Shelagh Donnelly challenges us to examine our relationship with Administrative Professionals Day

Another Administrative Professionals Day has come and gone, at least in some countries. It’s been almost three-quarters of a century since the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) launched this annual day of recognition. The custom extended from North America to a handful of countries, and, in recent years, I’ve seen Assistants in Europe, the UK and other countries exchanging good wishes each time this day (which, in some instances, has stretched out to a week) rolls around.

In recent years, the IAAP has updated its formal statements associated with the day, which it launched in 1952 – well before most people reading this were born. While I wasn’t around to witness workplace practices in the early 1950s, I’m confident this was generally a patriarchal time in the workforce, hence the flowers and chocolates.

I challenge you to examine your views on the practice of employers providing flowers, chocolates, gift cards, lunches and so on to one subset of employees at a predetermined date each year. Is this not an extension, wrapped in good intentions, of a patriarchal and patronising approach to people who, when performing at a high level, offer tremendous value for which they should be compensated both financially and in terms of development opportunities?

Apart from the fact I always want to incorporate an apostrophe in the word “Professionals” in referring to this annual tradition, I’m not a strong advocate of the occasion. It’s time for change.

Individually and Collectively, Let’s Elevate Perceptions of the Role and the Potential Assistants Offer

It’s no secret. Those who’ve been following my Exceptional EA website since I launched it in 2013 will know I’ve long encouraged a shift away from offering or hoping to receive well-intended cards, flowers and so on to mark this 71-year-old tradition. When it comes to those cards, I cringe each time I see one referring to an Assistant – whatever that person’s title – as the glue holding together a team or office. Such analogies have me thinking of a poor old horse with an Assistant’s face being carted off to the glue factory, and I believe there are more professional attributes upon which we can focus.

Others, I know, intend and receive such remarks as compliments. I’m aware my perspective is at odds with that held by many in the profession. I offer my comments as a speaker and trainer who was in the career myself for almost three decades, until 2018. Rather than investing in an annual gesture of appreciation, employers are well served when they make ongoing investments in professional development for the women and men in Assistant roles. While workforce reductions are underway in some workplaces and sectors, many employers are facing costly recruitment and retention challenges. HR professionals and employers alike may want to assess just how well they understand the scope of contributions and the positive impacts high-performing Assistants offer – in their current roles, and as prospects for internal promotions.

You Have a Role in Influencing Perceptions

If you’re like me, you’ll have found perceptions of Assistant roles and the value you bring to an organisation can vary from one employer and principal (executive) to another. Many Assistants enjoy well-deserved respect and thrive in workplace cultures where high-performing Assistants are recognised for all they bring to their respective organisations.

However, not all work environments are created equal. That means you may need to create opportunities to graciously elevate others’ understanding of this career. The way we speak about this career and the expertise you bring to your role can have a bearing on what others think of the role. Change doesn’t happen overnight; this is an ongoing process that requires your commitment.


It’s not down solely to employers and your HR colleagues to better understand your skills, qualities, impacts and potential. Individually and collectively, Assistants can collaborate to enhance perceptions of the role and the importance of investing in you and your development.

Our words and the manner in which we present ourselves have power. It’s up to you to determine whether you’ll tap into that power, or toss it away. Be intentional in your communications. Do you use qualifiers that undermine your authority or expertise? If you’ve heard me present on influence or communications, you may recall me mentioning the day I realised I was doing just that during a phone conversation with a board Chair. I made an immediate commitment to myself that I’d not do so again. Do you present yourself confidently, and justifiably so on the basis of being well-informed?

Across careers, many people are less than enamoured with networking. To me, the term “networking” represents interest in people and the world beyond our own noses. We can approach networking with a sense of curiosity and a genuine interest in others and their careers. Rather than sticking solely to “like-minded people,” a term I frequently see when it comes to networking, make a point of also connecting with people outside your immediate circle and with people whose perspectives and experiences are different from yours. Expose yourself to views and ideas that may lead you to challenge your perceptions.

Image and Visibility

When you invest time and energy in professional development and networking, let your employer know. Demonstrate relevant returns on investments (ROI), on a routine basis and when your employer invests in your professional development. When you’ve generated efficiencies or done something that created positive impacts, quantify and communicate this in a timely manner. None of this represents bragging. Done right, it helps raise your profile and visibility, while supporting an understanding of both your role and your potential.

