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Be a Kickass Assistant
By Heather Beckel
Warner BooksCopyright © 2002 Heather Beckel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneYou've Got the Job, Now What?
Goal: To make your boss as efficient as possible. Do everything you can to make the transition from the former assistant to you smooth, with as little disruption to the boss's world as possible.
It's your first day, and of course you're excited, but you're also a little scared. All right, more than a little. Believe me, I've been there.
I became an assistant in the White House with no grace period for learning anything about the place where I was working. I'd been George Stephanopoulos's assistant for over a year on the Clinton/Gore campaign, but suddenly, on Inaugural Day, 1993, we were starting work at the White House. The phones began ringing immediately, and two enormous mailbags of George's fan mail were delivered that first afternoon. George needed his daily schedule, but we quickly discovered that the computer terminals on the desks were useless because their hard drives had been removed. I needed to pee, but didn't know where the bathrooms were, and I was afraid to walk through the halls of the West Wing. I was sure that one of the uniformed guards would stop me. That first day I sat on the edge of the couch in George's office, which had been every previous White House press secretary's office. When George arrived we stood up and turned on the television and had the surreal experience of watching CNN's live shots of the exterior of the West Wing. They showed the exterior of the window where we were standing watching TV, with a reporter saying something like, "Inside the White House the new administration takes office." I took over the desk outside George's office and looked in the drawers. I found a schedule for President Bush, which was exciting, but I was hoping for something more useful, like Post-it Notes and pencils. I had no idea how to order supplies, nor did I have anyone to ask, as we were all new. Those first days were fraught with tension, not only because of my new job, but also because of the exalted place in which I was working.
About a week after we arrived at the White House, I had to go to the East Wing to run an errand. To get from the West to the East Wing you have to pass through the basement of the residential part of the White House, some rooms of which are on the official public White House tour. About halfway down the main hallway there was a folding screen blocking the width of the hallway. I was sure this was when my fear would be realized; the guard would look at my pass and me and tell me I didn't have clearance to go further. I timidly approached the guard and told him who I was, and my errand, showing him the papers in my hand. He looked at me with incredulity and I prepared myself to be embarrassed and slink back to my desk. The guard explained to me that my pass allowed me to go anywhere in the White House compound (other than the First Family's residence, of course), and that I didn't need to justify my whereabouts to him. I moved around the screen only half believing him, and expecting confrontation from a guard there. But on the other side of the screen was a crowd of tourists dressed in brightly colored leisurewear, in stark contrast to my somber suit and pumps. They stared at me and I at them. I suddenly realized with great clarity that for them, I was part of the tour-a White House staffer-and that the screen was there to keep them out, not to keep me in.
After that I moved around with greater confidence, and slowly began to feel more comfortable in my surroundings. But I can honestly say that as I arrived to work at the White House every morning, I was always amazed to be there. You might not work in an office guarded by armed Secret Service agents and tourists visiting regularly, but when you begin your new job, expect to be overwhelmed and intimidated. You need to compensate for this by being prepared.
Ask for a training period with the assistant you are replacing when you accept the job as an assistant. The training period should be no more than a week (five days), but at least two days. Suggest that you arrive at your new workplace an hour after the day has started at the organization. This will allow the soon-to-be-former assistant a chance to get herself settled before you arrive and throw her day into turmoil. Be friendly with the former assistant and find out where she is going, as you might need her help in the future. You should ask about her experience with the company and the boss, and why she is leaving, but be political. It is always better to say less and listen than give away too much information yourself. Pay attention to the way other people, especially your new boss, treat her during your training period: Is she well liked and respected? This will give you an indication as to how much you should take her advice. If she is helpful, ask her about your new boss. How much taking care of does she need? For example: former Clinton campaign manager David Wilhelm is a very smart, but scatterbrained man; when he sneezed, his assistant, Martha, had to hand him a box of tissues. Ask if she helped the boss with errands in her personal life, and if she has any particular boundaries you should be careful not to cross. At the end of your training period, thank her for her help in getting you off on the right foot and ask for her phone number and permission to call her with questions in the future. Don't burn any bridges with thoughtless behavior or comments during this delicate time.
If you don't get a training period, ask for a point person who can help you with questions. The best person would be another assistant who works for a boss of equal stature to your new boss.
Questions to Ask During Your Training Period
The following are questions for which you should get answers as soon as possible. Either copy out these questions or photocopy the following four pages and take them with you. Bring your own pen and notebook, and write down all the answers because you'll be absorbing so much information in the first days and will forget a lot of what you're told. You don't want to ask the same question twice. However, if you don't understand something, definitely ask for another explanation rather than risk doing it wrong.
Who's who. Ask for an overview of who the central characters are in your new boss's life, both personal and professional. One of the easiest ways to do this is to look through the office Rolodex or database together. These are people whose names you should be familiar with, as soon as possible.
Ask for an explanation of the phone system. Find out how the phones work, how the messages are currently recorded, and what is said when the phones are answered. Should you forward the phones to someone else, or to voice mail, when you have to leave your desk? (For example, to run to the bathroom, the copier, or to pick up lunch.)
Ask about important dates, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and regular meetings. Does the soon-to-be-former assistant keep them listed somewhere?
