I recently received a call from a reporter at Entrepreneur magazine, asking me for a tip on how bosses and assistants could work together more effectively. "Just one?" I lamented. "There are so many important things to consider!" Here are some ideas of what you can do for your boss to become an indispensable assistant:
- Make an initial pass on e-mail. Sort e-mail by using the following criteria:
- Delete spam and messages of no value. Blacklist, unsubscribe, or use filters to halt continued receipt of messages from those senders.
- Forward messages that belong to someone else or those that should be acted on by another person or department.
- Respond to those messages to which you know the answer. Then delete or file such messages.
- File information-only (no action required) nonurgent updates, bulletins, or reading material in project-specific personal folders. When your boss has a trip scheduled, he or she can read these on the plane.
- Pass along (to a separate, action-only address or folder) those messages that require your specific action by your boss. If you're using Microsoft Office Outlook 2003, you can also mark important messages with follow-up flags.
- Schedule appointments. Determine the office hours during which your boss will be available for ad hoc meetings for such things as mentoring, vendor sales calls, and employee relation issues. Block out those times on the boss's calendar. Print the schedule, and have it available at your desk. Or create a second calendar in Outlook, and make appointments in real time. As people stop by to visit your boss, explain that your boss schedules meetings by appointment. Write the person's name in a time slot on your paper copy, or update the boss's Outlook calendar. Ask your boss to always copy you on any e-mail message that mentions an appointment or meeting. Then immediately follow up, and make the appointment according to the constraints mentioned in message.
- Protect your boss from interruptions. Make sure that your boss can focus on important work outside of open office hours. You're the gatekeeper, and your boss relies on you to prevent unwelcome or untimely interruptions. To determine when you should interrupt your boss, use the following criteria:
- Level 1 issues are those that require your boss's specific input. The world will stop until the boss is available to discuss the issue. These are legitimate; interrupt the boss when necessary.
- Level 2 issues need only a quick yes-or-no answer and require just a little interaction. Save up these issues and take them to the boss once or twice a day. Interrupt once for five questions, rather than five times with one question each time.
- Level 3 issues are those that could be answered by someone else; the boss is not the only person in the world who can help. Try to answer the question as best you can, and educate the visitor on the appropriate resource person to contact in the future.
- Level 4 issues are already answered in print somewhere — such as in a procedure, guide, or employee manual — and don't require any action. Generally, people are being lazy and think it's easier to ask the boss or you. Tell people clearly, "Please don't interrupt me with Level 4 issues." They are a waste of your time. Ask your boss to become involved, if needed, to ensure that such interruptions stop.
- Attend meetings. Often, your boss must sit through meetings that have little value for the time invested. Volunteer to attend meetings for your boss if at all possible. Here's how to determine what meetings this will work for:
- Determine the length of the meeting.
- Consider the cost of that meeting, given your salary.
- Consider the opportunity cost in terms of what your boss could do instead of attending the meeting.
- Think about whether you're capable and knowledgeable enough to attend the meeting.
- Decide whether you have enough authority to handle agenda items if necessary. It's frustrating for meeting attendees to hear you say, "I'll have to check with my boss and get back to you." They would much rather hear, "I can absolutely ensure that that will happen, and I can have the results to you by X date."
- Take over some work. If your boss is working on activities that have pressing deadlines but low value, see what work you can take off his or her plate. Look at some of the tasks consuming your boss's time, and ask yourself if you're capable of taking over those tasks. You should consider doing the following types of work:
- Decisions that the boss makes frequently and repetitively and that are predictable in nature
- Assignments that will add variety to your routine work
- Functions that the boss dislikes
- Work that will provide experience for you
- Tasks that you're capable of doing
- Activities that will make you more well rounded and that will broaden your expertise
- Opportunities to use and reinforce your creative talents
- Recurring matters
- Minor decisions
- Time-consuming details
The boss should always retain broader management duties such as overall planning, policymaking, goal-setting, and budget supervision, as well as work that involves confidential information or supervisor-subordinate relations.
The common saying holds true: The assistant is the one who really knows what's going on. Seek to expand your role and power base in the organization by becoming a stand-in for your boss. Implement the five suggestions above, and you'll be on your way to becoming an indispensable assistant.
For more information about carrying out some of the suggestions in this article, see the following:
About the author Laura Stack is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., an international consulting firm in Denver, Colorado, that specializes in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations. Laura holds an MBA in Organizational Management (University of Colorado, 1991) and is an expert on integrating advances in business productivity with the retention of key employees. Laura is the author of the best-selling book Leave the Office Earlier (Broadway Books, 2004).