The 15 Undeniable Skills of a Rockstar Administrative Assistant
A stellar Administrative Assistant can be a company’s secret weapon.
“Administrative Assistant” used to be synonymous with things like scheduling, bookkeeping, and arranging travel. Not so today.
While these functions are still an important part of the job, these days admins are tasked with a lot more. Often, Admins take on front-line strategic functions traditionally relegated to HR or operations – things like onboarding new hires and event planning.
Admins are also often tasked with managing company culture.
More and more, maintaining a positive office culture is critical for recruiting and retaining top talent, engaging employees, and inspiring them to perform their best. A company’s Admin is very often tasked with culture-related responsibilities like planning offsites, managing perks like office snacks, and generally maintaining the office vibe.
When it comes down to it, Admins are expected to keep things running smoothly, no matter what it takes. Think of them sort of like the “utility player” in baseball. They’re Jacks- and Jills-of-all-trades, expected to perform at a high level in a ton of different situations.
(PS – If you’re an Office Manager or Assistant, join our private FB Group here. It’s a place to connect, collaborate, and share advice on how to overcome the wide spectrum of challenges you face in your role.)
So it makes sense that today’s Admins need a wide array of skills in order to succeed in this challenging role.
But what are those skills? And what separates the good admins from the great?
That’s exactly what we asked our community of rockstar admins. Here are the skills that really pay the bills.
1. Creative Problem Solving
Since an Admin’s main responsibility is to keep things on point, problem-solving is an indispensable skill.
Chelsea Hnat, Executive Assistant to the CEO for Advancing Women Executives, tells us why:
“Administrative Assistants are in a unique position to be polymaths – they know about so many different aspects of their work environment and are seen as a go-to for problem-solving.
The more they are able to effectively troubleshoot, the more valuable they become in their position because they keep everything moving smoothly.”
Creativity and the ability to improvise, according to Hnat, is a necessary part of the equation at companies of any size.
“I see this at both small and large-scale companies, but at a small company like mine, the impact of these skills is monumental and really gets you noticed.”
2. Proper Etiquette
Admins interface with people every single day. All sorts of people.
Like Office Managers, Admins are one of the few people in a company (other than perhaps the CEO or senior HR staff) that deal with employees at every level.
Of course, this isn’t limited to internal interactions. The Admin role is almost always forward-facing. If you’re an Admin, you’re often the gatekeeper for a department or executive, handling incoming calls, reaching out to vendors, or speaking directly with high-level execs at other companies.
That’s why good manners and etiquette are so important. Admin Elizabeth White-Peters explains, telling us that manners are “a lost art that guides one through many challenging circumstances.”
According to White-Peters, one of the secrets to mastering the art of manners is in listening. She says,
“[A] rockstar [admin] listens not just to the words, but to tone and body language in order to read between the lines.”
Here’s an example of what she means:
“The phone rings. It’s an aggravated voice demanding to speak with the Manager. While smiling and being polite, an admin quickly assesses the situation. Based on company culture, several actions could take place: one could take a note and assure the caller it would be passed on, one could put the caller on hold and determine how to interrupt the manager/transfer the call, or one could try to resolve the issue directly.
By listening to language and tone, one can determine which actions to take. Each step of the way with polite communication, the potential of handling the situation to best results for the caller and manager increases.
‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ will be noticed by both. With experience, the admin will learn from the Manager what worked well and thus, know how to handle for the next occurrence.”
Admins, it turns out, need a high emotional IQ, and the ability to read people and react accordingly.
3. Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence refers to a knack for understanding—and even influencing—emotions in ourselves and others. The most successful Admins have emotional intelligence in spades. Here’s why:
- Emotional intelligence makes people easy to work with. Admins attuned to the emotions of others achieve better results from negotiations and other interactions. Emotional intelligence translates to better outcomes in dealing with all people and all situations, making it a must-have skill for Admins, who have to request work, perform work, and negotiate about work with tons of people.
- Emotional intelligence helps people manage the emotions of others. This ability to read people helps Admins anticipate the needs of bosses and other key associates. For example, guessing that a boss is unhappy with a report gives an ambitious Admin the chance to win favor by redirecting or reframing the conversation.
- Emotional intelligence makes conflict resolution a breeze. Understanding emotions makes dealing with emotions, even negatives ones, easier. And knowing how to deal with emotions gives Admins the tools to resolve any conflict.
- Emotional intelligence makes stress easier to manage. Emotionally intelligent Admins can recognize the signs of their own stress and realize it’s time for a meditation break.
4. Foresight and Anticipation
The best Admins don’t need to be told what to do. They anticipate the solution before the problem even becomes a problem. These Admins rise from being super helpful to being indispensable, the secret weapons bosses just can’t live without.
Kelly Todd started her career as an EA, supporting two execs at a HGTV-based production company. In her mind, it was her ability to anticipate that really made her shine.
