Secrets of the Administrative Assistant

17/02/2014 | By | Reply More

The modern secretary/PA must juggle numerous tasksSecrets of the Administrative Assistant

A sample of 194 Administrative Assistants from 100 different firms and institutions were used to identify behavioral stances that are not readily visible (i.e., secrets).

The Administrative Assistant role is shown to be unique and highly specialized in terms of its approach to work issues. The research uses over 5,000 people in professional roles as well as people in a range of management postions up to and including the CEO to show the distinctive nature of the Administrative Assistant position.

By: Gary J. Salton, Ph.D. 

Chief: Research and Development
Professional Communications, Inc.SUMMARY

This research is based on a 194-person sample from 100 different organizations.  The research demonstrates the centrality of the Administrative Assistant’s role by contrasting it with over 5,000 people in other professional and managerial roles. Behavioral stances that are not readily visible (i.e., secrets) are shown to be derivative by-products of the processes required by the basic Administrative Assistant function.

A companion video both abbreviates and expands this research.  It can be viewed on www.iopt or by clicking the icon on the right to directly access the YouTube video.


The importance of Administrative Assistant is reflected in its prevalence. The US Government identifies this category as “among those with the largest number of job openings” (1).  The duties generating this level of demand are varied. They typically include activities such as:

1. Controlling and directing access (e.g., telephone, visitor, etc.)
2. Ensuring that material is available when needed (i.e., inventory control)
3. Sourcing suppliers and processing invoices for payment (vendor relations)
4. Preparing/directing internal communications
5. Scheduling and coordination (e.g., meetings, events, etc.)
6. Preparing material for distribution (e.g., letters, memos, reports, packages, etc.)
7. Compiling data and performing preliminary analysis
8. Maintaining records for later use in analysis and/or validation (e.g., audit)

The list is not exhaustive but it is indicative. It describes both a “gatekeeper” and a conduit function.  In both roles interest centers on the control of inputs (broadly defined) to the organization.


The data from 194 Administrative Assistants were drawn from 100 unique organizations. Table 1 shows the geographic distribution of the sample.

Table 1
Secrets of the Administrative Assistant

The sample size is reasonably representative of Administrative Assistants within the United States. Possible cultural differences suggest that caution be used in applying the results outside of that context.

The sample titles had a variety of names attached to Administrative Assistant role (e.g., executive assistant, secretary, etc).  These were tested statistically. It was found that all shared the same basic approach.  This suggested a reasonable commonality in job content.

The sample also included Administrative Assistants from educational institutions, non-profits and for-profit firms.  The study statistically tested whether the function differed by the sector in which it was practiced.  No statistically significant difference was found. In other words the role appears to be the same regardless of where it is practiced (see Statistical Appendix 2 for detail).

The sample size, wide range of organizations sampled and the consistency across titles and employment sectors strongly suggest that the 194-person sample is reasonably representative of the Administrative Assistant function as a whole.

The “I Opt” profile describes the information processing strategy being used.  The profile for Administrative Assistants is displayed in Graphic 1. It shows a heavy reliance on the disciplined LP and analytical HA strategic styles.

Graphic 1
Secrets of the Administrative Assistant

Averages are part of the story.  The style strength distribution that makes up that average is another.  Graphic 2 (below) shows that the profile is not the result of a few outliers pulling the average up.  Rather, the high commitment to both the action (LP) and thought-based (HA) styles is widespread. Both of these strategies focus on an exacting, precise work product.

Graphic 2
Secrets of the Administrative Assistant
Graphic 3 (below) tells the same story. Unpatterned (i.e., spontaneous) input strategies are concentrated at the lower end of commitment. Little value is being placed on the RS’s impulsive, “let’s give it a try” approach or the RI’s speculative ideas and options.
Graphic 3
Secrets of the Administrative Assistant
The overall “I Opt” profile makes some sense. Admins serve a mix of people with different needs and preferences. Dependable and exacting performance is likely to be reasonably acceptable to everyone.  The same cannot be said about the somewhat impulsive RS or the sometimes-fanciful ideas of the RI. High levels of LP and HA style appear to be a job requirement.Table 2 (see #2 in footnotes for detail on roles) shows that the job is unique. It shows the strength of commitment to each “I Opt” style of various roles in rank order.  The Admin is at the top in their commitment to the disciplined LP and HA styles.  They are at the bottom in their use of the spontaneous RS and RI styles. This kind of consistent positioning is no accident.
Table 2
Secrets of the Administrative Assistant

