GRACE UNDER FIRE
Managing work crises without getting hot and bothered
BY JENNY MCCUNE
In every workplace, you’ll find at least one member of the support staff who is always cool in a crisis. No matter what the problem or workload, Mr. Cool remains unruffled. He is the picture of grace under pressure.
Generally, these calm, cool, and collected professionals share three traits: They’ve developed a mental toughness that helps them function well in a crisis; they’re well organized “The good and thus prepared to meet any challenge; and, finally, they’ve devised strategies to make them more efficient.
Organize and Thrive
Everyone needs an effective system of organization. But what works for one administrative professional may not work for another. What’s important is to find a system that is simple and that works for you so you’ll stick to it, says Sharon Mann, an organizational expert for Pendaflex, a division of Esselte Corp. based in Melville, New York, and president of the “I Hate Filing Club.” “The good system is the one that you’ll use,” Mann says.
For Jackie Allison, executive assistant to the CEO of S1 Corp., an enterprise software provider in Atlanta, the key to organization is a simple and universal filing system where there’s a place for everything. Instead of color files, preferred by many admins, Allison opts for plain “vanilla” file folders, filed alphabetically and by year.
Electronic organizers work for other organizational pros. The more demands you have to juggle, the more apt you are to forget tasks and appointments. You’ll never forget another to-do item when you keep an electronic list of actionable items.
Mindy L. Columbus, department administrator of the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing Student Services Department, keeps a Franklin Planner at work and uses a PocketPC for her personal affairs. “I use the two different systems, because I like to keep my work calendar and tasks separate from my ‘other life,’” Columbus says.
Color-coded pocket files help Fidelity Investment’s Denise Bafti CPS keep track of separate everything she needs so she doesn’t have to from my waste time searching for information. That keeps Bafti, who works as assistant to Fidelity Investment’s chief administrative officer in Boston, ready for action and able to cope with any crisis.
Bafti also uses Microsoft Outlook to help ensure she never forgets a task or an appointment. She doesn’t have to remember to book a restaurant reservation for her boss: Off goes the Outlook alarm to remind her, and Bafti picks up the phone and dials the restaurant.
A firm believer in the edict “never handle a piece of paper twice,” Bafti opens postal and electronic mail as it comes in and immediately takes action, whether that means filing it, putting a reminder in Outlook, or tossing it.
Elaine W. Hughes CPS/CAP starts with a clean desk. “I have a difficult time working if I have too many things on my desk,” explains Hughes, executive assistant at palmOne Inc. in Milpitas, California. In fact, Hughes spends a little time every day organizing her desk and filing or tossing unneeded pieces of paper.
An investment as small as five minutes a day to clear your desk can pay off big, says Esselte’s Mann. Mann takes a little time each day to straighten up and then schedules a “deep clean” once a week, say Friday at 3 p.m.
When Bafti rises for work each morning, she consciously “decides” to have a great day. “Everybody has a choice in the morning whether to have a good day or a bad day,” Bafti says. “You may not be able to change your situation, but you can change the way you feel about it. That’s my mantra.”
Early in her career, Bafti would get upset when she spent a lot of time organizing a meeting time only to have a crucial person unable to make it at the last minute.
“I used to get really upset, but then I started thinking about it: Who is getting hurt by me getting frustrated? The people who need to have the meeting rescheduled don’t care. Getting upset only hurts me,” she says. Once Bafti realized that meeting changes and cancellations were a part of her job and that’s what she was paid to do, she was able to let go of her angst. “I realized that getting upset wasn’t going to make it any easier and actually would make it harder,” she says.
A sense of humor and perspective can also help you stay calm. For example, when gift items to attendees of a management meeting in London got tied up in customs and people didn’t receive them until long after the conference, SI Corp.’s Allison didn’t get mad or even. She laughed.
“Sometimes, things are out of your control and you just have to move on,” Allison says. “In this case, I’d done all that I could do so I just had to appreciate the humor in the situation.”
When dealing with difficult people—or people in difficult situations—Allison has learned to take a deep breath before speaking. In fact, what works best for her is to let the other person vent first before she replies. Allison uses the time to formulate a response. The venting may calm the person down. “It’s always good to take a breath, pause, and think before you speak,” Allison says.
Bafti treats others as she would like to be treated: “I do believe that what goes around comes around. I try to be nice to everybody and to act professionally. You never know when you’ll run into these people again. One thing that people say about me is that I’m willing to bend and help. So they are willing to help me when the time comes.”
Just as there are training methods for developing muscles, there are techniques for developing a calm attitude. In the case of Bafti, that means taking short walks to de-stress and sometimes just taking a few deep breaths when she feels overwhelmed.