“Paying attention to the details is really going to take you far because these execs demand perfection, and as nice as they can be, they want things to do be done right, and your job … is to make their lives easier.
If you can stay one step ahead of the boss, like, ‘I took care of taking this reservation for you because I see on the calendar that you’re blocked.’
That anticipation and that kind of preparedness over and above them is going to really make you stand out to them….
The [Admin] can be the Exec’s best friend, and if they’re thinking one step ahead of them, you’re going to stand out.”
Chelsea Hnat agrees:
“Since their work involves so many different aspects within a company, they have a distinct ability to predict potential challenges and outcomes.”
In the past, we’ve argued that multitasking is a myth that destroys productivity. Our brains aren’t wired to perform more than one-high level task at a time, so the best strategy is to prioritize and knock them out one by one.
And while this is largely true – you shouldn’t try to write a financial model while you’re on a sales call, for instance – some of an Admin’s core responsibilities require them to knock out tasks simultaneously.
That’s because in addition to the bigger, more strategic responsibilities, rote tasks like filing or scheduling still often fall to Admins. Being able to get these done quickly – or simultaneously – is a major advantage. The best Admins do this effortlessly.
Stephanie Merritt, Administrative Assistant at Bonitz, explains:
“The top skill that an Administrative Assistant is the ability to multi-task. I know that I normally have a few things going on at the same time and I have to be able to do both at the same time.
For example: I have to make hotel rooms for our sub-contractors, while I am on the phone, I can answer emails, or finish up some paperwork.”
As we’ve noted before, an Admin’s responsibilities are wide and varied. Often, this means being able to stop on a dime and pivot towards a completely unrelated project. Things change quickly, and the best Admins can react and adapt with ease.
For example, if the boss suddenly reveals a spontaneous trip that will send her out of the office for the next two weeks, her Admin needs to spring to action, clearing her schedule while effectively communicating with all affected parties to avoid hurt feelings and bruised egos. In this situation, there’s no time to stress out and spend hours deciding what to do.
Here’s Merritt again to explain:
“The other top skill would be being able to change what you are working on in a moment’s notice. I can be in the middle of something and my boss walks in and says he needs something now, I have to stop what I am doing and do what he has asked of me, then get back on track for what I was doing before he came to see me.”
That’s a key point – it’s not just about quickly switching tasks, it’s about being able to get back on track once you switch back. After all, there’s very little that an Admin does that isn’t important.
7. Meticulous Organization
It might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s super important. When you’re working on a ton of different projects, you don’t have time to waste duplicating work due to a lack of organization. Plus, organization helps reduce stress, and it also stops important work from “falling through the cracks” both literally and figuratively.
When it comes to how you get organized, Stephanie Merritt contends that there’s only one rule – whatever works for you:
“No two people work the same. I like to finish a project before I start on another one. But that is not always possible, so I have to have reminders to tell me to finish the first project I was working on.
Everyone has their own organizational skills and know what works best for them. I’m a sight person. I use the calendar a lot. I also have stuff in my floor so I can keep up with everything.
One girl that I work with uses stacks on her desk, so she can be sure what she is working on is finished.”
Whatever your method, organization is definitely a must-have Admin skill.
8. Having a “Servant’s Heart”
First coined by Robert Greenleaf, the term “servant-leader” has made its way into the management lexicon as of late. It refers to a style of leadership that puts the well-being of others first. In practice, this means focusing on personal and professional development, and viewing one’s main responsibility to be to support the success of one’s team.
This idea of “service” is just as important in the Admin role as it is in a leadership role.
“This is very important. A rockstar executive or administrative assistant WANTS to serve their leader – whether the task is big or small. A strong admin knows that by helping achieve their boss’s goals they will achieve their own.”
-Valerie Gomez, Administrative Assistant at ADP
Great Admins are selfless, and know that their willingness to pitch in for the team helps ensure both the team’s success and their own.
The ability to improvise, think on your feet, and come up with solutions of the fly is one of the most important traits an Admin can pick up. Valerie Gomez explains why:
“I have yet to coordinate an event that goes off without a hitch regardless of how meticulous I plan. Whether there’s a last minute change in headcount that you already budgeted for or a system glitch in the monitor display 5 minutes before your boss’s presentation is scheduled to go live.
You must be able to think on your feet – whatever the problem, a rockstar admin will find a solution!”
Elizabeth White-Peters agrees that resourcefulness is a key trait, saying,
“I see AA’s as corporate MacGyver’s (remember that show from the 90’s?) who have their hands in a little of everything, are able to creatively solve problems, and are able to ask the right questions early on in order to prevent any gaps in projects or unexpected challenges.”
We’re all familiar with Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Well, the business world is not immune – far from it. Anyone who’s ever managed a project knows that challenges are inevitable.
Same goes for the Admin role. At some point, things will go sideways. Servers crash, phone systems go down, vendors flake, flights get canceled, people quit.
