Supervising Colleagues, Overcoming Challenges

January 21, 2021


It can be difficult to be a proactive, rather than a reactive assistant, without a clear vision and sense of direction.

A few years ago, I was the new kid on the block when I joined a team of inspired people doing wonderful things in higher education. These were inspired people, most of them health care professionals. Depending on the semester, there were a hundred or so of us.

Supervising others is often only one of many responsibilities

In this role, I held a number of responsibilities. As each new professor or instructor was recruited, I would assess her or his education and experience to determine an initial salary placement. I was responsible for tracking and assessing part time professors’ workloads in order to determine whether a colleague’s workload was such that it would trigger regularization, which would be great for the colleague and would have financial ramifications for the employer.

All vacation and leave requests came to me for review. These colleagues worked under the terms of three different collective agreements (four, if you counted the one governing my principal’s terms of employment) that I needed to quickly understand and correctly apply. I of course attended and recorded multiple meetings.

As an EA, my responsibilities also included supervision of the support staff, most of whom were older than me. No pressure, right? Well, there were some lovely people in this skilled and dedicated group. The challenge lay in the fact that, as more than one of my new colleagues put it during my first week, there were some deeply entrenched interpersonal issues amongst some of the staff.

It’s a bonus if your team get along with one another

When I was offered the role, it came with a heads up; not all the people in the group I would supervise were content or got along well with others. As with many assistants and office managers, staff supervision was only one of multiple responsibilities I held, but it consumed disproportionate amounts of time and energy.

I felt more like a referee than a colleague

In the first few months, it seemed there were spot fires to be extinguished almost weekly. I began implementing team building strategies and striving to minimise disruption to those who were consistently contributing in a positive manner. At times, though, I felt more like a referee than a colleague working toward shared goals.

Only a fool would fail to see that these interpersonal issues were impacting the support staff as a whole, and the faculty itself. All this effort was underway, mind you, as I was endeavouring to settle into the other aspects of my new job. It was critical to ensure I was up to speed on the four collective agreements. If I failed to correctly interpret the language in any of those agreements, it could create all sorts of issues. I say that I was endeavouring to settle in to other aspects of the role because, as anyone who’s been in a similar situation knows, something has to give.

Your other work can suffer

Piles of paper were mounting on and around my desk, and it was a struggle to meet some deadlines. I worked long hours. Despite my best efforts, it was clear that I needed to shift, and soon, from a reactive mode to a proactive mode.

In other words, I needed to clear my own way through the fog of others’ discontent and articulate the direction in which we would move. Together.

I’d already incorporated a practice of rotating leadership of staff meetings amongst the team, but now it was time to build a shared focus. While sparing you the details, I latched on to some issues and invited the staff to work with me to develop goals and strategies to resolve them. As part of the process, we met – sometimes as a team, and sometimes with other members of the faculty in attendance – to constructively air staff members’ perspectives and ideas. We listened to one another, and to other colleagues, and implemented changes and a faculty guidebook.

Now, while I loved fairy tales when I was little, I’ll not tell you that we had a happily ever after ending. Things did improve substantially, though – for my fellow assistants, and for our colleagues at large. Through focused investments of time and goodwill in developing goals and a (mostly!) shared vision as to how we as a team would function, I was able to recover time that I could apply to all the other aspects of my job description and role. My own performance on other aspects of the role improved.

What I learned:

In my early days supervising this team, I allowed the challenges around me to limit my sense of direction.

Even once we’ve established a clear performance plan or path to success, we can all slip. Engaging in a bit of reflection – to be distinguished from navel gazing! – may help you in assessing whether you’ve been letting challenges distract from your vision for success in your role.

Reflection can take various forms: journaling, regular goal setting and reviews, and clear-eyed conversation with a trusted colleague or mentor. Consider various approaches, and see what works for you.


About the Author: Shelagh Donnelly educates and inspires assistants on topics ranging from meetings and minutes to business acumen, cybersecurity and working with boards. She helps assistants nurture their adaptability, productivity and resilience in order to enjoy the career and continue to add value even as roles evolve. An international speaker, Shelagh worked with C-level executives for more than 25 years and is recognized for her governance expertise. Shelagh founded her globally read Exceptional EA website in 2013, and is the author of the upcoming book, The Resilient Assistant.   

This article first appeared in Exceptional EA, a globally respected professional development resource for administrative professionals. Visit to find out more and tell her we sent you.

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