C-Suite Advisory

10 Tips for Executives to Leverage Their Personal Assistants to Get More Done in Less Time

Unhappy business women thinking

I am stretched so thin with all the projects on my plate and sometimes it feels like getting help from an assistant isn’t a help, but rather it’s like adding another to-do to my plate.

This is a common response from executives of small and medium sized companies who I talk with after a keynote I give at a business conference or industry event.

One the one hand they say, “I know I need help managing the details and leveraging my time.” But on the other hand, getting that help via a personal assistant takes time.

I want to share 10 concrete tips to help you more effectively leverage your personal assistant so you can get more done in less time.

A quick back drop here: I’ve had 12 assistants work for me over the past 20 years at the 6 companies I’ve started (two companies I sold in 2005, the other 4 I still own in whole or in part.)

The first assistant I ever worked with was a disaster – Michelle. I was 26 years old and knew nothing about delegation or managing and was intimidated with the whole idea of asking anyone to fax or copy something for me, let alone make travel arrangements or follow up with staff or vendors. Michelle of course loved my reticence delegating to her, and within the first month it felt like I was working for her. (I still laugh about that looking back.)

But over time I learned, and now I can’t imagine life without a talented assistant.

With three young boys (ages 5, 5, and 22 months) I am careful to keep my working hours to under 40 hours a week so that I have time with my family. I couldn’t do that and still actively run 2 companies (and passively manage my interests in 2 others) without help.

My help comes from Alli. Alli is smart, conscientious, and possessed of a healthy dose of common sense.

Now with this context, allow me to share with you 10 tips to get the most from your personal assistant.

Unhappy business women thinking

1. Have ONE (1) project list on which your assistant tracks everything you give him or her to do.

Don’t try to manage deliverables by email. Instead have your assistant have one excel spreadsheet where he or she puts everything.

Make sure that your assistant – not you – owns the project list, and that everything (did I say everything) that he or she is doing for you gets on that list. This way you can trust that nothing will slip through the cracks because you’ve got one master list.

On Alli’s Project List spreadsheet she has 3 tabs:

— Active Projects

— Archived Projects (ones that are completed)

— Recurring Projects (tasks that happen over and over again each day, week, or month)

The project list has the following columns:
• Priority (1,2,3) “Never do a 3 when you have uncompleted 2’s; never do a 2 when you have uncompleted 1’s you could work on.”

• Project / Task (What you’ve asked your assistant to do)

• Date Assigned

• Date Due

• Status (I ask Alli to keep clear notes here versus on scraps of paper. E.g. “Talked with Martin at Acme Shipping at 10:15am on Friday September 4th and he confirmed that full shipment will be on road today and arriving by 4pm on Wednesday September 9th.“)

2. Use color to make finding new information instant.

I have Alli put all new information she inputs in RED font. That way I can go straight to the new inputs and ignore what I’ve already reviewed prior. When I’ve read it I turn her red into BLACK. If I want to add something new, I put my new in BLUE, which I know she’s read when she’s turned my blue into BLACK again.

3. Record your key “delegation meetings” for your assistant to review.

About once a week I’ll sit down with Alli for 45-60 minutes to both go over her project list and to hand her more projects and tasks.

As you can imagine, that’s a lot of information coming at your assistant in one sitting. So Alli has her recorder going and after the meeting, she goes back through her notes to compare them to the recording so that she captures everything.

I’ve found this one tip alone has made a big difference for both of us. Alli remarked to me just last week that while she originally felt like my insistence on her listening to the recording after we met was frustrating, but with a few months of doing it she found it incredibly helpful and reassuring for her that she captured everything.

4. Have an organized system to capture your delegation items for your assistant.

For me, I’ve learned that the fastest way to capture tasks and projects for Alli to do is to have three places I capture items:

A) In email (I use the “categories” and “quick steps” functions in Outlook to just flag an email for her to: do, add to an appointment, add to my contacts, or discuss with me.)

B) In a desk file. (This is where I put the scraps of paper or physical items that I will use to remind me to hand off to her.)

C) On a written “Assistant” delegation list. (I keep mine on an index card to the side of my desk.)

5. You must be able to trust and train your assistant to filter your inbox.

This is a tough one for many business executives. They are afraid of what their assistant will see. My belief is that if you have the right assistant, with a clear understanding on confidentiality, they will be more than mature enough to handle your inbox with discretion and intelligence.

Your assistant won’t be able to handle every email you get, but with some training over time, they will be able to handle 20-50% of what comes in. This means they’ll save you 30-120 minutes a day –every day—by screening your inbox before you get to it!

6. Set up an “assistant handled” subfolder that you use to train your assistant to handle your email the way you like.

Every time Alli answers or handles an email for me, she moves it into a folder called “Assistant Handled.” Once or twice a day I do a quick scan through that folder and see what she’s done there. When I see items that I think I should be handling not her, I flag it as “Leave in Inbox” or mark it to “Discuss with me”. This way over time she gets better and better at learning exactly how I want her to handle my email.

Because I know she’s reviewed anything in the “Assistant Handled” folder, I can scan it much faster trusting that she’s likely caught any critical emails earlier (which she would either leave in my inbox or asked me about if she didn’t know how to handle.)

7. If you must have a private email, set up a second email account that you access via webmail.

8. Have your assistant sign a robust confidentiality agreement.

This one is fairly self-explanatory. The biggest reason for this is that it gives you a clear way to discuss the importance of discretion. You need to explain to him or her that they’ll see things in the company that other people don’t know. They must be adult about it and not gossip or share inside news.

9. Let your assistant babysit any tech support you need for your office.

No more watching over the shoulder over the I.T. guy, your assistant is there to handle this.

Alli schedules most of the tech support for my office when I’m traveling so that when I come back the list of both fixes and preventative maintenance has happened and I just walk in and get right to work, producing value for the company.

10. Have your assistant build the “system” for being a great assistant for you.

Over time you’ll likely have multiple assistants work for you. Of the 12 assistants I’ve had over 20 years, 3 still work for my companies and 9 work at other jobs.

It is unrealistic to think you won’t ever have to bring on a new assistant. So make from the point of hire one of the key responsibilities of your assistant to create the system of how to be a great assistant for you. Not only does this build depth into your office, but it also helps your assistant become a better assistant for you faster.

There you have my top 10 tips to best leverage your personal assistant. Good luck and get to work handing off more work!

David Finkel
David Finkel is the author of 12 business books, including his newest release The Freedom Formula. He is the co-author of Scale: Seven Proven Principles to Grow Your Business and Get Your Life Back (written with Priceline.com co-founder Jeff Hoffman), and a respected business thinker. Finkel's weekly business owner e-letter is read by 100,000 business owners around the world each week. Finkel is the CEO of Maui Mastermind, a business coaching company. Over the past 20 years, Finkel and the other Maui coaches have personally scaled and sold more than $2 billion worth of businesses. David Finkel is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.