Google+

BBC Capital

Career Coach

Sick of answering the phone? How to move up the ladder

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

As a personal assistant to a director at an international bank in Madrid, 33-year-old Kristina Sabeva feels frustrated that her ‘assistant’ title still carries a stigma when it comes to being considered for other jobs and advancement.

“It [is] very difficult to obtain a new position within a corporation as the HR [human resources] people cannot see how secretarial skills can transfer to another level,” she wrote to Career Coach in an email.

Changing careers is rarely easy – but can prove especially challenging when trying to break out from an administrative role, such as personal or executive assistant or secretary (titles and roles can vary depending on the company or country), into a new field or position with more responsibility and creativity. Even so, with the right approach, it can be done.

Ask for help

Start by speaking to former personal or administrative assistants who have taken their careers in different directions, suggested Melbourne-based executive career coach Mary Goldsmith in an email.

“This will give you some clarity on your options and next steps, resulting in better conversations with recruiters, potential employers and your network about your career aspirations.”

LinkedIn and other professional networking sites such as Xing.com in Europe are good places to connect with former administrative workers who can give you sage advice on making a move.

Beware the hierarchy

Maite Baron, chief executive officer at The Corporate Escape, a London-based career transition consultancy that helps disillusioned employees become business owners, wasn’t surprised to hear that the managers at the bank where Sabeva works are still quite hierarchical and rigid in their thinking.

“Many organisations and banks still use traditional business models where career progression relies heavily on the right CV rather than on having the right skills, abilities and ambition. And this is certainly true for many Spanish companies,” wrote Baron who is originally from Spain.

An assistant to a director at a bank in Madrid, Kristina Sabeva says her title keeps her from moving up the ranks, despite her skills. (Image: John Yates)

“Their old way of thinking doesn’t reward the talented and motivated so you need to be sure you are not wasting precious time by staying in the wrong place.”

The grass might be greener

Depending on how traditional your current company is when it comes to promotions, you may need to expand your horizons.

By moving into a less traditional organization, you can increase your odds of finding a more creative and fluid position, suggested Baron.

Even continuing to work as a personal or administrative assistant – but for a not-for-profit, non-government organisation (NGO) or arts-related organisation – could deliver enough of a desired career change, wrote Goldsmith.

Consider entrepreneurship

Another option for creating the job you really want is to think about starting your own business. Work on ways to bring your interests and the skills you’ve developed  together.  You probably have more skills than you realize. Ones that will serve you well striking out on your own are often critical in administrative jobs, including everything from negotiating to budgeting to dealing with cranky people.

“You could learn the ropes working for a much smaller established business or even a start-up as a first step to building your entrepreneurial confidence and experience,” wrote Baron. “You will also get a taste of how your own skills could be easily and successfully transferred to a new and different context.”

An easy way to take a dip rather than a head-first dive is by checking out freelance opportunities. At sites like Elance.com, thousands of jobs are posted daily – most without geographical requirements. Even if the positions are still administrative in nature, they can serve as excellent opportunities to branch out on your own terms and fill in the skills you might lack, or add to the depth of those you want to use more.

“Good virtual assistants and online business managers are heavily in demand,” wrote Baron. There’s no need to quit your current job right away; you can often test the waters in your spare time.

Know your value

Don’t allow anyone to tell you that your administrative skills aren’t transferable. Judah Kurtz, a Chicago-based executive coach and leadership consultant, worked as an executive assistant for 12 years for three different CEOs in three different companies. He did this while studying for his undergraduate and two graduate degrees and starting his own coaching business.

“In general, the skills are transferable all over the place,” he said.

Examples include: strong organisation, communication and interpersonal skills, being an adept project manager, able to influence up/down/across to get things done and understanding how to leverage all sorts of resources to be effective.

“The better you are at these things, the more transferable they are,” said Kurtz.

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.