A SOHOer's Savior

Training Smart

I've found that the best way to train my assistant is to show her how I like a task done, watch her do it and give her feedback until she's pretty much got it down. If something is complicated, I invite her to jot down notes to help remind herself how to do it. If I'm not particular about how a task is done, I encourage my assistant to try it her way.

It's understandable that a new employee is nervous and likely to make mistakes, so I minimize criticism unless I'm afraid my lack of criticism will be perceived as endorsing something I disapprove of, like smoking in my house.

My natural tendency is to be particularly nice in the beginning to help build the relationship. I've found, however, that's risky. If later I'm not quite as friendly (for example, if I don't spend as much time chatting), the assistant might start to get disenchanted, feeling that, having gotten to know them, I like them less. So I try to interact in the beginning much as I will later.

Managing Smart

Open communication is key. After the first day, I'll ask my assistant to sit down with me-that lets her know I take this seriously-and ask, "Well, how was your day? Truthfully, what are you liking? Not liking?" I'll do that again in a week, again after a few weeks and then every few months, no matter how long she's been working for me.

Where possible, I try to give her nonroutine tasks and ask her opinion about things, so she feels valuable and so I can determine how much I can delegate to her.

If at all possible, I treat her more as a valued colleague than as an employee. Even though she may be doing my laundry, I treat her with the same respect I'd afford my physician. However, I don't make myself available as a friend. Her job is to save me time, not add one more name to the list of friends to whom I owe phone calls. I do, however, make clear that in an emergency, she can count on me 24 hours a days, seven days a week.

I give small raises every few months, asked for or not. It's a tangible sign of appreciation and reflects the truth that she's more valuable to me the longer she stays-after a few months, she knows everything necessary to work successfully for me.

Also, every few months and on special occasions, I take my assistant out to lunch. My assistants have really valued that. At that lunch, I focus primarily on them, their lives and their needs-not mine.

Despite the modest pay, the usually routine work, and that most of my assistants have been students, my personal assistants have stayed with me an average of two years. All but one (the one who stole those rose seeds) parted with me on excellent terms, and I've been grateful for their being an important part of my life.

Dr. Marty Nemko is a homebased career counselor, writer and speaker. His column appears on the front page of the employment section of the Sunday Los Angeles Times. He hosts Work with Marty Nemko on a NPR affiliate in San Francisco. His latest book is Cool Careers for Dummies.

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