Your principal has multiple responsibilities
Your principal is the person to whom you report. It doesn’t matter whether your principal is a supervisor, a manager, or a member of the C-Suite. Whatever their job title, consider that person’s job description. The piece where leadership or supervision of the work you do is likely only one of a number of accountabilities.
I’ve held this leadership role in both the public and private sectors. In the corporate world, I was responsible for the launch of a department that introduced proprietary software. I managed a mainframe, developed training and assessment materials and travelled British Columbia training colleagues in how to use the software … and did much of the technical troubleshooting. At the same time, I hired and supervised my assistant. You can imagine the competing priorities, and the demands on my time.
In the public sector, I’ve been responsible for a couple of different teams. In one instance, the team consisted of half a dozen or so people, situated in three different offices at two locations in the city.
I thought, from one of the interview questions, that there might be a need for conflict resolution in this particular workplace. That was soon validated. After being offered the position, I was told that two of the team members had applied for the job I’d landed: one because she aspired to the job, and the other because she was determined that hell would freeze over before the other party became her supervisor.
There’s more to that particular story, but you get the gist – and the challenges faced by an incoming supervisor, let alone one who was younger than many of the players in this particular game of chess.
It’s not easy
My point is this: it’s not necessarily a walk in the park being someone’s principal.
It doesn’t mean you’re unimportant
It does mean that you need to recognise that your needs are inevitably in some degree of competition for your principal’s time and energy. Don’t take it personally; this is business.
How to make it work
Schedule regular meetings between you and your principal, with a frequency that makes sense to both of you.
Some assistants are hesitant to slot themselves into their principal’s calendar, and try to catch up when time permits. This approach doesn’t do anyone any favours. Your perception of a convenient time might be at odds with your principal’s plans for that time. While well intended, such an informal approach also implies that your needs are less important than others’. When you consider that your role is to support your principal’s success, you’ll find it easier to make yourself a priority.
Many assistants will bump their own appointments when someone else needs a block of the principal’s time. While there will always be exceptions, you want to avoid doing this; it negates the importance of your working relationship and contributions.
Make regular communications a priority; establish a frequency and system that works for both of you
Have a conversation with your principal. Identify options you think may be effective, and seek your principal’s opinion.
When I became EA to a CEO who had a 45-minute commute to the office, that commute also became productive work time for the two of us. Relying on bluetooth technology, he would phone me at the office and we’d cover off emerging issues and planning.
We also had one-on-one time as needed in the office, but the morning phone calls made for a pragmatic start to the day. The best part? We were able to be productive without the challenge of interruptions that so often occur. Who hasn’t been in discussion with their principal only to be interrupted by other colleagues with their own needs for your principal’s time?
For many, a daily bit of one-on-one time is an unimaginable luxury and simply impractical. Face to face time isn’t always practical, either; some rely on texts or emails to cover off time-sensitive needs. I know one EA who relied heavily on her organisation’s internal Skype chat system to communicate with her principal.
Planning how you’ll keep one another apprised of matters isn’t something you do only at the outset of a working relationship. You may want to check once annually, or as circumstances dictate, that current practices are still working for both of you.
In times where crisis management is the order of the day, you may need to make short-term changes – either increasing or decreasing the frequency of your meetings. In such instances, you also want to be thoughtful about the means by which you communicate important issues to one another. Once something is put down in writing, freedom of information legislation could mean the information may be accessed by others.
Be prepared; don’t waste anyone’s time
Whatever you do, be prepared for valuable one-on-one time. Go into such meetings with brief notes on matters that need your principal’s attention, or recommendations. If you’re working through a challenge, enter the meeting not just with a list of concerns; identify and be prepared to discuss possible solutions.
Learn from others
Have a look through my Real Careers interviews, and check out other admin. professionals’ strategies.