Nina Spencer

Administrative Professionals: A Rose is a Rose is A Rose?

The Difference Between "Secretary" and "Office Professional" and Why these Anchors Need Continuous Professional Development

"The successful candidate must : maintain a positive attitude, work with people at all levels, use time effectively, take action on management priorities, take initiative, recruit, select and train staff, be dedicated to service excellence, problem solve, multi-task, be proactive, demonstrate superior leadership skills...", does this breathless "job description" sound like what your manager does? Surprise! These are just a few of the descriptors required by today's administrative professionals:a.k.a. "secretaries". Some of the "old guard" still hold on to this traditional "secretary" title for these multi-tasking, multi-functional, essential contributors to the smooth running of an our organizations. Some of the "old guard" think all this ‘90s name changing is nothing more than politically correct babble... "a secretary by any other name is still a secretary!". "Secretaries", a.k.a. Administrative Professionals, Executive Assistants and Administrative Assistants, are important links and support to the successful operations of our companies. We need to pay more attention to their on-going training and development needs!

In addtion to my independent workshops and keynotes, I partner with Canadian Management Center (CMC) a few times a year, by facilitating programs dedicated to the training and development needs of Administrative Professionals. During my first facilitation of this program I was struck by the coast-to-coast representation of the participants. I asked, "Why have you travelled from as far away as Northwest Territories, New Brunswick, and Quebec, to attend a training program in Toronto?". The response was always the same, "I tried to get this kind of professional development closer to home but there's not much available that's dedicated and customized to Administrative Professionals' needs. I found ‘tons' of local workshops for management development but virtually nothing for me!".

I asked Sandra Parker, Program Director for CMC, "Why is this the case and how did your organization come to create an extensive offering of programs dedicated to office professionals?". Sandra shared that the evolution of their offerings was closely related to the downsizing of organizations in the early 1990's. When frontline and middle management were let go, with no one new to assume much of their functions, many of the management tasks fell on the shoulders of the Administrative Assistants, even the recruitment, selection, and, in some cases, the firing of support staff! It was only a matter of time for these professionals to realize that they'd been virtually "thrown" into new, expanded responsibilities, overnight, with little or no structured upgrading or professional development. Requests for structured, formal training and development support was born from that need. CMC was one of the pioneers of public workshops dedicated specifically to the changing Office Professional's needs by offering 2 workshops in 1991. Focus groups and surveys helped to identify further needs and expand the offerings as the decade passed.

The parent company of CMC, The American Management Association (AMA) conducted a survey in 1996 examining "Secretarial Competencies" for the present and the future. Of 42 competencies identified, the top five were included in the opening paragraph of this article. A similar survey conducted by the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) identified managerial skills, a focus on customer service, teamwork and ownership, sense of urgency and initiative, as the most important skills for office professionals to develop in the 21st century. A survey conducted by The Toronto Star topped up these required skills by also identifying another long list including: superior computer knowledge, accounting and budgeting, proposal writing, effective global travel planning, bilingual language capabilities and 14 other "soft skills" (by the way... that "old guard" I talked about earlier, is the same group that thinks "soft skills" are "nice to haves" not "need to haves". In today's business environment, more than ever... soft skills ARE the "need to haves" and, guess what... the soft stuff is the hard stuff!).

Marcia O'Hearn CPS, President of the Ontario Division of the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), explains that many Executive Assistants have found it very challenging, even down right "hard", taking on new managerial style responsibilities that bestow new levels of positional authority, recognition and power amongst staff with whom they work. It's one thing to declare that E.A.s have the positional power and it's another thing to have staff adjust and accept it! In some cases, staff have to make major paradigm shifts in how they perceive the Executive Assistant (they're still thinking "secretary... secretary"), and it comes out in staff behaviour.

For many Executive and Administrative Assistants, the feeling and demonstration of personal power and professional comfort and confidence is trailing behind the reality of their new roles. It's a slow process changing people's perception of a job that's been around for as long as there have been offices! Languaging to identify sub groups of people, either personally or professionally, always changes years before all people will embrace the new terminology.

O'Hearn states, "The majority of organizations don't recognize the "need" for training Administrative Professionals. They just assume that the administrative professional can absorb the new responsibilities and "get on with it" as they go". Marcia also observes that Administrators may be their own worst enemies. They know about their skill gaps, and need to further build their professional self-confidence, see flyers or brochures advertising conference and workshops from which they'd get value, and don't ask with assertion to attend. Some of them do ask, but they wait until something (like a conference brochure) falls in their lap before asking.

Too many administrative professionals don't think about actively pursuing their professional development with a long term plan in mind:independently researching what's out there, and then putting a plan together for long term professional development, that they can then present, with a pro-active voice, to the "powers that be" who give the nod for attending such on-going professional development events. O'Hearn reports, "Assistants call me about training and development all the time. They've taken extensive technical training but they intuitively know that they need more, but not sure what! In many cases they don't even know that ‘soft skills' / interpersonal communications training exits! I tell them to take what their managers and directors are taking: resolving workplace conflict, alternative dispute resolution, team building, leadership, assertiveness, time management!" If administrative professionals are exposed to, and learn, what their managers and directors are learning, they can demonstrate congruency with their own interactions with these people, as well as with other staff members in their departments, branches or entire organizations!

Sometimes in personal and professional life, others can see what we "need" before we see it ourselves! As a training professional, this may be the case in your organization, when it comes to on-going professional development for your Office Professionals. Is your organization or company missing an important opportunity by spending money only on management development training? Here are some suggestions for championing professional development for Support Staff and Administrative Assistants:

  1. Conduct needs assessments and focus groups to determine office professionals' skill gaps and areas for desired training
  2. Inspire a re-examination of allocation of training dollars:how can you create a win-win situation for ALL staff who wish to, and need to, continue their professional development?
  3. Determine the advantage of designing in-house workshops customized for your executive and administrative staff (or partner with an external facilitator to design and deliver workshops which "speak" specifically to their needs)
  4. At the very least, make it your business to know "what's out there" in terms of conferences, workshops, books, industry specific publications / magazines, tapes, etc., specifically dedicated to office professionals' needs:be an information resource / broker!
  5. Remember, most executive and administrative assistants perform their job function in a "vacuum":they are often the only one of their kind in the branch! This leads to isolation, a feeling that they're all alone when it comes to handling certain problems. Many other people in organizations can easily turn to a colleague that does the same work and ask, "How did you handle that situation last week when... ". Where are the executive assistants' near-by peers? So, occasional conferences and workshops can bring like minded office professionals together for a truly synergistic information exchange and experience!
  6. Occasional opportunities to come together is one good ‘thing" and another, which feeds the administrative professional's soul with regularity, is joining an association such as the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP 416-499-9622, Marcia O'Hearn), or the Association of Administrative Assistants (AAA 416-506-1293 ext 548, Erika Giesl), or others which may be locally offered in the office professionals' community.

"Secretary" may be a dying profession but "Office Professional' is alive and kicking and growing! As long as companies need organizers, co-ordinators and trouble shooters... they'll need their Office Professionals. To keep them effective... they'll need to continuously support their professional development!