Cathy Harris’s comprehensive guide leads the way…

As the secretarial profession moves in sync with technological changes towards new initiatives to improve communication within the profession, it has become necessary for office professionals to embark on new and exciting adventures that will take them to a new level of proficiency and management, adding value to both the organization they represent and their chosen profession.

The creation of Assistant Forums or Networks within organizations, is an innovative tool to improve communication, create standards, provide training and development initiatives, and give the Assistant the opportunity to always be ahead of the game. An in-house Assistant Forum will also provide access to essential resources required by the Assistant on mandatory operational procedures, pertinent to our role and a fair and equitable opportunity to be accountable for our profession by participating in the forum and the initiatives derived from it, in a positive and constructive manner.

This article is to provide the Assistant community with a resource that will sustain their current forum, should they already have one, and to serve as a catalyst to set one up.

My story

I have been part of the Discovery PA Forum since 2003, and was instrumental in the initial stages of its creation, its growth and continued success. I have served as Chairperson on various occasions.

Being honored by being awarded the title of SA National Secretary of the year 2006/2007, it was my objective and ambition to prosper and develop the secretarial profession to be recognized as a strategic partnership with our managers, and the organizations we represent. I am currently the Executive Professional Assistant to the Deputy CEO of Discovery Life and Discovery Invest. I have been in the secretarial profession for over 30 years and can humbly admit that I have gained a wealth of knowledge, wisdom and inspiration from you, my fellow peers, who have inspired me to create and sustain the Assistant Forum initiatives.

In the infant stages of our Forum we battled to get both management and the Assistant community to buy into the idea, but once we got organized and we set objectives and goals for ourselves, we were able to move forward successfully. Success didn’t happen overnight and it took a lot of hard work, dedication, commitment and teamwork to bring us to where we currently are. However in order for us to continue our success, takes even more effort and consistent commitment.

Within this article I would like to share my experiences with you, as well as to give you some tools to either create or improve on your own Assistant Forum. The ideas and suggestions within this article can be adjusted to suit your own organization’s culture and style – some ideas will work, some may not – but all in all the basic foundation is provided and it will be up to you and your team to make it successful.

1. Getting Started: What is a FORUM?

  • place of, or meeting for public discussion; court, tribunal. (Quoted from the Oxford Dictionary).
  • Meeting, discussion, brainstorming, round-table, debate.

Why would you want one for your organization?

  • To set standards and maintain them (this can include the creation of a best practice manual – dress code, templates, HR policies, procurement policies, managing multiple managers, telephone etiquette, how to order stationery, place orders etc).
  •  Provide networking opportunities amongst the Assistants (providing them with an opportunity to learn more about the other departments’ functions / operations). We hold a forum meeting with all the Assistants every second month and generally invite our procurement department to give an overview of a new process, or get our CSI department to tell us about new charity initiatives they are running, or we invite speakers like Stef du Plessis to motivate and encourage us. (These are just examples). We never use the Forum as a complaints department, Tupperware party, or any activity that will not add value to jobs or to the company. It is all work-related and is definitely not a tea party.
  • An opportunity to customize training and development according to the organizations requirements and values. Often Assistants are forgotten when it comes to training and development, yet our roles are so integral and important as we shadow the leaders of our organizations.
  • Arranging and coordinating of special events (Secretaries day, spring day, boss’s day, Christmas functions, your own forum meetings, launches, etc). This allows for the ideas of many, help of many, and will make the event successful as everyone is involved in one way or another.
  • Creation of a Shopping List of vendors that are part of the organization’s preferred suppliers (stationers, florists, team-building companies, corporate gifts, caterers, hotels, venues etc).
  • Creation of a folder on the company’s intranet providing an Information folder with all the Assistant Forum compiled information (your standards, templates, shopping lists, events calendar, committee members, minutes of meetings, objectives etc).
  • An opportunity for “get to know” visits. Department visits, site visits, etc (IT department, production, new product, new business, etc).
  • Roles and responsibilities of the Forum. Each member should be allocated a responsibility, preferably in line with the department she currently works for, but not necessarily. Basically if you need to draw up a budget and have a treasurer to control the Assistant Forum budget, it would be nice to get either the financial manager’s Assistant to be part of this role, or someone who enjoys working with budgets.

It goes without saying that an Assistant Forum will add huge value in many aspects of the Assistant’s role, the manager she represents and her organization. It is also important to realize that a Forum offers the opportunity for the Assistant to better perform in her job because she is informed, educated, actively participates in its success and operates in line with her company’s goals and objectives.

We are all team players in our organization and for this reason we all need to know what the left and right hands are doing in order to succeed and be successful. We are only as strong as the weakest links in our team. As Assistants we need to create opportunities for ourselves to be the best that we can be.

2. Forming a Committee

Questions to ask

  • Who should be included in the Assistant Forum?
  • How will the committee be selected?
  • Who should lead?

