In this article, author Jan Jones discusses the importance of being detail-oriented in the executive assistant role.
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FlyPrivate: We’re pleased to share another question from the EA book club reading your book. They’ve asked about the importance of EAs being detail-oriented. In your book you describe it as “Scrupulous about details.”
Jan Jones: I’m glad to receive this question. A few instances of assistants on social media asserting that they should not be required to produce error-free work, has troubled me. From where did this notion arise? Why are any EAs onboard with lowering standards of excellence? This needs to be rooted out immediately before it gains any traction and erodes the gains executive assistants have made to be viewed as credible business professionals.
Let me say this as plainly as I can: Your reputation rises and falls on your ability to be scrupulous about the details. And I’m not speaking solely about the administrative basics like spelling and grammar. I’m speaking about the sum total of your work, whether it’s administrative, technical, financial, managerial or strategic.
You may be familiar with Harvard psychologist Dr. Martha Beck, famous author and monthly columnist for Oprah’s magazine for many years. She noted that “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Meaning if you are diligent in some areas, you’ll be diligent in other areas. If you are sloppy in some areas, you’ll be sloppy in other areas. If you can be trusted with the little things, you can be trusted with the big things, because that’s your modus operandi. Her statement is an insightful observation of how people conduct themselves. Whether you know it or not, that’s how you, too, are being perceived. People will recommend you, or hesitate to recommend you based on how they’ve observed your consistent performance, across the board.
When I was growing up, we were constantly told by parents and teachers, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” It speaks to your integrity and self-respect. The product you deliver is your guarantee of excellence. It says “This is who I am and I’m proud of what I’ve produced.”
The product you deliver speaks to who you are. It’s your brand, so take it personally. Develop the habit of getting things right, and getting them right the first time. From the tiniest task to the most elaborate project, attention to detail should be second nature. If your work has errors and omissions, you come across as disorganized and unprepared. Don’t compromise your reputation. Accuracy, care, thoroughness, these identify you as capable and competent, worthy of being trusted. This is how you distinguish yourself and position yourself for opportunities. This is how you build a reputation that will carry you successfully through a career lifetime. Invest in being the best and always putting your best foot forward. Believe me, it will take you places.
Your employer hired you for your competence and capability, for the value you can add. That’s why the interview process is rigid. Even more than making certain you are a culture and values fit, you have to be an A+ performance fit. Your executive and team have chosen you to handle matters of importance to the business. Your role is to meet those challenges by doing work that matters, in ways that matter.
Understand your value to the overall success of your enterprise. You are not a faceless cog in a wheel whose efforts aren’t worthy of attention and whose mistakes don’t matter. Businesses don’t have the luxury of employing people who add nothing to the bottom line.
Detail-oriented people produce high quality work and can be relied on to do so without constant supervision. Self-starters are a big benefit to an employer since too much time and resources are wasted checking and rechecking low-quality work.
An assistant who worked for one of my clients told me she was fed up with her executive looking over her shoulder. “He’s supposed to be the CEO. He should have better things to do.” Turns out he did, so he eventually fired her. I asked him about it. He said he and his team didn’t have time to keep sending back work to be fixed, or changing decisions she’d made. He said her job was not complicated. “Routine assistant work, for which we paid her well” is how he described it. But she just was not paying attention. “We were not being looked after,” he said wistfully.
Are you being micromanaged? Is your manager a control freak, or are you turning in work that has errors, which is why they micromanage you? Errors are costly to business. Make sure you aren’t giving your manager reasons to hover over you, instead of spending their time doing work that delivers more value to the business, work that makes them more productive, and puts them in a positive frame of mind. You are your executive’s deputy. How do you want your executive to be represented – by someone who is meticulous and fastidious about getting things right, or someone who is careless and loose with details, someone for whom near enough is good enough?
I’ve yet to see a job advertised that says details don’t matter. When I interviewed author Simon Sinek for my book, he commented, “Details aren’t menial. It’s not glamorous, it’s not the stuff that gets all the attention, but it’s the stuff that if it’s not done right, then everything else collapses around it.” Details matter immensely.
Be purpose-driven when you are working. Keep the big picture in mind. Keep your focus on what you are doing and why you are doing it. Where does what you are doing fit into the overall scheme of things? Remind yourself of the significance of what you are doing, and why you need to get things right. Some tasks might seem routine and mediocre. But what would happen if they didn’t get done? As Simon Sinek said, “Things would collapse.” That should tell you how consequential your work is and why you need to be fully engaged, not just going through the motions.
