Ten ways to be a kick-ass assistant

When am I gonna make a living?.
It’s gonna take a while before I give in. Yes it is.
I’m sick and tired of scratching a living.
I am hungry but I’m not gonna give in, no

—- Sade, “When Am I Going to Make a Living?”

The job market is still lousy here in the United States, for thousands of smart people — even many with Really Fancy College degrees.

In a tough economy with too many people chasing too few jobs, you need to get your foot on the rung, even the bottom one, of a ladder that might actually lead you to a job you want. That might mean becoming someone’s assistant.

No eye-rolling. No “I didn’t go to college for that!”

No one did.

OK Boss - NARA - 534390
OK Boss – NARA – 534390 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more than a decade, I’ve hired, managed and retained unpaid interns and paid assistants to help me run my writing business and to research and help promote my two books.

I got the idea while teaching a journalism class at a local university with only 13 students. I knew exactly who I hoped would intern for me — a lively, funny, down-to-earth young woman named Jessica. It was like asking her for a date! Luckily, she said yes and stayed on to work for me after her unpaid internship ended; I paid her, more than a decade ago, $12 an hour. She was worth every penny.

In return, with one phone call to someone I knew who needed help, I found her a job straight out of school in a field she wanted. Score!

One of my favorite movies is The Devil Wears Prada, from 2006. I used to sympathize with the beleaguered and overworked assistant, Andie, but after the first few viewings, my sympathies switched to Miranda Priestley, her super-demanding boss at Runway magazine.

It’s a fun film — and offers much workplace wisdom.

Cover of "The Devil Wears Prada [Blu-ray]...
Cover of The Devil Wears Prada [Blu-ray]
If you’re looking for work, certainly a first post-grad job, think on these things…

Listen carefully

In an age of CPA — continuous partial attention — it’s rare to find young staffers able to offer you their full, undivided attention and look you in the eye for more than a few minutes. This is essential for creating and maintaining a working relationship with your boss and his or her clients or colleagues. Feels weird? Tough!

Your boss hired you to help them perform better. Listening very carefully to their instructions — and the tone of of voice they’re delivered in — is key. This is tougher by text or email, so try to get some face or phone time with them as well.

Take notes

Can you possibly remember everything they asked you to do? And every deadline? I doubt it. No matter how trivial the conversation appears to be — your boss is running between meetings or it sounds like an afterthought — it’s important to them. Which means it’s important to you!

Ask a lot of questions

Some bosses don’t have much time, or patience, to deal with endless questions, so knowing how much they will reveal and when is also a measure of how perceptive and sensitive to nuance you are; read up on the notion of emotional intelligence.

EQ matters as much as — if not more than —  IQ!

Do not guess. Do not make assumptions! It’s better to feel stupid and ask a question than screw it up by thinking because you graduated college you know what your boss really wants. You might.

But what if you’re wrong?

Email, call or text when necessary for clarification

I prefer assistants comfortable working independently because I have little time to manage or train them; if you see the word “self-starter” in an ad, that’s what they mean. But you will always have something you’re not quite sure of. Check!

Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and Andrea Sac...
Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway): pre-release still photograph from the film The Devil Wears Prada; this also is the novel’s redesigned cover. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Check in!

How’s it going? Really.

If something is heading south, for whatever reason, your boss needs to know about it sooner rather than later so it can get fixed. If you’re used to parents who check in with you, or you with them, this is not that. This is not you looking for approval or a thumbs-up or a “Great job!” from your boss.

Take nothing personally

It’s work, kids. It’s a job. It’s not the rest of your life. It’s not the only thing you do or care about. So if someone snaps at you or yells at you or hands you a task you think is stupid, it’s actually not about you. It’s been deemed important by the people paying for your skills and labor.

When people are nasty or rude or just even unfriendly in a work setting, it often has very little to do with you as a person  — (unless you’re rude, obnoxious, unethical, lazy or entitled. But you’re not, right?) They’re likely carrying a shitload of stress, work or personal and likely both, with few places to express it.