Some are daunted by the concept of networking, yet you needn’t be an extrovert to connect with others. Think about networking in the context of sharing and gaining insights and expertise, and as an ambassador for your organisation as well as the profession. It’s not uncommon, when you expand your network, to find you’re able to facilitate introductions or introduce new ideas or efficiencies that may benefit your workplace.

When it comes to networking, avoid a numbers game. Go, instead, for depth. Aim for meaningful conversations and exchanges, be they in person or digital. I subscribe to Elizabeth Bibesco’s approach: give without remembering, and take without forgetting.

Be a Continual Learner, and Expand Your Scope of Knowledge

Across careers, the way we work and the skills we’ll require are changing. ChatGPT, an imperfect bit of tech which you may or may not have explored, and about which I’ve written as a cover article for this magazine, is merely one more indicator of the importance of being open to adapting and learning.

It helps when we invest energy in understanding our organisation’s strategy, opportunities and challenges. Where will you invest your time, energy and personal finances when it comes to learning?

You may already hold an undergraduate or graduate degree, or a certificate or diploma. Whether or not you hold – or pursue – formal credentials, think about what will serve you and your present and future employers well when it comes to learning, professional development, and personal and professional growth.

Your organisation routinely deals with matters such as risk management, strategic planning, cyber awareness and more. What do you know about these topics, or others in which your principal is engaged? ESG, also known as environmental, social and governance, is on some employers’ radar, and will be appearing on more and more agendas before long. Be curious; think beyond the current parameters of your career.

Identify Your Aspirations, and Help Decision-Makers Perceive You as You Wish to Be Seen

Think, as well, about your aspirations for three, five and 10 years from now. It’s challenging to identify just what may serve you well a decade from now, yet we can start with the short and near term and then continue to rework and refine our sense of what will serve us well in the longer term.

Traditions have their place. We benefit from many of them. We also benefit when we reassess traditions and their relevance as our lives and careers evolve. Imagine what business environments for people in your role must have been like 71 years ago. Back in 1952, our roles were not recognised as careers, and it would be noteworthy when individuals holding such roles asserted themselves. Even so, and doubtless with the financially motivated support of florists and greeting card companies, your predecessors in this career were able to persuade many North American employers to extend special recognition to them one out of every 260 (261 days in leap years) working days each year.

If the women of the early 1950s were able to accomplish this, think what the women and men of the 2020s can accomplish both individually and collectively. Would you like to see a continuation, or expansion, of Administrative Professionals Day practices? Or would you like to focus on functioning and being regarded as a high-performing colleague who is appropriately compensated and afforded developmental and promotion opportunities?

Begin with Perceptions

Influence them through your performance, through the words you choose, and by presenting yourself and the career with earned confidence. Connect with people, knowledge and ideas beyond the scope of your position description. Actively engage in learning. As I encouraged in a cover article for this magazine in 2016, ditch the superhero and rock star connotations in favour of you and the career being recognised for skills, value and professionalism.

Graciously advocate for yourself, make your contributions known, and communicate returns on investments (ROI) when astute employers invest in your development. However junior or senior your current role may be, strive to perform at a high level and to be positively impactful. We won’t change everyone’s perceptions, yet we can influence perceptions one person and employer at a time.

As you consider these concepts and your future, please know I applaud career Assistants who strive to perform at a high level – and I do so each and every day of the year.

Shelagh Donnelly Assistants around the globe have been turning to Canadian Shelagh Donnelly and her Exceptional EA website since 2013 for professional development and the international community she’s nurtured. Authentic, expert, and inspiring, Shelagh ... (Read More)

2 comments on “It’s Time for Change

  1. Angela Simms on

    Thanks Shelagh, for such a refreshing and thought-provoking article. As I began to read, I thought to myself, why can’t we have/do both? But being treated as any other professional in the workplace is all we ask – the ability to tap into professional development, attend conferences, have our travel paid for, just like other professionals, rather than offering to pay myself to get there if they could just cover the conference cost (which I’ve done in the past), puts us on an even footing. Being respected for our professionalism throughout the year is, at the end of the day, what we all hope for.

  2. Shelagh Donnelly on

    You’re most welcome, Angela, for this article. I appreciate your comments, and am with you on the significance of being respected for professionalism in the career. All the best!


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