Learning Skills Needed as an Effective Administrative Assistant

The ability to communicate effectively is critical to the job of administrative assistant.


Communication in General

Good communication skills are critical to anyone's success in business and possibly even more so in the case of an administrative assistant. You must be able to put your questions to and get answers from others. Responding to questions, handling conflict, and listening are all communication-related issues.

Remember that you and any person you train are representing your boss and the organization. You cannot simply speak as an individual. You need to always bear in mind that "talking" is not the same as communication! Communication deals with a lot more than just talking; it is the need to listen, empathize, speak skillfully, and interact with people. These people may be angry, disappointed, frustrated, and even frightened. The times that we do not communicate clearly are usually when real trouble and problems begin.

People would do well to follow the old saying that goes roughly like this: "You are given two ears and one mouth, in that ratio, for a good reason. Use them accordingly." If you listen to people twice as much as you talk to them, you will find that you usually end up being twice as successful as those who do not.

The types of communication that you will deal with regularly in business and that play a large role in either the success or failure of any organization include the following:
  • giving appropriate feedback;
  • nonverbal communication;
  • interviews;
  • meetings.

These are all things that require listening, questioning, and empathy skills, which are various forms of communication. You should make a study of them all.

It is within your role in teaching people communication skills to continually emphasize the importance of the points in this short segment, again, again, and again.

Phone Skills

Administrative assistants of all kinds need an agreeable telephone manner. Their voice must convey courtesy and dignity and be well-modulated. Remember that because you cannot be seen by the person at the other end of the phone, you and your employer are judged by your voice and telephone manners.

It is all too easy to become a little sloppy with phone handling skills, particularly when you are busy. Here are a few reminders of the important basic points in relation to phone skills that should be passed on and emphasized to the persons you are responsible for training:

  • Skillful phone use: Show interest in what the other party is saying; reply in even tones and never raise your voice, no matter the provocation. If your response to the caller's query is likely to be delayed, offer to call back; but if the caller prefers to wait on the line, remember to put him or her on hold rather than just placing the phone down on the desk.
  • Answering the company phone: If you are the first person to take the call, you should state the name of the company or organization first, followed by your name. If the call has been transferred to your office by someone else, give the name of the department and/or your boss's name, followed by your name.
  • Transferring calls: If you can help the caller yourself, do so; do not transfer for the sake of transferring but only if you need to. If you do transfer, however, do it only after first explaining to the caller what you are doing and why.
  • Answering the boss's telephone: Many times you will find that the person who wishes to speak to your boss had his or her assistant place the call. Never ask that person to put the employer on the line first but announce the call to your boss, who normally will pick up the phone and be connected to the caller. That way both business people are on an equal footing. The only exception would be if your boss was much more senior or high-ranking than the caller and therefore requiring different consideration.
  • Messages: It is a good idea to keep a written record of all phone calls connected to your boss, both incoming and outgoing, taking particular care with calls that come in when your employer is out of the office. Note not only the caller's name, phone number, and time of call, but purpose of the call and any other message.

You must pass these few points on to any person you train. Do not assume the person will either know or that these points are just too simple. If that were true, everyone would automatically apply these guidelines, and unfortunately we can readily inform you that they do not.

The Basic Business Letter

Despite all the changes in the forms of business communication, the business letter still has power and enormous influence. It warrants close and appropriate attention to detail. Business letters, as they should be, are more formal, personal, and private than e-mail.

What many customers and contacts of a business see first is the company correspondence. Despite the impact of untidy, ungrammatical, and misspelled letters, they are still sent out every day from a number of organizations. It is likely that a person or company that receives such a letter will consider that the sender's company's product or service is also shoddy.

Yet, it is equally amazing how many people automatically assume that a well-typed, well-presented, and thought-out letter comes from an equally rated organization. The way in which a company presents itself to its customers, clients, and contacts helps portray the company's image to the outside business world.

There are many techniques involved with the composition and writing of satisfactory business letters. As the boss's administrative assistant, it is your job to see that you are proficient in them.

Therefore, make sure for your own sake and the sake of people you may train that you access whatever materials, books, etc., you need to ensure that letters that come from your boss's office are not only grammatically correct, typed well, and factual but also consistently represent the high standards set by the organization.

Language Usage and Styles

In English, as in any language, different styles of expression are appropriate in different situations. We can go from the formal to the informal, the written to the spoken, from technical language or jargon to slang and back again.

