This is part one of a seven-part series called, “So You’ve Decided to Become an Admin,” where I examine the IAAP CAP domains in a real-world context. As I study these concepts, situations throughout my career have bubbled up to the surface. I feel theories are fine, but I need a concrete example to fully understand a concept. Perhaps you do, too.
The role of the admin The admin is usually the hub of the department. They are the first person people go to with questions from how to scan a document to coordinating a large event with important clients. Although the job description sounds easy enough, an admin needs to be a jack-of-trades and have a network of contacts to tap when you don’t have the answer.
Organizational communication This domain is 25% of the CAP exam and for good reason. As an admin, you need to know how to send and receive messages appropriately; be a good listener; know how and when to set boundaries; work with all levels of the organization; work with people from all walks of life; build an network of internal and external contacts; work independently and in teams; understand company policies and procedures; and work effectively with leaders.
In the course of studying for the CAP, I gained the most new information from the leadership theory and styles and how teams function. I feel the two most important skills for an admin is the ability to adjust your communication style to your audience and to understand people.
Flexible communication style. My career started before the invention of social media and email so communication in the workplace has evolved considerably in the past three decades. When emails first hit the scene, I wrote long emails. Then one day, I sent an email and the recipient walked out of his office and said, “I don’t have time to read long messages. Please get to the point!”
His comment had two effects: 1) write succinctly for him in particular and 2) carefully read my emails and tailor them to my audience. I now try to spend time crafting my emails to keep the message politely and on point.
These days, I notice a preponderance of two types of email: the tweet-sized sentence with no opening or closing and the rambling style that takes too much time to read. Both styles of email are usually incomprehensible and disrespectful of everyone’s time.
The one sentence email is cryptic in the lack of information that generates follow-up questions. Typically, this type of writer replies to queries in the same cryptic fashion, at which point, I call the sender. The rambling email is confusing because too much information is provided and the message is lost. Some much needless time is spent on such messages.
What is the best channel for your message? I think people choose email or Instant Messaging because they are sitting at their computer and it’s expedient. However, email or IM might not be the best choice. Sometimes it’s better to pick up the phone. Sometimes it is best to get up and speak to the person. Is it bad news? Is it confidential? Do you need 2 minutes to clarify instructions? Is non-verbal communication important? Take a moment to consider the content and purpose of the message before you choose the channel. If the topic is such that documentation is important, follow-up with a summary email.
Taking time to craft a clear message and delivering it through the right channel will save you time. Time that you can spend on some other task.
Understanding people The hardest part of being an admin, in my opinion, is getting along with people. You have to be discreet because you have access to confidential information. You have to be diplomatic and polite to everyone, regardless of your feelings about them or their views. You have to find balance between sharing essential information while not gossiping about coworkers or the company. If you support senior leaders and staff, you may hear each side complain about the other.
My strategies, in a nutshell My basic strategy is to strive to behave professionally, be dependable, and do the best you can. You may not respect the person, but you should respect their position. Be aware of non-verbal cues and end a conversation when you can see the other person squirming to leave. Don’t get involved in the rumor mill – that never ends well for the admin.
Everyone stumbles. When you make a mistake, own it, make a correction plan, deliver as promised, learn from it, and move on. Doing so earns the respect of your coworkers. Not owning your mistakes makes you the obstacle people have to work around.
Everyone has a bad day, and people can be rude, whether they intend it or not. Don’t take it personally because at least 80% of the time, the issue isn’t even about you. When it is your fault, well, you know what to do, right?
Situational leadership One of the situational leadership models featured in the CAP Study Guide is the Hersey-Blanchard leadership model, where the leader chooses their style based on the level of commitment and competency of the team. I am focusing on this model because I have the most trouble differentiating between the definitions provided for Coaching and Supporting. I’m hoping this exercise cements it in my brain.
There are four types of leaders: Directing, Coaching, Supporting, and Developing. The idea is that the leaders adjusts their style as needed, to suit the members of the team (paraphrased from the IAAP 2017 Certified Administrative Professional Study Guide).
- Directing. This type of leader retains all control and gives everyone their marching orders. This style lends itself to inexperienced and/or disengaged staff.
- Coaching. Just as it sounds, this type of leader provides the playbook but retains control over the team, goals and outcomes. The staff get a lot of support and a lot of direction.
- Supporting. This leader guides a more skilled team who basically just need some hand-holding during the busy season, stressful times, big projects.
- Developing. This leader is responsible for the team, but the staff are so skilled and engaged that they are allowed run with the ball.
This model also sticks with me the most because of a previous job, where I supported administrative directors and I witnessed all four styles in a short span of time.
Directive leadership style. My first supervisor at this company, let’s call her Laurie, directed five departments comprised of highly skill and a wide range of commitment. The supervisors, managers, and admin assistant were highly skilled and highly committed. Laurie chose the Directing style, although when she felt pushed into a corner, she went straight to authoritarian (which is not part of this model). Her view was everyone was undisciplined people incapable of managing themselves. This method undercut the authority of the department heads, making them extremely unhappy and distracted, which, in turn allowed the disruptive staff to advantage of the situation, and didn’t win her fans among senior leadership. In the short term, her theory was a self-fulfilling prophesy. Eight months later, however, her job was eliminated in the first of several rounds of lay-offs.
Situational leadership in action I was next assigned to a director who was the polar-opposite of Laurie, let’s call her Sadie. Sadie and I were both transfers from other campuses and we started working together the same week. She is one of those visionary and charismatic leaders, who cares about and understands people, but more importantly, she could adjust her leadership style.
Sadie was the fourth director in 18 months of an historically dysfunctional and highly skilled team. Her method for managing the team was to start with the Developing leadership style, where she provided the overall game plan, observed the team in action, learned the group norms and roles people played within the group. Sadie presented the staff with her plan, timeline, and provided regular updates at staff meetings. In the fourth month, she followed through on her word and changed gears, applying all four of the leadership styles, based on each person’s needs. She amped up goals and departmental improvements. The staff went along with this, for about two months, until she started enforcing company policies and procedures. Once she started writing up staff, the informal power of the group emerged and a group of staff openly rebelled. Six months later, Sadie quit because, frankly, no job was worth what they were putting her through.
That was the real shame. Sadie was an inspiring leader but the staff were so entrenched in their dysfunction, they just couldn’t see the gift that presented to them.
I hope to work with Sadie again someday. We had one of the best working relationships of my entire career. I really miss working with her and being genuinely excited about what the day would bring.