Making your secretary part of the team

Four years ago Dick Notebaert headed up a sales force of 65 at Wisconsin Telephone. But he had a managerial blind spot: He didn't know how to manage his secretary. ``I was getting buried in paper work and not spending enough time making decisions and managing the business,'' he recalls.

But thanks to a one-day session with Margie Smith on how to work more efficiently with that person sitting just outside his office, Mr. Notebaert got rid of that blind spot.

Today, six promotions (and six secretaries) later, as vice-president of national marketing and operations at Ameritech Communications in Chicago, Notebaert oversees nearly 400 people. He says that knowing how to make use of his secretary has given him an extra hour a day and ``has been very important in my career.''

His secretaries haven't fared poorly, either. Two were promoted into management positions, one started her own firm, and one became a secretary to the company president.

There are some 4.5 million secretaries (98.6 percent are women) in the United States. During Secretary Week -- through Friday -- appreciation for their efforts will mostly take the form of roses or a lunch out. But there's a better way, says Ms. Smith, a management consultant with the Mark Ponton Corporation in Huntington, N.Y.

``Secretaries want to feel appreciated, but they also want to be treated like professionals.'' Smith has gone through six years (and ``hundreds of managers'') proving that such treatment enhances the productivity of boss and secretary.

Smith says executives often have this managerial Achilles' heel because they start their careers sharing a secretary and are reluctant to delegate too much. ``As they move up, have their own secretaries, they just don't know what to give them. They try to expand their typing or get other people to give them things to do.''

The thrust of Ms. Smith's training involves changing attitudes and getting managers to give up tasks they shouldn't be doing.

``I tell everybody I work with, `Make believe you're the chairman of the board.' And we start with the `Three Onlys: Today I'm only going to do only those things only I can do. Everything else is going to get delegated.' ''

Smith continues: ``If I've got something to do that I don't think my secretary can handle, I'm going to give it to her anyway. I'm going to let her tell me she can't do it. I'm not going to make that decision for her. The secretary is only as good as the boss will let her be.''

Managers, she says, often get hung up on telling secretaries how to do things, rather than delegating work with a goal to it. That wastes the manager's time and sends the wrong message to the secretary.

``If they're told step by step how to do something, over time secretaries don't have to do a lot of thinking on the job, Smith says. ``All of the training focuses on what to do with their hands -- file this here, type this -- instead of their head. The job becomes boring. And they can feel, and be perceived, as people that aren't as smart as the other people that work there.''

Notebaert and other recipients of such tutoring say learning to make full use of a dictating machine is one of the most valuable lessons imparted. ``Just using the Dictaphone can buy back a half hour to 45 minutes a day. I used to waste time writing notes -- to myself, to her; that's foolishness,'' he says.

Now he goes through his mail (screened first by his secretary) with a Dictaphone in hand. And on trips, he dictates expenses as they occur, giving the tape to his secretary to fill out vouchers when he returns.

Notebaert has handed over all his scheduling to his secretary. ``She's so much better at it than I am. Each day I get a card that tells me what to do. We talk about any deviations. It makes both of us more efficient.

For managers to get maximum use out of their secretaries, the secretaries must know what's going on. ``She should be allowed to go to staff meetings. Ninety-nine percent of the time it doesn't cross a manager's mind that she's being left out. Who'll answer the phone? Have another secretary cover,'' Ms. Smith says.

Four years and several promotions ago, Ben Scott took Smith's advice. Now as vice-president of retail sales of computer systems at AT&T, Mr. Scott discusses business strategy and goals at regular annual and quarterly meetings with the secretaries in his group. ``They are very important members of our team. They need to know how they contribute. And that helps morale overall.''

Secretaries can be a tremendous asset to a sales organization, Smith notes. ``Salespeople figure, with all their training, they know how to get into Lee Iacocca's office if anyone can. But we tracked the success rate of sales reps making their own appointments against those that were letting their secretaries do it. It came out at 40 percent for sales reps, and upwards of 95 percent for secretaries.''

Sales representatives don't relate as well to secretaries as secretaries do to one another, Smith explains. ``And when I was a secretary . . . if the sales rep was asking for his own appointment, I assumed he couldn't be as important as my boss, or his secretary would have placed the call.''

As for Secretary Week: ``The way to make them feel appreciated isn't to give them flowers but things you give other professionals,'' Ms. Smith says. She suggests a training course (to enhance their business acumen) or a trip to headquarters to meet people she works with frequently. Or some project that will be recognized by others as important.

``And if you can't think of anything [besides flowers], ask her what she'd like.''

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