Find out about equipment. Where is it and how does it work? The obvious machines you need to know about are the copier and the fax machines, but perhaps there are others in your new company. For example: color copiers, video conferencing equipment, VCRs, etc. Nothing causes more tension than an impatient boss who wants to watch a video-cassette immediately and you don't know how to operate the VCR. Don't assume that your boss will know how it works-it's very unlikely that he will-and don't assume that you can just put the tape in and push "play" and it'll work. Imagine finding yourself desperately trying to get hold of someone in the audio-visual department and begging them to drop whatever they're working on and run to your office while your boss stands over you fuming. (This scenario actually happened at a company I worked for.)
Where do you get supplies? Are there forms to be filled out, is there an approval you will need, and how long does the process usually take? Is there something you can do if you need an item urgently?
What is the boss's schedule in general? What time does the boss usually arrive at and depart from work? Does she have set daily and weekly meetings?
What are the hours of your new job in general?
Where does the boss eat, and typically what time? Will you be expected to order the boss's lunch, and if so, how do you pay for it? (Does she have a charge account with a restaurant? Do you need to ask her for the money to pay for her lunch up front or can you pay with your own money and be assured of being paid back?) What are some things that the boss likes and does not like to eat and drink?
Where is the bathroom, what are the guidelines for taking breaks?
What are the boss's moods? Is there a best time to get the boss's attention? For example, is the boss a "morning person," or should you try not to talk to the boss until after lunch?
Ask for a detailed explanation of the current filing system.
Ask for a discreet overview of the boss's personal life. For example, is the boss married, does she have kids, where does she live, is there a hobby that plays an important part in the boss's life, etc. Find out as much as you politely can about your boss's spouse and the soon-to-be-former assistant's relationship with that person. It is almost a given that you will be helping your boss out with some areas of her personal life because in the life of a high-powered executive, the lines are often blurred between what is personal and what is professional.
How is the mail delivered and when? Currently, how is the incoming mail dealt with in the office? Do you open everything or are there things your boss prefers to open herself? How do you get it to the boss, and does she want to see everything?
Where do you get tech support for the computer?
How do you handle your own and your boss's expense accounts?
Where do you reserve and purchase travel tickets for you and your boss?
Is there a kitchen? Where do you get coffee? Does the boss drink it, and if so, how?
Ask for a company directory. Take it home and study it to learn who is who, and titles in the company. If there isn't an official company directory, ask for an overview of the company hierarchy. (There will probably be an organizational chart for the executives of the company and possibly for your boss's department).
What are your boss's weaknesses? You need to know so that you can compensate for them. There's a respectful way to ask this, for example: "Does George have any bad habits that I should know about, such as not returning calls promptly, or consistently being late?"
What are your options for getting lunch? When should you get it? Was the former assistant usually able to leave for lunch, or did she eat at her desk?
Ask for introductions to key people that will support you in your new job. For example: the people in the mailroom, the computer tech guys, the travel department, the accounting department in charge of reimbursements, etc.
What to Do and What Not to Do
Your first few weeks on the job will be stressful, as there will be a lot to learn. And at the risk of increasing your stress, you need to be aware that you'll be creating a first impression that will stick with you-not just with your immediate boss, but with everyone else you come in contact with. The following are some guidelines of things to do and not to do at work, especially during the first couple of weeks at your new job.
Admit mistakes and apologize if necessary. You're going to make mistakes; don't allow your pride to stop you from admitting to them. It's always better to admit to having made a mistake early, and ask for help in fixing it, than to wait until the mistake is discovered (and it will be discovered). When a mistake is discovered you'll look more foolish than if you owned up to it in the first place, and it will be harder to fix the mess you made.
Pay attention to the details. You'll succeed or fail as an assistant because of your ability to pay attention to details.
Answer questions directly, don't ramble. Give the most succinct and honest answer possible when asked a question.
Listen and watch during your training period. You won't be expected to perform as an assistant, so spend all your energy paying attention to what is happening around you and learning.
Take a lot of notes during your training period and first few weeks on the job because you'll be absorbing a lot of information, and you'll forget things.
Be very political. Watch what you say and how you behave with everyone. It will take you some time to understand all the relationships within the organization where you're working, and in the meanwhile you don't want to form allegiances or insult anyone. Trust no one and do not open up to anyone; offices are full of backstabbers. Avoid cliques, or you could quickly get labeled in a way that you'll later regret.
Speak softly. Someone who talks loudly is annoying and noticeable in a negative way. (There is always someone like this in every office. She invariably sits in a cubicle, so everyone around her is forced to listen to her phone conversations and has trouble concentrating on their own work.) Speaking softly is not only thoughtful, it adds to the impression of calm that you want to present in your office.
Plan time alone in the office as soon as possible, after your training period, to go through everything and take ownership of the space. This will give you a sense of confidence.
Dress simply. You don't want your clothes to be noticed or remembered. Once you have established yourself and earned respect, you'll have more latitude (depending on your industry and company) to express yourself through your dress.
Introduce yourself to everyone you come in contact with, no matter his or her status in the company. First impressions are very important, and to do your job well you will need relationships with everyone from the person who delivers the mail to the CEO. You may find that people aren't particularly friendly toward you, but don't let that intimidate you: Take the initiative and introduce yourself to others. In a perfect world, everyone would be coming up to you to say "hello" and to welcome you but it rarely works out that way.
Use your last name when introducing yourself; it makes you appear serious and grown-up.
Pay attention to the way everyone behaves. Learn the unspoken rules of what is appropriate and what isn't in your new environment.
Excerpted from Be a Kickass Assistant by Heather Beckel Copyright ©2002 by Heather Beckel. Excerpted by permission.
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