Prioritizing Administrative Excellence

BY CINDY GROSS AND ERIN O'HARA MEYER

As an administrative professional, do you sometimes feel frustrated, undervalued, or not heard? Does your administrative team lack a formalized professional development plan? If so, you and your organization are probably not alone. The challenges within the administrative structure of an organization are often overlooked, viewed as petty or unimportant, or are considered last on a list of priorities.

Yet an organization that lacks a commitment to the personal and professional development of its administrative professionals may face some of the following challenges:

  • Poor communication or limited feedback  between managers and administrative staff.
  • Limited training and development for administrative staff to perform jobs effectively.
  • Inconsistencies from department to department in expectations and workloads.
  • Limited growth opportunities for administrative staff.
  • Unproductive administrative teams--focused on negativity and/or competition.

These frustrations take their toll on performance, customer service, and team dynamics, but if ignored completely, they are devastating to morale and professionalism.

So why do these problems get overlooked or seem so complicated to address? A likely answer is that many managers are at a loss for the best solutions when it comes to administrative concerns. Most managers' first priority is their area of technical proficiency or product development. They probably understand, very well, the process and operational side of their administrative partner's responsibilities but may feel inadequately equipped to offer professional development advice outside their area of expertise. Consequently, they may rely on technical training as the only option for skill development, pointing you in the direction of a Word, Excel, or time management class. While technical training is necessary, it doesn't unleash an individual's potential like soft-skill development does.

So who is best positioned to identify and tackle such problems, to lead your organization to administrative excellence? You, the administrative professional.

Gather Feedback

The ability to lead is available to all of us. Thinking big picture and having a vision is the first step. What things would you change in the administrative area of your organization if you could? How would you begin to gather the collective thoughts of your administrative peers? Employee surveys are a great tool to begin that process and can tell you everything you need to know to get started.

If your company doesn't already administer an annual or biannual survey, talk to your manager or human resources department about the advantages of such a tool. Surveys can provide great information and give companies much-needed insight into the "temperature" of an organization: Are people generally satisfied? Are they frustrated? Demographic sorts will provide employers with pertinent information about the important issues of each work group, department, or team, giving companies vital feedback from their No. 1 asset, their employees.

Before capitalizing on an existing survey or creating a new survey, be sure you have a demographic sort specifically for your administrative staff. Otherwise, their feedback will link directly into their respective departments and become virtually lost. Additionally, if you use a tool such as an employee survey to gather information, it will also provide the basis for future measurement of any ideas you implement as a result of the feedback. A note of caution: Don't use an employee survey to gather information unless you are willing to address employee issues.

Seek Out a Champion

Beyond the employee survey, partnering with management or human resources to affect change is a must. Ideally, you will have someone in your management structure that already understands the need and is willing to help you champion administrative growth in your organization. If that is the case, this is the person you will want to partner with, bounce ideas off of, and rely on as your "management liaison." This person will have a good feel for what management will accept, approve, challenge, etc.

If this person doesn't exist, you will need to sell your ideas and present a business case for moving forward with research, and identifying solutions and opportunities to address your administrative challenges, and you will need management support to do that effectively. If that is the situation, think about the most logical person or department to contact initially.

The quest for excellence can also provide real personal satisfaction. To know that you have affected change for the betterment of your organization and your associates is a very rewarding, and perhaps, career-enhancing experience.

Share the Passion

How can you get started? Form a committee of key administrative staff. Select individuals that know your company culture and have a good understanding of the administrative component of your organization. Of course, it also helps if they share your passion and enthusiasm for administrative growth.

Once you've formed a committee, identify your particular areas of improvement and brainstorm the possible solutions. If you are unable to use an employee survey to gather your initial information, interviews or informal conversations with managers and administrative peers can provide much of the same feedback.

Start with the end in mind and tie your administrative objectives to the overall goals of the company. The key to any successful professional development initiative is in the planning. So think things through and ask yourself, "What will administrative excellence look like in our organization and what is the roadmap that will get us there?" "How will we implement our plan? How will we present to management for final approval? How will we present to administrative staff for buy-in and implementation?"

Try These Ideas

Professional development plans will vary from company to company based on your organization's specific needs. Here are some examples:

  • Form subcommittees to tackle the issues that are specific to your organization (e.g., training, mentoring, etc.). This provides opportunities for administrative staff to chair committees, fine-tune organizational skills, and develop public speaking skills.
  • Hold company-wide or department-wide administrative meetings. These provide a great opportunity to share ideas or efficiencies, eliminate barriers between work groups, and also provide opportunities for admins to facilitate the meetings and/or present ideas.
  • Develop an administrative mentoring program. Create an administrative team based on strengths and weaknesses, providing individuals an opportunity to learn and grow from one another.
  • Promote membership in professional organizations such as IAAP and support the training and education of the Certified Professional Secretary (CPS) and Certified Administrative Professional (CAP) programs.
  • Develop administrative career paths for job families. Almost everyone wants to grow, take on more responsibility, and most importantly, be recognized for their accomplishments.
  • Develop mid-level management opportunities: administrative trainers or coordinators. These opportunities give administrative staff a feel for employee relations and the professional development of others.
  • Create communication/feedback tools, if they don't already exist. These include quarterly goal/individual strategic plan forms, annual review forms directly tied to your job responsibilities, etc. These provide the basis for career development and performance management.

For these initiatives to be successful long term, they must be made a priority and managed daily. Depending on the size and structure of your organization, you may want to consider a centralized management structure for your administrative professionals. A dedicated administrative manager can provide daily leadership, commitment, and guidance to the personal and professional development of administrative staff. Together, you and your manager can work a plan of excellence that is unique to you and beneficial to your organization. An administrative manager offers a "bird's-eye" view of the administrative team--its challenges and its successes--streamlining the communication flow and ensuring consistency and equity among staff.

In a corporate culture that encourages the personal and professional development of administrative staff, employees grow and prosper in their jobs, gain self-confidence, feel empowered, and develop their own leadership ability. The result is a more career-oriented, more productive, more professional staff that offers a higher level of contribution to the company.

Ryan Companies US Inc., a Minneapolis-based design/build firm, was the 2001 recipient of IAAP's small company Award for Excellence. For information on the company's professional development initiative for administrative staff, contact Cindy Gross, administrative manager, at Cindy.Gross@Ryancompanies.com. Erin O'Hara Meyer, formerly assistant director of human resources for Ryan Companies, is now owner/president of Administrative Excellence Inc., a Minneapolis-based consulting firm dedicated to the personal and professional development of administrative professionals. Reach her at AdmExcellence@aol.com or visit www.adminexcellence.com.