Adam Fidler explains why today’s Assistants need to do as much thinking as their bosses
I remember my first “proper” job as an Assistant in the early 2000s – it was for a large FTSE100 firm, in their group headquarters, where I supported the CEO’s chief communicator and spin doctor. The bulk of my job was to take down in shorthand, from dictated matter, the speeches the CEO would give at various events, which were written for him by my boss.
When I reflect about working as an Assistant back then, I would say my job was relatively straightforward (and, dare I say it, more fun!) I would plough through the pile of work that was in front of me and spent most of my time “processing” or carrying out transactional activities. I guess this mode of working, whilst simplistic, is what we used to style the more “traditional” Assistant role. It wasn’t that I wasn’t proactive (far from it!) – it was just that I had a narrower role, which required me to be efficient in responding to the needs and demands of others, and there was little time for me to be “creative”.
Within a few years, I had progressed to become a more Senior Assistant, with more responsibility and this coincided with the advent of the internet and email. All of a sudden, the business world became connected 24 hours a day, and everyone in corporate life became overwhelmed with things vying for their attention. My “to do” pile became bigger and emails took over.
With all this in mind, I quickly learnt that it wasn’t possible to work in the same way as I had done before; there weren’t enough hours in the day to get through the deluge of activities that needed completing. If a relentless workload was now the norm, and never “let up”, then the answer wasn’t to “catch up”, as this was near impossible. So, what did I have to do? I had to adapt my working style, and so I got better at focusing and deciding on what was important – rather than trying to do everything.
In order for me to work like this, I learnt that I needed to now set aside plenty of time for thinking. That meant time away from transactional work or the routine “processing” (such as diary management) to sit back and reflect on what the priorities were, when those priorities need completing and, more importantly, how those priorities were going to be achieved. In other words, I had to become more solution-focused and come up with some of the answers – which required me to schedule thinking time for me, to sit back, reflect, think and plan.
So, I learnt to schedule quiet time, away from my desk, to brainstorm, or be creative, and think about the bigger picture. I call this “Boss Mode” and you can’t always do it at your desk when you are constantly being interrupted. Compare this to being in what I call “Assistant Mode”, which is when you are doing transactional work that requires little real thinking (consider when you are typing a document, or going over diaries; you do most of it without actually registering what you are doing!)
In my view, all Assistants need at least one hour per week to be in Boss Mode (thinking mode) and during that interlude, they should ask themselves questions such as: “What do we need to achieve?”, “What’s not working for me and the boss?”, “What does my plan of action look like?” and even “What’s my project plan?” It’s a bit like brainstorming, but doing it on your own. Without stepping back to think and plan, we end up doing more of the same, and fail to come up with solutions and ideas that save the boss having to think for him or herself.
The crux of this conversation is that today’s Assistants need to work more strategically and this means the Assistant not only decides what needs to be done – but also how the company might go about doing it.
I encourage all Assistants, therefore, to schedule at least one hour per week to be in Boss Mode. Put it in your diary, stick to it, and book a separate room or use your boss’ office when they are out. It’s your crucial planning and thinking time. Coming up with new ideas and solutions cannot be done when you are whizzing through work. Just one hour of Boss Mode per week will greatly enhance your productivity and contribution, and it will show the boss you are developing strategic focus by thinking about the bigger picture.
I wish you every success when you are working in Boss Mode!