Study after study including those from the OECD, British Chambers of Commerce and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants reveal that many school leavers and graduates lack the basic skills required to succeed in the workplace.

These studies cite issues with basic literacy and numeracy, problems with behaviours including motivation and discipline, a lack of verbal communication skills and poor judgement concerning personal appearance and presentation.

As a society, where have we gone wrong?  Is social media and the ‘gaming’ culture to blame for poor communication skills?  Has the fear of “You won’t get a decent job without a degree” pushed far too many young people into higher education when a vocational approach would have been better?  Or, is society just so “casual” now that being able to spell, count or dress appropriately is simply not important anymore?

These issues don’t apply to our industry do they?  I mean, all Assistants know how to spell, format a document, add up, say thank you and dress appropriately for work don’t they?  Surely no Assistant needs to be told that text language is not appropriate for business communications, flip-flops are not for the office and turning up late for a meeting is poor form?

But, have we forgotten the basics of being an Assistant?  For example, do we now consider document formatting beneath us?  Is it because we have added ‘Executive’ to our title that we are now too important to bother with the minutiae of what made us great in the first place?  Are we falling to the same trap as nurses where the perception among many members of the public is that nurses have forgotten the basics of nursing; the kind word, the holding of a hand, support in dark times?  I am convinced we have.

Recently I published an online article that questioned whether Assistants needed a finishing school to learn or relearn the basics skills and behaviours of how to operate in business.  Personally, I see no need for an institution that shows you how to exit a car gracefully or how to walk with a stack of books atop your head.  Instead I saw a curriculum that covered how a PLC works, the role of a Chairman, standards in business communication, personal presentation, how to read financial statements, negotiating skills, CV writing classes and careers advice and that is just scratching the surface.

I have received a fair amount of criticism to this idea; some in the industry have accused it of being snobbish and elitist while others have said it was sexist!  Strange, when you consider how many men there are now in the industry.

The critics have missed my point.  I am arguing that there is a worrying lack of pride, passion and basic skills in many of the Assistants seeking a new role and I believe this is not only harmful to their careers but also to the wider reputation of the industry.

Finishing Schools were legendary institutions attended by well-connected young ladies to complete their “social” education and prepare them ultimately for securing a suitable husband.  Simply, girls were given a code to follow thus providing confidence for social success.

Once understood, the code facilitated a perfect “deal” to be struck.  In return for bringing up the children, running the house(s), managing domestic staff and organising the social diary, the Finishing School graduate secured a well-connected and wealthy husband offering financial security and social advancement.

Today’s equivalent “deal” is between the Executive and the Assistant.  In return for dealing with the spouse and children, running the office, managing the domestic staff, organising the business and social diary, the Executive offers financial security, career satisfaction and advancement.

What I am arguing is that too few Assistants understand that to achieve career and financial success you need to exhibit certain behaviours and skills.   You need to obtain a basic business education.

For many of my clients they expect an Assistant to know the correct way a table should be laid, how to answer a telephone and respond to an invitation.   To them, thank you letters (or perhaps emails) do matter, customers wish to be addressed properly and documents must be spelt accurately. As an Assistant I think it is vital you can put people at ease, have relevant small talk and have an interest in the organisation you represent.  After all, an Assistant is in an ambassadorial role.

Assistants who intimately understand and deploy these skills and behaviours are terrifically employable.  Today, many Executives rely on their Assistant to ensure social graces are observed and embarrassing situations avoided.  An Assistant that can protect and guide their Executive is far more valuable than one who can’t.

Candidates I meet that do have that extra polish stand out like a shining beacon in a sea of mediocrity.  They are rare.  These candidates are in tune with their Executive and totally understand the role they play to achieve organisational targets and goals.  They are confident, have pride in their work and know their worth.  More importantly so does their manager.  The reason I don’t meet many of these Assistants is simple.  They are rarely looking for work.

So what are the skills and behaviours of these super Assistants and can they be copied?  The short answer is yes.  Of course we are not all born with the same abilities; the genetic lottery means we are not all destined to become concert pianists, Oscar winners or Wimbledon champions, but with practice we can improve our skills and change behaviours, thus enhancing our employability prospects.

Pride and Passion – the building blocks of confidence

The sad truth is that many candidates we meet display little or no physical or emotional pride or passion in what they do.  From their body language to their appearance it just appears so beige.

I always ask candidates to tell me of the work achievement they are most proud of, but sadly, few candidates can communicate anything meaningful.  I appreciate we are not all working for the White House, but to me, every Assistant role, however junior or seemingly mundane has something that you can “own” and be proud of.  Assistants who are proud of what they do are infectious, hang around them long enough and it’s easy to catch their enthusiasm and passion.  Importantly, potential employers catch this bug too.

Pride and passion is not just communicated verbally;  it starts with written communications and the lack of pride or passion in what Assistants email which is often quite shocking.

The majority of CVs I receive from Assistants contain one or more spelling mistakes, typos or simple grammatical errors.  Proud “Personal Profile” statements containing phrases such as “attention to detail” are rendered quite useless if you can’t spell “attention” correctly; bold declarations attaining to “expert proficiency” in MS Word are equally dubious when the document appears to have been typeset by someone on their very first outing with a computer.  Call me old fashioned, but I expect to be wowed by a CV don’t you?

Your CV is both your currency and passport to your next destination.  It is arguably the most important document you will ever write.  As such, a CV is to be lovingly crafted, polished and cherished and like a piece of antique furniture, it gets better with age.  If you create something that looks like it was knocked together in a rush don’t be surprised, if under scrutiny, the legs fall off.

I find it amazing that many Assistants don’t make the connection that if your own document looks sub-standard, what makes you think we would trust you to do a better job at a potential employer?  Well-kept CVs are like well-kept houses – they sell quickly.  Estate agents won’t clean your house and recruiters are not in the business of re-writing your CV from scratch.

When it comes to personal appearance and time-keeping, again I think standards have slipped.  I never thought I would have to add a paragraph for candidates that are interviewing to remind them to dress appropriately and be on time.  Since when has it been acceptable to wear flip-flops to an interview or for that matter any business meeting? Would you not think it odd if the Queen turned up to open Parliament wearing a pair of Havaianas?  Opening Parliament is the Queen’s work and as such she affords it some dignity.

I consider being an Assistant as a vocational role, something people are drawn to, suited to, trained and qualified.  I think somewhere along the way, many Assistants have lost touch with what made them enter the profession and as such they have forgotten the basic standards.

I am not calling for a return to some nostalgic idea of what it meant to be an Assistant, but if you can’t be bothered to check spelling, issue professional documents, understand and be interested in my business, dress appropriately and look after my clients, why would I want to employ you?

Christopher Taylor is the founder of Christopher Taylor Associates (CTA) a boutique search firm that matches the most senior and talented personal and executive assistants with today's business leaders. Prior to CTA, Christopher founded Number 42, the ... (Read More)

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