How to Empower Others

Building a network, or community of practice, is somewhat akin to building bridges – bridges that empower and enable you and your colleagues to work your way through obstacles and barriers in pursuit of shared goals. In the spirit of IYOTSA 2014, the International Year of the Secretary and Admin. Assistant, Exceptional EA continues to explore how assistants can go from good to exceptional. Today’s post is the promised follow up to Becoming Exceptional: Commitment to the Greater Good.

I’m anticipating here that you’ve already considered why there’s merit in empowering yourself and others through a network or Community of Practice (COP). Whether you’re near, or at, the top of the administrative heirarchy in your organisation – as is the case for many an EA, PA, MA, Office Manager/Coordinator/Director or Chief of Staff – or somewhere else on the org chart, you have the ability to contribute to the greater good. You may have undertaken your own informal environmental scan – in your workplace, or among peers who work in similar roles – and decided there’s an opportunity to work together to share insights, cultivate expertise, problem solve, and generally offer one another the benefit of your collective experience. Lovely. Or, you may already be part of an informal community of practice (COP), and wish to elevate its agenda and outcomes. How, though, do you begin?

Begin with your employer’s perspectives in mind

No matter how receptive a boss you may have, s/he will be better positioned to support establishment of a network or community of practice (COP) with some form of business case in hand. Your proposal will ideally be no more than two pages in length. Remember, you’re appealing to busy people with demanding schedules; if you can’t make the case in more than a couple of pages, they’re unlikely to invest time in a thorough read.

Strategic Context: How does the COP align with the organisation’s strategic plan and goals?

Begin by reviewing your organisation’s strategic plan, and its mission statement or values. Provide a concise description of how the proposed COP meets business needs by articulating the COP’s scope of purpose and its alignment with the strategic plan. For example, does your organisation’s strategic plan include employee engagement, development, mentoring, empowerment or innovation among its priorities? Do the phrases succession planning or internal leadership appear in the Plan? If so, these are logical starting points.

Analysis: Identify criteria based on strategic context, and provide brief analyses of options you’ve considered and discarded

Wherever possible in your analyses, strive to reflect the following.

  1.  Alignment with strategic plan, as above
  2. Articulation of business need to be met by formation of such a network or COP
  3. Costs involved with establishment of a COP, bearing in mind that time away from members’ primary responsibilities can be regarded both as a cost and as an investment
  4.  ROI– a brief statement reflecting a costs-benefits analysis/return on investment (ROI); this needn’t imply a deep dive into budgets so much as articulating the benefits to your organisation
  5. Risk management – are there any risks, reputational or otherwise, to the organisation? If so, how might they be mitigated?
  6. Advantages and disadvantages of options or models you’ve identified and assessed

Alternately, you may have identified a group within your organisation that already meets occasionally, albeit informally or with a different purpose in mind. Provide assessment of how that group might evolve to better align with both the needs you’ve identified, and with your organisation’s strategic needs. Anticipate and take into account any sensitivities that may arise from members of an existing body being encouraged to reorganise and welcome newcomers into what may be a tight knit group; be prepared to recommend solutions and alternatives.

Recommendations: Identify and justify your recommended approach

Articulate your recommendations, and provide justification. Does your organisation already have Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to which colleagues turn, or might this COP support development or review of such standards that could benefit the organisation? Can formation of such a group splinter or even shatter operational silos? Apart from knowledge sharing and development of best practices, a COP is an ideal in-house, cost-efficient form of professional development (PD). Built on a foundation of respect, you’ll find that such a body can lead to mentoring partnerships that may be formal or informal, and also support succession planning. All these attributes also imply potential to reduce employee attrition and the subsequent recruitment and development costs; here we’re speaking to return on investment.

Management and capacity: Spell it out

Whether you call your group a community of practice, a network, a working group or a committee, you’ll want to propose a governance structure. This can be spelled out within a draft Terms of Reference (TOR), which you may wish to append to your proposal. Here you can propose membership, ideally on a role-driven basis, and outline practices. What kind of oversight do you envision for this body? Will it provide brief but regular reports to Human Resources, and/or to executives?  Will the body conduct annual self evaluations, or regular meeting evaluations to assess its progress, or will it operate within a more informal structure? Risk management is a factor with which many of us are familiar, and a well written TOR can serve to mitigate risk in that it outlines and limits authority and scope of responsibility.

Your new group may be asked to take on responsibility for specific projects; define opportunity for sub-committees or ad hoc committees, and articulate reporting structures. Will the group follow Robert’s Rules of Order, or take a more relaxed approach? You’ll want to define leadership of the group, and terms of office for elected officers. Are you weary of seeing people re-inventing wheels? Members can share best practices and templates with one another, and then communicate such knowledge  within their respective areas. When developing your proposal, speak to change management. It’s quite likely that such a COP can serve as an effective information conduit and support management’s roll-outs and implementations of new or evolving practices.

Building the Framework, and Presenting Your Proposal: A Few Thoughts

As with anything worthwhile, launching and maintaining a community of practice requires investments of time, thought and energy; I recommend against going it alone, for a few reasons. While it makes perfect sense for those of us who have access to power within the organisation to lead or actively participate in the launching of a COP, my view is that – once established – it’s best to then refrain from running for elected office within the body. Rather, I endorse the concept of encouraging others who’ve not yet had similar frequency of opportunity to head committees, facilitate presentations and exercise leadership skills to put their name forward for elected office. There are many ways to help influence positive outcomes; among those are empowerment of others, openness to setting aside titles and learning from peer groups.

Watch for an upcoming post with ideas on how to move beyond thinking about creating such a body to identifying and engaging early adopters as you craft and present your proposal, and engaging with HR leaders along the way.

You may also be interested in …

How Do Exceptional Assistants Become That Way? (

Becoming Exceptional: Speaking Truth to Power (

Becoming Exceptional: Establishing Vision and Direction (

Assistants as People of Influence (

Public Speaking: Painting to the Ear (

Introvert, Extrovert or … Ambivert? Know Yourself, and Those Around You (

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