Maintaining focus amid challenging times
In my recent Weekend Poll, I asked assistants about the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted your professional development (PD) over the last year or so. We also took a look at development priorities for this year. I asked about priorities as agreed upon during performance reviews with your principals (bosses) … and I also asked which types of professional development most appeal to you. Is there alignment between the two? Read on!
Strategic/business acumen on the radar
I listed different areas of focus for upcoming development, and invited readers to identify any and all that you and your respective principals agreed upon for 2022. I was a little surprised, though happily so, to see that strategic/business acumen topped the list, with almost one of every four respondents identifying this focus.
This is timely as, given the extent to which workplaces are evolving, we need to think about how to adapt in order to ensure our contributions remain relevant.
It was in the last 12 years or so of my own career as an assistant that I really began paying attention to what some call business acumen. I like to think of it in terms of strategic acumen. I enjoyed learning about risk management, strategic planning, business continuity, cybersecurity, governance, and more – and the more I learned, the more value I brought to the table. It’s no surprise that, since I began speaking and training full time in 2019, I’ve developed and delivered presentations and webinars on these very topics. It’s my conviction that, the better an understanding an assistant has of these critical issues, the more valuable that assistant can be to an employer.
It’s my conviction that, the more strategic acumen an assistant has, the more valuable that assistant can be to employers
While strategic/business acumen topped (at 24% of respondents) the list of priorities upon which assistants and their employers agreed, hard or technical skills came in close behind, at 20%. The more we digitize, the more we need to continue to learn and reskill or upskill.
Soft skills formed the third most identified area for development, with 15% of respondents saying you’d agreed on this focus with your employers. Development associated with being increasingly proactive came in fourth on the list.
If you read my article accompanying this poll, you’ll know how much importance I believe everyone should attach to these skills, which we can continually refine. The term itself is a bit of a misnomer; these skills reflect the extent to which we work on our emotional intelligence (EQ, or IQ). This isn’t something we quantify in the same manner as technical skills, which are also critical.
Yet, think of situations in people with strong tech (or hard) skills just didn’t work out in a job, due to a lack of soft (human) skills. Beyond impacting our effectiveness on the job, our soft skills can also impact our career satisfaction. As we build on our existing soft skills, we not only manage ourselves; we’re increasingly aware of others and how our actions may be received by others. We recognise how we impact and potentially influence others. Many assistants are influential, and demonstrate leadership, often without formal authority. That’s a credit to their soft skills and to their overall credibility.
We can enhance our soft skills, which impact career satisfaction as well as performance and success
Think about negotiating; it requires soft skills. I stepped away from the assistant career in my twenties, leaving my role supporting a COO to become a trainer for the same national corporation. After starting our family, I switched gears again and spent a few productive years in sales – still with the same corporation – before going back to class and reentering the assistant career a few years later, once our young ones were in school. The negotiation skills I developed in my sales career were highly transferable to the assistant career. Think of all the negotiating you undertake, likely on a daily basis. Whether it’s scheduling or rescheduling meetings between your principal and one or more colleagues, event planning, room or offsite venue bookings, catering and other services, negotiating skills are key to success – and that’s without even taking difficult people and conversations into account!
I provided a similar list of areas of professional development, and asked readers to identify the area of focus that most appealed to you, independent of any performance review discussions. Enhancing your professional presence came out on top; 29% of respondents identified it. I believe this also speaks to qualities associated with emotional intelligence, and reflects a focus that’s particularly timely in this hybrid and remote world of ours. We want to present ourselves professionally, and we want to command respect.
Professional presence is high on the list; we want to be visible, and in a good way
With so many assistants or their executives and other colleagues working remotely or on a hybrid basis for roughly two years now, it may feel good for some to simply be seen! Independent of wardrobe choices, working on professional presence involves our communication skills, our choice of words, our tone of voice, use of body language and more. This also involves the extent to which we’re able to effectively assert ourselves.
An alignment of priorities: acumen, tech and soft skills
What else topped readers’ list of the most appealing development priorities for ’22? After enhancing professional presence, which 29% selected, came hard/technical skills, identified by 24% of respondents. Strategic/business acumen came in third at 25%, followed by soft skills at 10%.
It was good to see that acumen, hard/technical skills and soft skills each ranked among respondents’ top four, both individually and in association with performance management reviews.
Learning as an upside of a pandemic
Has the pandemic impacted your focus on professional development (PD)? Twenty-seven percent of respondents said you’ve maintained your usual commitment to PD since 2020. Almost one in four, 23%, said you’ve attended a mix of webinars and in person learning events. The same percentage, 23%, said PD has been a lower priority since the pandemic began.
