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In a previous article, I wrote about the pendulum swinging too far, and the idea that managers do not have sufficient administrative support. The fact is, requiring managers to spend significant time on routine, administrative tasks is a waste of resources. But what about administrative support for CEOs and executives? Most organizations still recognize the value of having a dedicated resource available for executives. It’s unlikely that any Board of Directors would expect the CEO to be copying and assembling the binders for the next Board meeting. Sufficient thought is seldom given, however, to the nature of administrative support that should be provided to executives.

A Framework for the Nature of Work: Elliot Jacques and Strata of Work

Elliott Jacques provides us with a solid framework for understanding the nature of support work and the choices that can be made. Entry-level work in most organizations is driven by procedures. People come to work in the morning, they are assigned their task and they use their best ability to complete work within carefully described parameters. If they run into a problem, they ask a Front Line Manager for help. Jacques calls this Stratum 1 Work. Much administrative support work can be described in this way: make copies; answer the telephone; refer calls or take messages; enter information into this database; process this expense account, and so on.

The next level in the organization includes the professional individual contributors and the Front Line Managers. The nature of work at this level is different. It requires a diagnostic capability to gather information from a variety of sources, use that information together with what is known about the organization and its strategy, and make a diagnosis to solve a problem, create a procedure or improve a process. Jacques calls this Stratum 2 Work. By its nature, it cannot be made into procedure.

Administrative Support Positions

The equivalent form of work also exists in administrative support positions. Here the nature of the work is more complex and isn’t about following procedures, but solving problems. Rather than simply gathering and recording information, Stratum 2 administrative support focuses on how to improve the situation for the executive; on how to resolve problems and bring solutions.

For instance, instead of gathering a series of requests for meetings and presenting them to the executive, as would be the case with Stratum 1 support, a Stratum 2 assistant would manage the calendar, resolve the conflicts, and bring the recommendations to the executive. The Stratum 2 assistant is proactive: able to recognize and solve problems because they are equipped with the Stratum 2 diagnostic capability. The nature of the assignment of work is also different. Because a Stratum 2 capable person carries this diagnostic capability, they are more easily able to work from general direction instead of the specific task assignment that Stratum 1 employees require.

The Challenges of Not Differentiating Stratum 1 and Stratum 2 Work

If the differences in the fundamental nature of these two types of support are not recognized, the executive may not be getting the required support. This is often described as a performance issue: “My assistant doesn’t take initiative; my assistant is always bringing me problems; my assistant doesn’t think far enough ahead.” These symptoms in fact do not describe performance issues. They describe a situation where an executive is expecting work that is diagnostic, or Stratum 2 in nature, when they have a Stratum 1 capable incumbent in the position.

Creating successful executive support positions involves not only describing the position correctly, but also, assigning someone to the person with the right capability and competency. If a position is designed as a Stratum 2 executive support position, a successful incumbent must carry the higher order diagnostic capability. And an individual who excels at Stratum 1 support work is not necessarily the person who will succeed at Stratum 2 support work. Experience is sometimes an indicator, but not always. During the interview and reference checking process, probe to ensure candidates have demonstrated this capability successfully in situations similar to those that they will face in your organization.