Proofread your work. This used to be drummed into our heads when I was training to be an assistant, and as we progressed, we were reminded to check our work, to proofread before turning it in, to take pride in error-free work. For some reason this doesn’t seem to be stressed much, probably because we expect technology will come to the rescue. Spellcheck will come galloping in on a white horse. But surely you know that spellcheck cannot distinguish homophones – wait/weight, weather/whether, buy/by, principal/principle, etc., along with one of the biggest offenders in the English language “your” for “you’re.” Be careful. This slip makes you look ignorant, which is worse than being perceived as careless.
Your job is to sweat the small stuff, so your executive doesn’t have to. And “small stuff” doesn’t mean trivial. It means every last detail is worthy of consideration. Like Steve Jobs spending hours discussing how the corners of the iPhone should look. What’s your version of that? Detail-oriented assistants notice things others don’t see. You pay close attention and routinely go the extra mile. You observe what’s going on around you. You are alert. No detail is too small to escape your notice. You notice discrepancies, inconsistencies, anything that is out of the ordinary that could spell trouble, or present an advantage your company can capitalize on.
Detail-oriented people are creative problem solvers. You know problem solving is a valued skill by employers because it’s a question you are virtually guaranteed to hear in a job interview. “Tell me about a time when you used your problem-solving skills to…”
Being detail-oriented is particularly helpful in developing communication and rapport with your executive and other stakeholders. Because you notice the details, you pick up on unspoken cues. Being able to read even minute changes of facial expression, or voice tone, make you a good predictor of behavior and good at anticipating.
Be quality conscious. Make delivering quality high on your agenda. It’s not something on which you compromise. Leave no stone unturned and take pride in flawless work. Flawless work means you check and check again to be sure your work is error-free. It doesn’t mean you obsess to the point of paralysis. It means you make certain all the bases are covered to the very best of your ability, and you work diligently to make sure your ability gets stronger every day. By being detail-oriented, we gradually develop a perfectionist’s mindset – a mindset that strives to routinely deliver top-notch work. Nobody’s suggesting you have to be infallible, but the more you practice paying attention, the better you will get because you are strengthening your focus and mental reflexes.
Many assistants are in perpetual reactive mode. Don’t run your day like that. Chaos leads to errors. As far as possible, sketch out your day. Organize your work methodically and make the necessary adjustments as your day progresses. When things are coming at you fast, take a moment to put them into perspective. Where do they fit into the jigsaw of tasks and projects you already have on your plate? Develop systems and procedures that give structure to your day, so you are not always operating from overwhelm. Structure gives you a framework within which to operate. It keeps things calm. It can help to regulate your day, helping you to evaluate your progress and keeping you focused on the end results that you have to deliver.
Don’t resist routine tasks. Use them to give your brain a chance to briefly downshift and rejuvenate, so you can catch your breath. Let routine anchor you in some degree of consistency that keeps you grounded, instead of always being in a rush and going off on tangents, which is when you get frazzled and errors creep in.
Are there downsides to being detail-oriented? It depends on how you use that valuable skill. Do you use it to get mired in minutiae? Do you let it slow you down to where you are missing deadlines, or turning in incomplete work because you are striving for that elusive perfection? Is it making you afraid to make decisions in case there’s one more detail left to consider? These are some downsides to taking being detail-oriented to extremes. Know when enough is enough. Know when you’ve got sufficient information to proceed. If you are unsure, ask your manager, “Is there anything I’ve overlooked? Is there any additional information you want to see here?” With their guidance, you will build up your ability and confidence to know when to wait and when to proceed. When I was an assistant, we used to ask each other for input. Many assistants have eagle eyes. They can spot things a mile off. Use this valuable resource to help you deliver error-free work and build EA camaraderie as well.
“Champions make decisions that create the future they desire,” says Pastor Mike Murdock. If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Take pride in not cutting corners. Details matter. They elevate your work and your standards to next level. The work you do gives you a chance to make a contribution, to feel worthwhile, to discover your value and develop skills that will sustain you successfully over time. Be scrupulous about the details. They will make you a high value employee and position you for the future you desire.
©The CEO’s Secret Weapon. The ideas expressed in this article and any text extracted from “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” are the intellectual property and copyrighted to Jan Jones. All rights reserved. No unauthorized usage or duplication by any means is permitted without the express consent of the author.
Want more from Jan Jones? Check out her Q & A Series!
Jan Jones is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness.” The book has received widespread acclaim from executives and executive assistants worldwide. Jan spent 20+ years as an esteemed international executive assistant to well-known business people, including Tony Robbins, the world’s #1 business and life strategist. Jan continues to champion the executive assistant profession with her writing, consulting and speaking. She offers timeless, practical advice that is relevant to the day-to-day role of the executive assistant.
Visit Amazon to purchase Jan Jones’ book and visit her website: The CEO’s Secret Weapon.
The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness
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Oh yes, attention to detail is critical for the executive assistant role. The role is demanding and requires a high level of organization, efficiency, and accuracy. These qualities are directly tied to an individual’s ability to pay close attention to details.