Your Admin is Terrible? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a senior leader in a large commercial services organization. I spent many years learning how to make good use of an assistant and I’ve always made sure I had a great one. Over the last few years, the company has been reducing the size of the administration group and I have had to share an assistant with other executives. That was okay because I was self-sufficient, had my act together, and would set things up so my stuff always got done.

Until now. Two other executives and I were recently given a new assistant and he is a walking disaster.

He doesn’t write things down, he doesn’t remember anything, and he doesn’t seem to understand the most basic office software—for example, I had to teach him some basic calendaring skills and then he didn’t remember. Some days I think he is on some kind of drug because he is so laid back and spaced out.

My problem is I have started to take back all the tasks I would usually delegate, which is adding an extra 90 minutes to my already packed days. Why not just go to HR and replace him, you ask? He is the nephew of the CEO and sucks up shamelessly to the other two executives, who don’t really know how to use an assistant so they don’t really care that he is incompetent.

I need help! What do you think?

My Assistant is Terrible


Dear My Assistant is Terrible,

Wow—I am so sorry. I tell my clients all the time that they are only as good as their assistant, so I can certainly understand your predicament. It sounds like you are dealing with a bunch of different issues here—and one of them is political.

Your first line of defense is to sit down with your new assistant, explain what a good job looks like, and create a step-by-step plan for him to get up to speed. Be kind and patient—we can’t have nephew Fred reporting negative things about you. Document each and every interaction, task, and goal, every dropped ball, every instance of incompetence. You might be surprised that he is not the numb nut you think he is when he has proper direction. On the other hand, if he IS what you think he is, you will have flawless documentation to support your case. The most entrenched nepotism can’t ignore terrible performance, but you must have your documentation.

In the meantime, do meet with HR to lodge your initial complaint and let them know what you are doing. You can ask nicely to be reassigned to a real assistant as well. Are there any terrific assistants working for others? Maybe get yourself moved to one of them. You might also make the case for needing your own full-time assistant if you can show how much more you produce when you have the right kind of help. That 90 minutes a day adds up to more than a week’s work each month—and goodness knows what else you could be doing with that 45 hours. One more option, and I know this sounds nuts but I have seen it done: consider hiring a virtual assistant outside of the organization and paying for that person yourself. It may be impossible because it would require access to calendars and email, so the organization would have to approve, but there may be a variation on the idea that could work.

Don’t despair. If the nepotism situation is as out of control as you think, your guy will be promoted soon. If it isn’t, he will be gone, and you will still have your reputation.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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