The Art of Self-Advocacy

April 29, 2020


Being able to advocate on your own behalf means you’re able to represent your views and interests. If you’re skilled at self-advocacy, then you’re able to speak up for what’s important to you – and you do so in an effective manner.

How comfortable are you when it comes to self-advocacy? What about promoting yourself and your skills? For some, self-promotion doesn’t come quite so readily. In one of my recent Weekend Polls (Weekend Poll: Are You Good at Self-Promotion?), I asked readers a series of questions about self-promotion and advocating and negotiating on their own behalf. The results? While many assistants are clearly comfortable with promoting, negotiating and advocating on their own behalf, and some can do so despite saying they’re not naturals at it, significant percentages of respondents reported being very uncomfortable with such undertakings.

Interestingly, equal percentages of participants in the poll found themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum with respect to self-advocacy within their careers. 22.5% reported being very comfortable on this front, while another 22.5% said it makes them very uncomfortable. In the middle, 55% of respondents said that, while they’re not naturals at it, they can advocate for themselves when it comes to their career. While I found some of the results encouraging, the degrees of discomfort expressed suggest that it may help to place self-promotion and self-advocacy in context.

Promoting or advocating for others
Assistants and other employees can be among their employers’ best brand ambassadors. Think about occasions on which you’ve offered positive remarks about your employer’s services, products, people or ethos – and how other assistants who are satisfied in their careers will often readily do the same. I’ve witnessed assistants’ voluntary and sincere promotion of colleagues and organizations in action time and time again, in person and on social media. Inevitably, such promotion positively impacts my perceptions of a business or organization.

You may also advocate for others within your organization, encouraging that they be given opportunities. You may delegate to others, in part for your own benefit but also in part as a means of letting people demonstrate what they can do and grow professionally. Why, then, do some people feel uncomfortable promoting themselves or advocating on their own behalf? Perhaps it’s a reluctance to be seen as bragging or arrogant, or discomfort with the potential of your aspirations being rejected.

Identify what it is you want or need, and why
However confident you may (or may not) already be with advocating for yourself, you’re likely to develop increased comfort if you begin with some self-assessment. Be clear yourself on what it is you’re after – and why. You need to reach this stage before you begin negotiating.

Putting it in perspective
Think about this in the context of how you advocate for others’ wants and needs, using travel planning as an example. Whether you make bookings directly or through an in-house or external travel agent, you probably go out of your way to ensure (advocate for) what your traveler needs and wants.

You may take care to secure a specific hotel brand, and even a certain room type or location. In order to do so, you’ll have had to establish a solid understanding of your traveler’s wants and needs. A list of wants may include a particular hotel brand, style or location. Wants may extend to room locations. Understanding the context (why) behind some preferences may help you make specific choices that keep a light sleeper away from elevators and street noise, or a traveler with mobility challenges close to an elevator and the ground floor. Wants may also extend to fitness or other amenities, a certain bed size, a desired view or exposure, or proximity to restaurants and meeting venues. A list of needs may reflect budget considerations or accessibility requirements.

If you don’t have these wants and needs established, then you’re reducing your likelihood of being successful in securing your traveler’s preferences – and the likelihood of meeting organizational expectations in terms of budget and brands. When you make the effort to identify wants and needs, you increase your likelihood of success.

The same applies to advocating on your own behalf. Whether your want is an increase in compensation, a flexible schedule or financial support to attend a conference or enroll in a credit course, be sure you’re able to articulate both the what and the why.

Make it relevant to your employer
For example, if you’re advocating for financial support and time to participate in a course or conference, present the business case. Would approval position you to contribute more effectively at x, thereby freeing up more of your principal’s time to focus on y or z? Would you be able to increase your productivity or efficiencies? Might you propose providing return on investment (ROI) by sharing new skills or insights with colleagues? What is the impact on the organization? In explaining your why, you need to provide context that will be relevant and justifiable to whoever will be making the decision on your proposal or request.

Like many people, you may want flexible hours or the capacity to work from home at times. Whatever your motivations, it will help you to frame the request through a business lens. How might a flexible schedule benefit your employer? How might it impact colleagues and clients? Would approval of your request create a domino effect? These are questions your principal will need to consider. There may well be both pros and cons to such a request, and so you should anticipate and be prepared to address them. You also want to be prepared to consider a compromise, which may just represent a win for all parties.

Track and be prepared to speak about accomplishments
Depending on your ask, be prepared to build your case in the context of the value you bring to the role and the impacts you have upon the organization. If you routinely track your achievements and the efficiencies/cost savings you’ve established for your business unit, you’re off to a good start. If you’re able to attach a dollar value to an undertaking, that’s even better; metrics are meaningful. Have you received commendations for a project you undertook, or some other accomplishment? These can also help you articulate your value.

Quantify your case
You say that the thing you’d most like to advocate for is an increase in compensation? The likelihood of success can depend to a certain extent on the sector in which you’re employed. Whether it’s a raise, professional development or another want or need, you’ll strengthen your case by being able to quantify it.

Do your research
Do your homework. If there’s any financial impact to your proposal or ask, you need to be paying attention to the organization’s finances as well as market and economic conditions in general. That’s good advice no matter the situation. If you want to advocate for an increase in compensation, though, consider whether the timing is suitable. Depending on your sector, employer and locale, the time may not be right. If you’re like many executive or personal assistants (EAs, PAs) in the UK, this may not be the time to be seeking a raise. While many are thriving, more than a few good assistants have found their roles made redundant through no fault of their own. Some of your skilled UK counterparts are focused on job searches rather than salary lifts.

You also want to understand your market value. What kind of compensation packages are available to your peers who bring similar skills to their roles and contribute at comparable levels? See what information is publicly available both internally and externally, and check career postings to get a sense of norms within your sector. If you’re seeking a lift above the norm, be sure to articulate the rationale and why (there’s that word again!) your contributions merit such an increment. If you’re looking for funding to support professional development, tie the proposed development to the value you bring to the role. It comes back to ROI for your employer – whether that’s efficiencies and production, or morale, employee engagement and corporate culture.

About negotiating
When it comes to negotiating, the results of my Weekend Poll suggest that people feel both more comfortable and more effective with negotiating in general than with doing so on their own behalf. If that’s your situation, it may help to recognize that you likely negotiate on behalf of your principal or organization daily without even blinking an eye. Reflect on a typical week in the office, and the conversations or email communications you have with respect to schedules. You routinely deal with requests for your principal’s time, whether with a single colleague, stakeholder or client, or for meetings involving several people. Inevitably, you also negotiate changes to committee and other meetings. In addition to such negotiations with internal and external stakeholders, you may also negotiate with service providers and suppliers.

If you’ve hesitated to negotiate on your own behalf, remind yourself that you already possess those skills and exercise them on a routine basis for other people or causes. Then draw on the same strategies you employ for others’ benefit to also pursue your own needs and wants. Negotiations and self-advocacy aren’t always about major issues. If you’re among those who find these processes daunting, remember that they reflect skills you likely deploy on a routine basis on behalf of others.

Remember, too, that skills can be learned and refined. If you want to up your skill level, start with some low hanging fruit – negotiations that shouldn’t be overly challenging – and keep at it. You won’t always get what you want … but that’s no surprise, and nor should you allow this to deter you. I’ve yet to meet anyone who always secures what they want or need. If you know someone who does, observe that person closely and take notes! If you’re not able to make your ask, you’ll never know what you might have attained!

About the Author: Shelagh Donnelly educates and inspire 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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