Skills That Matter
lines between administrative staff and managers are blurry
today. Experts and “managing admins” weigh in on the skills
needed to maximize new opportunities.
By Anya Martin
The Administrative Leadership Team (ALT) at
Texas Instruments Inc. (TI) was established in 1979, but in the
last decade, the company has empowered its admins to use ALT and
its sub-teams to harness and hone their own processes, says ALT
Leader Diane McDurmon CPS, an engineering data specialist at
TI’s Sherman, Texas, satellite plant.
“We feel like we have a leadership role
in the areas where we work because there is very little we
don’t help with outside of the engineering part,” she says.
“As [the engineers] have become more computer-literate,
we’ve moved away from the typing, shorthand, and Dicta-phone
Admins aren’t CEOs, but today’s admins
are acting more like managers, managing everything from the
processes by which their own tasks are performed to complex
projects that previously would have been tackled by executives.
The biggest reason companies are moving
their admins into more managerial roles is simple economics,
says Julie Hixson, a director at Kforce Professional Staffing.
Hixson places executive assistants in Fortune 1000 companies, as
well as nonprofits and associations in the
Hixson offers the following eight key
management skills that admins need in today’s fast-paced
As more admins are leading workplace teams and committees, as
well as organizing meetings and conferences, employers are now
requesting admins with previous supervisory experience.
“We’ve taken several job orders lately that request
admins who want to partner, who have strong project management
skills, and who want to guide and shape the business,” Hixson
says. If not offered on the job, admins can pick up leadership
skills through community organizations or the International
Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), she adds.
Another way to learn leadership skills and show
initiative is getting involved within the firm with an internal
volunteer project, says Judy Hermann, executive assistant/office
manager for the Emerald Heights Retirement Community in
problem-solving, solutions-driven approach. Employers want
admins who not only can define specific problems but also can
offer viable solutions, which they’ve researched before coming
to the table. Creativity is key, says Natacha Bryanton, a
research coordinator with the
management. Admins should be able to manage a project from
start to finish. Strong organizational skills have always been
an asset for admins, but in project management, they become
essential, says Linda Smith CAP, administration coordinator for
Noble Drilling (
building. This skill goes “hand-in-hand with
leadership,” Hixson says. The core quality here is building
consensus. At TI, the Communications Sub-Team plans an annual
meeting for all administrative staff from the ground up,
arranging facility space, planning the agenda and hiring
speakers, and getting the word out, McDurmon says.
One major accomplishment by the Supplies and Forms
Sub-Team saved TI $350,000 in office supplies and equipment by
substituting generic supplies for brand names, and enlisted the
firm’s full administrative staff in testing, she adds. Other
sub-teams focus on training, systems, supplies and forms, and
CPS/CAP certification, encouraging and helping admins achieve
Today’s admin needs to be able to switch gears at the drop of
a hat and be prepared for change. While not a management skill
per se, multi-tasking and flexibility are key to keeping up in
today’s fast-paced work environment where execs are not
looking for an old-fashioned admin who is comfortable with
also need a high tolerance for ambiguity. Just because we did
something one way last week doesn’t mean that this is the way
we’ll do it this week,” Hixson says.
speaking. Executives increasingly want their admins to be
not only a right hand but an extension of their voice.
Executive assistants need to be able to engage in public
speaking to both small and large audiences. Hand in hand with
strong communication skills come good listening skills and
public relations skills, says Linda Smith.
“Attending seminars, meetings, and networking
functions, you must be cognizant of the fact that you are acting
as an ambassador
of your company and act accordingly,” she adds. “Be
knowledgeable about your company; be proud and supportive of it.
Answer all questions with tact and diplomacy, always
accentuating the positive.”
interaction. Many executives are having their administrative
assistants also work as staff assistants to boards of directors.
Admins do much more than just plan the logistics of the meeting
and invite board members; they may even develop the content and
agenda for the meeting.
Larger firms may offer training and
professional development that goes beyond technical skills into
the managerial arena, and admins should take advantage of these
programs when available, Hixson says.
At Ryan Companies US Inc. in
However, admins can develop managerial
skills on their own, and most admins pick up these skills on the
job, says Annette Dubrouillet, president and owner of Continuum
and a consultant, speaker, and personal coach who works
regularly with admins. Her
most important advice to today’s admin is to develop
self-empowerment skills. “They
have to be responsible for their own professional development,
their own mental health within the position, their own skills,
and not rely on their organization or their boss to do that for
them,” she says.
According to Dubrouillet, today’s admins
regularly use many of the management skills ascribed to middle-
and upper-level management, but they often don’t recognize
that they are using these skills or give themselves adequate
credit. “One of
the strengths of the admin is wanting to be helpful and caring,
and doing for other people, but that’s also an area of
vulnerability because they begin to focus too much on what they
do for other people,” she says. “It’s a Catch-22. What
makes them good at their job is also limiting their
Indeed, Hermann suggests that admins should
take the initiative of informing their boss—diplomatically, of
course—of managerial achievements.
“No administrative assistant should assume that the
boss knows or even understands the multitude of steps it takes
to accomplish a given task or the difficulties overcome to
create a success,” she says. “Come performance time, the
boss of an office assistant should have a great deal of notes
for reference in gauging performance over the course of a
year.” Admins can
also benefit from experience gained by others through creating
an educational pool among colleagues, exchanging e-mails, sticky
notes, training manuals, and conversation, Herrmann adds.
Another way to pick up managerial skills on one’s own is
subscribing to business and professional magazines.
Dubrouillet advises admins to write a
eulogy for themselves—not to be morbid but to focus on what
they would like to be remembered for accomplishing. Then they
can step back and develop concrete action steps on how to get to
that goal, whether through networking, via educational seminars
or training, or finding a coach or mentor.
“With the change toward the more
management type of tasks for administrative professionals is a
tremendous opportunity for increased job satisfaction, increased
accomplishments, and, if they want, career progression,”
Showing that one has mastered management
skills is key to scoring higher-level administrative jobs in
today’s competitive market, says Laura Smith, senior vice
president of human resources and administration for Edelman
Public Relations in
Admins also should be prepared for the same
type of behaviorally based interviews that once might have been
reserved for management or executives. They should come armed
with specific examples and figures, such as dollar amounts they
saved for the company. “One
thing I might ask is how did you convince your boss to do
something that you had researched?” she adds. “Can you
describe the process? From that, I would learn how
detail-oriented they are, how analytical they are, basically how
What Smith does look for is admins who can
show past examples of management skills and initiative rather
than simply following orders. Other key elements are flexibility
in the face of change and the ability to be a true multi-tasker
who “doesn’t mind doing everything from soup to nuts,” she
says. “There are
people now who don’t want to go to the copy machine and make
copies or who don’t want to go into the conference room and
clean up after a meeting,” she adds. “The ideal person will
do all those things but doesn’t shy away from the challenge of
writing a letter to a client or saying to the boss: ‘You know,
we’re spending X amount of money for supplies. I’ve called
and gotten several bids that will save the company money.’”
Such an attitude, however, goes beyond the
job interview to how one keeps and grows within an
administrative position today, Smith says.
“The key is having that ability to view your job as
‘nothing is below me, nothing is above me; no task is too
small, no challenge too large,’” she adds. “That sounds
very simplistic, but if a person has that attitude, they will be
successful. It really is much easier said than done.”
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