Kristina Schneider here. I am currently the Executive Director for The Ultimate Estate Planner, Inc. However, I used to be President and Estate Planning Attorney, Philip Kavesh’s, full-time Executive Assistant with respect to his law firm, Kavesh, Minor & Otis, Inc. So, I’m very aware of and experienced in the types of duties involved in being an assistant to a busy professional. I take pride in being able to say that I’ve been with Phil for almost 8 years now, which is longer than just about any other assistant that he’s had over the past 30+ years of practice. That being said, I am providing to you 4 simple tips to having a better working relationship between assistants and advisors. These principles and tips can be applied to any assistant for any type of professional, whether you’re an assistant to an attorney, financial advisor, life insurance agent or any other professional outside of the estate planning community.
Assistant Tip #1: Block Off Regular Times with Your Assistant (and Other Key Staff!)
One of the ways that we have tackled all of the multiple deadlines and tasks that we have on our plate every day is by making sure that Phil has a regularly scheduled time to meet with his assistants (literally scheduled appointments on his calendar). In addition to his assistants, he also does this for other key staff members in his firm, such as his associate attorneys, Director of Marketing, bookkeeper, office manager, etc. - - basically, anyone that may require his time for advice, answers, direction or otherwise.
In fact, Phil has blocked off an entire day each week to do this.
The reason this is so effective is that it provides him 4 other virtually interruption-free days to work. Daily staff meetings can take up a lot of time, especially those “impromptu” meetings that are not on the calendar. On Mondays, all of the staff members that have meetings with Phil are expected to come to the meeting well-prepared with a list or agenda of the matters for which they require Phil’s time and attention. This has allowed us, as staff, to learn how to prioritize our work and to put off any non-urgent, non-important items for our scheduled weekly meeting time with him.
Not only does having a scheduled meeting time allow for Phil to be more efficient, but it allows us, the staff, to be more efficient as well.
Trust me, coming from the perspective of an assistant to a busy professional, we need to meet with you. There are issues and matters that come up that simply require your attention. Having a set meeting time each week (and for some busier professionals, it may require an interim meeting with certain staff) allows your assistant and staff members to be reassured that they will have an opportunity to meet with you and get the time that their job requires of you in order for them to effectively perform their job duties. This structure also results in your staff learning to handle more minor matters by themselves, thereby empowering them to become better decision-makers and more productive. Additionally, Phil defers any non-urgent and non-important items to the weekly meeting as well, which has decreased the number of times he interrupts his own staff. It’s a win-win for everybody!
I know that some of you may be thinking that this tip seems like an obvious one, but I have spoken to several assistants and even some attorneys and advisors and know that many do not have regularly scheduled meetings together. By “regularly scheduled” I mean you never violate this blocked time by taking other appointments or doing other work! So, if you don’t do so already, sit down with your assistant and key staff members and schedule a specific time to meet with them on a regular basis (either once a week or even twice, if necessary). Once you do so, I guarantee you that you will begin to find you and your staff members working much more efficiently and effectively together - - allowing you to do more of the things you love to do!
Assistant Tip #2: Remember to Use CPR—It Just Might Save Your Life!
One of the most overlooked (or possibly unknown) techniques that most busy, successful executives and their administrative staff use is what I like to call “CPR”. No, I’m not talking about the medical emergency procedure that can save someone’s life in a life-threatening situation. What I’m talking about is a simple, yet effective, technique that can and should be used each and every single day—Clean, Plan and Relax.
Sounds pretty simple and obvious, right? Let’s go into more detail about what this technique entails.
Clean – Some people may say, “Oh, my work area may look messy and disorganized, but I know where everything is and it hasn’t impacted me or my business at all!” This may be true and I understand that we all have different habits when it comes to the organization of our desks and offices (and our lives!), but it is important to realize what kind of impact having a cluttered office or desk can indirectly have on you.
First and foremost, if you’re a busy executive, it may make your clients (as well as your employees) a bit uneasy. You can be on the ball with everything you do, but your office and desk will say a lot about you (even if you don’t think it does or you don’t want it to). It can take away from your credibility as a professional who is capable of handling important matters such as one’s legal and financial matters. For assistants, it may make your boss and coworkers a bit uneasy about entrusting you to handle certain tasks.