There is the proper use of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. We have neither the time nor the inclination to go through all the grammar rules in this course. We recommend you take a grammar and writing basics course to familiarize yourself with these rules. What we will suggest, though, is that it would be a distinct advantage to you and the people you may train now and in the future for you to use your training assignment as reason to brush up on some of the more important rules and guidelines surrounding the use and style of language.

One book dealing with the subject that we could recommend would be The American Heritage Book of English Usage – A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. Also, GrammarBook.com (http://www.grammarbook.com/english_rules.asp) is a free and handy online resource you can use to check grammar and wording.

Common Language Problems

Your careful attention to the use of the English language is always important. We cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of speaking correctly in your business career. We cannot help but agree wholeheartedly with this statement: "As you improve your speech, you will equally improve your business career." It is absolutely correct. This applies equally, of course, to the written word as well.

Always keep an eye out for those stock phrases and slang expressions that somehow creep into both our letters and speech. In writing letters, first work out completely what you want to say, then express it forcefully but naturally, as if you were speaking in a conversation. This will help you communicate the message you want to get across.

You should always be alert to what you are writing. Do not use verbose expressions, and maintain an ever vigilant watch for incorrect usage of words and phrases, such as: "effect" when "affect" should be used, or "alright" instead of "all right." Try to remember those simple rules dealing with words such as "any" or "either," remembering, for example, that "any" refers to one or several and "either" refers to only one of two.

We know it can be problematic, frustrating, and at times confusing, but it is all really a matter of habit. It takes time to develop good language skills, but the return on your investment will be a lot greater than you could ever imagine. Any such habit is not only a good one to develop for yourself but a great one to pass on to others.
How To Develop Good Working Relationships

Good working relationships within a company can make all the difference to whether you enjoy your work as an administrative assistant. They also can often be a deciding factor as to whether you are successful and to what degree you are so.

Some Big Workplace "No-nos" Nearly all employees understand that positive office behaviors will contribute to the betterment of their organization's interests and development and thus their own career improvement. These positive behaviors include hard work, motivation, enthusiasm, and going above and beyond your basic job responsibilities.

Why is it, though, that so many people do not seem to appreciate the impact of the negatives: i.e., the big no-nos of office and business behavior that may not only stop you from receiving that much awaited pay raise or promotion but possibly stop your career in its tracks or even lead to an unexpected hasty departure from the company?

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Administrative Assistant course?

There are the more obvious ones, such as stealing from the company or getting drunk at office parties. Then there are what might seem obvious to most of us but are not to many others, such as:

using offensive language, includng profanity;

making sexually suggestive, inappropriate, or racist comments and jokes;

indulging in or spreading gossip or rumors.

Then there are no-nos that continually crop up in most people's working lives, temptations you might call some of them, such as;

talking in a negative sense about co-workers, your managers, or the company as a whole;

wasting company time;

sending angry or reactive e-mails before calming down and thinking about them first;

dressing inappropriately;

dozing off on the job;

having an untidy or dirty desk and/or working area.

There are two other no-nos that I would like to raise before we pass onto other things. The first is the need to avoid over-familiarity in the workplace. Friendliness is one thing, but going beyond that can be a career finisher. Sometimes it is difficult to know when to draw the line. To complicate matters, that line can vary from person to person, office to office; but if you err on the cautious side, you cannot go wrong.

The other no-no is someone who constantly allows himself or herself to be overloaded by the boss or bosses, resentfully accepting that overloading and then whining to themselves or a sympathetic colleague. If you are being overloaded, sit down and write out the tasks you have, the time frames and possible prioritization of each task, and go see your boss to discuss the situation.


The same guidelines and rules that you apply to yourself with regard to prioritizing should be those you pass on to the people you are training and/or supervising.

A good trainer and supervisor has to be, by definition, a good coach. Coaching involves working with those employees to set realistic priorities, which only flow from realistic goals, action plans, and timelines.

In "teaching" someone else to set priorities, you are either reminding yourself of the principles involved or possibly even realistically setting your own for the first time.

There are five general guidelines to goal- and priority-setting that can be easily remembered by use of the acronym S M A R T.

S: Specific; be specific in your goals or priorities.

M: Measurable; goals should be measurable.

