What would happen in a business that was run as though each individual had the potential to bear fruit, rather than simply bearing a load? asks Tara E Browne
“Company culture? Sure, we could do better,” you may think, “but I’m just an admin. What can I do about culture?”. As it turns out, you can do quite a bit!
Due to the strict pyramid of hierarchies found in most organizations, many administrative professionals do not think of themselves as influencers. Administrative support roles are both structured and commonly perceived as subordinate, so it is easy to make the mistake of thinking our influence is limited by this relationship. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For Growth, Think “Garden”, Not “Pyramid”
The pyramid offers obvious analogies to the way most organizations are built: a large base (workers) supports ever-smaller layers (management and executive leadership); the shape (goals and strategy) of the organization is defined by the capstone (c-suite) of the structure. Then there is the unintentional irony: a pyramid is a tomb…and many large organizations are indeed tombs full of untapped personal potential and good ideas left to die. Workers are slotted into place like blocks. A really good block may eventually be relocated to an empty spot higher up on the pyramid, but the ultimate function of the pyramid is to support the pyramid…not to grow.
What if we were to flip that pyramid and imagine the organization as a garden container instead, designed to concentrate resources to support growth? What would happen in a business that was run as though each individual had the potential to bear fruit, rather than simply bearing a load? Executives would act as master gardeners, asking what is needed to create optimum growth conditions to maximize fruit from each plant; as strategic partners to these executives, administrative professionals could actively foster that growth in many ways.
As the go-to problem solvers for our departments, administrative professionals are in a unique position to answer the key question, “What is needed to create growth?” With our in-depth knowledge of how things work (and don’t work!), we can use our creativity and skills to solve problems. Moreover, being privy to the challenges and frustrations of our colleagues, how we choose to respond has a clear effect on the culture of our departments and, by extension, the organization as a whole. If we participate in gossip, feed fears and amplify complaints, we break down team spirit and undermine our executives’ ability to effectively lead. Conversely, when we choose to redirect negative talk, counter fears with positive suggestions for improvement, and seek common ground to resolve conflicts, we create a fertile soil for collaboration and growth.
Why Be a Cultivator?
Because we combine expert operational knowledge with an extensive network of working relationships at all levels of the organization, admins are in an incredibly powerful position to influence culture and create change…if we choose to do so. As an example, when a new colleague – we’ll call her Mimi – joined my department, it didn’t take long for me to notice that she felt overwhelmed and underappreciated. At the time, I felt much the same: a long-promised promotion had just been given away to a new hire from outside the company; the economy was in a major slump; and unemployment rates were at record highs. I felt betrayed by my manager, and trapped in my job.
Recognizing my own vulnerability to negative talk, I made a choice to use my conversations with Mimi as pep talks, both for her and for myself. When Mimi complained that her training manual was inadequate and her supervisor unavailable, I empathized, but observed that it was very rare to find a training manual for any role in our organization, and staff reductions had reduced our manager’s availability for personal time. By doing this, I both acknowledged and depersonalized the issue. I then applied my operational knowledge to help Mimi document her processes and create some collaborative tools to streamline her work. Having an ally made all the difference to Mimi, and helping Mimi realigned me with my mission at work.
On another occasion, Mimi needed some reports from some senior colleagues, but she was acting as if her request was an imposition on them. I helped her to craft an email that focused on the common business need instead, a peer to peer communication. As we worked through this process, I saw her posture literally change before my eyes: standing straighter, walking more confidently and decisively editing the language of the final email to make it truly her own.
Over time, Mimi even began to consistently mirror that positivity back to me. She pulled me out of my own attitude slump more than once and, more importantly, began to change from a victim of circumstances to a person in charge of her own career. Knowing she was not alone gave her the courage to stand up for herself. As she did, she earned increasing respect from her supervisor and colleagues, and the entire department began to see her as a valued contributor instead of as a burden they didn’t have time to carry. Our overall culture improved directly as a result of my choice to cultivate possibilities instead of problems.
Can you imagine if I had instead given in to my own depression and indulged in a mutual pity-party with her? It would have been easy to do, but I would have missed out on seeing this amazing transformation! I would have missed out on one of the greatest successes of my career.
Cultivation Starts With YOU
One of the best things you can do to become a culture cultivator is to practice your communication and feedback skills. Co-mentoring – a mentoring relationship formed by two persons of similar experience and background – is especially valuable for this, because it requires many of the same skills: active listening, collaborative problem solving, and providing feedback, to name a few. If you connect with a mentor outside your organization, you will have the added benefits of expanding your network and gaining a truly fresh perspective on your challenges and opportunities. This can be especially valuable if your own work culture is currently stressful, draining or negative.
About now you may be wondering, “Where on earth am I going to find a mentor?”
Happily, there are many resources available today just for administrative professionals, and more being created by the moment. The Associations page at executivesupportmagazine.com aggregates admin-oriented resources from around the world, and can help you locate and connect with both established and up-and-coming professional organizations in your area for training and networking. These, in turn, can lead to many wonderful mentoring opportunities.
Also, be sure to check out the blog post “Conferences for Assistants: Get Energized in 2017!” at TipsForAssistants.com. Pick one or two conferences that are accessible to you, and start making your plans now: conferences are a great way to connect with like-minded admins and build your culture-cultivating mojo!
I also invite you to check out MentorsAndMasterminds.com, a website I created specifically to make it easier for administrative professionals to connect with each other in professionally supportive relationships. Membership is free, and includes the Mentors and Masterminds Co-Mentoring Quickstart Guide, packed with advice and tools to get your co-mentoring relationship off to a great start.
It’s easy to assume that responsibility for creating a great corporate culture is the job of executives and managers; the truth is, everyone within the organization contributes to the culture that emerges. For better or for worse, we are all culture cultivators.
Choose to be a conscious cultivator:
Recognize your influence
Wherever you are in a position of trust, there you have influence.
Show up authentically
When negative situations arise at work, respond thoughtfully from your core beliefs rather than reflexively reacting to the negativity.
Be present to others
Take no one for granted: empathize and offer support where you can, and celebrate successes whenever possible.
Develop your “culture cultivator” skills
Use professional organizations, networking events and mentoring relationships to grow your skills in collaboration, giving and receiving feedback etc.
Not only will you positively impact culture where you are, you will open new and unexpected doors of opportunity for yourself!