One upside of a pandemic? Fifteen percent said you’ve dedicated more time and energy to PD than pre-pandemic, and another 12% said you’ve learned a lot, primarily because of changes to how we work.
The pandemic also brought changes to how people learn, and how we trainers and speakers deliver the insights people are after. Since July 2020, for example, I’ve had the pleasure of presenting my webinars to assistants in 15 different countries. In many instances, simply on the basis of where we live, these clients and I would not have otherwise worked together on their professional development. It’s a given that the majority of people who register are from different time zones. Some may be sleeping while I’m presenting live, and they tune in after the fact to access the on demand recordings and workbooks.
There’s an appetite for both virtual and in person learning
Only 5% of respondents said you didn’t attend a webinar in 2021. Another 47% attended between one and 10 webinars last year, and 29% attended between 11 and 20 webinars during the same time period. Another 19% of respondents told me you attended more than 20 webinars last year.
We also have the emergence of virtual conferences. I’ve spoken at a number of them, beginning with a global conference the UK’s Executive and Personal Assistants Association (EPAA) hosted free of charge the first week of April 2020. I presented at all the Executive Support Global conferences in 2020 and 2021. Given all these new ways of learning, I asked readers what kind of conferences you’d prefer to attend if the pandemic was a non-issue. More than a third, 35%, would choose in person conferences. A whopping 65% said you’d like to attend a mix of both in person and virtual conferences, as there are advantages to both.
Conferences and webinars are both relevant
A whopping 100% of respondents said you plan to attend webinars during 2022. What about conferences, you ask? That’s a good question. I know from my own commitments – only one of which is virtual – that they’re on. I’ll be in Gothenburg, Sweden before we know it to speak at International Management Assistants (IMA) Sweden’s Spring Seminar. In October, I’ll head to Las Vegas to speak at Office Dynamics’ The Evolving Assistant Conference, Joan Burge’s 29th annual conference for administrative excellence. The year is young, and conference organisers everywhere are developing plans for yet more events. I’m already committed to other conferences before and in between those events, including APC Canada’s Administrative Professional Conference in Toronto this June.
Conferences are on, with a return to in person events in ’22
In fact, some conference organisers were able to return to in person events last year, within certain pockets of time. We had a good crowd in Chicago last September for the American Administrative Professionals Conference and EA Summit, at which health protocols were well organised and respected. The APC conference organisers also hosted a virtual version of the conference in November 2021, and are planning to be back again in person this September, in Orlando.
I know I’m in good company in enjoying conferences. When I asked if readers plan to participate in a conference this year, only 10% said you don’t usually attend them. Forty-three percent of respondents hope to attend a conference in 2022; 33% are hoping to attend in person, and 10% would like to do so virtually. There’s still uncertainty for some, as 33% said their plans will depend on what happens with COVID. Another 14% said conference plans will depend on funding.
Not so old-fashioned reading, and podcasts
The best assistants are lifelong learners. In addition to conferences and webinars, people have ready access to podcasts. Fourteen percent of respondents said you routinely listen to podcasts, and another 48% do so occasionally.
Assistants are reading websites and books specific to their career, and resources directed at the executive level
Whatever external factors unfold around us, and with little or no cost, we can always learn through reading. For this poll, I listed a number of resources and asked readers to identify all those they turn to for ongoing professional development. Assistant-related websites, books and publications topped the list, followed by (can you hear me applauding this?) materials related to your respective principals’ roles. In other words, assistants are also reading executive level books, websites and resources that are not specific to the role of an assistant.
Depending on when you entered this career, higher education may or may not have been a prerequisite for successful applicants. Even today, while formal education typically appears on job postings, assistants who meet the criteria except for the stated credentials should not let that stop them from applying for appealing opportunities.
Assistants have hit, and continue to hit, the books
When it comes to credentials, 73% of respondents to this poll do hold credentials. These range from post-secondary diplomas (18% of respondents) to associate degrees (also 18%), undergraduate/bachelor’s degrees (32%) and graduate/master’s degrees (5%). The remainder, 27%, have some formal post-secondary education, having taken courses without attaining credentials.
Formal studies are also underway in 2022, with 43% of respondents planning to participate in post-secondary studies and credit courses this year.
Here’s to a year of professional development and growth
Has this given you any further thoughts on where you’ll focus your professional growth this year? Whatever forms of professional development you choose in ’22, here’s to making the most of each and every opportunity – and to communicating your commitment and outcomes to your principal!