Corporate Governance within your Assistant Forum committee

  • Include ALL the Assistants in your organization to participate in your forum. From time to time you can also invite the managers to attend some of your Assistant Forum meetings.
  • There are two ways in which a committee can be formed: 1) By votes made by the Assistant community, or 2) Through voluntary participation.
  • The new committee should select, by vote, who they would like to be represented as their chairperson.
  • It is essential that once your committee is formed that there are rules set, and actions which will be taken should the rules not be adhered to. It is important to set boundaries for your committee. We have all the committee members sign a confidentiality agreement as there are often times when managers approach us to mentor or coach their PAs, and certain information shared may require confidentiality.

3. Setting standards

What standards are we talking about here and, what is the expectation of standards?

Although many organizations already have set standards in place for certain operational requirements, there are however gaps where it is important for both the image and the efficiency of the business to have set standards pertaining to various functions required to be carried out by the Assistant as part of their job function.

Often what happens is that rules are set and filed away or only certain departments or people are aware of these standards which are not effectively communicated to the people at ground level – mainly the Assistant Community. Here we need to look at what standards we want to set. There are plenty of them, but what I can suggest is that you select those which are pertinent and important to you for now and build on it as you go. You and your committee can later create a manual of the standards set. Remember though that you would need to allocate these to your committee to ensure that they are regularly updated and maintained.

Standards would include the following (examples):

  • An introduction to the Assistant Forum and its activities
  • Company orientation guide
  • House rules
  • Health and Safety Policy
  • Meeting room booking procedure
  • Social excellence
  • Telephone etiquette
  • Multiple Managers
  • Documentation guide
  • Human resources policies
  • Finance procedures
  • Email etiquette
  • Event management
  • Dress guidelines
  • Electronic diary management
  • Relief PAs
  • Function bookings
  • Procurement process
  • Office moves
  • Logging calls

4. Networking

One of the most important characteristics we need as an Assistant or office professional is the ability to be able to communicate. We cannot grow nor develop if we don’t communicate, we cannot express opinions or give advice if we are not informed and, above all, how effective are we if we don’t know about our own organization or how it operates? Therefore networking within the Assistant Forum could include the following activities:

  • Arranging “get to know your department” sessions.
  • Get to know the Assistants within your own organization (important)
  • Hold monthly topical Forum meetings (business related – no tea parties!).
  • Attending seminars and conferences, and meeting other Assistants
  • Participating in events organized for the Assistant community within your organization
  • Participate in Assistant Summits and round-table discussions where you can share and exchange experiences.
  • Getting connected with other professionals in our profession on social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter
  • Join recognized office professionals association.

5. Training and development

We often overlook our own development in the quest to manage our positions and to carry out our day-to-day functions within the time limits we have, which for most of us can be quite difficult sometimes. However the advantage of having an Assistant Forum within your organization is that it will help you manage your day-to-day tasks collectively. The idea is two-fold: firstly when you receive external notification for relevant Assistant training, this can be reviewed by the Assistant Forum committee and then circulated to the rest of the Assistants if appropriate. The Forum will serve as the main point of communication on training and development for the Assistant.

The other side of this is to consider (depending on the size of your organization) the creation of an Assistant Induction Program for new Assistants who have recently joined, or Assistants who have been with the organization for some time, but need to brush up on their general knowledge or new and updated operational processes within the organization. The Program can allow your company to:

  • Circulate training information to the Assistant Community
  • Take advantage of in-house product training and encourage Assistant Community participation
  • Take new Assistants through the various tasks required in order for them to be better equipped before they officially starts their new role
  • Schedule brief training sessions in the Assistant Forum so that when new company procedures come into play, everyone is in the loop, is kept updated and forms part of the process, and knows and understands what is expected

6. Special events

Special events within your organizations

Examples:

  • Secretaries Day
  • Boss’s Day
  • Spring Day
  • Casual Day
  • Year End functions
  • Team-building events
  • Valentine’s Day
  • Birthdays
  • Anniversaries
  • Launches
  • Vendor Expos

The Assistant Forum is the best and most effective way in which to launch and promote these special events. However within the context of your Forum you need to identify which ones are important to your organization and schedule these on an events calendar / planner.

7. Shopping Lists

A shopping list can consist of the following:

  • Maps
  • Dietary preferences
  • Contact lists of Assistants
  • Birthday list
  • Restaurant venues
  • Templates
  • Team-building vendors / ideas
  • Event-planning schedule
  • Florists
  • Newspaper and magazine subscriptions
  • Training vendors
  • Policies and procedures
  • Assistant Standards Manual
  • Electronic letterheads
  • Stationery
  • Hotels and accommodation

8. Information folders

We have now established a huge hub of information which we need to ensure is accessible to every Assistant in your organization. These can be placed on the company’s intranet or on the public drive, or via a Sharefile application.

Remember that you would need to ensure that this responsibility is allocated to an Assistant Forum committee member to take responsibility of the folders to ensure that they remain updated and relevant.

9. Marketing your Assistant Forum

We have now established a basic foundation for the core purpose and reasons for having an Assistant Forum within your organization, but how do we sell this idea? How do we get buy-in from our managers and how do we get the other Assistants in our organization to participate?