And, for both assistants and executives, it also affects you indirectly by how it can impact you subconsciously while you’re at the office.
Picture it…you’re an assistant to a busy professional. You wake up a few minutes late and are rushed to get ready for work, caught in traffic while on your way to the office (maybe we feel this more—we’re in LA!), and you rush up to your office, open the door and what do you see? Papers strewn all over the desk, folders, files and mail all over the place. Pens, paperclips, and an empty water bottle (lord knows how long that’s been there!). A notepad with your quick scribbles all over it with things you need to do, some done, some not, some crossed off, some not. Now, you turn on your computer, you’ve got clutter on your desktop, in your e-mail inbox, all your electronic files scattered everywhere. What kind of impact do you think that will have on you? Are you calm, cool and collected? Or, do you feel more frazzled?
And now, picture this. Same scenario—with the rushing to get ready and the traffic to get to the office—but now, picture walking into an office with a clean desk. A desk with a small stack of folders and paperwork, with a notepad on top marked “To Do List” with today’s date. Pens, paperclips and supplies in cups and organizers where they belong and a computer with folders, files and an e-mail inbox that is arranged so that it is easy to find what you need, when you need it. How does that change how you feel about your day? How does that impact what you do when you first get in? Are you spending time sorting through the piles or getting right to the first thing on your “To Do” list? And, thus, how does this scenario change how productive you will be?
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again. An organized, efficient, “A+” assistant best supports an efficient and successful professional.
Plan – Remember that “To Do List” we referenced in the above scenario? That to do list and its creation and implementation is what is what I call “Plan”.
After you’ve had an opportunity to clear your desk and organize yourself, the next step is to Plan. This involves reviewing your notes, sifting through the paperwork and going over your calendar to determine a game plan for the next day. In the process of putting together the items that you need to do for the next day, it would make sense to prioritize each task. Essentially, you are creating a road map for when you walk in the door, you know what things come first, second and third. And, if you’re an assistant to any busy executive, I know there’s always that unpredictable “Other Tasks as Assigned” item (handed to you in haste!) that comes up each and every day. At least with a game plan in your pocket, you can take on those unplanned tasks and still make sure that you do not let any of the important tasks you had to complete slip through the cracks - - or at least let your boss know what may fall through if you switch gears, and let him or her “make the call”!
Along with creating a to do list at the end of each day, it is highly recommended that at the end of the workweek you even look further ahead and plan a general list of things that have to get done the following week. This is a great reference point for when you’re creating your daily to do lists.
Relax – Last, but certainly not least, we are at the final component of this wonderful technique and probably the most enjoyable (that’s for sure!). And, that is…Relax!
Once you have been able to train yourself and develop this technique as habit, you will find that you are able to leave the office feeling relaxed, renewed and ready for the next day. What a wonderful feeling that is - - to leave looking at a tidy and organized work area!
This CPR does not take very long to pick up or implement each day, although for some of you, the initial “clean up” and office and desk organization may take a little more time. But, it’s like what mothers always tell their children about cleaning up their room, “After you’ve done it once, it’s just about maintaining!” Same concept here. Once you have taken the initial step to organize and de-clutter your desk and your office, then it’s just about maintaining from there. Maintaining is so much easier, too!
Trust me, as someone who by late afternoon often doesn’t know where her to do list begins or where it ends, taking the final 10 minutes or so of the day to clear off the paperwork on my desk, organize anything I may need into folders and neat piles, and putting together my to do list for the next day—it’s the best 10 minutes you will ever spend throughout your day and you will begin to see its effects immediately. You will feel better about your day when you leave the office. You will feel better about coming in to work. You will be a better assistant and all of those around you will begin to benefit from your organization, efficiency and, probably most importantly, your confidence!
So, that’s it! Seems simple, but it is often underestimated and overlooked. Next time you are struggling to keep your “head above water”, just remember to use CPR!
Assistant Tip #3: 5 Ways to Get Yourself Electronically Organized and Be More Efficient Throughout Your Day
Staying organized with your paperwork, your desk or office space and your To Do List is still probably only half of what’s involved to completely stay organized throughout your day.
