How I work with my Personal Assistant

“You’re no good unless you are a good assistant; and if you are, you’re too good to be an assistant.” - Martin H. Fischer

Since I started to work in Vietnam at Officience, I’ve been working with a personal assistant. And so far I changed 4 times.

The first one resigned due to social pressure (it sometimes ain’t easy being a woman in Vietnam), and possibly not much interest in IT. The 2 others left to go study further abroad. The fourth is still with me and I hope she stays with me for more than a year!

All these clever assistants are trilingual and always helpful. And I have to say I really admire them for managing working with me! They are all different and I guess that I did some mistakes, but eventually I got better working with a personal assistant over time. What I asked from them changed, because I changed, my team changed and my work changed.

The first was kindness.
The second was energy.
The third was courage.
The fourth is caring.

I really think that being an assistant is a great job, so much that at some point and as I was explaining the job to one of them, I thought of opening a dedicated training centre for PA. Maybe I’ll do that in the future, maybe with one of them, who knows :) The story I like to tell is that my first manager’s wife was a director’s assistant, and I remember how I was impressed about how she organized the meetings, agenda, and knew everything about the company.

A lot of people ask me how I can trust and explain to my assistant to manage my mailbox.

Well I guess that I’m a person who believe in human nature, I tend to trust by default and check every now and then whether I still can trust. I test the assistant for a while first (usually during the probation time), see how they work, whether they are careful and reliable, if they have good reasoning and rigour, and how they interact with others.

Then I start to give access to some documents, and explain matters of confidentiality and the responsibilities that go with knowledge, the harm that can be done when not used correctly. Some information has to go with explanation, and that’s why I can share it with them, because I take time to explain.

I also usually explain, that in order to fully help me, she has to know what’s happening around. How can she help me find solutions if she doesn’t have the information? So that’s why I ask her to read my mails.

Here’s the method I put in place over time.

First stage: understand and sort

During a few weeks, my PA only reads my emails and tag them with the right tags, she doesn’t reply. On top of the usual content tag, we use 2 tags:

  • “to read”: these are the important emails that she thinks I should read
  • “to reply”: these are the emails that she thinks I have to reply or require an action from me

Everyday, we meet once or twice and she goes through the mails with me. I can therefore check her understanding of the mails and their level of importance. In this phase, I still check my emails: if it was unread, then I mark it back to unread for her. Even if we don’t meet, I can already sense whether she got things right.

Second stage: write and check

The second stage is to have her to start to deal with some emails. Her objectives is therefore to reduce the number of “to reply” for me. that’s usually when we set some rules, e.g. if it’s an invitation to an event, then ask whether I want to attend, log it in my calendar and arrange my agenda or, if it’s related to this topic, then forward to these people, etc. for emails she’s not sure about, she prepares a draft every day, I go with her through the “to reply” pile and review her draft or tell her how I want to reply It’s a great way for me to check her writing style, help her ensure structure in her emails, etc. At this stage, I have to be more disciplined and not reply straight away and let her do her job. For that, I had to disable mail notification on my mobile. The good thing is that at this stage I start to have free time to do other thing, and get my mind out of my emails knowing that she’s dealing with them.

Third stage: autonomy

The third stage is that I can tell her to send away emails directly. I tell her quickly the need and she sends out the email on her own. The “to reply” list is usually already low, and at this stage, it’s a trade-off between replying myself or taking time to reply with her, so that the list gets even smaller the next time.

Of course for difficult mails, or things she’s unsure of, she just ask me, and everything goes fine.

Sometimes she makes mistakes, she sends the wrong wording, she doesn’t get the right idea, but it’s usually easy to fix and I find that as long as I mention and explain the mistake, it hardly happens again.

The hardest bit I find is to make her read the emails I send, because they aren’t usually marked as unread. Maybe one way would be to bcc her to all email I send, so that she can read them from her own mailbox.

Other than my mailbox, I ask my PAs a bunch of other things. And as emails tend to fade with social network, I’ll have to work out a way for her to help me with G+… But of all the tasks she does, the most valuable for me is still to manage me and provide me with the discipline I usually lack of!