For the last 10 years, I’ve been had the incredible opportunity to devote my own career to helping others achieve success in theirs. As a career coach, I support people as they navigate the often tumultuous landscape of the professional world and career planning.
Supporting others is a key skill I’ve used throughout my career. Long before I started coaching, I was an administrative professional. My job was to focus on support, and my “clients” were C-level executives and their teams. While I didn’t necessarily offer career planning advice, I did did advise them on a variety of business matters. Working as an assistant, I gained a deep appreciation and admiration for all office administrators and operations teams. If you’re in the field, you know it’s one that is both incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding.
In my work as a career coach, I’ve been honored to work with hundreds of administrators who are looking to advance their careers. Career planning is one major challenge I’ve found administrative professionals struggle with frequently. I’ve heard similar complaints from many of my administrative peers, such as:
- “I just fell into this job. Now I don’t know where to go from here.”
- “My company doesn’t have a career path for admins.”
- “I don’t know what opportunities are available in this field.”
- “With my skill set, I don’t know what other careers I might be qualified for.”
If you have similar concerns, I’d like to offer a few tried-and-true strategies to assist you in career planning as an office administrator. Whatever title you hold—be it administrative assistant, executive assistant, office manager, or something else—the following pointers will help you take a more proactive approach to career planning.
Be intentional about career planning
Office administration is a career of choice for many professionals. However, if you’re one of the administrators who “fell” into this work, it’s time to shake off that mentality. It may be an accident that you landed here, but where you go next is totally up to you. It’s time to make intentional decisions about your career. Don’t allow yourself to simply “fall” from one step to the next—that’s a surefire recipe for dissatisfaction. Instead, recognize that you have the power to create the path you want, whether in this field or another, and start career planning.
Take responsibility for defining your path
Increasingly, it’s rare to find someone who has followed a traditional, linear career path. Most organizations no longer define paths for the majority of their employees, and this is especially true in the administrative field. If you’re looking to advance your career, this can be frustrating because it’s not immediately clear what your next step could or should be. Gone are the days when we could rely on our employers to show us the road forward. Now, you have to take responsibility for defining your own path.
This is why I recommend that everyone create their own Professional Development Plan—a written document that outlines your career goals and the specific steps you will take to reach those goals. No one is going to do it for you. It’s your career, so it makes sense that you should be the one investing time, energy and attention into this process.
Connect with your fellow admins
As you’re thinking about your path forward and the direction you want to take your career, you may have questions about what’s possible. For example: How have other administrators advanced in their roles? What opportunities are available at other organizations and in other industries? What kind of career growth are other administrative professionals working toward and how are they making it happen?
These questions are best answered by your peers in the field. Connecting with colleagues at other companies will give you incredible insight and perspective. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re only interacting with people internally. By developing relationships with external admins, you can learn more about the career paths they have carved out for themselves and how they did it.
Here are a few activities to help expand your admin network:
- Join a professional association, like the American Society for Administrative Professionals or the International Association for Administrative Professionals
- Attend a conference specifically for admins, like APC, the IAAP Summit or Executive Secretary Live
- Participate in professional development courses or certification programs specifically geared toward the field, like PACE or CAP
Continuously expand your skills
Regardless of where you want to go in your career, you’ll need to continuously expand your skill set. The workplace is competitive and constantly evolving, so staying stagnant isn’t an option. If you’re not always learning more and deepening your expertise, you’ll quickly get left behind.
Expanding your skills can be done through formal education as well as through hands-on experience. Participate regularly in training classes, both online and in-person. (Don’t worry: there are many free and low-cost options available.) At the same time, look for opportunities to take on “stretch” projects—those assignments that will push you past your comfort zone, force you to learn new things, and inspire you to use existing skills in different ways. The more you grow as a professional, the more paths will become available to you in the future.
Explore other paths
Finally, it’s worthwhile noting that being a lifelong administrative professional isn’t for everyone. At some point in your career (maybe even now) you might have a desire to explore other paths. The good news is that administrative roles provide a wide array of transferable skills—meaning, the skills you’ve used to excel here can be used elsewhere.
Depending on the specifics of your role and past experience, you may be perfectly poised to transition into event planning, project management, marketing, data analysis, graphic design, or a few dozen other fields. Consider what aspects of your current role you love the most and then, play with the idea of what that might look like as a new career.
This is exactly how I got involved in coaching. As an admin, I realized that my favorite part of the day was when people came to me and shared their workplace frustrations. I truly enjoyed helping them find solutions, reframe their perspectives, and develop strategies for overcoming obstacles. Thus, I made a career transition so I could do more of that each day.
Whether you’re looking to grow your career as an administrator or develop an entirely new professional path, career planning is an essential component. The opportunities in today’s modern workplace are practically endless. But you have to know what you want and you must be willing to do the work to make it happen. Take your career seriously and guide it in the direction you choose—you’ll thank yourself for it one day!
Illustration by Tin Nguyen