… through marketing.

But where do we begin and how do we do this?

1      Firstly you would need to send an email out to the Assistant community advising them of your intention to start a Forum and inviting them to participate as members.

2      Once all the elements of your Forum have been consolidated (roles and responsibilities, budget, initiatives) arrange a meeting with the management team, or your human resources director and, as a committee, do a presentation to them as to what your intentions are (it is vital that you have the buy-in of the managers, because without it, it will be extremely difficult to manage). In this presentation you would need to present your objectives (what you would like to achieve and what value it is going to add), as well as the initiatives you would like to take on for now (don’t choose too many at once and remember to put timelines to these), as well as what budget may be required.

3      Once you have approached management and they are happy with the concept, (which if coordinated and well thought through will definitely get their buy-in), set up time to do a launch to the rest of the Assistant community and provide them with an overview of your strategy for the year ahead and the activities you have planned. Remember to keep the community informed and use any feedback from them as constructive – it is after all their Forum – you are merely the conductor, not the dictator of the orchestra.

4      Create a brand for yourselves through the use of a banner for emails, birthdays, notifications, daily inspirations, tips and other communications.

10. Working on a budget

It is important but not necessary to have a budget from which to work from. Most organizations do set aside a budget facility for training purposes for their employees. It may be a good idea to establish what this budget is and to use it to form your own Assistant Forum budget. Having an Assistant Forum budget is also advantageous for the company as all related expenses will sit in one place as opposed to the various costs centres, where some Assistants have opportunities and others not. In this way there is equality.

Steps to take will include the following ideas:

1      Prepare a budget together with your team, outlining costs per head and annualized over 12 months.

2      Budget for the following things, for example:

  • Training and development, seminars and conferences
  • Travel costs
  • Gifts
  • Secretaries Day
  • Boss’s day
  • Team-build events / strategy sessions
  • Stationery and printing
  • Books
  • Professional memberships
  • Catering
  • Rewards and recognition

3 Schedule your budget, first working on per head (per Assistant), and then multiplying this into real terms (number of Assistants).

4 Prepare a proposal of your budget in a PowerPoint presentation.

5 Set up a meeting with your financial director to present your proposal to him/her.

6 Good luck!!

11. Roles and responsibilities

We have now worked through most of the detail, but in order to bring this all together we need to ensure that the operational side of our new Forum is taken care of and the administration functions and the role of each of the committee members are effectively managed.

Roles:

  • Chairperson
  • Secretary
  • Teams

–          Events co-ordinator

–          Financial Advisor

–          IT Co-ordinators

–          Public Relations Officers

–          Marketing

12. Putting it all together

Now that we have the essential framework, we should be able to put together an Assistant Forum.

Way forward:

1      Plan a strategy day, out of the office, with your new committee (get one of your frequent venues to give you a “free” day and use it as a site visit of their facilities.

2      Set out your objectives.

3      From your objectives choose a few realistic things you would like to achieve within your Assistant Forum for the next year.

4      Allocate responsibilities that are required to accomplish your objectives.

5      Draw up a budget.

6      Draw up a calendar of events with timelines.

7      Present your proposal to management.

     And, most importantly, enjoy!

The Essential Guide to Internal Networks is taking place on 19 & 20 May 2022. For more information and to book please visit https://executivesupportevents.com/live-events/the-essential-guide-to-internal-assistant-networks/

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Cathy Harris is Executive PA to the CEO of Discovery Invest, with over 40 years’ experience in the administrative profession. She authored “The Executive Secretary Guide to Creating an Internal Assistant Network.” Having also held the role of Chairperson ... (Read More)

11 comments on “Creating an Assistant Network Within Your Organisation

  1. Barbara McKee on

    What a great idea! I love the thought of setting up an SEA Forum within our organization. Networking with like colleagues, planning the implimentation of processes that affect us all on a daily basis could only enhance our skills and make us much more valuable.

    Thanks Cathy!

    Reply
  2. Mandy Blaauw on

    Thanks so much for these great ideas! We started a Forum but found it floundering towards the end of the year I believe it was because we had not implemented structure, goals and plans, it was too informal, allowing for the forum to become more a complaining meeting than a learning & supportive environment. Mandy

    Reply
  3. Tarnya on

    Thank you so much Cathy , I have been wanting to start one at our company for a while, your article has encouraged me to take bull by its horns and just do it.

    Reply
  4. La' Shawn Sandifer on

    I was so excited to read this article as it’s very near and dear to my heart. A colleague and I have been having a discussion on this topic for the past two years and actually have the by-in from our C-Suite. We just have to start planning, organizing and executing. Thank you for an awesome article! I’m really motivated and this is a great point of reference to work from.

    Reply
  5. Cathy Harris on

    Hi Joy,

    Thank you very much for your comment. I would be grateful if you could point me out to any spelling errors you may have found so that these can be amended. You are welcome to email me directly at Cathyh@Discovery.co.za.

    Many thanks
    Cathy

    Reply

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