A: Attainable; they should make a person stretch a little but not so far that the person becomes frustrated.

R: Realistic; connected to some degree with the "attainable" characteristic, the priorities must not be out of the ballpark.

T: Timely; at the right time for the company, your boss, and yourself.

Every time I have thought to myself, "I don't have time now to sit down and set priorities; people are hounding me to get things done," I have regretted it. Learn from my mistakes, and never ever fail to prioritize.

Supervisory Challenges

I could simply list some of the challenges you will face when you are training and/or supervising someone, and I will; but I genuinely believe it will be more helpful to you if I pass on some of the challenges that I have seen personally crop up in a workplace training environment. Usually, it comes down to personality type.

The sensitive trainer or supervisor is someone who is very uncomfortable with confrontation, someone who hopes the problem will go away if ignored. The trainer just does not want to upset the person being taught or trained.

The belligerent or terse trainer is a person who is often angry, short with people, and frankly annoyed at having to perform the task of showing people anything.

The imperial teacher usually looks upon those he or she is trying to train as threats. Normally this person is fighting the urge to look managerial.

The question: "Which one are you?"

Now we move on to a few challenges that seem to be common in many workplaces.

Challenge No. 1: You have been training someone to take over your position and have come to realize that person is not making the grade. You know in your heart that you should advise your boss as soon as possible, but you cannot bring yourself to do so as the person you have been training really needs the job and is a pleasant person. What do you do?

Some people are never going to make it, whatever you do, unfortunately. Depending on the personality of the person and your role as it is defined, you could sit down with the person and ask what problems she or he is having with the tasks. Possibly you can help the person. If you cannot or if you genuinely feel the person is not going to make the grade whatever you do, you must speak to your boss immediately.

If a person is simply not performing, whatever the reason, that person needs to be cut free from the organization.

Challenge No. 2: The office team is having trouble developing a sense of trust in the new employee, and you may remember the person was the same with you for a while. You realize that team members who trust one another have few personnel issues and are much more productive, so you realize you need to help the newbie overcome this challenge immediately.

How? First, you could cast your mind back to when you started and experienced a similar "no trust" reaction from the team. If you think that all it will take is time, explain this to the new employee. After all, why should people trust someone they do not know?

If your opinion is that the person needs to more actively contribute something besides time to the solution, some things the new employee could do include:

  • Have the person actively show personal skills and knowledge in a way appropriate to the position in order to show others that she or he can meet expectations.
  • Suggest to the person that she or he proceed with the job, maintaining integrity and credibility in communicating.
  • Indicate that the new person should show concern for the welfare of the other members of the team and assist where possible without accepting being overloaded.
  • Propose that the trainee actively do whatever possible at all times to maintain open communication with all team members.

Getting on with Difficult People or Those That Are Not Liked

Where there are people, there will nearly always be difficulties among them and there will always be people others do not like. Everyone simply must learn to work in this reality.

There are a number of things that can be done to minimize conflict in the workplace. It is a good idea to review job descriptions on a semi-regular basis and update them if necessary after discussion with the employees to ensure that they accurately reflect reality. The important thing is to ensure that job roles do not conflict with one another.

If some roles do and you do not have direct control or input over these roles, sit down and talk to the person who has as soon as you possibly can.

Take time to build relationships with each of the people you are responsible for teaching and see that they build working relationships with each other where possible.

You should also request people you are responsible for to provide you with regular reports concerning the current issues they are dealing with and working on, their work needs, and the current status of priorities and goals that have been set for and/or by the company.

When it comes to dealing with difficult people, whoever they may be and whatever position they may hold within the organization, the fact of the matter is that sometimes you just have to work with them.

Try to remember that difficult people are more often than not unhappy people, and that means they are usually working from the negative part of their personality. They most certainly do not start each day with the intention of being difficult; they may be totally unaware that they are.

It is important to be able to "walk in another man's shoes," to appreciate things from that person's viewpoint and why he or she may act in a difficult way. That does not necessarily mean you have to endlessly tolerate the behavior, depending to some degree on who the offenders are and what positions they hold. You may need to consider talking to them or someone in the workplace who is close to them. It depends to a large degree on the circumstances.

You are not alone in having to handle these things, though. Get your hands on one of the great books out there that deal with the subject, such as The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dealing with Difficult People or The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dealing with Difficult Employees. The former, in particular, is an amusing but very educational book.