Large Print Reviews
Be a Kickass Assistant
By Heather Beckel
| Be a Kickass Assistant |
By Heather Beckel
Genre: Business & Money
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Chapter Excerpt from: Be a Kickass Assistant , by Heather Beckel
You've Got the Job, Now What?
Goal: To make your boss as efficient as possible. Do
everything you can to make the transition from the former assistant to you
smooth, with as little disruption to the boss's world as possible.
It's your first day, and of course you're excited, but
you're also a little scared. All right, more than a little. Believe me, I've
I became an assistant in the White House with no grace
period for learning anything about the place where I was working. I'd been
George Stephanopoulos's assistant for over a year on the Clinton/Gore campaign,
but suddenly, on Inaugural Day, 1993, we were starting work at the White House.
The phones began ringing immediately, and two enormous mailbags of George's fan
mail were delivered that first afternoon. George needed his daily schedule, but
we quickly discovered that the computer terminals on the desks were useless
because their hard drives had been removed. I needed to pee, but didn't know
where the bathrooms were, and I was afraid to walk through the halls of the
West Wing. I was sure that one of the uniformed guards would stop me. That
first day I sat on the edge of the couch in George's office, which had been
every previous White House press secretary's office. When George arrived we stood
up and turned on the television and had the surreal experience of watching
CNN's live shots of the exterior of the West Wing. They showed the exterior of
the window where we were standing watching TV, with a reporter saying something
like, "Inside the White House the new administration takes office." I took over
the desk outside George's office and looked in the drawers. I found a schedule
for President Bush, which was exciting, but I was hoping for something more
useful, like Post-it Notes and pencils. I had no idea how to order supplies,
nor did I have anyone to ask, as we were all new. Those first days were fraught
with tension, not only because of my new job, but also because of the exalted
place in which I was working.
About a week after we arrived at the White House, I had to
go to the East Wing to run an errand. To get from the West to the East Wing you
have to pass through the basement of the residential part of the White House,
some rooms of which are on the official public White House tour. About halfway
down the main hallway there was a folding screen blocking the width of the
hallway. I was sure this was when my fear would be realized; the guard would
look at my pass and me and tell me I didn't have clearance to go further. I
timidly approached the guard and told him who I was, and my errand, showing him
the papers in my hand. He looked at me with incredulity and I prepared myself
to be embarrassed and slink back to my desk. The guard explained to me that my
pass allowed me to go anywhere in the White House compound (other than the
First Family's residence, of course), and that I didn't need to justify my
whereabouts to him. I moved around the screen only half believing him, and
expecting confrontation from a guard there. But on the other side of the screen
was a crowd of tourists dressed in brightly colored leisurewear, in stark
contrast to my somber suit and pumps. They stared at me and I at them. I
suddenly realized with great clarity that for them, I was part of the toura
White House stafferand that the screen was there to keep them out, not to
keep me in.
After that I moved around with greater confidence, and
slowly began to feel more comfortable in my surroundings. But I can honestly
say that as I arrived to work at the White House every morning, I was always
amazed to be there. You might not work in an office guarded by armed Secret
Service agents and tourists visiting regularly, but when you begin your new
job, expect to be overwhelmed and intimidated. You need to compensate for this by
Ask for a training period with the assistant you are
replacing when you accept the job as an assistant. The training period should
be no more than a week (five days), but at least two days. Suggest that you
arrive at your new workplace an hour after the day has started at the
organization. This will allow the soon-to-be-former assistant a chance to get
herself settled before you arrive and throw her day into turmoil. Be friendly
with the former assistant and find out where she is going, as you might need
her help in the future. You should ask about her experience with the company
and the boss, and why she is leaving, but be political. It is always better to
say less and listen than give away too much information yourself. Pay attention
to the way other people, especially your new boss, treat her during your
training period: Is she well liked and respected? This will give you an
indication as to how much you should take her advice. If she is helpful, ask
her about your new boss. How much taking care of does she need? For example:
former Clinton campaign manager David Wilhelm is a very smart, but
scatterbrained man; when he sneezed, his assistant, Martha, had to hand him a
box of tissues. Ask if she helped the boss with errands in her personal life,
and if she has any particular boundaries you should be careful not to cross. At
the end of your training period, thank her for her help in getting you off on
the right foot and ask for her phone number and permission to call her with questions
in the future. Don't burn any bridges with thoughtless behavior or comments
during this delicate time.
If you don't get a training period, ask for a point person
who can help you with questions. The best person would be another assistant who
works for a boss of equal stature to your new boss.
Questions to Ask During Your Training Period
The following are questions for which you should get answers
as soon as possible. Either copy out these questions or photocopy the following
four pages and take them with you. Bring your own pen and notebook, and write
down all the answers because you'll be absorbing so much information in the
first days and will forget a lot of what you're told. You don't want to ask the
same question twice. However, if you don't understand something, definitely ask
for another explanation rather than risk doing it wrong.
