Communication lets you down

Trouble with the boss? A new course in how to work together may provide the answer.
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TRACEY BRIERLEY, a secretary at British Aerospace, has a problem with her boss. "He tries to take on too many things at once and never finishes a job," she says. But instead of seething inwardly, Ms Brierley told him about his shortcomings. This was possible because she was on a training programme run by the company to improve working relationships.

Secretaries are no longer merely glorified typists, many are responsible for decision-making and handling budgets. But despite this changes, some bosses don't know how to work effectively with their secretaries while some secretaries don't know how to handle their bosses.

"Managers have been trained in all aspects of management and teamwork but few have been taught how to manage their relationship with a secretary. Equally, secretaries may have been on courses on everything from assertiveness to presentation skills yet few have been taught how to deal with the boss," says David Porter, a partner in management consultancy Insight Business Solutions which devised the training programme for British Aerospace.

British Aerospace has recognised for sometime that the working relationships between its managers and administrative support staff could affect productivity , business efficiency and morale. So managers and their secretaries are taken out of the office for a day to participate in exercises designed to help their understanding of each other.

"The secretaries go into one room and the managers - who are almost always blokes because the aerospace industry is so male dominated - go into another. Then they are asked the same question: what is it reasonable to expect of the other party? They then get together to discuss their answers," says Beverley Harvey one of Insight Business Solutions course tutors.

She says that the emphasis is on identifying expectations and developing mutual understanding. "It is designed to facilitate open and honest discussion in a constructive way and there are certain ground rules so that you can give feedback without getting personal." Tracey Brierley says that initially she was sceptical about the exercise because she had worked with her boss Allan Humphries for a long time and had moved jobs within British Aerospace with him.

"When Allan suggested we go on the course I really didn't want to go. My first reaction was that if I had worked with him for seven years, I should know him by now," she says.

Tracey's main problem was that her boss failed to delegate enough. She also believed that he should sometimes close his office door to allow him to get on with work. "She's dead right but nothing was ever said before," says Allan.

For his part Allan wanted Tracey to understand his priorities and to recognise that his diary was sometimes so full he had no time to think. The answer was to draw up a plan to address these problems. This included improving time management by setting aside a few minutes at the start of the day to agree priorities; finding two hours twice a week for "thinking time"; and Allan agreeing to ask Tracey's opinion before making decisions on matters she knows about - "Allan didn't always have time to ask or listen to my opinions," she says. He has also agreed to include Tracey more and to get her to sit in on meetings. "I work in a team but I don't know what the other people in the team really do. It would get quite embarrassing sometimes," she says. The pair say that months later they are still sticking to the plan and that it is working well.

For Bob Fairclough and his secretary Cathy Rolfe, who were both new to their jobs, the workshop gave them a chance to get to know one another better. Bob Fairclough says "We wanted to develop a good working relationship straightway" I work a lot from home and I wanted more of an assistant who could participate in the work I did."

Bob and Cathy decided to work through his business objectives and his role in the company. Cathy says: "We are now a lot more confident in what we can achieve and understand each other a lot more." According to David Porter these reactions are fairly typical. He says that managers frequently underestimate the capabilities of their secretaries, don't spell out their priorities, don't keep them informed or treat them as part of the team. And he adds that secretaries want to be involved, loathe watching their bosses type and are maddened when carefully set up filing systems are repeatedly ruined.

"By taking time out to discuss what type of relationship both parties want, these problems can be ironed out," he says.