The Not-So-Secret Powers of an Administrative Assistant

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By Ross Shafer:

I'm always stunned when I hear an administrative professional say, "I don't have the authority to make that decision." You're kidding, right?! You spend more time in the belly of the beast than the boss.

Everything important passes by your desk on the way to the boss. You have more of the boss's ear than almost anyone else in your organization. If you don't believe you have direct influence on the decisions made by your department or company, then you need to stop denying reality and remind yourself who you are. Or maybe I need to reveal what I see when I speak to more than 75 large and small organizations each year.

If you and I could have coffee together, I would divulge to you what I hear when I'm hired by C-Suite giants. It goes like this: They want me to share my expertise and experience to a variety of business growth issues. Part of my job is to participate in "top-secret" conference calls. We discuss company culture, policy, and not-yet-launched corporate initiatives.

Here's where you come in. One or more key administrative professionals alway join us on these calls. Invariably, the boss will defer to his/her administrative professional with questions like, "Katie, where are we Sept. 23?" "Katie, what did we decide in the board meeting last week?" or "Katie, remind me of our policy regarding that issue." Did you notice the liberal use of the words we and our? Fact is, the boss considers your relationship as "we," "us" and "our." You're a team.

Think about life from the boss' perspective. The boss is expected to be current (and accountable) on a thousand different issues: from office paint themes to Wall Street projections. You know better than anyone that the boss cannot possibly remember everything. He/she depends upon you to be the organized, up-to-date, guidepost that keeps he/she on track, on task and out of trouble.
So make life easier (for both of you). The next time you hear yourself saying, "I don't have the authority to make that decision," maybe this is an opportunity to deploy your not-so-secret powers.

Make Life Easier
Be the gate keeper you were hired to be. The boss is overwhelmed and pressured by the people you know - and by the people you don't. Ask up front, "What can I do that you don't like to be bothered with?" Usually, the boss can give you a list. Beyond the list, it is incumbent upon you to pay close attention to the nagging irritations he/she didn't articulate. What are those recurring annoyances that steal time or cause the day to go off the rails. Maybe it's a bothersome client or a needy family member. Maybe it is a daily barrage of mundane "sign offs." Or, maybe it's your constant request for clarity. Sound familiar?

If you have an experienced sense of the boss' predictable answers, then handle these irritations yourself. The boss will applaud your initiative. If you find you are in need of repeated clarity, maybe you haven't been paying enough attention. Don't let the boss re-explain over and over.

Now, don't get me wrong. I empathize with you. You have a lot on your plate and it's easier (on you) to field an inquiry with, "I don't have the authority to…." shoving the decision off to the boss. But the boss is thinking, "Why is my Admin wasting my time with this?" or worse… "Maybe I need to find someone who can take more initiative."

Beat Your Deadlines
When you are given an assignment, do it quickly and with due diligence. Deadline issues are a top priority for the boss and understanding the urgency of the assignment will prove to the boss that you are reliable and thorough. Dig in as fast as you can and include your research (both pro and con). Because eventually, the boss will ask, "Hey Katie, how are you coming with that assignment?" The answer the boss wants to hear is, "It's done. I'll email you the details." Completing assignments under deadline – and with substantiated evidence re: success or failure – goes a long way to ensuring your ongoing value and demand.

Observe in Reserve
Your job is to be the eyes, ears, and brains of two people. You…and the boss. Notice everything. Remember everything. Keep notes. As I mentioned earlier, during conference calls, the boss repeatedly looked for counsel from the admin. Why? Because he/she didn't have the precise answers. You do. Make it your business to understand cultural and policy boundaries. Be ready to recall previous decision and the rationale behind them. At your core, be prepared to rescue the boss from him/herself.

Protect Confidentiality
Duh, right? But it's serious enough to be mentioned again here. You're human. Even though you've signed an NDA, you still Tweet your colleagues. You Facebook your outside activities. You email friends and you leave voicemails when you're frustrated. You may accidentally send an email to the wrong address (gulp!) Or, you simply forgot you were supposed to keep a casual comment sacred. Regardless, a person in your position is expected to be super-human when it comes to confidentiality. Make it a personal rule that whatever you hear from the boss, high level meetings, internal documents, etc. are the sole intellectual property of your workplace. Work talk isn't for public sharing.

The boss has frustrations, too. The boss vents, screams and spews accusations he/she shouldn't.  Still, the boss needs to trust you more than anyone else at work. So keep it all zipped up. Zip it good.

The exception: If you become privy to something illegal that can hurt your family - or put you and others in jail, immediately consult an outside-the-company attorney.

As an administrative professional, you have been given unusual responsibility and access to power. You are essentially seated at the right seat of The Throne and are able to influence beyond your title. I believe Archbishop Desmond Tutu may have an inspiring message for you.

I found myself backstage at a Human Resource conference with Desmond Tutu. I was asked to introduce him. Of his many accomplishments, he only wanted me to say, "Please welcome a very happy grandfather, Mr. Tutu."

His humility brought me to tears.

The rest of the world knew him much differently. While Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years, it was Archbishop Tutu who became the unlikely architect of ending apartheid in South Africa; freeing Mandela. Mr. Tutu told an audience of 2,500 that he'd never held an official government title. He didn't have power or money. He reminded all of us, "The most powerful people on earth have never had power, money, or a title…Jesus, Ghandi, and Mother Teresa simply paid attention to people in pain and humbly offered good ideas."

Never be afraid to offer good ideas. You've got the ear of a person who will listen.

Ross Shafer was a keynote speaker at the EFAM 2012 in Grapevine, Texas. He is a six-time Emmy Award winner, hosted five network TV shows, and author of fourteen HR training films and five business books.  To learn more about Ross visit