The same phenomenon can be seen in another job that occupies an extreme position, the CEO. Where the Administrative Assistant is highly committed to a style, the CEO is low and vice-versa. The reason that these jobs lie at the extremes of the range follows from their nature.The CEO sets a course into an unknown future. There are no “facts” for things that have not yet occurred.  Established processes that depend on “facts” lose their applicability.  Similarly entrenched structures that rely on existing patterns or systems are inherently vulnerable over long horizons (e.g., smartphones, biotech, nano technology, etc.). The average CEO has no choice but to emphasize the unpatterned strategies of RI and RS which do not depend on facts or established systems to operate effectively.The Admin is in the same position, just in reverse. They must comply with established practices of external agencies to provide needed inputs (e.g., supplies, maintenance schedules, etc.). In addition, others can set the Admin’s activities and priorities.  With the task being prescribed by others the use of the personally spontaneous RS and RI strategies automatically limited.People in the middle of the organization are able to use a wider mix of strategies than either the CEO or Admin.  This creates the “I Opt” profile gap shown in Table 2. The greater the percent difference (up or down), the more likely it is that the people will be “seeing” issues in different terms. A different perspective can easily lead to different views on what should be done .People tend to see issues in light of their own responsibilities. They are likely to judge others based on the criteria appropriate to their favored strategy. The RS is likely to emphasize speed, the RI creativity, the HA understanding and the LP precision.  Everybody, including the Admin, tends to believe that they know the “right” way of doing things.  And the natural tendency is to help others to “see the light.”   Tensions can easily follow if that effort is unsuccessful (see Appendix 1 for an outlier case where style similarity rather than difference can breed tensions).All of the different style preferences are needed in one place or another. This means that tensions are embedded in the nature of organizations. Understanding their source reduces their “sting” since it tends to discount any malicious motive on the part of a transgressor.Methods for handling organizational tensions are beyond the scope of this article.  However, an obvious strategy is to avoid situations where vulnerabilities are likely to be highlighted and pursue situations where strengths are likely to be displayed.  Another obvious strategy is to diffuse tensions using the “language” of the other person. For example, the LP can adopt emotional displays (e.g., emphasis in voice, arm movement, intense posture, etc.) when trying to “get through” to an instant action RS. Conversely, the RS may want to adopt a calm, measured and undemonstrative stance when trying to “reason” with the methodical LP. The same logic applies to all other styles.The take-home from this research is that nobody is dumb.  Nobody is broken. There are just things that need to be managed. For the Administrative Assistant this might begin with identifying the “secrets” that flow from their strategic choices.


Like all strategies, the Admin’s LP and HA preferences produce by-products.  These are simply the natural consequences of the practices being used to get the job done. Because these are secondary or derivative behaviors they are often unrecognized until they become visible as a result of a transgression or particular circumstance.  This obscurity qualifies them to be framed as “secrets.”

In dealing with the average Administrative Assistant other members of the organization may want to keep in mind some of these secrets (see #3 in footnotes for reference to a more complete enumeration).

  1. The average Admin can generate and accept change but it has to be on their terms. There must be time to consider and work it in, it must be specified thoroughly and preferably should be incremental in character.  In other words, the changes must “fit in” with the other things being done. This is a direct offshoot of the Admin’s prized precision and dependability qualities.
  2. An Admin can be overwhelmed. Their strength is that they can handle massive amounts of detail. Their vulnerability is that this capacity has limits.  When that capacity is hit, an LP can “freeze up.” This can cause considerable stress as well as compromising performance. Resist “piling things on” because the Admin looks like they can handle even more.  Sometimes they can’t.
  3. The average Admin uses a rule-based strategy. This is what permits high volume while retaining precision and dependability. Rules easily translate into firm judgments. They apply this posture to people as well as processes. This can lead the Admin to draw conclusions that are hard to change.  Everyone would do well to make every effort to “get off on the right foot” with the Admin. For their part, the Admin should make every effort to reserve verdicts until they are sure that they’ve got it right.
  4. Admins tend to hate conflict. Conflict introduces emotion that compromises their logical approach. But like any other human, they feel anger, experience resentment and can seethe with rage.  However, they will go to almost any length to avoid confronting this kind of issue directly.  Until it reaches a breaking point.  Then all “heck” breaks loose. The adage that “what you see is what you get” DOES NOT apply to the average Admin. Pay attention to behavioral nuances. They are probably more important than they first appear.
  5. An Admins’ methodical approach works best in unbroken streams. Interruptions are VERY COSTLY to them. Placing them in situations that demand disjointed actions can be dysfunctional for both the individual and the mission. Avoiding disruptions and recognizing the cost when they cannot be avoided will go a long way towards keeping things running smoothly.
  6. Admins know the future is created by new ideas. But their logical and measured step-by-step approach focuses them on facts and cold logic. Expansive visions that inspire and excite other styles are distractions.  Keeping things factual, logical and unemotional is the way to enlist them in your cause.
  7. Admins tend to be “glass half-empty” people. They focus on things that can go wrong. This argues against deploying them in the early stages of idea generation where only broad parameters are available. They are likely to close far more doors than they open. This same quality makes them ideal vehicles for refining the quality of ideas as they move from speculation to implementation. The essence of organization is using the right people, in the right situation at the right time.  This mandate applies to Administrative Assistants as well as to everyone else in the organization.