Yes, this task (or job) is boring/tedious/repetitive — do it really well anyway!

We picked you because you seemed like a smart, lively, high-energy person. We hired you to do everything we do not have time, energy, manpower or patience to deal with. We hired you because, in the coldest language possible, our time is now valued more highly in the marketplace than yours, and we have bills to pay. So if your boss can bill $200-1,000 an hour for their skills, that’s where their focus needs to stay.

We’ve all done this shit! And your willingness to tackle tedious stuff well and efficiently sends a powerful and important meta-message to your boss: I get it.

Be cheerful, warm and fun to work with

Huge. This is a deal-maker. I’ve had a few assistants who didn’t always do exactly what I hoped for, but their genuine enthusiasm and sense of humor made it feel like we were a team. Your boss is stressed to the max. S/he really appreciates someone whose mood and attitude can lighten their load — so no whining/pouting/crying/negativity. Learn the names of your boss’s kids/spouse/pets, (and ask how they’re doing from time to time), and his/her birthday, even if all you do is wish them a cheery “Happy birthday!” Bosses are people too. (Some of them.)

Ask if suggestions and ideas are welcome — then show us what you’ve got

It’s great that you have lots of ideas. It shows initiative and gumption. But wait a while. Wait a few weeks, even months, before you start making suggestions. Unless your boss asks you for them.

Be 10000000% reliable

This is obvious. Flaking and bailing are simply not an option. Remember the letters ID — illness or death. In my book, they’re the only reason you can bail or be late. I once hired someone, who came highly recommended, who had lots of great ideas. I was psyched! Then she quit within a week because she had another income source and she suddenly remembered it was more important.

Loyalty matters.

Bonus tip:

Discretion is paramount. Never share anything your boss shares with you on any form of social media. Don’t tell your friends or your room-mates or anyone. Don’t forward it or keep it or re-purpose it for your own ends, like the assistant who casually mentioned she’d used some of my first book’s research material for a class paper. Um, no.

You have no idea who they know — the person your boss is about to hire, fire, promote or give a grant to. I sometimes have my assistants sign an NDA, non disclosure agreement, to make sure they get it. Just because you grew up sharing everything on social media doesn’t mean your boss wants his or her stuff used as if it were yours. It’s not!

What have I left out?

42 thoughts on “Ten ways to be a kick-ass assistant

  1. Every entry on that list, I tried comparing it to my student employee job, which is close to the same thing, if with a slightly smaller pay. So far, I think I’m doing well and following most if not all of that advice. I’m relied upon, I contribute with every quality check and indexing job I do, and I get along with nearly everyone in the office. I don’t know where the job will lead me, but hopefully, if I don’t make it as a writer immediately, to a good job post-graduation.
    Btw, do you mind if I send this post to my boss? I think she’d enjoy it.

  2. I’m glad you were so truthful with this. I’ve had some successful internship experience back home and am hopefully about to start a serious, full-time internship this summer and appreciate the knowledge. I feel like a lot of this is stuff that a boss might be hesitant to say to an intern so casually and bluntly, but I don’t ever want to have to be babied. Thanks!

    1. You got my point…I realized that this is the sort of thing a boss might want to say but might think “They’ll cry or won’t get it or freak out.” Or they would just fire you with no explanation why they were so pissed off.

      I realized that, over a decade and hiring/managing 11 assistants, I’ve learned a lot (so I might need to do a 10 ways…for bosses) and am still learning.

  3. Great advice, notes taken!

    The best advice I got for my PD position was to always ask for time frames for projects. When I first started I was eager to please and tried to do all projects and independent assignments at once – it resulted in late nights and a lot of stress. But by asking for specific deadlines for specific aspects of projects allowed me to allocate my time better and enabled me to switch between assignments if a crisis came up. I always had used calendars and planners, but they became the bible to me after that and my multitasking ability, already pretty decent, easily tripled. It seems like such a stupid small thing, but thinking of and asking for concrete time frames really made a difference to me.

