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OpinionPeople and Leadership

Five Top Tips: Surviving an Outer Office

You have just been posted to a new job which sees you working as part of an Outer Office.  Did you know that your life is about to change for the next two years?  Your weekends and evenings are no longer yours, sports afternoons are a thing of the past, the three mandated physical training sessions are very much ‘in your own time’ now, and you have forgotten what the food is like in the Mess due to eating at your desk.  You begin to ask yourself, is it worth it?

The Outer Office

Outer Offices are typically known as the ‘reception staff’ of a very senior officer (VSO).  The Outer Office usually employs two or three other staff members.  However, depending on the role and seniority of the Principal there could be many more.  An Outer Office could be large with a colonel, two majors, one captain, one warrant officer, a house sergeant and a driver.  An Outer Office could be small, consisting of just two or three members.  As an Outer Office, you are expected to work together to make the life of your Principal run smoothly. 

What an Outer Office is asked, or expected, to do can often be surprising.  It includes more than just running their Principal’s day-to-day diary and managing information that comes in and out of the office.  It can also include their social engagements, overseas visits and, in some cases, looking after your Principal’s family.  That list is not exhaustive and is merely a small insight into what you could expect working in an Outer Office.  The exposure you will get from working in an Outer Office can make the job worthwhile.  You gain significant insight into the best and worst of the Armed Forces.  Wavell Room has already educated us on surviving being an Aide-De-Camp.  Here are five points on surviving a posting to an Outer Office: 

Point one: Understand that an Outer Office is a ‘flat and fast’ team. 

The Outer Office will include staff members of differing ranks and roles.  Don’t become fixed by your responsibilities; know that you may have to branch out to help the team.  An Outer Office tends to be fast-paced due to the busy diary of a very senior officer.  There is a time and a place for rank in an Outer Office, particularly when giving direction, but understand that these moments are few and far between.  Each member of the team should have an understanding of how to do each other’s job.  When you do have the opportunity to take some time off.  This allows your responsibilities to be shared to enable the smooth running of the Outer Office and your Principal.  The pressure to perform is on, and when one member does not fulfil their responsibilities, it can create friction within the team.  Each week is different, and the days are long.  The demanding and fast-paced nature of the job will encourage you to learn quickly and demonstrate your capacity.  Your reaction to stress will be tested; be cognisant that those you work with are also under the same pressure and may react differently to you.  Remember, you are all working towards the same goal. 

Point two: Demonstrate humility; no job is too small or beneath anyone. 

This point links with the first point.  To make the Outer Office run smoothly, someone will need to make the coffee, someone will need to set up the IT and do the comms check, and someone will need to do the filing, printing, and hole punching.  The list of mundane tasks goes on.  However, these trivial tasks reflect on the team’s ability to demonstrate how cohesive the Outer Office is. The nature of working in a busy team means that not all members of the Outer Office will always be at their desks, so sometimes it may fall to you to make the coffee.  Don’t sweat it.  No job is too small or beneath anyone when working in an Outer Office.  Demonstrate your humility by mucking in with the trivial tasks, and don’t forget that the small details and appearances matter. 

Another way of demonstrating humility is asking for help when you need it.  As point one states, remember that you are all working towards the same goal.  No one wants anyone to fail, as it reflects poorly on the whole team.  On that note, if you do make a mistake along the way (it’s inevitable, no one is perfect), own up, do it quickly and learn from it.  

Point three: Know your Principal’s priorities. Know the team’s priorities. Know how to prioritise.

Your Principal will have their own set of priorities which will help generate where the Outer Office places their efforts.  It is vital to know what is essential to your Principal and what your part to play is in achieving them.  When you conduct your arrival interview with your Principal, this is always a good question to ask them; note them down and reflect upon them often.  This is your intent statement.  Finally, and most importantly, you must understand that you are NOT your Principal.  Make it clear when you are giving their direct intent and/or priorities versus your interpretation of their potential intent.

The Outer Office priorities, of course, will align with that of the Principals.  However, it is good to check in with the senior officer in the Outer Office (usually the MA) about what is important to get through the week.  

Every day is always different, even the ‘routine’ days.  You will always plan for the next serial or engagement in your Principals diary.  Often, fastballs will come in from other senior officers, this could include Ministerial engagements too.  The fastballs that come in will not always be work-related.  Your Principal may forget that they had a family engagement over a weekend or an evening that you had spent weeks planning.  Your Principal probably has a family, bring them into the fold and ensure their priorities align with yours. Communication is key. 

Understand that not only do you serve your Principal, but you are serving the Principal’s staff too.  You need to differentiate between what is and is not important and what is and is not urgent.

Point four: Network, hard. Know who the movers and shakers are to get stuff done quickly.

Working in an Outer Office means that you have multiple masters.  Diplomacy is key.  The general staff member you piss off today could be in your chain of command tomorrow.  You will always find yourself in a position asking for people to produce work for your Principal.  Be a people person and take the time to talk to those ‘go to’ people who get stuff done quickly (this is easier said than done, especially when time is against you).  Don’t make enemies.

Many Outer Offices will have a Civil Service member.  Working with the Civil Service is very different from working with an Armed Forces member.  Your Principal has almost certainly worked with plenty of Civil Servants, but you might not have had that same experience.  Sir Humphrey’s article could help you here.  I also want to link point two to this point.  You can learn from them as much as they will learn from you!  Have some humility and know that this relationship will have ups and downs.  Steve Maguire also wrote about that here

Everyone will want the ear of your Principal and they will know you work closely with them. Make their lives easier by being honest and direct about how the Principal likes to work; is there a particular briefing style they like, or do they want their coffee made in a certain way?  You are one team, details and appearances matter.  Your Principal will pass comments to you about what they liked and didn’t like, make sure this feedback is taken on board and shared with the staff so everyone can improve next time.  Remember that glory is fleeting! 

Point five: Find and make the time for YOU.

Having another person in your life that you care for like a significant other can lead to burnout. Once you begin to understand your Principal and how the Outer Office works, find white space in the diary to take some time for you.  This could look like forcing yourself away from the desk once or twice a week to have lunch elsewhere.  It could be going to the gym before work because you don’t know what the working day brings yet, and may see you working late.  This could also be preparing a week’s worth of dinners on a Sunday, so you can throw something in the microwave when you finish work.  Be explicit when you are doing this, and communicate this to your team and your Principal, especially if it’s during the working day. Whilst you have white space, another member of the Outer Office could be sinking in a to-do list. 

Remember that you have a life outside of work, make time for friends and family.  Whatever gives you some headspace, be sure to do it.

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