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What to Look for in an Administrative Assistant

Craig Dunaway

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The most important and valuable asset executives have is time. You can make more money, you can create wealth, and you can sell more products. However, you can’t get back one day or even one minute once it’s passed. How you spend those precious hours each day is crucial to the success or failure of your business.

To this end, a great administrative assistant can be crucial to helping your business run effectively – or conversely a bad one can cause more harm than good. A great administrative assistant serves as a buffer between the outside world and what you are trying to accomplish, while a bad administrative assistant procrastinates and only helps you put out fires. You’re looking for someone who is organized, persistent, diligent, and most importantly, someone you work well with. Not only does a great administrative assistant help the business run more efficiently, they help you become better at what you do.

They should be more organized than you.

Even if you’re an organized executive, organization is a critical skill for an administrative assistant. Your administrative assistant needs to be a good note taker and able to anticipate your needs based on your priorities. Administrative assistants can handle everything from billing and payroll to your schedule, so it’s important they are organized and keep those details straight and meet deadlines. Even their desk should be neat and organized, which prevents piles from appearing and things getting lost.

Someone who is organized will also be able to help you do your job better. For example, my Director of Administration proactively brings our most recent executed contract to meetings with suppliers so that we have a basis to start future contract negotiations. She’s well prepared, shares conversation notes from previous meetings and brings market facts and comments from other similar type suppliers. Before any meeting, she gives me the information I need to make the meeting more productive and efficient.

For example, at a recent meeting, one supplier of plastic products pointed out resin prices were rising at a very high level. We’d just met with another plastic supplier the month before, and while it wasn’t the exact same product, it did use similar commodities. Our Director of Administration’s detailed notes on a price reduction in resins allowed us to ‘call out’ the current supplier with facts. Had she not kept detailed notes, the ultimate burden of additional costs could have been substantial over a six-month contract period. This saved franchisees significant dollars.

They need to prioritize and maintain checklists for all departments.

Our Director of Administration has implemented a checklist system that also keeps every department on task. There are tools and checklists in place to ensure processes get taken care of from beginning to end for every department and make sure nothing falls through the cracks. “An administrative assistant’s tasks have a domino effect on other departments, so being organized prevents a bottleneck from happening. Checklists allow better inner-office and inner-departmental communication. It allows the preverbal left hand to always know what the right hand is doing,” said Cindy Stenger, Director of Administration for Penn Station, Inc.

It’s also crucial for assistants to be able to fluctuate on their prioritized lists as things change. They need to be able to change gears if something more important arises. However, this doesn’t mean putting out fires. There is a different between adjusting schedules and priorities versus simply running to the biggest problem or the person who screams the loudest.

To this end, assistants should always be preparing and working ahead when they can so that when a due date comes up they aren’t scrambling, especially if something unexpected comes up that day. A great assistant should not procrastinate.

They need to be a gate keeper.

Executives are constantly bombarded by people who want to sell them things or make connections, especially after attending an industry conference or speaking at an event. Your administrative assistant should be the intermediary between you and people who want your time. They should know what is important to the organization and what your key tasks are any given week so they can intuitively filter through the people trying to contact you.

For example, if a hummus supplier saw me speak at a conference and tried to follow up with me the next week, our director of administration would know to politely tell him that hummus doesn’t fit with our core values and isn’t something we’ll ever be adding to the menu. Because assistants need to be able to turn people down who want your time, it’s important that they aren’t too passive. Simply stated, they have to be able to say “no.”

Your administrative assistant should also always have an idea of where you are, even if he or she doesn’t directly manage your calendar. This allows your assistant to anticipate if you are available and be able to help other people in the office find you if needed. I also tell my assistant the context of my schedule and if I’m expecting a call that is out of the ordinary, so she is in the loop. Communication is key to any good relationship, so I try to have common courtesy and make sure I can always be reached in case of a crisis. 

You need to cultivate a great working relationship. 

As previously stated, communication is key to any relationship. Talk to your assistant frequently, take him or her to lunch and make sure you know how things are going. You can maintain professionalism while adding a personal touch. If you work closely together, even while maintaining strong professionalism, personal things impacting each other’s lives can bleed over into business. You should be aware of those topics, while not prying, because your personal life will impact your administrative assistant, and conversely, his or her personal life can and will potentially impact you.

You should know what things are important to each other and be in the same mindset so you can work toward the same goals. You should also have a comfortable enough working relationship that your assistant can serve as a bit of a task master to keep you from missing deadlines if needed.

You should touch base throughout the day, so that your assistant knows what to expect and can prioritize what he or she needs to focus on to help you the most. It’s great if your assistant can be seated near you in the office, so that he or she can see your day unfolding. This will allow your assistant to see a day going crazy in the morning and check in with you in the afternoon to see if anything needs to be rescheduled.

Great administrative assistants help keep the office running smoothly and the executives happy, which trickles downhill to the rest of the employees. If they can make your day run smoother, your entire business should run smoother.

Craig Dunaway has been president of Penn Station since 1999. Before joining Penn Station Inc., Dunaway was a partner at the regional accounting firm of McCauley, Nicolas & Company, LLC in Jeffersonville, Indiana, where he had worked since 1982 in various staff and managerial positions. Dunaway has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Indiana University and is still a licensed CPA. Dunaway formerly had ownership interests in a Papa John’s® franchisee that owned 11 stores, and he served as the secretary/treasurer for that Papa John’s® franchisee. In addition, he had ownership interests in Coastal Cheesesteaks, LLC (headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina) until June 2011 and in Louisville Cheesesteaks, LLC (headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky) until January 2014, both of which are Penn Station franchisees. While a shareholder in those Penn Station franchisees, Dunaway served as secretary/treasurer. Penn Station was named one of the Best Franchises to Buy by Forbes in 2016 and 2018 and one of the Best Franchise Deals by QSR Magazine in 2016 and 2017.

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