Many admins start as a jack-of-all-trades. Managers lean on them to pick up a variety of roles and support small businesses in every department. Part HR, part scheduler, part bookkeeper, part customer service, coffee fetcher, note keeper, file organizer, marketing updater, document reviewer, report preparer, IT troubleshooter, email scanner, message taker, mail sorter, you name it.
This broad approach to admin support is common and sometimes necessary in the early years of a business, until the leader gets their feet under them and can better organize the vision and roles within the company. (See Buried in Business to learn more about how to organize these roles.)
Often admins wonder, what’s next for me? How will they grow with the company and in their career, or will they always be a jack-of-all-trades?
The Bad News
The bad news is that the jack-of-all-trades model isn’t scalable. As businesses and teams grow, someone who is spread too thin across too many departments becomes inefficient and ineffective. More importantly, if the admin is an A-player, they will eventually burn out. They want to perform at a high level, but maintaining that high level as demands increase is a recipe for disaster.
The Good News
The good news is that a jack-of-all-trades has accumulated information about many aspects of the company and has the ability and flexibility to adapt to a variety of roles depending on the individual’s unique strengths. Sometimes we see A-player admins blaze their own path and sometimes we see them niche down to become subject matter experts. The great news is there are multiple avenues for growth, but they must be willing to let go of the old Jack. This is where the hourglass progression comes in.
The Hourglass Progression
To better understand the career progress for admin, whether that’s you or an A-Player on your team, is to visualize an hourglass.
The admin starts with the company with a wide breadth of responsibilities and learns the behind-the-scenes processes across multiple departments. Imagine the sand in an hourglass filtering through the center and piling onto the wide bottom of the glass container. Similarly, the catch-all admin is literally catching all the sand with a wide breadth.
Because this isn’t scalable, as the company grows, the admin will narrow their focus to become a master in one area of the business. This might be people, finance, operations, executive support, or marketing, to name a few. This is the narrow area of the hourglass. This A-player focuses on a smaller area of the business and concentrates their skills. This slows the filtering of sand, but directs it more accurately.
As the admin gains knowledge, experience, and expertise, they also begin to dismantle the stigma around the initial jack-of-all-trades admin role. Their credibility increases both internally and externally. They become a recognized expert in their area of responsibility. With this credibility, they may begin to widen their view once again, but at a higher level. This is the top of the hourglass, directing information to the right areas of concentration. At the top of the hourglass they direct the sand rather than collect the sand.
Don’t Skip the Middle
An A-player admin is an incredibly valuable team member for a business who can support this hourglass progression. Because the jack-of-all-trades admin has experience collecting the sand across multiple areas, they bring their expertise to leadership in directing the sand. They are equipped to become part of the leadership.
However, I have witnessed a few people try to skip the middle of the hourglass. When an A-player admin is ready to progress, they may feel ready for a higher level of authority without the middle area of expertise. And consequently, a supervisor may feel inclined to promote them beyond their current skill level based on excellent performance as the jack-of-all-trades.
I forewarn you, don’t skip the middle. Becoming an expert in a narrower area of the business will build confidence, competence, and credibility. This sets the A-player up for success at the top of their hourglass progression.