A deeper dive: the data
1. How are you doing at this point in time?
- I’m doing well: 14% of respondents
- The pandemic has brought challenges, but overall I’m doing fine: 67% of respondents
- I’m having a difficult time: 19% of respondents
2. Have you begun planning your career/professional development for 2022?
- Yes; I’ve already identified priorities as part of my performance review: 14% of respondents
- Yes; I’ve begun identifying my areas of focus: 31% of respondents
- I have ideas and am sorting out funding or approvals: 23% of respondents
- I’m waiting to see what catches my interest: 27% of respondents
- No; I’m just keeping up as best as I can: 5% of respondents
- It isn’t even on my radar right now: 0% of respondents
3. If you’ve identified areas of growth as part of a performance review/evaluation process, what areas of focus have you and your principal (boss) agreed upon? Please select all that apply.
- strategic/business acumen: 24% of respondents
- hard/technical skills: 20% of respondents
- soft skills: 15% of respondents
- becoming more proactive: 12% of respondents
- future focus; trends: 10% of respondents
- minutes: 7% of respondents
- ROI; ideas, practices I can apply in my role: 5% of respondents
- formal education: 5% of respondents
- other: 2% of respondents
4. If you selected “other” in response to the type of professional development you and your principal have agreed upon for 2022, please briefly outline such priorities.
- public speaking; attending and presenting at conferences, sharing the skills I have learnt
5. What type of professional development most appeals to you for 2022?
- enhancing professional presence: 29% of respondents
- hard/technical skills: 24% of respondents
- strategic/business acumen: 23% of respondents
- soft skills: 10% of respondents
- becoming more proactive: 5% of respondents
- minutes: 0% of respondents
- formal education: 0% of respondents
- other: 0% of respondents
6. If you selected “other” in response to the type of professional development that most appeals to you for 2022, please briefly outline such priorities.
Readers didn’t identify any additional areas of professional development.
7. How actively engaged in professional development (PD) were you in 2020 and 2021 compared to previous years? PLEASE select all responses that apply.
- I maintained my usual commitment to PD: 27% of respondents
- I attended a mix of webinars and in person events: 23% of respondents
- PD has been a lower priority since the pandemic began: 23% of respondents
- I dedicated more time/energy to PD than pre-pandemic: 15% of respondents
- I learned a lot, primarily because of changes to how we work: 12% of respondents
8. Do you plan to participate in a conference this year as part of your professional development?
- Yes, and I hope to do so in person: 33% of respondents
- I’m not sure; it depends on what happens with COVID: 33% of respondents
- I’m not sure; it depends on funding: 14% of respondents
- Yes, and I’d like to do so virtually: 10% of respondents
- No; I don’t usually attend conferences: 10% of respondents
9. If you attend conferences, who typically funds your participation?
- My employer does: 55% of respondents
- I do: 40% of respondents
- It’s jointly funded; my employer covers a portion of the expenses and I fund the balance: 5% of respondents
10. Are you able to secure time off with pay for participation in conferences?
- Yes: 90% of respondents
- No: 10% of respondents
- It’s not necessary, as these are typically outside office hours: 0% of respondents
11. If the pandemic was a non-issue, what kind of conferences would you prefer to attend?
- A mix of both in person and virtual conferences; both have advantages: 65% of respondents
- In person: 35% of respondents
- Virtual: 0% of respondents
12. How many webinars do you estimate you attended in 2021?
- none: 5% of respondents
- 1-5: 28% of respondents
- 6-10: 19% of respondents
- 11-15: 10% of respondents
- 16-20: 19% of respondents
- more than 20: 19% of respondents
13. Do you plan to attend webinars as part of your 2022 professional development?
- Yes: 100% of respondents
- No: 0% of respondents
14. If you attend webinars, who typically funds your participation in this type of professional development?
- I do: 67% of respondents
- my employer does: 29% of respondents
- It’s jointly funded; my employer covers a portion of the expenses and I fund the balance: 5% of respondents
15. Do you spend much time reading as part of your professional development? I asked readers to select all responses that applied, and the list below reflect the frequency with which they appeared.
- Yes; I read assistant-related websites, books and publications
- Yes; I read materials that are relevant to my principal’s role/executive level material
- Yes; I read sector-related materials
- Yes; I read business publications
- Only occasionally
- No (no respondents said they don’t read as part of their professional development)
16. Do you plan to participate in post-secondary studies/credit courses in 2022?
- Yes: 43% of respondents
- No: 57% of respondents
17. What is the extent of your formal education?
- post-secondary courses; no credential: 27% of respondents
- associate degree: 18% of respondents
- post-secondary diploma: 18% of respondents
- undergraduate/bachelor’s degree: 32% of respondents
- graduate/master’s degree: 5% of respondents
18. Do you listen to podcasts as part of your professional development?
- Yes; routinely: 14% of respondents
- Yes; occasionally: 48% of respondents
- No: 38% of respondents