Productivity Lie #12: PAs are always organised

Productivity Lie #12: PAs are always organised


I’ve started coaching a new client. Granted, we have lots of work to do; he travels extensively both nationally and internationally, books flights at the last minute, literally on the way to the airport, has never worked with a to-do list and despite employing a team, he doesn’t trust them all enough to get on with their own jobs, hence he micro-manages and fails to delegate, which of course hinders his success all the more. But problem number one right now is his Personal Assistant (PA). Let’s call her Suzi. She was brought on to the team to alleviate the admin stress, take the burden of lower value tasks from him and generally make his life easier. But she doesn’t. Nice as Suzi is, she’s just not organised.

PRODUCTIVITY LIE #12: PAs are always organised

You’ll be keen to give me a shove if you are blessed by the assistance of a pretty awesome assistant. They are a treasure to be sure and this post is by no means directed at them. For the other 80%* odd, the ones not quite meeting your standard, here’s what you can do (other than fire them!)

The three things you can do right now:

1. Hire right in the first place

Sure, it might already be too late to hear this, but just in case you’re hiring … here are a couple of basics:

  • Generate a list of everything you need your PA to do. Include anything that you currently do that is not actually your core business.
  • Now, list what skill set is required to do an excellent job for each of those things you’ve listed.
  • Remembering that some skills are easy to learn (e.g. if they are already computer literate but they don’t know their way around your particular package, that’s likely easy to teach), put a value rating next to each item on your list.

Think:“My ideal PA is … and can supremely assist with…” – the clearer you can get with this, the easier it will be to hire closer to your ideal. From this you’ll be able to recruit more effectively. As you check through CVs and interview, you can mark down how many of the criteria they meet. Like a process of elimination.

2. Discover the sweet spot

Regardless if this is a new recruit or your existing employee, it’s best to set a couple of boundaries. Firstly, PAs are notorious for feeling undervalued by their boss. You should know this. They also feel frustrated when their bosses don’t trust them enough to get on with doing what they need to do (go figure!). But this is a game that you both need to play. For a PA to do an exceptional job, she needs to be mindful at all times of her role i.e. making life easier for you, not the other way around. If she knows your strengths and development areas, and you know hers, working together becomes a little more forgiving. You can both take the time style questionnaire over at the Sorted Circus website. It opens room for frank conversation which could just save you sanity and time.

3. Get the basics right

In my experience it’s not that a PA can’t be trained, it’s just that, likely due to expectations that they should already be organised, they haven’t yet had the opportunity to get the basics right. Bosses make the assumption that the PA should just get it. But if they don’t, well they can use some training. It’s not unusual for us to work with veteran PAs who haven’t a clue how to file, paper or electronic, who have adopted complex systems without bearing their boss in mind, resulting in no-one knowing where anything is and whose email inboxes are exploding because of the fear that if they get rid of anything, they might get fired … all a matter of expectation management and getting some basics right. At minimum, we’d suggest you take some time out to design a system together. Things to consider are: how to delegate, expectations regarding response times, your favourite seat on the plane and preferred times/airline to fly, how the filing system works, so you can actually find something if she is not around, what to prioritise etc. In a nutshell, you’re looking for the gaps and discovering how best to fill them. Open communication works wonders in this regard.

While we know you are operating on ‘break-neck-speed-busy’ mode, taking time out now to get things right will really free up your time in the long run. Think of it as an investment in your sanity. Then, once you have things operating like a well oiled machine, you can make a list of what decisions they can’t make, i.e. anything you have to be consulted on before they give the go-ahead, and then frankly, you need to let them get on with doing what they do best. Helping you!

*A rough estimate based on Pareto’s 80/20 principle and the delegates attending our training sessions at their corporate offices over the years.

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