In between sprinting from domestic to international terminal at Manila Airport, I managed to pick up Glamour magazine. (As to why I had to sprint [and swear!] at that airport is for another post.)
The US edition of Glamour magazine is my second option if there’s no Marie Claire US in sight, so it had been years since I read that magazine. It wasn’t disappointing at all. And there’s an article that took me back to my life in 2005–2008, the four years of pure hard work climbing the corporate ladder in print media industry. The article is called “The Assistant Diaries”—how to master an entry-level job.
I remember myself saying to my assistant a couple of years ago: always treat your first jobs as internship program, where you do whatever it takes to get your work recognized and get paid very little. One must not grumble because soon enough, one’s work will speak for itself when one negotiates a better pay in the next job.
I have to say, I’ve no regrettable job experience throughout my career. I graduated from one job to the next one with flying colors and a happy note. I was also quite lucky that I carefully chose my formal and non-formal education as well as extracurricular activities that supported my career goals. My parents and my high-school psychologist helped a lot in forming these goals.
However, most people these days are in the job that they weren’t educated or trained for. My husband, for example, is a marine biology graduate who runs a publishing company and critiques fashion whenever Joan Rivers is on.
One day when he was going to speak to his editorial staff, he asked me, “Honey, after being in the work force for so long what do you wish you had learned in school?” I said, nothing. I went to schools that prepared me for the field that I do now. The only thing I didn’t know is that dealing with people you work with/for is often the biggest challenge of the job.
That’s why when I read the article about how even Christiane Amanpour worked her way up from being an assistant, I thought: you could almost forget everything you learned in school, as long as you can master being a good assistant you could end up in the corner office.
Here’s why being a good assistant is a good way to get ahead:
- A good assistant is often asked to be involved in projects. This is an opportunity to show that you’re more that just good at making coffee. Pay attention to what is being discussed in the room and be confident to pitch your idea. Even if they turn down your idea, you wont be too embarrassed because you’re a junior anyway. I remember pitching an idea (protests that were happening around the world against Valentine’s Day) that was considered too political for the young female magazine I worked for. In time, you’ll learn what sort of ideas that is welcomed in a particular project.
- A good assistant is trusted by their boss(es) enough that they are allowed to be in the room for an important or high-profile meeting. This is a great way for you to be exposed to what executive levels normally discuss. You will know that as a low-level employee, all this time you have only seen a fraction of the business. Being the “fly on the wall” in these meetings is like getting a free course on doing the job/business on a macro level. I sat down as a research assistant in a meeting of Commission IX Indonesian House of Representative in 2005. I sat on the tribune with nothing to do but listening to a government-level discussion about local TV stations that were just starting to bloom. That was an eye-opener.
- A good assistant of a good boss is lucky because they can watch and learn closely. Treat your boss as a mentor because there must be something that they know about the job that lead them to that position. When there’s a problem or a debate, I listen carefully to what my boss says/does. I take note on the principles in handling crisis because THIS is what they don’t teach you in school!
- A good assistant is so good that their boss is dependent on her. This is a great opportunity and leverage. Now I don’t suggest you be cocky. I suggest that you keep showing to your boss that you are irreplaceable and indispensable. Unless your boss is a douche, they will quick to understand this and then promote you in no time.
- A good assistant automatically gets good references when applying for a new job. So, never burn bridges!
A good assistant…
- Is never too proud to do minor tasks. Stuffing goodie bags, taking lunch orders, drive for the team, entertain boss’ kids, or help a model put on a bikini, all of which I’ve done in the past with grace.
- Asks questions, even the stupid ones, every step of the way when doing something completely new. Hey, you’re there to learn from your boss so the next time you have to do the same thing, you won’t have to bother them again.
- Takes notes. Trust me, you will never remember (to follow-up) things unless you write it down. Always have a system! One of my assistants in the past writes everything I say when I come to her desk. It may sounds ridiculous but she said to me, “You talk rather fast and sometimes it’s hard to understand which one to do first out of the five things you say. So I just write everything down and read it after you leave.” She is one of the best I had!
- Always has a pen and a paper. Because you will be thanked to when your boss needs it. Don’t be that guy who’s searching for a pen in pockets, bag, and looking stupid and unprepared while doing so.
- Is proactive. When you’re booking a flight for your boss, think beyond the airline and ticket cost. Think about the airport transfers. Think about the timing: how much time will they need to drive to the airport and is it convenient to leave the city at that hour? Will the boss be happier to land home early or late at night when the traffic from airport to home is easier? See what I mean?
- Is a fast learner. Hopefully, it takes only one learning curve for each task so next times you don’t need your boss to remind you stuff. My worst assistant ever actually made ME her “assistant” because I was always the one to remind her what to do and when her next deadline was.
- Is not a gossip. Tagging along your boss everywhere means you have a good chance of overhearing their personal conversation or high-level discussion. No matter how itching you are to tell your colleague about your boss’ new young score or the company’s plan to let go a few people, DONT! If you want to ever be a boss someday, you have to put your feet in their shoes. Wouldn’t you want your assistant to be able to keep a secret?
- Does not lick ass. BUT know which button to push to please the boss. It would be a life-saver for you to mark the calendar for your female boss’s PMS week!
- PR’s their boss. Yes, I know it is almost mandatory to talk about your boss at lunch breaks. But unless your boss is a real bitch—in which case I suggest you to find another boss/job—you have to be fair to your boss and not only talk about the negatives. What assistants forget sometimes is that their boss represents the company they work for. So if you talk bad about your boss and then somehow a prospective client of the company hears that, resulting a loss… that means you are costing your company actual money! At the end of the day, it is your business to keep your company’s image intact. So do find something nice about your boss to talk about.
- Is fun. It is the boss’ job to be serious and moody and hard. Having a fun assistant brings rainbow to the office. Find what you can do to cheer up the room especially when you all are working late on a big project. Tell (appropriate) jokes, take fun pictures, bring snack, play music, suggest activities for company outing, plan a surprise party for the boss’ birthday, remember to pay a visit when a colleague just had a new baby, and try your best to ALWAYS be in a good mood. Your goal is to leave a good impression on everyone in the office so they will miss you when you’re gone and take that new job you always dreamed of.