How should your boss - - like most busy professionals - - spend much of his or her day? Hopefully, as an advisor, in front of a client. Phil has always said that if the advisor is not in front of a client, they’re not making any money. But, what about you, as an assistant? Where do you spend most of your day? I would venture to say that most assistants spend probably a good 75-80% (or more) of their day in front of a computer.
So, that brings us to an important question. How “electronically organized” are you?
While the running joke amongst my friends, family and co-workers is that I have some OCD tendencies about my level of organization, I must give credit to this attention to detail and organization (both in “real life” and electronically) as the reason I am able to juggle as much as I do. I took a course on how to manage priorities and deadlines, "Managing Multiple Priorities, Projects & Deadlines" by Fred Pryor Seminars. It was very informative and, in this course, I learned that one of the biggest time-wasters for people in the workplace is losing and looking for things. How much time have you spent this week looking for something? How about today? Hopefully, not too much. But, if you have ever spent more than a couple of minutes looking for something, the disruption to your work and efficiency is huge by the end of the day. That’s why it may be high time for you to spend some time organizing yourself.
I’d like to present to you some helpful ways to organize yourself electronically. This could be helpful to busy executives, too! (That means you, boss!)
Clear Your Inbox. When I come in the office each day, I open up Microsoft Outlook to find nothing there until I hit that “SEND/RECEIVE” button. It’s my way of making sure that anything that comes into my inbox is new and unread. I am aware that unread messages are bolded, but in Tip #1, I talked about what a cluttered desk can do to one’s psyche. Imagine what hundreds, if not thousands, of e-mails in your inbox (your e-desk, if you will) does to one’s psyche. (I’m sure your IT guy would love you too, because you won’t get that message that says you’ve reached your mailbox capacity, either!).
So, what do you do with all those e-mails? Delete them? It depends. I’m a believer that you may never know when you may need a particular e-mail at any given point. This is why Outlook has created such a wonderful thing called “Folders”! I create larger categories, as you will see below.
I assist Phil on issues that relate to his law firm, Kavesh, Minor & Otis (“KMO”), as well as with The Ultimate Estate Planner, Inc. (“UEP”). Additionally, I assist Phil in monitoring his e-mail (which includes his list serve subscriptions). I keep these folders all separated, as it helps me find things immediately when I need it. As you can tell from the image above, those folders then have sub-folders. Those sub-folders will be even more specific to allow me the easiest way to find an old e-mail. What’s great is that those e-mails are always there and won’t need to be pulled up from the Archives, if you have to go searching for them.
Set Up Rules for Your E-mail. As mentioned above, I have separate folders for the various e-mail that I monitor, which includes Phil’s subscriptions to multiple list serves. I am able to do this by setting up Rules inside Microsoft Outlook. I only do this for the purpose of separating out the type of e-mail (KMO e-mails versus UEP e-mails, my e-mails from Phil’s e-mails and Phil’s list serve e-mails). I do not recommend that you use the Rules feature for any and all kinds of e-mails. That will just result in more work later on and tens to hundreds of different folders you will have to monitor to check for new e-mail. This is just to segregate large stuff.
To setup Rules for your e-mail in Microsoft Outlook, go to Tools and select “Rules and Alerts”. A menu will pop up that will allow you to create, edit, delete and manage your Outlook e-mail Rules.
You will be able to then set the parameters of the rule, which can be based on where the e-mail was sent, who sent the e-mail, what the subject includes, and then what you want Outlook to do with the e-mail. For the purpose I am recommending, you will set the rule to “Move it to a specified folder” and then you will want to specify which folder you want the e-mail to be moved to. Voila! No more list serve e-mails cluttering your inbox and, if you’re like me and you monitor multiple e-mail addresses, there’s no confusion about whom the e-mail was intended for.
Clear Your Computer Desktop. One of my hugest pet peeves is having a ton of icons on the computer desktop. Again, going back to what clutter does to the psyche - - the cleaner and simpler you can keep things, the better. Have you ever saved something to your computer or your desktop and spent far too much time trying to find it? It’s very simple. Just like my advice in the past about keeping your office and desk organized, keep your computer desktop clean too. Some of you may be thinking, “But, it makes it so easy to have everything available at my fingertips. I don’t want to have to go looking all throughout my computer to find a program or folder.” Not a problem. It’s very simple, actually. Just start utilizing the “Quick Launch” toolbar at the bottom of your screen.
