In this article, Author Jan Jones discusses attention to detail as it relates to the Executive Assistant position.
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FlyPrivate: Our recent interview on Multitasking produced many
conversations about how the digital world is creating distractions. Not only is productivity decreasing, people are having trouble paying
attention, so the percentage of mistakes is growing. You say in your book that assistants should be “scrupulous about details.” What are the consequences of poor attention to detail by executive assistants?
Jan Jones: “Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it.
Autograph your work with excellence.” – Ted Key, Cartoonist
Attention to detail is a cornerstone of the executive assistant role. It’s what differentiates superior executive assistants from those who are content with average performance and not too particular about the quality of their end product.
I like the saying “Quality is non-negotiable.” Poor quality will destroy your credibility. If you are a freelance virtual assistant, it will destroy your business. Your work is your signature. It says this is the very best I can do. That being the case, we must make delivering a quality product a priority.
Steve Jobs insisted that the Mac should be as beautiful inside as it was on the outside, even though the inside was rarely seen. His wife said “Steve and Jony (Ive) would talk for hours about corners.”
Corners of the iPhone, how they should look, feel and function. If you are familiar with Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, which uses Apple as the example, this is the “How” Apple does what it does, (“Our products are beautifully designed.”) This fanatical attention to detail is why people line up overnight waiting for the release of a new Apple product. People will pay a premium for products that radiate attention to detail. Owning such a product says something about you and how you wish to be perceived. That’s why people willingly pay for designer labels that exude quality.
I remember a client taking me to lunch at a restaurant with a stellar reputation. When I declined dessert, she insisted I try one of the
signature desserts. After one bite I said to her “now I know why this dessert costs $30.” The attention to detail in the presentation, the precision of execution, the mastery of blending and balancing flavors that leaves your mouth dancing, it was stunning from start to finish. It didn’t just round out the meal, it eclipsed the main meal and turned the lunch into a transcendent experience.
In your role as executive assistant, what’s your version of these
examples? How is your end product demonstrating your attention to detail so that your executive and team members are ecstatic you are on their team, and that they get to work with you every day? If
assistants truly value their reputation, if they wish to establish their credibility and be taken seriously, then they must make sure to
consistently put out a quality product that exceeds expectations, or at the very least is free of errors and done right the first time. If you have a reputation for being meticulous and paying attention to
detail, small transgressions will be forgiven. If not, it will be one more example of you not being invested in excellence, or caring about how you are perceived. Such a reputation is hard to live down.
No two ways about it, exceptional executive assistants are
scrupulous about the details. They know that sloppy output, typos, poor grammar, avoidable mistakes, don’t only reflect poorly on the
executives they support, it’s a negative reflection on them
personally, and no professional executive assistant wants that
reputation. Forget all that talk about your brand and the image you are trying to project of being a leader and strategic thinker, if you don’t produce work that is thorough and complete. Check your work. Your finished product is your autograph, your reputation, and credibility.
Careless work has real consequences. Close to 80% of recruiters say that typos or bad grammar on a resume are immediate deal
breakers, because they show a lack of attention to detail.
My first boss was an absolute stickler for the details. As an
inexperienced but ambitious secretary, I was itching to jump into big-picture activities, without even knowing what it meant, or what it took to operate at that level. How could I pay attention to the
details when I didn’t even know what those details were? My
inexperience would have caused me to drop the ball, and create problems for my company. Thankfully, with an eagle eye executive looking out for me and smartly capitalizing on my drive to excel, I grew to understand that the big picture is made up of smaller pieces, little details that meticulously build upon each other to create the big picture, just like the big picture comes into view as you build a jigsaw puzzle. As I learned and matured, I understood why I needed to get it right and get it right the first time. Obviously, if you’ve never done something before, it’s possible you won’t get it right the first time. But once you’ve learned how to do the job, pay attention to how you execute because you will be expected to turn in quality work.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the statement “Never time to get it right, but always time to do it over.” There is a cost to business in time and money when we don’t pay attention to the details, when things are missed or wrong, and the work has to be re-done. Do you know that lack of attention to details impacts employee morale? It frustrates your colleagues. These are the people upline and
downline who are relying on the job you do – you are that vital
component that allows them to complete their project on time and on budget. If you make mistakes it decreases productivity, wastes their time, and could result in delays that cause your company to
upset their customers, or even lose them. Worst case, there could be legal or compliance ramifications from inaccurate work.
