Advice for Manager Assistants often sounds contradictory: State your position, but not too strongly… Be assertive, but be sure not to offend others… It’s good to be proactive, but not too much… Do this, but do not overstate… Just be perfect, all right? This is the biggest challenge we have to face in our profession – a Manager Assistant must demonstrate strong leadership characteristics to be a good one, but behaviors usually accepted for other roles are often negatively perceived in ours. Hence the daunting advice of “do a bit of this, but not too much.”
Colleagues of my association frequently complain to me about this double standard. “My manager told me I needed to be more proactive, but then he told me I’d better stay in my place.” “If another colleague had done what I did, he wouldn’t have been criticized for it.” “I asked for a raise, and they said I was being too aggressive.” Others, afraid, say to me, “I can’t ask anything for me,” and I say back, “And you should, if you think you deserve it.”
The stereotypical Manager Assistant is still considered as an out-of-fashion secretary who makes photocopies and serves coffee: this is not acceptable anymore. In my observation, successful Manager Assistants in the workplace are usually using behaviors that are self-confident and assertive; they are not overly feminine, nor do they demonstrate overtly masculine or offensive behaviors, but they do not give way if they think they are right. At the end of the day, if we like our jobs and don’t want to quit, what can we do?
First, let’s listen to the criticisms of my colleagues made by co-workers and bosses: “She’s too stiff. She doesn’t hang out with us. She says she has too much to do. She’s too emotional.” And the kicker: “She lacks self-confidence.”
Ah, ah, I can’t imagine why! But these are important insights. Some Manager Assistants are so uncomfortable at work that they treat colleagues as the enemy and are unfriendly, even hostile. They hide behind formal emails and only interact with their colleagues when necessary, because, they say, they do not want any extra workload.
Now, let’s look at some alternatives. I recommend building informal collegial relationships with your colleagues, but always keeping in mind that there is a subtle line not to be crossed; it is what I call the “line of respect”. You may be the first Manager Assistant they’ve had that kind of relationship with, so proceed thoughtfully. It takes time and effort, but it is usually possible and almost always worthwhile. I suggest spending time with them: drop by their offices, call them on the phone, engage in information exchange, and be helpful when you can; in other words, build a professional relationship. You may have to make the first move, but if you keep your interactions professional, your colleagues will not misinterpret your friendliness as a suggestion for a date.
If you work in a male environment, try to become part of informal conversations in the hallway, before and after meetings, or at lunch. You may need to learn a bit about football or cars, but you don’t have to become an expert to participate. With your female colleagues it should be easier to find common conversational subjects. Observe your specific colleagues and look for positive ways to interact with them. Then you won’t feel like an alien, and your co-workers won’t treat you like one. Consider participating in their activities outside of work too, but be careful to keep your behavior businesslike (eg you’re not obliged to close down the pub!).
As they get to know you, your relationship can become more easygoing, natural and genuine. You will be more confident, and also your managers will feel more comfortable providing useful feedback that will help you improve. Work becomes more rewarding, not to mention more fun.
Being part of the network also positions you for information, potential assignments and sponsorships. We know perfectly well that very often our bosses don’t promote us or give us salary increases, simply because they don’t know what we really do. Make sure they know all about you. There’s a tangible payoff in terms of rewards and compensation but, importantly, it also builds trust.
Relationships built on trust are sturdy and can endure a blow or two. Trust provides flexibility because your boss will give you the benefit of the doubt if your behavior surprises him. That can be extraordinarily beneficial when you want to take on more responsibilities and challenges.
Learn to appreciate the opportunity you have been given, open yourself up to the moment. Open your eyes and ears. Slow down. Make silent observations about what is around you. Listen. Concentrate on the moment. Focus on conversations. Set yourself the practical challenge of learning important details and you will see that things, even slowly, will change and, in the end, you will get what you deserve.”