Who's who. Ask for an overview of who the central
characters are in your new boss's life, both personal and professional. One of
the easiest ways to do this is to look through the office Rolodex or database
together. These are people whose names you should be familiar with, as soon as
Ask for an explanation of the phone system. Find out how
the phones work, how the messages are currently recorded, and what is said when
the phones are answered. Should you forward the phones to someone else, or to
voice mail, when you have to leave your desk? (For example, to run to the
bathroom, the copier, or to pick up lunch.)
Ask about important dates, such as birthdays,
anniversaries, and regular meetings. Does the soon-to-be-former assistant keep
them listed somewhere?
Find out about equipment. Where is it and how does it
work? The obvious machines you need to know about are the copier and the fax
machines, but perhaps there are others in your new company. For example: color
copiers, video conferencing equipment, VCRs, etc. Nothing causes more tension
than an impatient boss who wants to watch a video-cassette immediately and you
don't know how to operate the VCR. Don't assume that your boss will know how it
worksit's very unlikely that he willand don't assume that you can just put
the tape in and push "play" and it'll work. Imagine finding yourself
desperately trying to get hold of someone in the audio-visual department and
begging them to drop whatever they're working on and run to your office while
your boss stands over you fuming. (This scenario actually happened at a company
I worked for.)
Where do you get supplies? Are there forms to be filled
out, is there an approval you will need, and how long does the process usually
take? Is there something you can do if you need an item urgently?
What is the boss's schedule in general? What time does the
boss usually arrive at and depart from work? Does she have set daily and weekly
What are the hours of your new job in general?
Where does the boss eat, and typically what time? Will you
be expected to order the boss's lunch, and if so, how do you pay for it? (Does
she have a charge account with a restaurant? Do you need to ask her for the
money to pay for her lunch up front or can you pay with your own money and be
assured of being paid back?) What are some things that the boss likes and does
not like to eat and drink?
Where is the bathroom, what are the guidelines for taking
What are the boss's moods? Is there a best time to get the
boss's attention? For example, is the boss a "morning person," or should you
try not to talk to the boss until after lunch?
Ask for a detailed explanation of the current filing
Ask for a discreet overview of the boss's personal life. For
example, is the boss married, does she have kids, where does she live, is there
a hobby that plays an important part in the boss's life, etc. Find out as much
as you politely can about your boss's spouse and the soon-to-be-former
assistant's relationship with that person. It is almost a given that you will
be helping your boss out with some areas of her personal life because in the
life of a high-powered executive, the lines are often blurred between what is
personal and what is professional.
How is the mail delivered and when? Currently, how is the
incoming mail dealt with in the office? Do you open everything or are there
things your boss prefers to open herself? How do you get it to the boss, and
does she want to see everything?
Where do you get tech support for the computer?
How do you handle your own and your boss's expense
Where do you reserve and purchase travel tickets for you
and your boss?
Is there a kitchen? Where do you get coffee? Does the boss
drink it, and if so, how?
Ask for a company directory. Take it home and study it to
learn who is who, and titles in the company. If there isn't an official company
directory, ask for an overview of the company hierarchy. (There will probably
be an organizational chart for the executives of the company and possibly for
your boss's department).
What are your boss's weaknesses? You need to know so that
you can compensate for them. There's a respectful way to ask this, for example:
"Does George have any bad habits that I should know about, such as not
returning calls promptly, or consistently being late?"
What are your options for getting lunch? When should you
get it? Was the former assistant usually able to leave for lunch, or did she
eat at her desk?
Ask for introductions to key people that will support you
in your new job. For example: the people in the mailroom, the computer tech
guys, the travel department, the accounting department in charge of
What to Do and What Not to Do
Your first few weeks on the job will be stressful, as there
will be a lot to learn. And at the risk of increasing your stress, you need to
be aware that you'll be creating a first impression that will stick with
younot just with your immediate boss, but with everyone else you come in
contact with. The following are some guidelines of things to do and not to do
at work, especially during the first couple of weeks at your new job.
Admit mistakes and apologize if necessary. You're going to
make mistakes; don't allow your pride to stop you from admitting to them. It's
always better to admit to having made a mistake early, and ask for help in
fixing it, than to wait until the mistake is discovered (and it will be
discovered). When a mistake is discovered you'll look more foolish than if you
owned up to it in the first place, and it will be harder to fix the mess you
Pay attention to the details. You'll succeed or fail as an
assistant because of your ability to pay attention to details.
Answer questions directly, don't ramble. Give the most
succinct and honest answer possible when asked a question.
Listen and watch during your training period. You won't be
expected to perform as an assistant, so spend all your energy paying attention
to what is happening around you and learning.
Take a lot of notes during your training period and first
few weeks on the job because you'll be absorbing a lot of information, and
you'll forget things.
Be very political. Watch what you say and how you behave
with everyone. It will take you some time to understand all the relationships
within the organization where you're working, and in the meanwhile you don't
want to form allegiances or insult anyone. Trust no one and do not open up to
anyone; offices are full of backstabbers. Avoid cliques, or you could quickly
get labeled in a way that you'll later regret.
Speak softly. Someone who talks loudly is annoying and
noticeable in a negative way. (There is always someone like this in every
office. She invariably sits in a cubicle, so everyone around her is forced to
listen to her phone conversations and has trouble concentrating on their own
work.) Speaking softly is not only thoughtful, it adds to the impression of
calm that you want to present in your office.