    Miranda Priestly is a fantastic character – intimidating as hell, but no matter how terrifying you can’t do anything but respect her and want to work under her.

    1. “but thinking of and asking for concrete time frames really made a difference to me”

      We call ’em deadlines. 🙂 I can’t imaging how anyone can function without them…who can remember all that stuff? The greatest challenge I always face (as you know too well) is prioritizing.

  4. leah j. wolfe

    Don’t be a sycophant, but don’t be selfish and insolent. Know how to spell and answer the phone. Be good with kids, parents, pets, and cops. Be clean and organized on desk and self. Laugh only when it’s funny. Never.ever.cry.

    Know at least five dirty jokes, and three scriptures by heart. Remember EVERYONE’S name and at least one sincere thing about them. Be tech savvy and homegrown, and know where to get any one of the following items at 3:00 am, on a Sunday, from Hartford to Hanoi: a plunger; a football jersey; tampons, toothpicks, and toenail clippers; a waterbed patch; a micrometer; ferret food; batteries; and those little plastic thingies you stick into corn-on-the-cob.

    Study up and learn how to buy the right bottle of wine that says, “Thank you for the invite,” not “OMGTHANKYOUFORINVITINGMEIBOUGHTTHEMOSTEXPENSIVEONE,” and know how to order off the menu without looking like an a*^hole.

    Best piece of advice? Be true to yourself. Know when to leave, but do it with class.

    1. Ok, now you’re scaring me. And I thought *I* was demanding. Holy hell.

      Ferret food?!!

      I do agree that crying is UTTERLY verboten as is selfishness and insolence. Not sure the need for corn cob holders or a football jersey. The rest are all pretty gettable, no?

      “For God so loved the world….” 🙂

      1. leah j. wolfe

        haha, Not my rules, just the joys of working for minimum wage. They tell me it’s character building.

        A nun and a pig walk into a bar…

      2. leah j. wolfe

        Yup. The list is a boss montage, if you will. I’ve been working for the insane for over 25 years.

      3. leah j. wolfe

        haha Ya know, it never bothered me. Your skills stay sharp, and you get great memories. Even crappy bosses teach you about yourself, so I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.

        Wait, That’s a lie. I’d take the time I wasted working 2 weeks for Menards when I was 18. I can’t speak for the entire chain, but the one here was a Nazi run, hardware-camp, not a retail tool store.

        Good news though, they’ve restructured and hired zombies to work the floor. It’s just like going to Best Buy, but for power tools and cheerios. Our favorite game is Stump the Associate (can also be played at Best Buy, or Verizon). You go in and ask any question about any product; you’ll usually just get, “Ummm,” for a response. The player with the question that makes his automaton drool while he’s thinking up an answer, wins. Good times.

      4. leah j. wolfe

        Heck no.

        Years ago, my corn field had three places to buy tools, top soil, lawn mowers, and yes, ferret food: the local True Value Hardware that was staffed by these wonderful old codgers with experience longer than most shoppers have been alive (and they sharpened your mower blades); Sears, which is all the way across town; the only time you go there is to buy Crafstman tools, or to return the tractor you bought from K-mart (they’ll take back anything); and Menards, which has grown to forty times its original size. It has cheap tools and miles of PVC elbows all in the wrong bins, so you have to make three different trips back to the checkout lane.

        Menards was losing business a few years back (there’s a Walmart right across the street), so to compete they added a grocery section. Convenient if you need a toilet seat AND a pack of juice boxes, but incredibly frustrating if you actually need a 3/4″ hose bib.

        Menards was never staffed with Harvard’s best and brightest, but recently they’ve started recruiting salespeople from Bert’s School of Needling and Junkyard Management. These people have no clue about the inventory they stock or sell. The company has vertically integrated labor so efficiently, that cashiers cannot even think beyond the register screen. If you try to write a check or have a coupon, they freeze up like Internet Explorer.

