It's a Foot in the Door, but to Where Else?

Publication: New York Times


November 1, 2008

Q. You are thinking about applying for a job as an administrative assistant. What is the job like, and does it offer opportunities for advancement?
A. The core functions of administrative assistants are often secretarial, but the job can also involve client communications, negotiating with vendors, conducting research and preparing memos and reports.
"We recently had a candidate a few years out of college take a temporary administrative position and two years later she was a marketing manager at the same company - it's a foot in the door," said Daryl Pigat, manager of the Manhattan branch of OfficeTeam, the administrative division of Robert Half International, the staffing company.
Fifty-seven percent of executives polled in an OfficeTeam survey last March said that administrative staff members have more of a career-growth track than they did five years ago.
There is even a hierarchy within the administrative function, Mr. Pigat said. "A lot of executive assistants have their own assistants," he said, "because they've taken on so much responsibility."
Q. What career paths are open if you join a company as an administrative assistant?
A. The most common opportunities for advancement are in marketing, human resources, operations and facilities management, Mr. Pigat said. But no area is off limits.
As an administrative assistant, you are usually at the center of an office and in position to see how departments work together and how people are managed, said Currin Berdine, head editor of, which provides career information and resources to administrative professionals. "You are learning about the industry while making valuable connections," she said.
Q. One key to advancement is showing that you can handle more challenging responsibilities. How can you do that?
A. Start with some career planning. Assess your skills and think about the things you do best, what roles you enjoy in your current job and what you have enjoyed in previous jobs. Then look at the company and see where you can do that, advised Rachelle J. Canter, founder of RJC Associates, a career and leadership development firm in San Francisco.
Create a plan for handling your current responsibilities while adding others that will move you toward your professional goals. "If you start adding stuff willy-nilly, you are likely to get in way over your head and do things poorly, which sinks your whole plan," said Ms. Canter, who is also the author of "Make the Right Career Move."
Start adding responsibilities slowly and look to your boss for help. Ask if there is an unmet departmental need that you could assist with, and have a couple of your own suggestions - ways to cut costs or enhance client services, for example.
Gear extra projects toward your areas of interest. If you want to work in marketing, ask the marketing director if you can help with a project, Ms. Berdine said. Volunteer to assist with company events and philanthropic activities or to serve on a committee.
If you are interested in human resources, for instance, volunteer for the recruitment committee so that you can meet senior managers who could help you later on, said Christopher V. Flett, author of "What Men Don't Tell Women About Business" and founder of Ghost CEO, which offers professional development programs for women.
Q. You don't want to appear uninterested in your job as soon as you are hired, so how long should you wait to start looking for additional responsibilities?
A. At least six months to a year, Ms. Canter said - and during that time, of course, you must do a great job as an administrative assistant.
"If you're brand new on the job and already talking to your boss about what you can do next, that doesn't look like ambition; that looks like you don't care about your job," she said.
Q. How can you convince your boss to support you in your efforts to move up in the organization? And if you can't get that support, how can you make sure that others know what you've accomplished?
A. If you took the job knowing you wanted to move beyond it, tell your boss that you want to make your career in this industry and are willing to learn the ropes, said Karen Berg, the chief executive of the executive coaching firm CommCore Strategies in New York and author of "Loud and Clear: 5 Steps to Say What You Mean and Get What You Want."
When it's time to ask for support in moving forward, describe how you can make yourself more valuable to the company, Ms. Canter said. You can also discuss your commitment to training others, which may make your boss feel better about having someone else eventually step into your shoes.
But if you can't get the boss on your side, make sure to keep a record of everything you have done, Ms. Canter said. "Don't just write: 'I prepared an agenda' or 'arranged a meeting,'" she said. "Keep track of quantifiable results" - how fast you completed a project, for example, and how many people were involved.
"These are your accomplishments," she said, "whether your boss took credit for them or not."