burge’s article, Core Admin Skills Always Need Improving! As John D. Rockefeller noted, “The secret of success is to do the common things uncommonly well.”
The principle she discussed of renewing and improving core skills is closely related to what Steven Covey calls “Sharpening the Saw”: the deliberate improvement of our tools to help us become more effective. To be of greatest benefit, sharpening the saw needs to become a habit, rather than a disruptive activity; ideally, it should be embedded in the very way you do work, and you should regularly set aside time for more focused work in this area as well.
Can you imagine how a self-perpetuating plan for professional development would affect your work over time? The impact might at first seem to be minimal as you save a few minutes here or a headache there; over time, however, the cumulative effect of all these improvements will be to transform you from an employee who does what they are told to a professional who largely dictates the course of their career.
To make continual improvement a part of the way you work, it is best to strive to integrate it with your work, rather than disrupting your work patterns. This way, it complements your career instead of competing with it. Start with some simple daily routines and then, as those improvements give you better control over your workflow, start blocking time for more ambitious development activities. The following outlines strategies I have used to great effect in my own career to make development an integral part of my professional life. These changes did not happen overnight, but incrementally over a course of years. Nonetheless, they outline a sure path to fulfilling your career potential.
Lay the Foundation
Before you can master any skill or role, you must have a holistic vision what it encompasses and entails. Achieving excellence as an administrative professional is no different. If you do not have one yet, create a manual to define the scope of your responsibilities and the procedures you use to fulfill those responsibilities. This is a time-consuming task, but essential. If you have never created such a manual before – or if you want a jump-start on the process – Julie Perrine has created a great process for developing one with her “Become a Procedures Pro 5-Day Challenge“.
Once you have a procedures manual in place, you can use it to capture process improvements you make on the fly for later addition to your manual. For simple notes, I like to use sticky notes on the frame of my monitor as placeholders until I have a chance to document the change; when the monitor gets too crowded, then I know I need to make time for an update.
For more complicated procedures, Julie Perrine’s program (mentioned above) includes paper templates that you can print and keep handy for creating handwritten procedures to place in your print manual until you are ready to type them up. Personally, since my work-in-progress list and manual are both in OneNote, my preferred method is to create a work-In-progress page for more complicated updates and ideas, then transfer it directly into my manual notebook when complete.
At least once a week, it’s a good idea to step back and look at the bigger picture. If you have a professional development plan, set aside 30 minutes on Friday to review your goals and make adjustments. Take note of any areas where you are falling behind; eliminate or adjust any tasks or goals that have become irrelevant or obsolete. If you have a mentoring relationship, share this weekly review by email: this allows you to stay in touch and get feedback without placing a burden on your mentoring partner by requiring their attention “right now.”
Once you have gotten into the above habits, it’s important to start scheduling time for a deeper dive into your professional development plan, as well as for extended training sessions. For the latter, be sure to also include time to make a personal action plan based on the training.
I particularly want to mention Office Dynamics’ monthly webinars here. I have been following them for a while now, and always come away with some fresh ideas to try – more than once doing so to accolades from my executives. As Andree Caldwell noted, “The role of an Executive Assistant is to make sure the executive is always prepared and always “in the know.’” I know of no better resource available for getting that insider knowledge, and even the most unimaginative employer cannot balk at the cost: incredibly, these webinars are offered at no cost to the attendees!
Once a month is also a great schedule for meeting with your mentoring partner; ideally, you should arrange this meeting to occur somewhere away from the office. The change in scenery will literally light up new parts of your brain that lie dormant in your everyday environment, and face-to-face time with a trusted friend will help recharge your emotional batteries in a way that an email simply cannot do. Beyond that, in person conversations are the right place for off-the-record conversation, and provide the opportunity for stimulating real-time debate and collaboration.
If you are proactively making time for professional development on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, you will most likely find that you have an increasing ability to dictate where you invest your time and focus. This is a natural outgrowth of a continuous improvement habit and allows you to take your game to the next level.
One of my favorite bloggers is Michael Hyatt; of his many wonderful suggestions, one of my favorites is what he calls the Quarterly Review: a full-day, personal, quarterly offsite in which you to take stock of your professional development plan, make course corrections and reset priorities for the coming quarter. Make no mistake, however – this level of commitment to your development requires planning. As Michael observes, “If you wait until you have a break in your schedule, you’ll never get to it. You have to make appointments with yourself and schedule other things around it.” You can follow up with a special quarterly mentoring meeting for added benefit.
If you can get your employer’s blessing for this kind of a review day – or even just a half-day – that’s great! If you can’t, then make time to do this on your own. No one has a greater stake in your professional development than you do, and if you do not value yourself highly enough to make this investment, you will have a hard time convincing others to make the investment for you. Conversely, when you do believe in yourself, other people cannot help but notice; they will be attracted to your energy and drive, and will be eager to help you and to be a part of your success!
To truly reinforce all of these habits of self-management and professional development, nothing is better than total immersion in the company of thought leaders and peers who hold your values. Even with a mentor to help you through the work outlined above, self-improvement can often lead you to what feels like a lonely place. Administrative colleagues who have not yet adopted a professional attitude about their career may be perplexed, and even threatened, by your ambition and accomplishments. Whenever possible, put yourself in the company of those who understand what you are doing and why. Conferences will help you clarify your vision, inspire you with new ideas, and connect you to the people who are willing to make what may at other times seem to be a lonely journey.
Step into the world of a conference, and you will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that, while you may be a pioneer among your peers, you are not alone in making this journey. I highly recommend making the time and investment to attend at least one major professional conference each year. A great choice, of course, is Office Dynamics’ own Conference for Administrative Excellence.
We can choose to coast along comfortably in our administrative career, or we can choose to pursue excellence. We can choose to uphold the status quo, or we can choose to seek continuous improvement. We can choose to let others dictate the path of our career, or we can choose to create a career that reflects the best of what we have to offer. Our careers – indeed, our lives – are driven by the values we hold and by the myriad small choices we make every day. Choose to make yours a life of excellence by doing the common things uncommonly well.
Burge, Joan “Core Admin Skills Always Need Improving”
Caldwell, Andrée “Executive Assistant?! What Is That Exactly…a Secretary?”
Hyatt, Michael “The Importance of the Quarterly Review”
Pavlina, Steve “Sharpen the Saw”
Tara E. Browne, DTM is an EA at Baystate Health in Springfield, MA, USA. Tara believes that administrative support represents one of the greatest areas of improvement opportunity in business. Collectively, administrative professionals are generally well-educated and represent a vast body of networked institutional knowledge about how business is done, yet are largely ignored in the endeavor to solve business pain. To leverage their knowledge and advance the profession, admins must learn to collaborate in new ways. In 2016, Tara founded MentorsAndMasterminds.com, a website dedicated exclusively to connecting administrative professionals (and former administrative professionals) in ways that support this vision.