        Home repair here is a sad, sad affair. God forbid you start a project and find you need a drill bit or a metric bolt with matching washer. You’re better off just opening a vein with your cheap, Menard’s utility knife. However, it’ll likely break before you finish the job, and you’re stuck having to day-trip it to Sears for a Craftsman model.

        As far as clienteling, their apps are about the same as their crappy web site. You’re always stuck just calling the store or going in because the prices are not there, or they only display part of their inventory. And most of it is geared to online sales, which doesn’t help you when your water heater hose just flooded the basement because of a cracked fitting. As appealing as free shipping on orders over $50 might be, it isn’t convenient when all of your stuff is soaked, and you have to take cold showers.

        The inferiority of product quality is directly proportional to the size of retail outlets (AKA superstores). Yes you get products cheaper, but the problem is that you’re getting cheaper product.

      5. Sounds deeply grim.

        We are very fortunate — we have a 4th generation-owned hardware store right in our town (pop. 10,000) and Greg does just fine. Not sure if you’ve read “Malled” but he’s in my book.

      6. Why is crying utterly verboten? It’s not something many choose to do in the workplace.

        I have luckily never been made cry by a boss. However I have hard-working, enthusiastic friends who have been. I think it’s a lot more important to stress that bosses should not give their employees, or often highly-qualified, hard-working, UNPAID interns reason to cry.

        I have done two successful internships which led me to my current position, which I love and feel incredibly privileged to have landed. I found my bosses responded well to my defrence, helpfulness and enthusiasm for the less glamorous tasks.

      7. Crying at work is never a wise professional choice.

        If you are at work and discover that a loved one has been seriously injured or died, you’d probably be forgiven for bursting into tears. It’s a terrible shock and you found out at work. But I completely disagree, (and this is likely generational), that bosses MAKE their workers, paid or unpaid, cry. You choose to cry — or you choose to cry privately, at home or with your friends. What exactly does weeping actually accomplish in the context of a work environment? It shows you to be weak, unprofessional and unable to handle stress. Work is often ***extremely*** stressful! That’s one of the many lessons that interns are there to learn. Work sucks sometimes. Bosses can be absolute bullies. Had several myself. Several made me cry — but NEVER in their presence or anywhere near the office.

        I bet if you’d cried in your internships — did you? publicly? — you would not be in the position you are right now. And congrats!!!

        I was once told I’d “made” someone’s assistant cry. I laughed. The company management was so utterly incompetent as it was and this was a Toronto firm; in NYC my behavior and expectations are normal. Tough, yes, but normal.

      8. I completely diagree that crying is a “choice.” I mean, who on earth would “choose” to cry at work? It’s hardly contestable that it’s not a good professional move. But that’s not exactly what goes through a person’s head when they’re overcome with emotion.

        My friend, who works in a shoe shop, was made cry in front of her boss, who yelled at her in front of customers, accusing her of something she had not done. My friend was mortified that she cried, but it’s not like she chose to. Incidentally, that was an example of a boss failing to exercise control over their emotions.

        You say that bosses can be absolute bullies, and I read your recent post on bullying with interest. However in that contest, I do find it strange to think that you laughed when someone said you had made an assistant cry.Bullying is written about a lot but it’s really a subjective experience. I wonder would the boys who bullied you identify themselves as former bullies today.

        I believe in very hard work and professionalism but even more so in compassion.

        In a strictly ‘sink or swim’ environment you lose out on some great people and their skills because they’re not aggressive or thick-skinned enough.

        I would challenge the narrative that you only get places by being tough. I am lucky to have a very strong sense of self and really only take unpleasantness personally if I think I’ve done something to merit it. But other people lose confidence more easily. I find it easy to be polite and patient. Others don’t – but I think it’s their responsibility to learn.

        No, I’ve luckily never cried at work. I came close when I found out in the elevator on the way up to my officc that my aunt had died. However, I don’t think if that – or a nasty boss – had caused me to cry I would be any less capable or committed as a worker.

