I’ve been to lots of training sessions where we are told to learn to say no to things and respect our personal boundaries. We are taught to push back and make sure people know that we are not there to be unreasonably put upon.
To a point I agree with this. We need to take care of our mental health and maintaining a healthy work/life balance is key to that.
However, I can honestly say that I did not get ahead in my life by saying no. I did not get promoted because I pushed back. It didn’t always go to plan - and I’ll discuss that a little later - but I have moved up the career ladder because I continuously say YES to things.
I say yes to taking on projects. I say yes to taking extra meeting notes. I also say yes to taking on additional responsibilities.
Put your hand up
Many years ago I worked for a large, well known investment bank. The hours were long, and I often felt like just a number. It was a slog to get anything changed because there was so much red tape, and there seemed to be nowhere for me to go, professionally. I was an Executive Assistant on a trading desk, and I was responsible for travel, expenses, and all the other normal stuff that someone in that position would be responsible for. At one of my reviews I asked to get involved with more things. Not because I had loads of time to spare - far from it. I looked after a team of 45 sales traders who seemed to live on that 6am flight to Zurich. I asked because I didn’t really know what my team did. My team gave me an opportunity because I was already doing my job really well. They wouldn't have even considered giving me more to do unless I had asked.
Nail the basics
This is the key starting point. Whatever it is that you are supposed to do, do that really well first. Get to the point where your team thinks of you as the go-to person for the stuff you have actually been hired to do. Get all their travel in order, double check their meetings ahead of time, write up meeting notes within 24 hours. Even the small things all really add up - making sure there are always refreshments available when clients come in, keeping the stationery cupboard well stocked, and making sure your meeting notes are always spell-checked. Do everything well. That should be your mantra when it comes to the tasks and responsibilities that are listed out on your job spec.
Managing people’s expectations is key to progressing. If they know you will never pick up an email on a weekend, they will know to reach out to you in a different way in an emergency. If they know they will always get a reminder from you to follow up on last month’s meeting actions, it takes away some of the stress of having to remember them.
Every time you do this, you are building trust with them - and that’s so important when it comes to moving forward in your career. Make sure you log in at a similar time each day, or arrive at the office at the same time (I appreciate that traffic and public transport can often make that difficult). If people know when you will be in, you are giving them the opportunity to either do something themselves or to wait for you to get in. You are enabling them to make their own decisions.
Grab the Opportunities
If someone gives you an opportunity to get involved with something else, say yes. Take on more roles and responsibilities. Say yes if they ask for help. Say yes to joining a meeting to take notes when another assistant is off sick. Put your hand up when no-one else does when asked if someone can own an action.
Even if you are too busy, still put your hand up. Quite often, saying “I could do X next week if it’s not critical that it’s done this week” will be enough.
This is the one thing I’ve done time and time again in my job. I’ve always been the person to put my hand up to take on new responsibilities. I've always said yes to things and I've gained so much invaluable experience by doing this.
It might not go to plan straight away
In one role I was in, I ended up being super over worked. I was doing two roles concurrently whilst the company back filled for one of them. Long story short, I also got passed up for a promotion because of an IT setting (yes, really!). I got no extra pay, and the person who was ultimately hired to take over one of those roles was paid around 30% more than I was. It was infuriating, and I often wondered why I bothered. When I got passed up for my promotion, I was utterly devastated and honestly heartbroken. I’d put my life and soul into that position and really did my very best. But it meant nothing to the company and I left a couple of months later.
What happened after that, however, made it completely worth it.
I added everything I had been doing to my CV. I found a new role which felt like a step down in terms of title and responsibilities, but I got a pay increase to move. I took on some slightly different roles which further broadened my experience. When the new company had additional responsibilities to offer, I had already done some of these in my old role so was able to take them on without issue.
I then moved internally after just one year into a c-suite support position. Here I took on project management responsibilities and was given my own projects to own and manage. Having been in all those extra meetings years previously, I had absorbed information on what to do.
The next steps for me were to move into senior supporting roles, and then I ended up managing a team of assistants (because I put my hand up!). I became the expert in what I did - because no-one had experience like mine. Ultimately I am now in a senior managerial position with my own team. I’m not taking the notes at the meeting - I’m distributing the actions. All because I kept saying yes.