In one fell swoop, your credibility is lost if your work is sloppy, or brands you as functionally illiterate. An assistant colleague asked my opinion on a survey soliciting input from EAs. The survey questions had some unsubstantiated assumptions and the EA didn’t want a
repeat of that infamous Wall Street Journal article from earlier this year. I sent a private message to the woman with the survey, asking a few questions and entreating her to be careful how she positioned the role of the EA because the last thing we need is another
magazine circulating misconceptions about the role. Here’s the
response I got from her:
“If any of the EA’s that you reference to are at the level to support my research then they would of all ready knew me and what work I have been doing while in Silicon Valley supporting my CEO to now being a business owner.”
Can you imagine the shock people might get when they receive
correspondence from her? I’m always driving home to EAs that you are your executive’s face and voice to the world. What image is this woman projecting on behalf of her executive? She assisted a top
executive in Silicon Valley, where, we hear, they are demanding EAs have degrees. Yet, there exists a top executive there whose assistant seems barely literate in her native language. Not exactly modeling Steve Jobs’ passion for “how” we do things.
One group of assistants proudly displayed a newspaper
article that said they were a team of rock star assistants. The
problem is the article had a glaring typo in the big headline, which none of those EAs addressed, so instead of being celebrated, they were being ridiculed. Even if one of them had offered some
explanation (most likely the newspaper was at fault), things could have been different for them. Assistants, you have to get out ahead of things and head them off, or quickly set them straight with an
explanation. Leaving things to languish and hoping they go away is not a good strategy in protecting your reputation for being
scrupulous about the details.
Another area where assistants must pay more attention to detail is on social media. It’s a low-key environment, but that doesn’t mean you lower your standards. Recently, there have been postings where people meant to say “a part of”, as in they are happy to be a part of a group. They wrote it as “apart”, which means separate from. One memo we received said the caterer’s signature tamales are
“Handmaid daily.” These are examples of easily avoided carelessness. Pay attention and don’t let hasty work tarnish your reputation for reliability.
Proofreading, especially lengthy pieces, is not easy. That’s why it calls for your special attention. Read your work, then set it aside. Come back to it with fresh eyes. If possible, run it by someone else to get another set of eyes on it. If my bosses prepared their own
documents, they always gave them to me to read before sending out. If they were lengthy or complicated, I printed them out to proofread. Studies show, and for me personally, I know that reading on paper is more effective in detecting errors that get missed onscreen, not to mention being easier on tired eyes. Another tip is to read your work out aloud to yourself. Sometimes what we intend to say, and what we actually write, are not the same. Reading aloud lets you discover the errors more easily.
Do you know that a key factor of CEO success is their attention to detail? Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom says “CEOs are unbelievably detail-oriented. That’s one of the big ingredients of their success.” This is an executive success habit that assistants must absolutely mirror. Bloom says that when he teaches students, they get “over excited about the big-picture, sexy stuff of long-term
strategy and skip over the small details which turn out to be
critically important in business.” This is something I learned at the start of my assistant career, and can’t emphasize enough, especially to younger assistants today. If you can’t perform well in the small things, you won’t do well with the bigger critical tasks, and no
serious executive is going to take that risk. Would you if you were in their shoes? You have to practice excellence and demonstrate it
daily before you’ll be given entrée to inner circles, or invited to take that seat at the table you may feel entitled to. As UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “Little things make big things happen.”
If you’d like to brush up on making big things happen through your attention to detail, here are some suggestions:
- To produce error-free work start by focusing on what you are
doing. Slow down and give yourself time to think. When you rush, the finer points get missed.
- Prioritize your workload so you don’t forget about a
time-sensitive project and then rush to complete it.
- Keep distractions to a minimum, especially if you are doing work that requires high levels of concentration.
- Make sure you are clear about expectations. How much time do you have to complete the job? What are the deadlines? Is the
entire project due at one time, or are there milestones you need to meet?
- Analyze and understand what’s in front of you. Ask if you don’t understand so you don’t waste time re-doing things.
- Plan your work. What’s the end result you need to produce and how will you go about it? It’s helpful to understand how your task fits into the broader picture with your team, or company. When you view it from that perspective, you get a better understanding, the details become clearer and you can make sure not to miss them.
- Certain jobs that you do on a regular basis might benefit from a checklist that you can use to make sure no details are overlooked. For smaller or easier jobs, I would sketch out in my mind what needed to be done. But for bigger projects, I created a detailed checklist and crossed off each item or segment as it was completed.
- A big project with many elements can be intimidating, so break the job down into manageable segments that will make it easier for you to review and catch any omissions or errors.
- Remember, get the right things done and get them done right the first time. Check and re-check your work. If possible, get a second set of eyes on a project that is more involved.
- Have confidence in yourself and your ability to get the job done.
- Be passionate and proud of what you do. The way you present yourself matters. In the words of the poet, Kahlil Gibran, “Work is love made visible.”
Visit Amazon to purchase Jan Jones’ book and visit her website:
The CEO’s Secret Weapon.
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