This isn’t just about being resourceful. It’s about being strong enough to stand up to any situation. A rockstar Admin doesn’t crumble under pressure. The best ones persevere, rise to the occasion, and get the job done. That’s true grit.
Here’s how Admins can cultivate true grit, sometimes called resiliency:
- Socializing with coworkers. Socializing releases oxytocin, which reduces susceptibility to stress.
- Asking for advice. Sometimes, a different perspective is all we need to get through rough times.
- Focusing on mindset. People can control only the lens through which they see the world, but they can alter their viewpoints from negative to positive with a simple change of perspective.
11. Effective Communication
There’s no type of communication that Admins don’t touch. They have to be savvy on the phone, write good emails, and project confidence when they speak to employees at all levels face-to-face. Often, they have to write company-wide communications or even put together presentations on behalf of their boss.
No matter what the medium, their communication has to be clear, direct, and succinct. This is especially true for Admins who work closely with executives. CEOs and other senior leaders don’t want dissembling, rambling, or any other sort of run-around – they want you to get right to the point.
Learning the most effective way to do that helps separate the good Admins from the great ones.
Admins looking to sharpen communication skills can enlist the help of a go-to review buddy. This person is ready to provide casual feedback on face-to-face scripts, emails, and anything else. They’re not performing an in-depth review; they’re simply pinpointing areas that just don’t make sense.
Even after just a few review rounds, Admins will see different pathways for increasing clarity in their communications.
12. Tech Savviness
Admins and technology sort of go hand in hand these days. It’s not just email anymore – Admins are expected to be proficient in a wide range of integrated apps and platforms.
We’re talking communications apps like Slack, calendaring systems like Calendly, billing systems, travel reservation platforms, HR systems like TriNet, or employee engagement software like Quantum Workplace, 15Five or TINYpulse. (Read Quantum Workplace’s awesome guide for buying employee engagement software.)
That’s a lot of tech.
When things go wrong, you can’t always rely on IT personnel. In fact, at smaller companies, the Admin might actually be the defacto tech guy or gal. If you can reboot a crashed computer, publish a blog post in WordPress, or even just restart the internet, you’ve got a leg up in the Admin Game.
So how can Admins polish their tech savviness? They can start by making a list of frequently used tech and identifying which tools they’re least comfortable with. After that, practice makes perfect. We recommend blocking off an hour each day to experiment with different tech, get to know the systems, and browse the tools’ Help and Community pages. Many of these pages have treasure troves of resources most people never even look for; some pages even have 24/7 chat interfaces or phone lines run by tech experts that can answer any question. When the next big technically difficulty arises, the big fix might be as easy as knowing where to go to get help fast.
13. Big Picture Thinking
Trusted Admins are often de facto advisors to senior leadership. They can serve as a sounding board for new ideas, suggest new processes, or even weigh-in on hiring decisions.
The best Admins provide valuable insight by making recommendations based on an understanding of a company’s business and its culture. Knowing how to think about things in the context of a bigger whole is critical.
Big picture thinking might sound like something best left to the visionaries of the world, but in truth, everyone can cultivate the ability to think ahead. Consider driving. Good defensive driving involves scanning ahead to see where the road is taking you. This same technique applies to abstract concepts, like company goals. What road are you paving for your company with the actions you take today? What obstacles do you expect to confront? Once you can visualize these things, you can prepare for them.
14. Attention to Detail
If big picture thinking matters, the flipside is also true. Details are important in Admin work, and having a keen eye for them is indispensable.
Think about it – a lot of what an Admin does is relatively high-stakes. If you don’t get that exec on a flight, she might not be able to close that next round of funding that your company needs to keep the lights on.
If you don’t get a finicky vendor paid on time and for the right amount, they might turn around and sue your company. Or worst of all … an errant mistake on your part might make your boss look bad.
Quality control when it comes to details is a big asset for any Admin.
Through the art of prioritization, Admins can transform a to-do list into a list of invaluable accomplishments. An ability to differentiate between “mission-critical tasks” and “tasks that can wait” showcases impeccable judgement, leadership skills, and an alignment with company values. Best of all, prioritization showcases competence, inspiring trust from leaders who are thrilled they don’t have to hold any hands.
Prioritization might also be the key to keeping calm while facing a task list that multiplies by the second. A lack of focus in these situations leads to panic, and panic kills productivity. Diving right into a few critical tasks and tabling trivial ones keeps priority workflow moving while reducing the stress of trying to get everything done.
Admins can boost prioritization skills by listening carefully during meetings and casual chats to absorb the context behind different assignments and better judge their importance. We also recommend going through the to-do list and asking, “What does this affect?” The true priorities will emerge soon.
So what say you? Do you consider yourself a legendary Admin? What are the skills that have served you well? Don’t be shy, let us know in the comments below.