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How to work with administrative support staff.

It's important to recognize the many contributions administrative support staff can make to a firm. Bonnie M. Householder, executive secretary to the senior vice-president--finance, Clopay Corp., 312 Walnut Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202, a certified professional secretary and president of the Cincinnati chapter of Professional Secretaries International, describes how to build a more effective team.

In these days of downsizing and cut-backs, more and more secretaries are assuming roles once handled by middle management. We are gaining more responsibilities and autonomy as well as more dollars. At the same time, gone are the days when there was one boss for every secretary. Many executives share secretaries with others, which makes teamwork even more important.

Studies have shown most secretaries spend less than five minutes face-to-face with their bosses each day. While this may seem surprising, on days when executives run from one meeting to another, five minutes may be a high estimate.

This lack of direct communication means it is even more important to learn to work effectively as a team. This can offer career growth opportunities for everyone involved, as well as technical, communication and time management skills. Supervisors should understand the ways in which administrative support staff can improve efficiency.


Secretaries can offer tremendous assistance in organizing professionals' time. For example, a secretary asked to arrange a meeting should be told the principals involved and the amount of time needed as well as the purpose. This approach is consistent with an important new business buzzword-empowerment. Empowerment doesn't mean merely delegating responsibilities but also giving the authority to act on them. For example, an executive asked to gather data for a project might involve a secretary by asking him or her to obtain the needed information from others in the office or company and compile it in a useful format within the required deadline.

Supervisors shouldn't delegate only nonessential work, but should offer detailed and challenging projects as well. They ought to give the support staff a chance to make mistakes and to grow. Secretaries should receive guidance but shouldn't be stifled. If a mistake is made, a good way to point it out is by saying, "Next time, you may want to consider .... "This will be more productive than an angry reprimand.

Delegating is well worth the effort it requires for several reasons. First, it's probably part of any executive's job description to keep an eye on the big picture and ensure the firm or department meets its overall goals. Chances are, CPAs know how to do everything in their departments, but delegating is more efficient and cost-effective. While secretaries are making more money these days, due in large part to additional responsibilities we have assumed, we are still not paid as much as our bosses. That's not to say the secretary's time is less important; it's simply less costly.

If a support person asks for help with a project, the supervisor's best response is to sit down with him or her, ask for an explanation of the problem and then just listen. The supervisor shouldn't respond instantly but ought to give the person time to consider the problem and, perhaps, to solve it by thinking out loud.

In first attempts at delegation, it's a good idea for supervisors to establish some progress checks along the way. The support person might handle one segment of a project by a set deadline before advancing to the next part to ensure he or she is on track and on time.


There are many ways secretaries with greater responsibilities--and greater self-confidence--can aid their management teams. For example, professionals who must complete time reports frequently write client activities on their calendars and hastily compile the reports the night before they're due. It would be much easier to let a secretary track time, and even expenses, daily.

This can be accomplished by using a daily to-do list or action plan. I have had great success with the format shown in the exhibit on this page, a regular 8 1/2" x 11" sheet divided into three sections identifying three or four important items to accomplish that day. The center of the page is split between telephone calls to return and meetings to attend. The bottom third covers extra messages. In that section, I usually include items the executive needs to follow up that would require additional work and have a longer lead time. This section also can be used to record time and expenses.

A secretary can maintain this plan in a computer, update it first thing each morning and have it on the CPA's desk when he or she arrives. Any documents needed for that day's meetings also should be attached. The CPA then notes time and expenses on the bottom portion of the sheet and returns it at day's end. There also are computer programs (for example, On-Time) for calendar use that include to-do sections.

Some managing partners review every audit report, compilation and major tax return that leaves their offices, and their secretaries must stay on top of every client report to ensure there aren't too many with the same deadline. The action to-do list can be used to note which reports are outstanding and when they're due.

Expense reports. Members of luncheon or country clubs receive monthly bills. Secretaries can note each day who was taken to lunch, then check the bills for accuracy when they arrive and record who was entertained each day and why. If it is a client and the bill can be charged to the client account, the secretary can mark down the client account number. By allowing secretaries to assume these duties and to fill out travel and expense reports, CPAs will have more time for clients.

