Upping Your Game for Executive Assistants – Part 1 – The Learning Ladder

There are other titles I could have used for this post you know. Like “5 things you can do to be a proactive EA” (bit boring) or “5 things you can do to get your SH*T together” (not very professional – and I rarely swear – honestly).

I plumped for “5 things you can do to up your game” as a catchy, expletive-free and relatable title. I hope it’s got your attention.
This “5 things” guide is based on my 10 years of experience as an EA and 12 years as an international trainer and coach to this profession. It is the first of a series of “5 Things” guides and I hope it talks to you in simple, practical terms.

Before I share these 5 things though let’s be honest. Because I know that some of you reading this are quite happy “pootling” along in your roles – you regularly cite that “no two days are the same” at work. You love the variety of tasks you’re involved in and the fact you’re the “go to” person in your organisation. Everything is “figure-out-able” and you’re the person with all the solutions yes? That’s great! It’s a nice comfy place to be isn’t it when you know what processes and procedures to employ, when you understand the quirks and preferences of the Executive(s) you support? And why change something if it’s working just fine as it is?

So, my question would be why not change it? Because if you’ve relaxed into “If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always got” you’re absolutely NOT upping your game. You need to instigate and drive change (I know – scary right!) and try things in a different way which may give you a BETTER result.

The First Thing – Understand The Learning Ladder

When I took my first EA role fresh out of college I was frustrated that it was taking me time to familiarise myself with new tasks, new terminology, new processes and getting to know the team I was there to support.  My enthusiasm and drive were there in bucket loads but there was an inevitable “slowness” and “clunkiness” to my actions as I tried to grasp new concepts and learning.   If only I’d had an awareness and understanding of The Learning Ladder – this knowledge would have eased some of the pressure I was putting myself under and quietened the frustration I was feeling. 

Of course you can’t be amazing at something the first time you do it.  It takes practice and repetition to become more skilled and competent.  Upping your game means taking yourself outside of your comfort zone and being ready for the inevitable “slowness” and “clunkiness” that is the initial result.  Familiarise yourself with The Learning Ladder before going into any new situation.   

The Learning Ladder is an incredibly useful model to help you understand the different stages of learning. You work your way up a metaphoric ladder from the bottom rung of Unconscious Incompetence to the top rung of Unconscious Competence. Recognise where you are on your learning journey.

Unconscious Incompetence

You are not aware of the existence or indeed relevance of the skill or learning. Before any development can happen you need to be conscious of the skill. Trainers and teachers play an essential role here in helping you identify a deficiency in your skillset and making you aware of the benefit to your personal effectiveness in gaining that skill or learning.

Conscious Incompetence

You become aware of the relevance and benefit to you of the skill or learning and ideally embrace the need and want to gain this skill in order to improve your effectiveness. Having a clear idea of the extent of the deficiency and what level of skill is required is essential for you to move to the Conscious Competence stage – as is your commitment to learn and practice the new skill.

Conscious Competence

This is when you can successfully and personally perform a skill without assistance – but still have to concentrate on applying it – it is not yet “second nature”. “Practice makes perfect” applies perfectly here if you are to make the move to Unconscious Competence.

Unconscious Competence

This is when you become practiced at a skill so it is “second nature” – a good and common example is driving. Because the skill has become in effect more instinctual, you can perform that skill at the same time as doing something else – for example, you can hold a conversation with your passenger whilst driving a car.

A great friend and trainer of mine describes this as “in the muscle” – the skill you are performing has entered the unconscious part of your brain. Importantly, now you are at the top rung of the Competence Ladder, it is essential to “not take things for granted” – very often we can become complacent here and fall in to bad habits or consider ourselves to be expert in a particular field, skill or learning to the determinant of ourselves and others.

To be at the very top of your effectiveness may necessitate you moving down a rung on the ladder and taking stock of your unconscious competencies. Put into practice conscious competence and consciously concentrate on practicing the skill or learning.

Check in with yourself on your level of complacency and ask yourself how up to date your skills are too.

Enjoyed reading this? Check out Part 2 of Upping Your Game for Executive Assistants – Network! Network! Network!


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