My first day as an assistant principal was a whirlwind.
I began at the district office where I completed paperwork and met district office staff. Next, I reported to my building where I met with the head principal. After briefly chatting, we walked out into the office area.
During this time I was introduced to several office staff, including the nurse, two counselors, head custodian, and two secretaries - one of which was the secretary assigned to my position. After exchanging pleasantries and chatting for a few moments, I retreated to my new office.
After unpacking a few items, I took a few deep breaths, leaned back in my new office chair, and kicked my legs up on my new office desk (ok so I didn’t really put my legs on my desk, but I thought about it).
It was during this time when I began thinking about my secretary. My first thoughts were “Wow, I’ve made it to the big time! I have a secretary!” At 26 years old, it was a surreal feeling knowing an employee’s main role was to provide me with assistance.
However, a few moments later, my thoughts shifted: “How exactly … am I supposed to use a secretary?” Until this point I had never been in charge of other adults, and I certainly had never been taught how to manage the roles and responsibilities of this position.
Little did I know my relationship with my secretary would be one of the most important - and most complicated - relationships as a school leader.
The more I work with other school leaders, the more I realize the relationships with their secretaries (or “administrative assistants”) are far from perfect. In fact, quite often these relationships are bumpy.
Leaders who assume new positions rely heavily on their secretary. Not only do they know everything about the building, secretaries also control many of the organization’s logistical and communicative processes. So when leaders have questions about building operations, secretaries are the first place they turn.
In most cases, these relationships start great. Eager to make the relationship work - and weary of making changes - administrators defer many decisions to secretaries. Even if they don’t necessarily agree with or understand certain processes, administrators are willing to adapt.
However, as administrators learn the lay of the land, their reliance on secretaries lessens. Whereas initially they may have relied on their secretary for advice, over time leaders become comfortable making their own decisions and pushing personal priorities.
This relational shift can get quite tricky. Many incumbent secretaries have been in their roles for years and have done things a certain way for a long time. So when the new leader wants to make changes, often secretaries will resist the change. “We’ve done it this way for the last five principals … why should I change now?”
If this scenario resonates with you, take comfort in knowing you are not alone. I have experienced this resistance to change with several secretaries. And to be clear, it’s hard to blame them! Many secretaries cycle through several different leaders. With administrator turnover reaching all-time highs, lifelong secretaries could work with double digit leaders over the course of a career. Even the most adaptable people become rigid when told “you need to change” by a boss who leaves the following year.
So how do administrators forge relationships where secretaries feel empowered and influential while still understanding that their main purpose is to support the leader? Here are seven ideas:
Weekly Meetings: Many of you reading this article will say, “I meet with my secretary all the time, I don’t need a weekly meeting.” Unfortunately, these conversations are usually focused on the leader’s needs - not the secretary‘s. Leaders should schedule a weekly meeting (at least 30 minutes) designed for the secretary to talk and the leader to listen. Only after secretaries share their items should leaders cover their topics.
Set Expectations: The first weeks on the job are vital for a school leader to set the stage with employees, and the secretary is no different. Leaders must take advantage of these early conversations to proactively set the stage for the relationship. Leaders would be wise to say something along the lines of, “I’m excited to use these first several months to learn from you and the processes that you already have in place. But please understand that I bring a unique perspective to this position and will likely make changes at some point.”
No Surprises: School leaders are often guilty of keeping secretaries out of the loop on important decisions. “I don’t want to share confidential information,” these leaders explain. Unfortunately, this archaic way of thinking does not serve leaders well in a time when information travels at record speeds. Not only does sharing important information with secretaries build the relationship, it also prepares the secretary when complaints come through the office.
ERA: In Permission to be Great, Dan Butler discusses “ERA” which is an acronym for encouragement, recognition, and appreciation. It is vital that school leaders practice all three with their secretaries. Good secretaries are worth their weight in gold, and they should never leave work questioning their value. Unfortunately, many school leaders do a terrible job ensuring their secretaries understand their importance.
Flexibility: Unlike teachers and classroom paras who are expected to be in front of kids 90% of the day, secretaries have more flexibility in their job. “But who will answer the phone when they’re gone?” Relax - it will be fine. Employees crave autonomy, and bosses should be flexible in how they treat secretarial hours. Office staff should never feel bad about leaving for an appointment, taking a long lunch, or working from home while tending to a sick child. While some traditional secretaries may not care, most secretaries value a flexible work environment.
Coaching: Let’s be honest, not every secretary is going to be a rockstar. Some mediocre secretaries have been passed down from leader to leader without any coaching. Similar to how teachers must be given professional development to improve deficiencies, secretaries must be provided with opportunities to improve. Whether the improvement area is technology-related (quite often) or customer-service-related (more difficult to address), school leaders must be willing to discuss these issues and develop plans for improvement.
Make a Change: So what if you have done everything listed above and still don’t feel like you are getting the most out of your secretary? It may be time to make a change. “But they know so much about our building, how will we replace them!” While there may be a steep learning curve to start, over the long run many leaders discover that bringing in a secretary who is open to new ideas can make a world of difference.
As I look back on my first years in administration, I realize I had no clue how to properly use a secretary. Heck, as I near 15 years in educational leadership I still have a lot to learn about this partnership.
If you find yourself wondering why the relationship between boss and secretary is such hard work, understand the following:
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