I recently went on vacation to the Caribbean with my husband. When we were planning our vacation, he pointed out to me that some of the accommodation options provide you with your own personal butler. I asked myself: Do I really need one? I assumed that the dining room staff would serve my food, the bar staff would serve my drinks and housekeeping would maintain my room. I really wasn’t sure what a butler could do for me to help me enjoy my vacation. I sure had a long list for him at home, though. This got me thinking…

When I was young, my father worked at a company where senior executives each had their own secretary. In fact, I don’t think any of the management team knew how to do their jobs without one. They would probably have been insulted if they were not provided with one! Over time the job title has changed to Administrative Assistant or Executive Assistant, and the worked has changed too.

My Dad only ever had 3 secretaries in his long corporate career. Lil in Vancouver who retired when he transferred to Toronto, Doreen and then Edna after Doreen passed away. They were versatile and always busy. They would get coffee or tea, pour a drink to celebrate a big sale or acquisition, answer the phone, take dictation, type letters, do my Father’s banking, book travel (which was far more time consuming then than now), schedule meetings, and plan major events like Christmas parties or summer picnics. They were truly assistants and right hands to my father. Furthermore, they were to some degree an extension of our family!

Dad would have been lost without them. Remember of course that there were no cell phones, computers or fax machines. Things moved at a much slower pace.

This reminded me of the time when I was appointed as Vice President in 2009 and was told that I have an administrative assistant. Jacquelyn was a very nice, competent individual who had been with the organization for years. She had lots of institutional knowledge to share with me.  Still, I wasn’t sure what I could give her in the way of work despite being very busy with my own work. So, I had to take some time to figure it out.

I could type my own work (maybe not as well or have it look as nice, but at least I could draft things directly onto the computer) so no need for dictation or typing. I could pour my own coffee, and book my own travel (online) to suit my schedule and preferences.

What was she going to do for me? I knew it was crazy to have her underutilized and me working over capacity. Each day as I did my work, I thought about what tasks I could offload. My paradigm of an administrative assistant needed to be shifted from what a traditional administrative assistant did, to thinking about Jacquelyn and any work I could provide to her.  Very quickly I learned to transfer tasks to her that she had full accountability for. As a result, she seemed happier and I had better balance. Best of all she was no longer playing solitaire.

I often hear people say to me, I don’t know what work to give my administrative assistant.  The first step is to rethink their function and think about what often time-consuming work you could provide to them. You’ll find there are all kinds of things that you could share which would provide more meaningful work to your administrative support and more balance to yourself.

By Sarah Hisey

Human Resources


Visit Osborne-group.com for other Principals’ ideas and opinions on a range of topics. The Osborne Group provides interim executive management, consulting and project support across all sectors and over a broad scope of service areas.

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