This is not a list of “faults.”  It is a list of corollaries of behaviors and postures. For the Administrative Assistant, it is what allows them to be effective in their role. The trick in managing anyone is to recognize both their strengths and vulnerabilities. Then work to maximize the strengths and minimize vulnerabilities. Trying to “change” anyone is expensive and probably destined to fail (see #4 in the footnotes). The Administrative Assistant position is not an exception.


The average Administrative Assistant is ideally equipped to provide a stable and reliable foundation for an organization. Within this scope their posture should be praised and supported. Everyone in the organization relies on and benefits from their contribution. They deserve respect and support in performing their function.

On the other side, Administrative Assistants should recognize that other people must use other strategies to do their part for the organization. They also deserve respect and should be given as much latitude as possible to get the job done in their way.

Finally, a caution is in order.  This analysis focused on the average Administrative Assistant. No individual is average.  When applying this knowledge in actual situations there is no substitute for knowing the actual “I Opt” style scores of the people involved.


(1) Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor,, referenced February 14, 2012

(2) The raw data upon which the analysis in this section is shown on the table below. It shows the percent commitment to each style by organizational role.

Table 3
Secrets of the Administrative Assistant
(3) Nelson, Shannon, 2003. “Secrets of a Logical Processor (LP)”.  Journal of Organizational Engineering. Vol 4, No. 4.  December, 2003. The full version can be found on-line at Salton, Gary, 2011. Predicting Strategic Style Change.  Organizational Engineering Evidence-Based Research Blog. March, 2011. A YouTube video version which both expands and abbreviates the research can be found at

According to the logic outlined in the text, similarity in style preference should result in a relatively harmonious atmosphere. Counter-intuitively, this is often not what happens among Administrative Assistants with a high LP commitment.

The LP style is characterized by attention to detail. Small divergences can matter.  When you are looking at the world though a microscope everything looks big.  In addition, LPs tend to be very knowledgeable within their area.  The combination of vivid differences and strong logical armament can easily lead to stalemate situations.

A possible resolution strategy is a stepped process. Each LP in the group is likely to have a different view of “perfect.”  The first step is to get explicit agreement that everyone is prepared to settle for a “good” but perhaps not perfect solution. This step relaxes standards and facilitates arriving at an agreement.

The next step is to find common ground.  This involves identifying points of agreement. Pile up as many as possible. Objections can be acknowledged but are set aside for the time being. The natural tendency of the LP is to see a glass as “half empty.” The idea here is to make attempt to refocus on the “half full” aspect of that same glass.

Once positive aspects have been identified attention can turn to a “connect the dots.” Focusing on a few of these “dots” (e.g., steps in project plan) at a time allows the LPs logical capacities to be fully engaged without being overwhelmed by the full complexity of the issue.  The more dots that are connected, the more “real” is the developing solution.

Finally, when working with a strong LP group you should provision a lot of time. It takes time to work though things in detail. The payoff is that whatever is done is likely to “work right out of the box.”


The job titles under which the Administrative Assistant function falls can vary. “I Opt” database includes titles such as Executive Assistant (including “Assistant to”), Administrative Assistant (various levels) and Secretary. Any significant difference in the strategic styles used within these three categories could indicate a fundamental difference in job content. Table 4(below) tests this proposition.

Table 4
(a percentage of 5% or less is required to qualify for academic significance)
Secrets of the Administrative Assistant

None of the strategic style differences approach the academic standard of 5% or less. This means that the people in the 194-person sample are using basically the same methods in getting their jobs done.  This indicates that they can be treated as a single, reasonably uniform group.Table 5  (below) shows the diversity of the sample across non-profits, educational institutions and for-profit firms. It is sufficiently diverse to be representative of the function in all arenas where it is applied.

 Table 5

Table 6 (below) compares the “I Opt” profiles of the sampled people working in these various employment sectors. If the content of the job varied by sector it would be visible in the “I Opt” strategic profiles. None of the percentages reach the 5% or less level of academic significance. This confirms that substantially the same function is being conducted in much the same manner in all of these social sectors.

Table 6
(a percentage of 5% or less is required to qualify for academic significance)
t-Test: Two-Sample Assuming Unequal Variances
Secrets of the Administrative Assistant
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