You are here

Human Resources

The Administrator's Secret Weapon

Uncovering the hidden talent of your administrative staff.
University Business, Jul 2004

In a resource-scarce environment, why is administrative talent often overlooked? Perhaps due to time-honored traditions and the hierarchical structure of educational institutions, many administrative managers have a blind spot regarding their support staff's full scope of skills and experience base. Whether by design or neglect, they frequently utilize administrative assistants in narrowly defined roles that are programmed for a limited set of mundane tasks, such as word processing or arranging meetings and managing calendars. The result: underutilization of staff--a condition that doesn't serve or support the institution's goals, especially during tough economic times. What's needed is a more holistic approach to staff utilization that takes into consideration the benefits to the individual, the management team, and the entire institution.

What is behind the shortsightedness that leads to staff underutilization? "Administrative managers who have been thrust into leadership roles by virtue of their individual accomplishments may lack solid management skills," suggests Curt Denham, director of Administration with the University of California's University Affairs Division. "Further, as the pace of business increases and resources are further reduced, managers don't like to commit the additional time to identify an employee's strengths outside the regular annual salary reviews."

Staffers whose talents are underestimated often begin to do the minimum to maintain the status quo.

Staff members whose talents are underestimated lose self-confidence and often begin to do the minimum to maintain the status quo. At best, their performance suffers, and so does the entire department. At worst, they develop resentful attitudes towards their bosses or quit. On the other hand, when a manager takes the necessary steps to uncover, assess, and leverage talent, both staff member and boss benefit.

To better utilize administrative support, here are five types of shortsightedness and ways to overcome them.

Stereotypes regarding roles. Many managers don't think outside the box of the institution's hierarchical system, silently restricted by unwritten norms and organizational culture. The attitude is that an administrative assistant is an administrative assistant--period. Here's an example: An administrative assistant to the president was invited to attend a planning retreat. The retreat's facilitator insisted on everyone's full participation in roundtable discussions, including the assistant's. Whenever the facilitator called on the assistant for input, the assistant contributed valuable information, but demonstrated extreme discomfort. During a break, the facilitator approached the assistant and inquired about her reaction. The assistant broke down in tears and admitted being completely overcome at being asked her opinion. She stated that she had always been treated as a word processing machine. Never once had anyone consulted her in areas such as meeting management or increasing the efficiency of the office. She also had valuable information about key administrative relationships and the preferred communication styles of senior administrators, from which her boss, who was new to the organization, could have benefited tremendously.

One solution for tapping into such hidden talent is for the boss to invest in professional development for the assistant. Two years following the incident at the retreat, an assessment of her strengths and weaknesses and the development of specific education and training opportunities had changed the assistant's personal and professional life. Her boss invested in courses that built on her strengths and increased her self-confidence. He broadened her role, and she was now a valued asset in the department.

Failure to observe. Many administrative managers fail to observe an assistant's strengths and ignore the very potential that could reduce their level of stress and maximize much needed energy to focus on strategic goals, rather than putting out fires. Here's an example: A newly appointed dean was in hot water because he did not understand the university's culture. His administrative assistant, who had been with the institution for 25 years, had given him the minutes from previous administrative staff meetings and other valuable documents that could have provided a perspective on the institution's culture and unwritten norms. The assistant was a goldmine of cultural and environmental information that could have simplified the dean's life and prevented blunders. However, while acknowledging her administrative and organizational skills, he failed to tap into this tremendous resource.

At UC, Denham observed what happens when a knowledgeable resource is fully leveraged. "One of our departments had severe organizational problems," he reports. "While it was limping along under two administrative managers who eventually failed, we were able to identify someone in a lower-level executive assistant position who appeared to be the 'glue' that was holding the department together." Fortunately, says Denham, the executive manager was open to employee development. He allowed the individual to take on additional projects and explore development opportunities that would increase her breadth of knowledge and enhance her leadership skills. The manager then took the bold step of promoting the individual to the administrative management position. "She was successful, and the department is now one of our most stable both financially and organizationally," Denham says.

For managers who are just too busy to notice an assistant's potential, performance reviews with a developmental component are a solution. These must occur outside the regular annual review for salary increases. No one wants to talk about development needs when they are anxiously waiting for recognition of their strengths.

Stereotypes regarding skill sets. Managers make assumptions about the limits of an assistant's skills instead of asking how they may be transferable to other areas. An Admission Office assistant's skills in evaluating transcripts, for example, could be applied to the evaluation of transcripts for graduation. The resulting increased coverage benefits the entire department and brings potentially substantial savings.

When Sandra George came to the Chancellor's Office of the California State University system as associate chief of staff, along with a new chancellor, she saw that the administrative assistants in the office were severely underutilized. "Two assistants answered the telephone, but were not allowed to take messages," she explains. "A third assistant was only allowed to copy and fax. As a result, they felt little self-worth. They were insecure and terrified of making mistakes." George proceeded to redistribute their responsibilities. Two assistants were given additional tasks that fully leveraged their skills. The third was integrated into a new conference services department she created. "They've become confident individuals who take initiative and make decisions," says George.

Failure to consider prior experience. A manager may be unaware that an assistant has broad experience in other industries that could offer valuable perspective. Some administrative assistants have held positions of greater responsibility outside education, having decided to take a step back to enjoy the prestige and unique benefits of working at a university. The solution is to examine an assistant's resume and ask where he or she believes to be able to make a greater contribution. The individual may be a candidate for promotion or perhaps an internship in a higher-level position.

Ego. A manager who has an advanced or terminal degree may be hesitant to ask the advice of an assistant with a mere bachelor's degree or high school diploma. Serving as a mentor or coach may be roles that will resonate for such a status-conscious manager. He or she can maintain the desired stature as the boss, and the assistant benefits from the exposure to the more sophisticated academic education and training. Besides, asking an assistant for advice is never a sign of weakness. "The most successful leaders in our departments are those who acknowledge that they don't know everything," says Denham. "They are willing to take some time to explore their administrative assistants' strengths."

Administrative assistants are often reluctant to enlighten their bosses on their true talents and strengths, perhaps because they don't see the opportunity. Even when encouragement is lacking, an assistant should not hesitate to discuss his or her professional strengths and development needs with the boss. Here are a few tips:

Refresh the boss' memory on skill sets and previous experience. Don't expect him or her to be familiar with the content of resumes long since viewed, even when he or she was the hiring manager.

Volunteer for special assignments.

Make suggestions. Tell the boss about favorite tasks not included in the current job description. Provide observations about individuals' unique characteristics that affect their interpersonal relations.

Find a champion. A third party, such as a direct report of the boss, may be able to serve as a mentor or be a source for special assignments that demonstrate commitment and excellence.

There is much that managers can do to become more sensitive to the untapped talent in their departments. However, administrative assistants can also do their part by seeking out opportunities to excel beyond the boundaries of their job descriptions. When management and support staff begin to help one another reach their full potential, they form high-performing teams that benefit the individual, the department, and the entire institution.

Barbara Kaufman is an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University (CA), where she teaches courses in leadership effectiveness and succession planning.