      9. “It’s hardly contestable that it’s not a good professional move. But that’s not exactly what goes through a person’s head when they’re overcome with emotion.”

        This is my point, whether we agree or not.

        The workplace is NOT the place to become “overcome with emotion.” Journalism is a field that rewards self-control. It does not hold your hand. It expects a **tremendous** amount of self-control — reporters, editors and photographers see and hear absolutely HORRIFIC things (rape, incest, murder trials, etc.) and we do not have the luxury (yes, it is a luxury) of collapsing into tears or indulging in emotional reactions. That’s hard news journalism, not writing about mascara or celebrities…So, after working in this field since graduating college, it is my norm. It is the norm of anyone ambitious within American news journalism — possibly very different in your field. When I was in my early 20s one of major magazine assignments was to interview people who had survived horrible events, like having their husband drop dead in front of them. Extremely painful and emotional to listen to, to ask those probing questions. No, I did not cry. I took notes and listened.

        And its managers are legendarily rough, tough, even rude and insulting. No one likes it. No one! It is simply a fact of life in this field in this city, and many others. So it self-selects out the emotionally fragile.

        “My friend, who works in a shoe shop, was made cry in front of her boss, who yelled at her in front of customers, accusing her of something she had not done. My friend was mortified that she cried, but it’s not like she chose to. Incidentally, that was an example of a boss failing to exercise control over their emotions.”

        Bosses are not the ones expected to control their emotions. Where did you get that idea? Yes, in an ideal world. I know few people in the United States who bring this level of expectation into their workplace. A boss who shouts and makes accusations — yes, he’s rude and stupid. But why cry? Shout back. Walk away from the situation into the women’s bathroom and take a few long deep breaths. Yes, being yelled at is shitty. But crying? Would a man have cried? I suspect he would have made a different choice. I’m sorry your friend was so upset. Her boss sounds nasty. But it won’t be the first or last time she gets shouted at in a job.

        “You say that bosses can be absolute bullies, and I read your recent post on bullying with interest. However in that contest, I do find it strange to think that you laughed when someone said you had made an assistant cry.”

        The magazine’s staff was so disorganized and nonetheless incessantly demanding that I ended up working for them while ill and ended up in the hospital for 3 days with pneumonia and it took me a month to recover. All because I — then — was working to the highest standards I could (I thought) maintain and should maintain to meet my deadline for them, even while ill. While they were all behaving like utter morons. So after all that, completely fed up with their BS, I did indeed speak sharply to someone on staff — who decided to cry. Three days on an IV? Yeah, that was fun.

        Like it or not, I have little patience for people who cry, whine, moan and bring emotional fragility into a work setting. If they’re ill, or mentally ill, or they are grieving someone’s serious illness or death….But bursting into tears because your feelings have been hurt?
        It’s work! We are all judged, by managers and co-workers alike, on our ability to maintain our composure under even the most stressful of situations.

        My husband won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on 9/11. He could have slumped into a corner, weeping, panicked and terrified at all that he heard and saw in NYC that day. He made other choices, kept his head, helped his colleagues and got the job done. That’s how we work, in NYC, in news, in our generation. You may dislike our choices. That’s just how we are expected to work at our level. And we do.

      10. My ‘idea’ that bosses are equally expected to control their emotions comes from the principle of leading by example.

        Would a man have cried? Yes, quite possibly. What is the difference?

        I understand that working with poor management must have been frustrating, but letting out all your anger on one individual- probably one with little control within the company – is also not a rational decision.

        Taking a similar “tough” approach, your decision to work while sick was not a good professional move, since you had to spend more time recovering.

        That tough approach is not one I myself follow. My natural response is to be sorry that you worked yourself so hard. I would have called to see how you were and made sure you got enough rest before returning to work.

        I graduated into a terrible recession. Nothing has been handed to me. Resilience and determination do not require a hardness such as the one you describe.