Plan time alone in the office as soon as possible, after
your training period, to go through everything and take ownership of the space.
This will give you a sense of confidence.
Dress simply. You don't want your clothes to be noticed or
remembered. Once you have established yourself and earned respect, you'll have
more latitude (depending on your industry and company) to express yourself
through your dress.
Introduce yourself to everyone you come in contact with,
no matter his or her status in the company. First impressions are very
important, and to do your job well you will need relationships with everyone
from the person who delivers the mail to the CEO. You may find that people
aren't particularly friendly toward you, but don't let that intimidate you:
Take the initiative and introduce yourself to others. In a perfect world,
everyone would be coming up to you to say "hello" and to welcome you but it
rarely works out that way.
Use your last name when introducing yourself; it makes you
appear serious and grown-up.
Pay attention to the way everyone behaves. Learn the
unspoken rules of what is appropriate and what isn't in your new environment. For
example, do junior-level employees leave the office for lunch, and if so, for
how long are they gone? Do boyfriends and girlfriends stop by the office to
visit their partners?
Smile a lot. Smiling makes you appear happy to be there,
and approachable. A grump is hard to integrate into the team.
Make eye contact with people you're talking to. Making eye
contact shows confidence and honesty.
Say "please," "thank you," and "you're welcome."
Be helpful to the former assistant as she continues to run
the office, while training you.
Be prepared to stay late while you're in training and
during the first weeks on your new job. You should never leave the office
before your boss.
Arrive early on your first day on your own, after your
training period. You'll need some time alone to get comfortable with your
surroundings before the business day starts.
Stay calmtake deep breaths if necessary.
Look at the newspaper headlines before you arrive at work.
At the most dramatic, it is possible that your boss, company, or industry will
be involved in some breaking news that will affect your day. In any regard, it
is a good habit to get into, so that you are aware of the world outside your
Err on the side of caution when making decisions. Until
you know your boss's personality well, and understand her and the company's
goals, it's better to make cautious decisions.
Don't assume your new boss likes everything the former
assistant does. It's possible that while your boss was very comfortable with
the former assistant, there are things that she'd like done differently. You'll
become aware of these things quickly, and you may have an opportunity to ask
your new boss if there is anything she'd like you to handle differently than
her former assistant did.
Don't show your vulnerability, if you are scared or
unhappy. When people at work ask you, "How's it going?" answer, "Great!" with a
smile, no matter what the truth is.
Don't be star-struck, or jaded. If you're
working in a glamorous environment, it is important to remain professional and
not go to either extreme.
Don't surf the Internet. And remember, your e-mail account
at work is not your own, it belongs to the company and is for your professional
use. Of course, everyone uses their office account to stay in touch with family
and friends, just like the telephone, but your e-mails can, and probably will,
be read and monitored. You can be fired for inappropriate things you send via
e-mail, even to friends outside the company.
Don't ask for things like special time off, special
favors, etc. It sets a bad tone early in the relationship. Your new boss will
be thinking, "Oh no, is this the way it's always going to be?"
Don't chew gumever.
Don't make personal phone calls. There's no hard and fast
rule for when it will be appropriate for you to start making personal calls at
work, but after the first week you should be able to judge when it is
appropriate for you to make a quick personal call. You should always avoid
letting your boss hear you on a personal call as it creates a bad impression,
and never allow yourself a call of mindless chatter.
Don't arrive with luggage. Particularly in big cities it's
common to leave your apartment in the morning and not return until bedtime.
There are thousands of women walking the streets carrying a purse, a bag for
work, and a gym bag. Eliminate all but one of these for the first few days,
otherwise you'll appear disorganized and unprofessional.
Don't speak badly of your former boss and/or employer.
Don't be late, or very early for your training period.
Both are equally inconsiderate. It is not always good to arrive early; you can
be in the way if the soon-to-be-former assistant isn't ready for your arrival.
My advice is to get to the building a little early, and walk around the block
until you can arrive at your new office exactly on time or five minutes early.
Don't get paranoid if everyone misses the former assistantand
tells you. People who deal with your new boss will have become reliant upon
your predecessor to help them. As much as they miss her as a person, they're
reacting to the loss of an important relationship. Don't worry, with your
finesse, they'll soon rely equally upon you.
Don't distract the soon-to-be-former assistant as she
trains youremember, she has to keep the office running.
Expect to be confused and overwhelmed during your first days
or weeks at your new job. If you are prepared to feel this way it will be
easier to handle. If you ask the questions I've suggested here, and any others
that occur to you, and if you take my advice and write down the answers, you'll
be on your way to being more comfortable in your new workplace. I guarantee
that in a month you'll walk into your office building without any of the "new
kid" jitters, so as much as you can, enjoy the rush of nervousness and
excitement during your early days on the job. And if you can't enjoy the
feelings, manage them by concentrating on learning as much as possible about
your new world.
Excerpted from Be a Kickass Assistant , by Heather Beckel . Copyright (c) 2002 by Heather Beckel . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top
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