Friday, April 19, 2013

10 Tips to be a Better Executive Assistant - Part 5

Here are 10 random tips I’ve culled over the years on how to be a better assistant.  This is part 5.  

1.  Give them an out

For the most part, I’ve observed people hate saying no.  To avoid any awkwardness, passive aggressive behavior, or just to be diplomatic, give people an out.  When requesting something, couch the request by prefacing a general reason they might want to say no.  You want to allow people to say no by agreeing with what you already put out there as the reason they may have to say no, and to also allow them room to say no without making them looking bad/inferior.  Since you are asking for the request, you want to admit you are asking them to squeeze you in to their schedule.  If you don’t, it may seem as though you believe they have tons of free time and can say yes to every request that comes their way.  Here are 3 examples:

- I know this is last minute, and I apologize cause I know you are swamped, but do you have 30 min to focus on _____?  

- I know you may have lunch plans already, but if you can make yourself free, we’d love for you to join the _______ mtg.

- I know you’re working on the _____ deadline.  If you can spare 15 min for ____ we’d really appreciate it.  

2.  State new and old information

Whenever you are updating information - a meeting, notes, etc, it’s best to state the new information and put the the old information in parenthesis.  This prevents a bunch of questions of “Oh I thought it was...”  Or “The last email said...”  This also answers the question of “what happened with...” For example:

- Jan 31st, 4pm Board meeting (NOT Feb 1st at 2pm)

- Correction: Final cost is $15k (NO LONGER $17k)

- Please note: Jane Doe will attend Tuesday’s meeting.  (PREVIOUSLY, she was slated for business travel, but made alternate plans.)

3.  Have others help you follow up

Most people are always busy that when they check their emails they only scan to see if any came from their boss or stakeholders. So a lot of the times when something is urgent or I need help getting an answer, I will enlist someone else to send an email or follow up on my behalf.  I will usually ask an executive’s assistant or maybe even an executive’s equal that is also on that project if I don’t get a response within a reasonable time from my own email.  

4. Take the blame

A lot of communication takes place via email, texting, and IM when we are multi-tasking and distracted.  Sometimes long, detailed messages are not possible or you are typing with one hand or while eating lunch etc.  There are going to be very benign, trivial mistakes or misunderstandings because of this, especially when people write in slang, shorthand, or don’t capitalize, use proper grammar and punctuation.  When such a harmless misunderstanding occurs take the “blame” and help get the communication on track with a quick, “Sorry for the misunderstanding,” or “Forgive my typo/murky communication/unclear request.”  The other person may also feel very embarrassed or foolish that they didn’t read your message correctly the first time or respond in a way that made sense, so to help everyone save face and not make the problem worse, take the blame, and get the answer you do need.  Sometimes it's better to be diplomatic and the bigger person, than to be right. 

5.  Reconcile money and receipts together for everyone’s protection and benefit

Money is often given or donated at the office for lunch, gifts, charity walks, and making change.  When you are collecting money from an individual or a big collection from a group, always record it, count it out, and verbalize the collection amount in the presence of the other party.  This way there is no misunderstanding how much money was passed from one person to another.  This can be done as such.  When people drop off money alone, take the money, say thank you, have them see you write down on paper and perhaps even have them sign a log in sheet, count the money, and hear you say the amount (much like they do at cash registers) and if you really need to, email them a thank you as well so you both have a paper trail.  For collecting from a group, usually one person from the dept drops off the money or ask someone from that dept to count it with you three times - once by yourself as they watch, once they do it alone and you watch, and a third time together to check you both got it right.  Then write it down, say thank you, and email out to the dept how much money was collected as a group as a big thank you email.  This way you are both in the clear about how much was collected.  

6.  Establish the top person or project lead

In meetings, actionable items are often discussed, but sometimes it’s unclear who it taking care of the task and/or tracking it.  If this isn’t established, everyone thinks someone else is handling it and the next step in the process also doesn’t happen.  State you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but just wanted to follow up what your role is and how you can assist.  The goal is to have clearly spelled out everyone’s part, deadlines, and status check in’s so eveyrone is on the same page.  

7.  Grammar is important

You’ve heard the joke:  

An English professor wrote the words, “Woman without her man is nothing” on the blackboard and directed his students to punctuate it correctly.

The men wrote: “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

The women wrote: “Woman: Without her, man is nothing.”
When texting and writing, it really does make a difference between “No, longer” and “No longer” when discussing if a meeting will last an hour.  

IT as information technology vs it (a thing or item) or HR as human resources or an hour.  

When it comes to deadlines, people decipher "by May" as either BEFORE May 1st or by the end of May.  (I follow the first one.)  So I always write my deadlines with the time, date, and year.  

Be mindful how you communicate in writing because how people read, interpret, and understand things is totally different from person to person.  

8.  Tell them what you want along with what you don’t want, give examples

People don’t pay attention to details, read their emails completely, or follow instructions.  Granted, there is not much you can do about that, but to try to make everything idiot-proof and provide examples of what you do need and what you don’t need or want/don’t want to happen and why.  Just assuming someone will do a task the correct way (which is different from your preferred way) is a big gamble to take.  Some people understand info better with graphics/visuals so the red circle with the diagonal slash thru it helps.  Stating what you want to avoid, prevent, or shy away from also gives them context on the situation so the more info the better, if it is not something confidential.    

9.  Validate them and whatever their defense may be

When it comes to sensitive, tricky, urgent or difficult topics, good emotional intelligence will tell you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  And for people to feel listened to and heard, it’s best to not only repeat what they say and validate their view point/perspective/feelings in your own words, but to also think one step ahead of what they might say, think, or feel so you can demonstrate you understand them.  It doesn’t mean that you agree or condone their stance, but you acknowledge where they are coming from.  Once people know they have been heard/seen, they are not fighting to defend themselves/their needs, and are in more of a place to listen.  For example:

- I know you need to leave in 15 min.  Can I ask you to sign my time card sometime before you go?

- You must be really swamped with Project X.  Jason called for the third time and needs an answer cause you didn’t pick up your cell phone.  What should I tell him this time or do you want to take the call?

- Sara told me you’re not feeling well and will go home early.  It’s so unlike you to forget, but if you could remember to __________, it’d be really helpful.  Thank you.  

10. Give options, but state you are always there for them

Sometimes it's a good idea to help people to be self sufficient so they can function without you. However, teach them once by stating you are only doing so in case you are out sick, on vacation, or not around for some reason so they aren’t in a pickle.  You don’t want to give them the impression you don’t want to help them anymore.  Tell them they can always ask you to do it for them since they are so busy, but if they need it and you aren’t around they know how to do it too.  

***New “rule” - when you ask me a question for anonymous advice and I answer it, could you write an anonymous comment so I know you read the post?  You can just write “Thx!” or something!  :)  

As always, I usually tweet any new posts I have. And anyone can email me questions and I respond only via this blog, not to your personal address. It usually takes me 3-4 days to answer.

I also write over at under Hollywood Executive Assistant.


  1. Great tips. Is Part 5 the last one? I searched for Part 6 and couldn't find anything.

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Exec Asst.June 18, 2014 at 6:35 PM

      Yes, part 5 is the last one. Though the very next popular posts are 7 Defining Traits the Most Successful Executive Assistants Have - Part 1 and 2.