      11. There’s an expression in the States — Monday morning quarterbacking. It telling someone how they SHOULD have behaved after an event has occurred. It basically means, you weren’t there and you didn’t have to make those decisions in that moment.

        I’m twice your age, have been working in the industry for 30 years, have survived three recessions in 20 years and, perhaps most telling, work mostly with Americans and in New York City. Until or unless you’ve moved to this place and had to compete here, you have no idea what it’s like to survive, let along thrive, here financially, socially and professionally. (Yes, moving to Germany and living there is hard. I get that!)

        NYC journalism is indescribably competitive and difficult; C., who is now working with me (who lives in another part of the U.S.) has been really shocked by what she has encountered in her time helping me. It is not comparable to anything else, so second-guessing someone else’s decisions or attitudes just doesn’t make sense, any more than my telling you — an Irish woman working in Germany — what I would do in your place. I’m not there! I wouldn’t dare, because it’s presumptuous. I don’t know you personally at all, nor your background or personality, (any more than you know me.) So what you THINK you would do, or have done, in all these situations is de facto conjecture.

        The nature of blogging, and the 1,300+ posts on this blog, creates a false sense of intimacy. I have revealed some of who I am, but there is a great deal I have not, and never will here, in a public and permanent spot. People who know me **very** well understand perfectly the roots of my decision-making and “hardness” in ways that you don’t, and can’t, and therefore — you, a fellow journalist — are working from an incomplete set of facts to create a story in your mind about me and who I am. Unwise and unfair.

        So let’s move on.

        I appreciate your point of view and insights and am glad you have made time to comment — but I’m not going to keep dissecting my behavior here.

  5. i love this post, especially about Take nothing personally; “When people are nasty or rude or just even unfriendly in a work setting, it often has very little to do with you as a person — (unless you’re rude, obnoxious, unethical, lazy or entitled. But you’re not, right?) They’re likely carrying a shitload of stress, work or personal and likely both, with few places to express it.”–> i always tell myself that maybe they have problem that stress them.
    and thank you for all tips, really make a sense. 🙂

    1. Thanks!

      These days I feel like my head is going to explode and my assistant — God bless her — usually says “You sound stressed and tired.” Why, yes, I am, and thank heaven for the empathy.

  6. I love the acronym CPA — continuous partial attention. That’s exactly what some of my assistants have. I couldn’t figure out what to call it, so thank you for putting a name to my confusion. About 30 seconds into any conversation, their eyes glaze over as if they’ve heard it all before, or worse, they interrupt to finish my thought because, again, they’ve heard it all before and they want to rush ahead to the end of the conversation. (Well possibly even worse than that is the assistant who doodles in her notebook while I’m talking. How much effort does it take simply to pay attention for a few minutes while I’m giving instructions?)
    I hope your post will be the eye-opener so many could use.

    1. Wow. Can we say “fired!”

      I hope (?) you’re making clear to doodle-chick that her days/minutes are numbered. I wouldn’t give her another paycheck, but that’s just nasty ole me.

      CPA actually refers to what many young ‘uns live every day — toggling constantly between IMs, text, phone, the real world, etc. but giving none their full, undivided attention for five GD minutes. Attention is a muscle; use it or lose it.’

      So demanding full attention **will** be new/difficult for these people. Tough! That’s why they call it work. Our jobs at work are to work for/with others, not show up expecting kittens and rainbows.

  7. justaweirdthought

    wow! this is going to b really useful for me! thankfully i m still a few years away from entering this competition and i’ll definitely follow your tips!

    1. I think it’s probably wise to acknowledge that it’s new or unusual for them — but you expect it anyway. I don’t envy anyone having to manage 20 yr olds today because people in their 40s and beyond have worked under such different expectations for years.

  8. I would add, anticipate the needs of your boss before it becomes a need. I can’t tell you how delighted my bosses are when they ask me to do something and I report that it’s already done. You’ve got to constantly be one step ahead.

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