Mail monitoring. Surveys have shown executives typically spend two or three hours each day reading and answering mail. That adds up to four months each year, or one year for every three on the job. In our company, we receive many requests for contributions and our contributions committee decides how to allocate funds. As requests come in, I research our giving history and write it on the face of the letter, noting the budgeted amount, if any, for that group this year. The executive I work with then can determine whether this group should be discussed at the next meeting.

Organization. Several years ago, I started using colored mail folders for incoming mail, which made it easy to see what was in the in box. For example, the red folder is "immediate attention," the green is "financial information," white is "general reading," etc. If something comes in as a response to a request for information we've sent out, I attach the original request.

Current events updates. I read all the financial periodicals (Wall Street Journal, Barron's, Fortune, Forbes, Business Week, Business Record, Business Courier and Journal of Accountancy) that come across my desk for articles of interest to the executive I work with. When I find an article I think will be of interest, I highlight it and put a tape flag on the edge of the page. I learn a lot while filtering news for my boss.

Communication--and solitude. It's a good idea for the boss and the support staff person to meet each morning to ascertain the day's action plan. Since this could be difficult and time-consuming for secretaries who serve more than one CPA, the secretary can check in when he or she delivers the mail.

Many executives like some quiet time each day when they can close their doors and work on whatever needs their attention. The open door policy in so many companies, which may result in a large number of interruptions, makes this time even more important. One way in which support staff can help is in organizing phone calls into one portion of the day--concept called grouping. The secretary screens or takes messages for all but critical calls. Each caller is told the call will be returned between, say, 1:00 and 2:00. This organized hour of phone time gives CPAs greater control over their own schedules. There are two drawbacks: If the call can't be returned at the appointed time, the executive may appear unresponsive. Also, if others in the firm know someone won't return calls, they may be more likely to drop in rather than call, which may become a greater disruption.


To polish or improve their technical skills, secretaries need to stay current with the ever-changing improvements in workplace technology. Communication skills also are paramount for success.

Most firms provide for management employees' professional development, but many don't offer the same opportunity for their support staffs. One good idea is to schedule a training session for support staff to explain exactly what the firm does. A half-day session on accounting, the types of companies the firm serves, an overview of the tax department or filing requirements, Securities and Exchange Commission reporting requirements, etc., could be very helpful for administrative staff members. It should not be an in-depth accounting course but, rather, an overview and explanation of terminology the staff will hear and should be able to understand.

Another good way to develop happier and better employees is to encourage support staff members to join a professional organization and to consider having the firm subsidize the membership dues. The organization to which I belong, Professional Secretaries International (PSI) sponsors the certified professional secretary (CPS) program. To earn a CPS, one must pass a two-day examination and meet experience requirements. There are six parts to the CPS exam: behavioral science in business, economics/management, business law, accounting, office administration/communication and office technology. Secretaries must be recertified every five years to maintain their standing. (For more information, write to PSI, 10502 NW Ambassador Drive, P.O. Box 20404, Kansas City, Missouri 64195-0404).

CPAs are professionals and expect to be treated as such. A secretary deserves the same respect. Firms will have a long and productive relationship with support staff if they recognize the contributions professional secretaries can make.

* IN THESE DAYS of downsizing and cutbacks, more and more secretaries are assuming roles once handled by middle management. Coupled with a frequent lack of direct communication, this makes it even more important to learn to work as a team.

* SECRETARIES CAN offer tremendous assistance in organizing professionals' time if they're given the information and responsibility they need to do it.

* DELEGATION IS WELL worth the effort it requires. Among the tasks support staff can perform for CPAs are assisting with time reports, overseeing travel and expense reports, monitoring the mail, organizing correspondence and highlighting articles of interest.

* MOST FIRMS PROVIDE for management employees' professional development, but many don't offer the same opportunity for support staff. One good idea is to schedule a training session for support staff to explain exactly what the firm does.
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Article Details
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Author:Householder, Bonnie M.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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