Simply right click on your toolbar at the bottom, go to “Toolbars” and select “Quick Launch”. You may already have it checked, which means you already have it. But, now is the time to put the applications and folders on the toolbar that you want to be able to access quickly.
Here's what I have.
(click to enlarge)
I keep the “Show Desktop” button on, which minimizes all windows when you need to easily access your desktop. I keep my Internet Explorer button handy for accessing internet, along with the various folders and drives that I may access frequently. Then, I have all of the other programs and applications available on the drop down (when you click the >> arrows).
Other than my Recycle Bin, the only other thing that I have on my desktop is a folder I call my “Current Works in Process” folder, which has shortcuts and documents that I want to quickly access and includes items I’m working on currently.
Folders, folders, folders. Aside from e-mail, there’s another place on your computer that you may also need an e-filing system of some kind and that’s either on your computer directory (My Documents) or, for some, may even be on a centralized server setup for your office. Just like keeping a tidy desk, a tidy computer desktop and a tidy Outlook inbox, keeping your electronic files tidy and organized is also equally as important.
I assist Phil with tasks related to his law firm, to The Ultimate Estate Planner, Inc., as well as some personal items. Therefore, I have three separate main folders: KMO (for his law firm), UEP (for Ultimate Estate Planner) and PJK (for Phil). This keeps these items separate. Depending on whether I have a letter, document, contract or some other electronic file I may have to file away, I determine whether it’s related to these. This makes locating files much easier. And, of course, like with the Outlook folders, each of these main folders has sub-folders that categorize them in even further detail (including by year for some).
Honestly, whatever works for you is best, but just keep in mind that the more you can categorize and be detailed in how you name files and file away electronic files, the easier it will be to find things. Think about it - - would you rather sort through 100 folders, which then each contain 10 sub-folders with 5 appropriately filed documents, or sort through one large folder with 5,000 files?
Naming Files. And, of course, the previous brings me to this final tip, which is the “science” of naming electronic files. I am teased at times for having extensively long file names, but my system has yet to fail me. I will use brief (2-3 word) descriptions, event names, revision dates and whatever else that may be useful to help identify what a document contains. This helps in organizing and determining if certain versions you have are older, as well as preventing you from having to open up each document to identify what they are. Combining very carefully thought out file naming with file folder organization is really a match made in heaven for any assistant, as well as any busy executive!
I know that these tips may seem like common sense, but after years of assistant experience and working with different people, I can honestly say that while it may seem “common”, it’s not commonly practiced.
Even implementing just one or two of these tips will make any assistant (and executive) more efficient and is a huge step towards becoming more “electronically organized”. Keep in mind, when an assistant becomes more efficient, it frees up her or his time to do the types of truly important tasks that can really benefit a busy executive. And, the same goes for executives and their level of productivity! So, what are you waiting for? Clean up that computer desktop, clear out that inbox, start utilizing folders and create easily identifiable e-file names. You will be glad you did!
Assistant Tip #4: The 4 "D's" of Being a Better Assistant (and More Efficient Executive, too!)
Whether you’re a busy executive or the assistant to a busy executive, you know the feeling of having far too many things to do in a day than hours available, right? There are a lot of different tips and ways that you can handle such a workload. One such technique of determining how to handle a heavy workload is something that Phil actually taught to me. It’s the 3 “D’s”: Do It, Delegate It, or Destroy It!
Start by looking at your To Do List - - which I hope all of you have, because if you’re not, that’s a whole other story for developing habits for efficiency and organization (see Assistant Tip #1). It’s important to list your tasks in a To Do List, so you can then determine where each task falls under the 3 “D’s” below.
DO it. The first of the 3 “D’s” is DO it. There are some tasks that you, and only you, can do. These tasks are the ones you determine need to stay on the To Do List and, from there, you can prioritize which ones need to be done in what order.
