On your route to the top, anticipate and avoid the snakes, and look for and grasp the ladders explains Helen Monument

Life is a game, and we love to play games, even if we don’t always win.

Snakes and Ladders started off as a Hindu game of morality. It was used to teach children about religion. The squares at the bottom of the ladders represent diverse types of good; faith, reliability, generosity or knowledge and the squares at the top of a snake represent various forms of evil, such as disobedience, vanity, vulgarity, theft, lying, drunkenness, murder or lust. There are always many more snakes than ladders. The good squares allow a player to ascend higher in the league of life whereas evil will reduce you back through reincarnation to lower tiers of life. When, and if, you reach the final square, you have found Nirvana.

The career path of an Assistant can be challenging and terrifying, just like snakes and ladders.

So, you’ve thrown your dice, you’ve found a job you like, in a company you like. Your boss has given you more and more responsibility, so there’s a chance to go up the ladder and you arrived at your dream job. Wow! Or the ladder leads you to something fantastic outside the company, so you throw the dice again, take the risk and leave the comfort and safety of the job you can do in your sleep for the opportunity of a lifetime.

But then, as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans”, up comes the snake. You get a different boss, there’s a take-over, redundancy, reorganization, or maybe even your own resilience fails you. Something happens and instead of standing firmly on the top rung your ladder, you are sliding down that snake. And if it’s stress that caused the slide, you may even land lower down than you were before you started.

So how do we play this game?

The trick is to anticipate and avoid the snakes and to look for and grasp hold of the ladders. Three ladders which are there for us just waiting to be climbed are:

  • Employability
  • Empowerment
  • Effectiveness

Employability – Expanding your core business skills to develop your career.

Have you got the right skills?

I can’t express enough the importance of life-long learning. The things we knew yesterday are not sufficient for us to do the job today. We must keep on updating our skills to the highest level. We need to be a subject matter expert when it comes to our professional skills. We need the same skills that our Executives have: leadership, people management, planning, decision making, helicopter vision.


If we don’t know what our Executive’s job is all about, how can we possibly help them to do it better? Early on in my career, I started collecting management articles. I keep them filed by subject, and add new articles all the time. It’s become a great reference book for me. There is really nothing new under the sun, management theories come and go, but keeping up with the latest trends is vital. We need to speak the same business language as our Executives.


There are no jobs for life, so we cannot be complacent. We need to look for opportunities inside and outside our company. We need to be able to work in teams, and on short and long-term projects. We need to be aware of what is going on within our organisation. We need to anticipate changes and adapt ourselves to fit into a new situation. It pays to be on the lookout for additional tasks that we can do, that can add to our skill set.

Find a Mentor

A mentor should be someone you can trust, preferably inside the company, so they understand your challenges and can share their experiences. Approach someone you respect and feel comfortable with, who has the experience to help you get up that ladder and show you how to avoid the snakes. You must be prepared to accept constructive criticism. Look for someone who can put things into perspective for you. Someone you can bounce your ideas off.

Find a mentor in your external network too, someone who can help you with the more personal directions in your life, like your relationships or your finances.


Assistants benefit so much from networking. Our Executives do it all the time and it’s a skill we must learn. Joining a professional network is the ideal place for support, training, business contacts, learning experiences and inter-cultural and cross-border exchanges. Within this supportive environment you can make mistakes and learn from them. I have been a dedicated member of International Management Assistants (IMA) for many years and it’s been such a benefit for my life-long learning and my professional contacts.

No Fear

Don’t be afraid to say No to a job that you don’t want or that does not fit into your plans. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake in your career. That’s the only way you’ll find out what you like doing best. Ensure your CV is a living document. As soon as you’ve learnt something new, or brought a project to a successful conclusion, or passed an exam, attended a conference, or gained a certificate, add it to your CV.

If you are not in a job you love, you will never be happy, so the best advice is to get out and find something else! Look at what you are and aim to be the best in what you do. We all have portable skills. Pick up your portable skills and shop around until you find the company that suits you best.

Empowerment – How to get responsibility – or take it!

Empowerment is the freedom to be responsible and accountable for what we do.

Take the Initiative

Being pro-active is one of the minimum requirements for an Assistant. Knowing what your Executive needs before she or he thinks about it themselves. One of the best things you can say to your Executive is “I’ve done that already, it’s all taken care of.” Once you’re comfortable that you know all about your Executive’s work, make suggestions. Look at what he or she does and see what tasks you can take over. Plan time in the calendar to discuss this.

Have Confidence

The more competent you are, the more confident you feel. You know that you’re good at your job and you strive to be the best, so let it shine through. Even if you don’t feel confident in a situation, then ACT as if you do and it will have the same effect! Show your Executive by your actions that you are worth his or her trust. Present them with solutions, not problems. One way of influencing your Executive is by showing the validity of your ideas by making comparisons of the ‘old’ way versus your new way.

