Helping others to help themselves

It's a responsible job! Firing their imagination, motivating them to develop their career... oh yes, and occasionally having difficult conversations. Managing junior staff is challenging and rewarding in equal measure, says Josephine Hampshire

By Josephine Hampshire

As a senior PA or Executive Assistant, chances are you're managing junior staff. On the one hand it's wonderful to develop new talent and see someone else's enthusiasm for their career grow. But at other times, when you have to ask them why a project is late, or poorly researched, it's not such fun. But managing staff is an important skill for you to develop. Get it right, and you'll have the tremendous satisfaction of knowing that you have helped a colleague on their way.

It's worth understanding the basic ground rules of managing assistants...

Set expectations

Try to ensure that both you and your assistant are aware of what you expect from each other. Whether this relates to the way the office is run, projects that are yours alone, or behaviour in the office, a culture of openness helps resolve many problems.

Keep a good grip on reporting lines, too - do you only give your assistant tasks, does your boss give him or her work, or could both of you hand over work? This needs to be hammered out early on with your assistant AND your boss. Ideally, all work will be channelled through you, but however you decide to organise the workloads, be sure that everyone understands it.

There's nothing more frustrating than waiting for a piece of work to come back from your assistant, only to discover it went directly to the boss; or when you have asked your assistant to do something, and your boss has over-ridden it. Avoid the red faces all round, and set some rules! You can change them as work progresses, but you must have a structure to begin with.

Have regular one-to-one's

You should sit down regularly with your assistant to ensure you are both aware of each others' workloads, and can share day-to-day tasks between you. This encourages good co-ordination of present projects, up-to-date diary management, and also gives you the opportunity to keep each other informed of urgent tasks that may have arisen. Respect your assistant, and show them you value their contribution. Regular feedback is vital. We all need to have our achievements recognised, and we like to know quickly when problems arise. So give credit where it's due, and give consistent and constructive feedback as often as possible, to help your assistant know where their strengths are and where they need to focus their energies on improving.

Communication is a two-way street

It's up to you to take the lead, and be clear in your communications. But you should also instil in your assistant that they too have a responsibility for keeping you informed of information that comes into the department. You must work as a team. Discovering an important issue that your assistant has failed to inform you of is not only irritating, but could mean you make the wrong decision further down the line, or simply look out of touch. "You didn't ask!" is not the appropriate answer to the question, "Why didn't you tell me?", so nip that attitude in the bud very quickly!

Find out what motivates them

Being aware of your assistant's job likes and dislikes, and what motivates them, is key to effective management. For some it's money, for others it's a challenging goal, while for others, it's that they enjoy taking responsibility. It could be a particular project area that inspires them. If you discover that your assistant is keen on the event management side of the role, or the travel organising, then perhaps that could become their specialism in time, and you can help them to move in that direction.

Do delegate, don't hoard

Although it can be difficult to let go of projects, delegation is vital. The old phrase "It's quicker to do it myself" is only true at this moment - delegate the task now and in three months' time, you shouldn't be doing the task at all! Make sure you monitor your assistant and make it clear you're there when they need help, but don't perch on their shoulder watching their every move. They probably won't do the job exactly as you would have done it, but that's not to say it's the wrong way.

You also need to understand how to set goals which are achievable, yet which will stretch their talents. Easy work is not satisfying; impossible tasks are frustrating and demotivating. Finding the line between these is one of the most challenging parts of motivating your juniors.

Deal with conflict

The single most important thing is to recognise that it exists. Conflict can be constructive. When it occurs don't try to silence it, but ask what you can learn from it. Treat it is a useful problem-indicator and bring it into the open. If you and your assistant are at odds about an issue, it could be there is a cross-over of responsibilities, or perhaps s/he relying on your input for their work, when this won't be ready in time. Recognise that there is a problem and resolve it openly.

Support them

Make it clear you are available should they have any problems or questions, and help them whenever you can. If you see them walking into a problem, alert them! If their time management skills need honing, give them some tips. If they're spending too long on some tasks, get them to explain what they're doing and identify how you can help them to work faster.

Guide their career

At your one-to-one meetings you'll be able to build a picture of your assistant's medium- to long-term career goals, which means you can help him or her to meet them. Identify training requirements and arrange opportunities for development. If they think they'd like to move into HR, why not arrange two days' work-shadowing for them; if they want to develop their PowerPoint skills, find out if you can get the budget for a training course for them, or ask your firm's resident expert to give them a couple of hours of tuition. Look for ways to help them develop. That way, you'll be working with a motivated, enthusiastic individual who can be a real assistant to you and the department.

Josephine Hampshire is a business journalist specialising in HR and personnel issues, who writes for national and trade press

For more information on various aspects of working with junior staff, visit the Information pages of

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