DELEGATE it. The second “D” is DELEGATE it. This is one that most people struggle with, especially those Type A personalities and perfectionists. It really involves a lot of trust in others and was definitely an area that I personally struggled with. I felt like I couldn’t delegate a certain task somewhere else because it might not get done right or I know how Phil would like to have that done and the time and extra work involved to train and supervise someone else to do it would not be worth it, so I should just do it. That mentality really started to affect my level of efficiency, because now I was unable to complete certain things because of a lack of time or other priority projects repeatedly bumping them.
Ultimately, I had to determine that nobody would ever be able to learn how to do certain tasks and allow me an opportunity to delegate unless I started to give up some of the control and started trusting others to take on those tasks that could be delegated away. As a result, we were able to free up my time to do the things that I do need to do and, frankly, that I enjoy doing (like blog writing and interacting with attorneys and advisors on a daily basis!).
Start by delegating some relatively simple tasks that you ordinarily take on, if there are others in your office that could be doing them instead. For example, there can be some downtime for your receptionist between answering phone calls and assisting clients, which is great for doing certain tasks like sending out letters or putting together manuals.
Delegating some more complex tasks may take a leap of faith, but you may be pleasantly surprised to find what others can take on when empowered to do so. In fact, don’t tell Phil I told you this, but it took him some time to realize that I was capable of writing. He started to build up a level of trust in me in the area of writing and has since allowed me the opportunity to assist him in doing initial drafts of correspondence, proposals and contracts and has now entrusted me to post blog entries (for UEP and his law firm), modify both company’s websites, create monthly newsletters for the law firm, and even draft some of the marketing pieces! (Thank you, Phil!)
Whether the task is simple or requires some training and supervision, once you learn to build up that trust and feel comfortable to delegate tasks to others, you will find that a lot more can get done. What’s that lovely saying? You can do more in teams than as an individual? Something like that.
You probably won’t be able to jump in the pool right away, but you will need to dip that first foot (and, if you’re like me, maybe it’ll just be that first toe!) into the water!
DESTROY it. Last, but certainly not least, my favorite of the 3 “D’s” is DESTROY it. This is one of those where if you can use it and simply “destroy” a task, it’s great. However, unfortunately, not all tasks that are on our plate are capable of being “destroyed”. But, destroying tasks is necessary when you have far too much on your plate and you must weigh the benefits versus the cost to take on such a task (and, remember, your time is money too!). It’s okay to decide not to do things! If you can’t “destroy” a task, then at the very least, you may determine it necessary to DELAY it until other tasks that are more important are completed. And, that may also allow you an opportunity to delegate as well!
So, the next time you feel overloaded with things to do, go through your To Do List and determine what tasks you can DESTROY (or, at the very least, delay), DELEGATE to someone else, and the ones that you will have to DO. Better yet, make this determination immediately when items come to you and get placed on your To Do List! I’m sure once you master this, you will free yourself up so that you’re starting to do the tasks that you need to do, and hopefully the ones that you enjoy, too!
Well, that’s it for the tips to being a more efficient assistant. I hope that you found these tips helpful and since it’s usually the busy professionals reading our blogs and e-mails, you might want to be sure to pass along this blog entry to your assistant! If you’re interested in having me personally come in and consult with your assistant and even train him or her on some of the concepts mentioned in this blog entry, please feel free to contact me directly and I can give you more information about what services we have available.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Kristina Schneider has been with The Ultimate Estate Planner, Inc. since July 2004, providing administrative support to Mr. Kavesh, along with sales and customer service support for clients and prospective clients. Kristina was originally brought on to coordinate and facilitate all of the "Missing Link" Boot Camps and served as Phil's Executive Assistant at the Law Firm of Kavesh, Minor & Otis for over 7 years. Kristina currently assists both companies with marketing, including e-mail newsletters, blogs, and the company websites. Through Kristina’s direct hands-on experience in Phil's law firm, Kristina has been able to assist numerous professionals - - and equally as important, their staff - - in the successful implementation of Phil's products and systems. Kristina graduated with a Bachelor's of Science Degree in Business Administration from Pepperdine University in 2004. She currently resides in Los Angeles and, in her spare time, enjoys playing club basketball, reading and writing, including assisting various companies with their blogs. She is a big hockey fan (thanks to Phil) and enjoys cheering on the Los Angeles Kings.
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