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5 Ways to Prove You’re an Office Superhero (When the Boss Is Out)

I’m a Superhero at my office. Want to know my secrets so you can become one too?

I’ve been an administrative assistant to C-Suite executives at the same company for nearly three decades. My very first day on the job, I was beaming with pride. I competed against women much older and more experienced, and yet, I was the one who walked away with the dream job.

I always had high aspirations for using my administrative job as a springboard to bigger and better things. I even told the president of the company about my plan to become a corporate officer some day. And while I may have been a little ahead of my time, there seems to be a consensus that it’s the golden age of the Executive Assistant, so my goal should have been achievable.

Even as I struggled to learn the best techniques for keeping all those balls in the air, there was one thing that held me back from advancing—fear. As I perfected my craft and made the executives look good, the anonymity of my position became a security blanket that shielded me from criticism. At times, I yo-yo’ed between anger at being underappreciated and pride at seeing just how far I’d progressed from an entry-level secretarial position.

Experience has taught me, and USA Today agrees, that “the EA could be the underappreciated career of the century.” This may be true, but it should never be used as an excuse to ignore your own inner superhero.

Let me tell you why.

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A month ago, my boss got extremely sick. We work for the top residential home builder in our region, and as the EVP of Sales and Marketing, his expertise kept us firmly positioned as a leader in the industry.

Of course, when it rains, it pours.

We were five days from the grand opening of our exclusive on-site Home Show. We needed to complete seven fully furnished model homes, clean up the community, train the staff, prepare the press release and advertising, and attend to a load of other details before thousands of visitors flocked to the site. No pressure.

Of course, that wasn’t the only project needing my attention a. My boss is a hands-on kind of manager. He isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and get dirty. That means he takes on a lot of tasks that would usually be reserved for others—like putting up signs, ordering brochures, coordinating landscape maintenance, approving invoices, and so much more.

In addition to taking on his duties and managing my own job (what a novel idea), I’m the AA for two other high-maintenance executives—the President and Executive Vice President of Operations. So I’m very accustomed to pumping out a high volume of work in a normal work week. What made this situation different was actually being in charge.

My boss has been a great mentor and always encouraged me to take a leadership role whenever needed. I was definitely needed, so I put on my cape, summoned my inner superhero, and got to work.

The Harvard Business Review once that “you have to learn to play to your strengths.” Rather than panic, I knew I had to focus on what I did best.

These are the five powers I recommend you focus on to elevate your productivity and image.

1. Organize and Prioritize

First, I assembled a complete listing of every job that needed attention. I gathered all the pertinent information from my boss’s desk, his email, and his voicemail. I blended everything together on my desk and started sorting.

Then, I used free project management software called Trello to organize the tasks. Trello has worked well for me in the past to help visualize separate projects. It was an invaluable tool in managing multiple duties with movable deadlines and priorities.

(It’s not the only one—you can use Asana, a Google spreadsheet, or your own preferred method.) Using a cloud-based app made perfect sense for easy accessibility when I was out of the office. Your chosen method should help you:

  • Identify projects
  • List tasks required
  • Set priorities
  • Establish deadlines
  • Follow up and report

I reviewed my worksheets several times a day, updated each task until completed, and re-prioritized as needed. If you’re still not sure which management app to use, check out this excellent comparison by successful entrepreneur Mark Suster at Both Sides.

2. Be Decisive

You may be wary of overstepping your bounds, but decisions have to be made. Don’t let your fear of making a mistake stop you from being productive. I was very familiar with my boss’s management style and could easily predict how he would handle a situation.

  • Give thoughtful consideration to problems, and use a common-sense approach when determining a solution.
  • Keep excellent notes—detailing discussions, as well as verbal and written agreements.
  • Set aside issues that don’t require immediate attention. These can be resolved at a later time when your boss returns.
  • Be careful not to be drawn into daily dramas that often occur in high-stress situations. Your job is to sift through the emotional responses from other team members and lead the project to a successful conclusion.

3. Use Your Resources

The art of delegation isn’t as simple as it looks, but it’s time to ask for help. A good manager and my wise old grandmother recognize that many hands make light work. Assigning tasks to those with the skills to accomplish them just makes sense.

Refer to your project management app to assign tasks to team members with the proper resources, skills, or time to complete them efficiently. You can share the files online so all collaborators can follow each assignment in real time.

Don’t be afraid to tap into the expertise your executive team can provide to handle matters requiring a delicate or authoritative touch. If you don’t have access to budgetary data, you can always defer expenditure decisions to a manager who does.

I was impressed with how many people were willing to give an extra effort when I asked for help. Because admins tend to work autonomously on a regular basis, it’s easy to forget that you don’t have to do everything yourself.

4. Keep the Boss Updated

Your boss already knows that you’re a superhero, but demonstrating that you’ve got their back will be a relief. I sent emails with updates on all the items I knew he’d be worried about and left the insignificant and negative news for a healthier time.

As important as it was for me to communicate with him, it was equally vital that he could communicate with me. I was fortunate that my boss had email access and was able to speak with me regularly, even when he was hospitalized.

Depending on the situation, you may not be as fortunate. I was surprised at how therapeutic and empowering it was for me to talk to him. It helped to hear that he trusted me to handle things in his absence and gave me more confidence to stay the course.

5. Maintain Your Composure and Confidentiality

Of all the superhero “powers” I’ve noted, I’m most proud of my ability to project “executive presence” under pressure (now there’s a tongue-twister for you!). According to experts at Forbes, my ability to remain composed and decisive while in the throes of turmoil indicate that I possess the core characteristics associated with executive presence.

In fact, a survey of senior executives found that these abilities count for 26 percent of what it takes to get promoted.

Developing this skill level can take years of confidence-building exercises and practice with:

  • Communication—oral, written, and body language
    • Public speaking with use of authoritative tone of voice, passion, and energy
    • High-quality, grammatically correct business correspondence
    • Excellent posture, firm handshake, and eye contact
  • Maintaining Composure—be assertive, speak up, use powerful language/vocabulary
  • Expertise and Proficiency in Your Field—these will develop over time. Continually strive for more knowledge in all areas. The more versatile you are, the more valuable you’ll be to the company.
  • Trustworthiness and Confidentiality—these fall into the common sense category, but you may be tested by those closest to you. You may be tempted to share your frustrations about the job or confide in your office BFF about exciting news, but don’t do it. Likewise, maintain a high-level of integrity and confidentiality outside the office—you never know who you’re talking to or who is listening.

Years of experience have taught me to embrace change and to never stop learning. Being able to step in and take charge when my boss got sick didn’t happen by accident. I’d been practicing my whole career. Follow in my footsteps, and you, too, can be a superhero.

What superhero powers do you possess? Have you ever been challenged to use them? Share your comments below.


    1. Thanks, Amber! Let us know if you find any other cape-worthy behaviors ;)

  1. Thank you, Ikechi for your positive comments. I don’t always feel in control, especially when challenged with “curves in the road,” but it’s good to be recognized when it all works out well.

  2. Hi Debbie

    Love the term Super hero boss. It is something cool to achieve and you have certainly showed how this possible with this awesome post. I do agree that you need to be calm and in control when making decisions. Also it is great to you were able to handle things despite the challenges.

    Thanks for sharing. Take Care

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