Investigate the alternatives

If your desire for professional training has been thwarted by your firm's ultra-tight hold on the purse-strings, don't despair! Take a look around you and you'll find excellent opportunities for boosting your skills - many of which are free. Workplace journalist Ian Boughton shows you where to start looking

By Ian Boughton

One of the most valuable things you can learn is how to understand the business world around you. Many administrative staff are great administrators, but have a remarkably hazy idea of what their employer company does, and how it does it. As the employee with an understanding of the boss’s business is the one best positioned for promotion, it follows that learning about your own organisation is vital.

So, how do you go about it? By tapping into the knowledge of your colleagues. Anglian Water devised an in-house suggestions scheme and instead of keeping ideas quiet, they were widely publicised. It was staggering how their 4,000 staff gained an overall understanding of their company’s business when they read about other departments’ suggestions for improving things.

And why stop there? The Elsevier scientific and technical publishing house learnt lessons from senior staff and bosses. Around 140 PAs came together as BEST, which pioneered what they called "business awareness presentations", in which senior managers from different sectors of Elsevier's very broad range of activities spoke to the group explaining what their divisions actually do.

All the PA groups who have used similar ideas recognised the brilliant psychology in this. The one thing everybody loves talking about is themselves, and their work. By tapping into that, the PAs got themselves director-level briefings, for free.

Managing others
Perhaps you're a boss? If so – are you any good at it? That’s a question which brings us all up short. We like to think we’re good staff managers, but how do we know? One brilliant source of inspiration comes from retired company owner Big Jim Miller of Arlington, Texas, available for the cost of his book (available over the net from Big Jim invented the ‘Best Boss, Worst Boss’ contest which swept across America as employees submitted true stories of just how good, and how bad, staff-management can be.

He collected them in his book, which gives a remarkable insight into just what staff look for in a boss. On the one hand, there are examples of the selfless generosity and encouragement that good bosses can provide – at the simplest, bringing in cakes for colleagues, remembering birthdays, mobilising entire workforces to help colleagues cope with bereavement, and even giving up their own evenings to baby-sit while single-parent staff took night classes.

On the other hand were the control-freaks. Now, you yourself may believe that you never steal from colleagues’ lunch-boxes, or hide in cupboards to hear what they say about you when you’re not there… but these and other amazing true stories make for a fascinating lesson on how to be a boss!

Some even more unconventional learning you'll find fascinating, and which will be an extremely useful skill in your company is in international relations. Just about every business these days has an interest in international trade, and many PAs and admin staff are in more regular contact with opposite numbers overseas than ever before. This is very useful – because, for all their business and sales skills, a vast number of bosses simply cannot communicate internationally, and rely on their administrative people to keep them out of trouble.

What the personal assistant can learn is the way clients work in other countries with whom they do business, and adapt the boss’s communications accordingly. For example – the explosion of e-mail has not improved international communication, it has confused it. This is because although managers think it is great that they can e-mail the other side of the world in seconds, they have completely forgotten that people the other side of the world still behave in a different way. Bosses fire off international e-mails in the same language they would use in their own office, and it doesn’t work!

Some economical, very useful, and very entertaining training can come from simply reading books by writers like Richard D Lewis, who wrote the ground-breaking "When Cultures Collide", from which the admin can guide her international manager on how to behave overseas.

Entente cordial?
For instance, something the PA needs to look out for when preparing communications, is how the simplest terms can be wildly misinterpreted across the globe. The boss may think that a ‘contract’ is a fairly clear concept which will be understood around the world, but he’ll be wrong. “To Europeans and Americans, it is something to be adhered to, but the Japanese consider it unethical to be bound to a contract if circumstances change,” points out Lewis. “The South American doesn’t see it as achievable at all, but signs it to avoid argument!”

Certain cross-cultural questions are more delicate – and there is free training available on this, too. The admin’s super resource for understanding colleagues and clients of different cultures is Phil Milano’s Y-Forum, an online resource in which people of different races, religions and cultures are allowed to ask the kind of questions they dare not pose face-to-face : "We’ve heard that people of certain races do this – is that true?"

We all have those questions. What makes Milano’s work notable is the courteous way that people of one culture answer a question that someone else would hesitate to put face-to-face. Now, says Milano, his 30,000 visitors a month clearly include business-based enquiries for corporate managers.

Join up!
And don't forget the huge value in joining a local secretarial group (your Chamber of Commerce may be able to help track one down), or one of the national professional networks, such as European Management Assistants, or the Institute of Qualified Professional Secretaries. Both have regional branches with plenty of training activities throughout the year. And what about exhibitions? Take a look at the seminar programmes which accompany the various shows like RSVP, Confex and the Business Travel Show, and you'll find that for a small outlay (and sometimes nothing) you can hear experts sharing their wisdom on a huge variety of topics.

Whatever "alternative" learning you settle for, don’t expect that your self-help training has to produce instant results, or dramatic ones. American business lecturers teach company managers the Japanese principles of Kaizen, which can be very roughly translated as valuable progress coming through a series of small steps rather than one single flying leap of world-changing inspiration. Now, that’s something worth learning.

Ian Boughton is a freelance business journalist who writes for various national newspapers and trade magazines

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