Taking time to recover from a crazed work day is a wise investment, says Mann. Even if it’s just 15 minutes, Mann will step out or run an errand on a busy day for a quick refresher. “You have to find a way to remove yourself,” Mann says. “You’ll get more done.” Mann points to a friend who works in a nearby office and never takes the time for lunch. “She is so stressed and so overwhelmed, and I’ve got to believe she partially does it to herself.”
Try getting a little sunshine while running a lunch-time errand. “The sun provides light at just the right spectrum and wavelength to improve our mood, reduce our stress, regulate our sleep patterns, reduce carb cravings, and increase our overall well-being,” says Terra Wellington, an expert and commentator on healthy living and author of Seven Elements to Balanced Living.
Don’t forget exercise. According to William Atkinson’s Eliminate Stress from Your Life Forever, exercise cuts stress by reducing adrenaline secretions, lowering cholesterol, and reducing blood pressure. Try to park your car in the spot farthest from your office so you’ll have to walk more. Or, take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Silent meditation and Eastern exercise, such as T’ai Chi and yoga, are especially calming. “To reduce stress, I regularly practice yoga and Pilates at my local gym,” says the University of Pittsburgh’s Columbus. “It helps me to relax after a stressful day and calms me so that I am not so stressed the next day at work. Both have wonderful health advantages for your body and assist with weight loss, increase endurance, increase flexibility, and strengthen your body and muscles.”
Adding plants to your office can even help make you calmer. “A Cornell University study proved that being exposed to greenscape (plants, trees, and grass) reduced stress, improved focus, and increased attention,” says Wellington.
“Office fiestas” help keep the pressure off at the University of Pittsburgh. “They break the tension and keep our work environments fun,” Columbus says. Columbus organized an “office fiesta” on the Friday before the U.S. Independence Day holiday. She sent out an e-mail asking those who were working to bring in soft drinks and snacks for the day. “We brought in [food] items and just snacked during the day,” Columbus says. “No one sat down formally together, but just having the snacks and a little bit of a party was fun.”
Getting enough sleep is another strategy for improving mental fitness. “I get up at 4:30 a.m., but I go to bed at 9 p.m. That’s a solid seven hours,” says palmOne’s Hughes. “I feel like that keeps my energy up and I don’t have to stress about the awful traffic we have here in California.”
Also apply what author Atkinson calls “crisis anticipation.” Embrace the Peter Principle that whatever can go wrong will go wrong and plan accordingly. Always have a Plan B, and maybe even a Plan C, and you’ll always be calm, he says. Rehearsing for crisis also can help you be prepared so you won’t be caught off-guard.
Bafti used to care for a quadriplegic individual who would experience seizures. “People would be amazed at how calm I was,” Bafti says. “You just need to go into action and focus on what you need to do and what the next step is. Afterwards, I might feel shaky, but not during.”
Finally, practice patience. “This is important since the emotion most strongly associated with heart disease is anger and hostility,” says Dr. Jay Winner, a family physician and stress management teacher in Santa Barbara, California. “One way to have more patience is to realize that when people are rude, they are usually suffering in one way or another,” says Winner, author of Stress Management Made Simple.
Allison needs systems in place to speed up routine jobs. If you’re the administrative assistant to the vice president of sales and he faxes corporate sales projections to headquarters each week, then develop a form for that routine fax so you don’t have to create a cover sheet each time.
Many administrative personnel get overextended by taking on too many tasks. Avoid that trap by asking yourself if a job can be delegated to someone else. Consider asking someone for help with a task or dividing up a series of activities between yourself and a coworker. When someone volunteers to help you with your big project, offer to do the same when it’s crunch time for them.
Eliminate unnecessary meetings. Decide if a meeting is really necessary before scheduling it. Are there alternative ways to distribute or collect the information?
Also consider starting work early or staying late. Coming in a couple hours early gives Bafti some quiet time to focus on projects and get work done before phone calls, faxes, and e-mails intrude. Variations on the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. routine also help Bafti and other administrative assistants who work flexible schedules to avoid rush-hour traffic.
How you prioritize your work activities frees up time, too. Hughes takes a cue from the Franklin Planner scheduling philosophy. “When I prioritize tasks, I do the most important ones first, even if they are not the most fun,” Hughes says. “Sometimes it’s best to do what you least want to do first and get it out of the way. Do it early in the day when you have the energy.”
Sometimes Hughes will simply complete a task rather than waste time writing it down. “If it’s something simple and can be done quickly, why not just get it out of the way instead of wasting time recording it?” she asks.
In every admin’s life are a few times when the pace slows down. Use that time for getting organized or completing projects that typically get pushed to the back burner.
So how can you appear completely composed when the new copier is jamming, your boss is fogged-in in San Francisco and won’t be back in time for the board meeting, and you’re up to your neck in memos and meeting planning? Just remember these strategies and you’ll find that you can indeed practice grace under fire.
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