Submitted by: Artur Victoria
There is a definite, positive future for the assistant-to position, especially for training purposes or the accomplishment of special projects. Using the assistant-to position as an operational, permanent, or limbo function has less merit. In the process of data gathering several years ago, especially during visits to various organizations, there were strong indications of a more generally favorable feeling toward the assistant position as a training post. Key executives often like to have a permanent assistant-to, as differentiated from a permanent assistant-to position, so that they may rely on a particular individual. But to enjoy this luxury may invite some negative consequences regarding authority, real power, and lines of communication, responsibility centers, circumvention of chains of command, and the like.
Unfortunately, in most cases where the assistant-to position is used for limbo purposes, the purpose and use become obvious to others, and the role occupant is perceived almost disdainfully. Only in rare instances an assistant observes who made or was allowed to make a significant contribution to the organization and was consulted by other executives for assistance and expertise. If an executive wants to create a limbo assistant-to position or use an existing position for this purpose, then he should see to it that the assistant is given the opportunity to contribute in a way that is meaningful to the boss, the assistant-to, and the organization.
A truly important issue that must be faced better in the future is the relationship between an executive and his assistant-to, especially in the areas of job definition and status. In order to be fair both to the assistant-to and other people with whom he will come in contact, the boss must establish some sort of job for the assistant-to to do. It is not necessary to specifically delineate each and every duty the assistant-to will perform and distribute copies of this to everyone in the organization. However, the boss should make some sort of introduction to his staff and briefly discuss what the assistant-to will be doing.
For an assistant-to to feel personal satisfaction and self-fulfillment he must be given some significant work to do. That point has been made before but bears stressing. It is perfectly all right for a boss to ask his assistant-to to handle such seemingly mundane details as scheduling meetings, arranging luncheons, conducting tours, making travel plans, and so on. As a matter of fact, these are important facets of the job, but they should not be the whole job. A bright man or woman who is assigned as an assistant and finds himself or herself performing only tasks of this sort will soon become disenchanted and enervated.
Assuming an assistant-to is in the position for training purposes, for what is the person being trained? Routine jobs can ease the executive burden and an assistant should stand ready to anticipate and perform such tasks. Any assistant who thinks he or she is too good for such pedestrian duties should be promptly replaced. But the boss should take pains to see that the assistant also gains some feel and appreciation for top management functions and activities. In so doing, both the boss and assistant should optimize their goals. The chief will have a valuable assistant and will know that he, as boss and teacher, is making a significant contribution to the development of a less senior and less experienced executive. The assistant, while performing a useful function for his boss, will feel that he is enhancing his own future by learning how top management thinks and operates by actually participating in activities at the upper levels of organization.
After a period of orientation, the boss should gradually increase both the quantity and level of duties of his assistant-to with the quantity and quality being functions of the assistant demonstrated capabilities.
A key executive should learn from his assistant just as the assistant-to learns from the boss. Here, learn is being used in the broadest sense. A boss may learn specific data such as answers to questions from an assistant, but there are more subtle learning experiences from which the boss may benefit. This use should not be wholly restricted to finite data; it should include ideas, conceptions, and feelings. Finally, it is important that the boss not have a perfunctory attitude toward what his assistant tells him. Nothing will turn off an assistant-to (or any other executive for that matter) quicker than the realization that the boss is only tolerating in a patronizing way what is being said, and does not really care.
An executive must be willing to devote the time and energy necessary to train his assistant-to. This appears to be a rhetorical statement but, unfortunately, it has basis in fact. Executives may feel that it is an imposition on their valuable, limited time to develop their assistants-to. That is, they believe that assistants, if they are sharp and capable, ought to be able to adjust to situations and assimilate knowledge on their own. Granted that an assistant should be able to learn on his own, but without proper guidance from the boss he may learn incorrectly, flounder around wasting an inordinate amount of time, or, worse, never truly gain the perspectives expected of top management. This latter point is not meant to be construed as a form of brainwashing, but it should be a prime reason for using the assistant position for training.
There is value in being and using an assistant-to, but there are also possible dysfunctional consequences. An executive should carefully consider these points:
(1) Does he really want or need an assistant-to?
(2) How will the assistant-to be utilized? And
(3) Whom will he select to be his assistant-to?
A prospective assistant should be aware of both what the job entails and how compatible he will be with the boss.
The payoff for capital equipment is easily measured in terms while the value of developing future managers is not as finite or immediately discernible. The human factor in the organizational equation is of immense value, and the assistant-to is but one example. But the assistant is one position where an executive may receive administrative help from the role occupant and concurrently have a major input in the development of a future organizational leader.
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