Set your own targets

Decide what it is you want to achieve, write it down on one page, with a brief description of how you plan do it and show it to your Executive. Discuss it together. You are the subject matter expert in your field, not them. You are the best person to decide how your job needs to be done, not them. Then, having made your targets, give yourself some milestones by which you can measure your success and keep them informed of your progress. Make it part of a regular performance discussion.

Organise yourself

Organise the other Assistants in your company or your department into a network. Take responsibility for your own work processes. Write your own job descriptions. Identify your problems and collect measurable data to come to a solution together. Communicate your solutions to management. Look for ways of doing things better and cheaper. You can show that when a group of individuals doing the same job are formed into a team they can be more efficient and more effective, and save resources by sharing information, sharing tools and sharing work processes.

Don’t take No for an answer

Hearing No simply means going back to the drawing board to come up with a more creative way to negotiate or persuade until you get a YES. Be persistent! Blow your own trumpet, women especially are too modest by far. A good leader will want to know whose idea it was and who did all the work. So, tell him them was YOU! Getting ahead also means getting noticed.

Don’t let fear hold you back and don’t be afraid to get noticed by using direct communication and voicing your opinion. Doing work for other people may provide a ladder that could be a career opportunity. So, don’t be afraid to take risks. I see failure as a setback that drives me to succeed next time. If you’re stuck with an Executive who doesn’t recognize your skills and abilities, who doesn’t give you freedom to act, who doesn’t discuss their business with you or empower you, then it’s time to get a new Executive!


We hear about managing the work and home juggling act. As Assistants, we use our eyes, our hands and our brains all day, but the trick to juggling is to stop thinking about juggling. You must free your mind of the equation. You must run on automatic pilot, switch off your brain and let your body do the work. Now, juggling two balls is easy, but to keep that third ball in the air is a massive challenge. That’s why I hate the metaphor of juggling home and work. Who wants to do that?

We can’t stop thinking and we can’t run our lives on automatic pilot. We have too many demands on our attention. Job, colleagues, bosses, home, partner, friends, parents, children – they all need and demand our full attention. They are all snakes which can stop us getting up that ladder, if we let them! Switch off the phone for a couple of hours, turn off the email alert, dump the junk e-mail, use the ‘out of office’ assistant, put yourself on ‘do not disturb’.

Set priorities

I love lists, even my lists have lists! I rush around with a mountain of ideas and tasks inside my head, totally panicking, forgetting things, being late, missing deadlines, but if I start to make a list, WOW, suddenly I feel in control again. So, look at what is important to YOU. Look seriously at all the people who claim your attention. Divide your time according to the priority. Plan your week with some time for YOU to recharge your batteries, because it’s all about your energy.

Get organised at the office

Give yourself a quiet time every day when you don’t make appointments. I do my emails first thing in the morning for half an hour and again for an hour in the afternoon. I have rearranged my workspace so that I am not distracted by (snake) people passing by just waiting to waste my time and my energy. Plan your week and be absolutely disciplined in your timekeeping. If you need to leave the office at a certain time, start packing up fifteen minutes before. If you make this agreement clearly with your Executive, they will know not to give you a rush job 20 minutes before you’re due to leave.

Get organized at home

Get rid of anything that does not add value to your life. In the home as well as at the office. William Morris said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

So, if you haven’t used it, worn it, read it, eaten it or looked at it for a year, it’s time to let it go.

This includes people! How often do we make appointments with people who we really don’t want to see? Acquaintances we feel we ‘have’ to keep in touch with. But, we must keep our life moving forward. If we kept every friend we’ve ever made, we’d be making appointments to see someone different every night for years! We must stop feeling guilty about not being all things to all people. We cannot be the perfect partner, the perfect parent, the perfect friend, the perfect assistant, the perfect tennis player, the perfect child all the time. It’s all about energy and there is only so much of yourself that you can spread around. Decide what you DO want – and make this your priority.

Get help

Involve the people in your life – your partner, parents, children – because you don’t have to do everything on your own. Make agreements with your nearest and dearest for the smooth running of the household, make them feel responsible too. Doing it all yourself is just another snake! If you’re one of the lucky ones, you work for a company that offers home services or child care.

Online shopping and delivery has revolutionized the way we manage our households. 80% of our weekly grocery shopping consists of the same products every week. Why waste energy and your precious spare time pushing a supermarket trolley? I love books but haven’t been into a bookshop in years. Let’s use the ladders provided by the internet to preserve our time and our energy.

Guilt is the Snake that holds us back. We need our own energy for ourselves to climb those ladders. There is nothing to fear, so just let go.

To get to the top, anticipate and avoid the snakes and keep looking out for those ladders.

It’s not a battleground – it’s balance!

It’s not selfishness – it’s survival!

It’s not failure – it’s freedom!

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Helen Monument inspires and encourages Assistants to be the best they can be by sharing 30 years of experience as a management support professional. Her career has taken her from Secretary to Office Manager and Business Support Team Leader, so she ... (Read More)

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