A Comprehensive Guide to Getting the Most From a Virtual Assistant

Identify your Unique Ability — the thing that you do that gives the most value to the company — and let a virtual assistant take other tasks off your plate.
Headshot of author Jacqueline Jensen
Jacqueline Jensen
Expert Columnist
February 11, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021
Headshot of author Jacqueline Jensen
Jacqueline Jensen
Expert Columnist
February 11, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021

Your time should be spent doing the things that you love to do and that you do best.

Seems pretty simple, right? But we shouldn’t assume identifying this work is easy! Plus, once we have identified it, how do we focus on that work when we have other things on our plates during the workday?

 

Dan Sullivan’s Concept of Unique Ability

I first learned about Dan Sullivan’s concept of Unique Ability after a business leader I admire raved about how impactful it was for him. Sullivan, founder and president of the business coaching company The Strategic Coach, observed the most successful people are those who have learned how to focus on and leverage their unique strengths. Said another way, these people build their lives around their abilities, not their weaknesses. Sullivan began talking about his realizations using the term Unique Ability.

After reading Sullivan’s work, I realized that I spent a good amount of my day doing work that didn’t maximize my passions and abilities. Like many entrepreneurs I know, I was focused for most of my career on tasks that I was good at doing, but couldn’t say I enjoyed. As a “startup janitor,” a founder or C-level leader doesn’t always get to hone in on the tasks they most enjoy day-in and day-out. Someone has to meet with the attorney, answer the customer service emails, keep the books, dive into the tech to fix the bug and fumble through being a salesperson in order to keep revenue coming in. Realistically, if you are the founder of a small startup, those tasks often fall to you, whether you like them or not.

The process of identifying my own Unique Ability a few years ago helped me define what my best workday looked like — made up of the work that I am both world-class at doing and also deeply enjoy.

Imagine how revolutionary it would be to identify the place where you feel complete flow while working. You’re challenged, but not to the point of feeling like you’re sinking. You always find ways to get better, and that excites you. The work ahead of you each day energizes you, and you notice that others around you are similarly energized by your passion. Your work environment is full of positivity, dynamism and creativity. You leverage the unique talents that come naturally to you and are valuable to the team. This is the kind of work that you would do even if you weren’t paid. In fact, one way to know you’ve landed on a Unique Ability is that you may give it away for free because you don’t recognize how special and valuable it is! You find yourself in the sweet spot where you both enjoy the work you’re doing, and you’re uniquely talented at it.

“Most people are completely unaware that they have a Unique Ability. When we’re so close to our uniqueness, it makes it difficult to appreciate those things that come so naturally to us. We tend to believe that everyone can do the same things we can,” explains Sullivan.

 

Finding Your Unique Ability

To identify my Unique Ability, I took the steps below. What I outline is simply my take on Sullivan’s full process in his work on this topic. I took liberties to modify the process for my own needs. I have shared this process with a dozen or so entrepreneurs over the years, and the feedback has been that it was helpful to them, too!

Record tasks. 

For the next 48 hours, create a running list of all work tasks. I have found that this part of the process is best done without censorship or much thinking. For example, even if I spent longer than I would have liked solving a tech bug, I still noted it on my running list. We often have an idealized picture of how we spend our days, and it’s important to approach this running list like a researcher would approach gathering data. No judgment or blame of ourselves – just the facts.

Sort the tasks. 

At the end of the 48 hours, take your running list and begin sorting it into four quadrants. Spoiler alert: Soon, you’ll start to see patterns emerge about how you spend your time that you were unaware of before!

For this exercise, we’ll plot passion on the y-axis and talent on the x-axis. 

virtual-assistant-guide-1
Image created by the author.

High Passion, High Talent (Your Unique Ability) 
This is the upper right quadrant. You have superior skill when it comes to these tasks. People often tell you that you’re good at them. When working on these, you feel passion, a buzz of energy, and you are in-flow. You see never-ending opportunities for improvement ahead in these areas, and you always want to learn more. If you think back to how people on your team responded to you while you were doing these tasks, they may have had an energy boost too because it’s fun to be around someone who is both passionate about and talented at what they’re doing.

Low Passion, High Talent 

You’re good at getting these tasks done. In fact, sometimes you think you might be the only one out there who will get them right. You produce outstanding results time after time, and it’s so natural to you. People on your team notice this skill, rely on it and value it. But the biggest difference between Unique Ability projects and these activities is your lack of passion. You can do these tasks — and do them well — but they don’t excite you in the least. Tasks in this quadrant are likely to fuel your burnout. It’s important to move on from them as soon as you can. Put all of these tasks in the lower right quadrant.

High Passion, Low Talent 

This quadrant can be found in the upper left. You could easily focus your time elsewhere, but don’t forget about these things! These are the areas you are interested in growing over time. You’re not awesome at this work — yet — but you are passionate about improving. You could do these projects for the rest of your life and uncover ways to get better and better. That’s exciting to you! This tends to be the quadrant that busy entrepreneurs forget about most. We may not have time to deepen and grow to sharpen these skills, so we focus instead on what we are already good at doing. But passion is just as important as skill. Especially since skill can come if we take the time to develop it.

Low Passion, Low Talent 

Stop. Doing. These. Things. Today. These tasks go into the bottom left quadrant and should be eliminated as soon as you can. Someone out there is both talented and passionate about the things you hate and are bad at, so do yourself a favor and find them! If you don’t have the passion to do a task and you also aren’t good at it, it’s not serving anyone to keep it on your plate.

If you’re anything like me, a lot of your 48 hours worth of tasks fall into the “low passion, high talent” quadrant. For me, a shocking 60 percent of my work during the 48 hour timespan was passionless. This was a great place to start in order to make a big difference in my work day. It was time to bring on help to see if I could clear the deck for more Unique Ability work!

 

Freelance or Agency?

The best part of this exercise was walking away with a list of tasks that I was doing well each day but didn’t enjoy. By looking at this quadrant, I knew exactly the kinds of things I needed a hand with. I was no longer in the “I know I need help, but I’m not sure what kind of help” spiral that so many small business owners find themselves in. Even better, since these were things I was skilled at, teaching someone else how to do them would be fairly easy.

My “low passion, high talent” list included things like:

  • Social media posting

  • Cleaning up our team’s cloud file systems (Dropbox and Google Drive)

  • Customer service emails

  • Scheduling meetings

After it becomes clear that an extra set (or two) of hands could be helpful, you may have two questions: Where can I find this help? How do I get these things off my plate seamlessly?

There are two options when looking for a virtual assistant to join your team. One is to look for VAs that work as freelancers, taking on and managing clients themselves. Just like other freelancers (like designers or writers, for instance), these people will likely come your way through a recommendation from within your network. On the other hand, you can work with a VA agency. The agency finds and trains a group of VAs and then acts as a matching service as well as account management support. Rather than paying the VA directly like you would if they were a freelancer, you pay the agency, the agency takes a cut, and then it pays the VA as a contractor. If any problems arise while working with the virtual assistant, the agency owner and administrative staff are there to help. If things don’t work out with a particular virtual assistant, the agency can facilitate another, more aligned match.

Our team has had the most luck using virtual assistant agencies rather than freelance assistants. We tried both approaches over the course of two years, and for us, the agency model makes the most sense. We like the idea of having an army of assistants we can tap at the agency should we need a specific skill set for a particular project. We also like that if there is a problem with the working relationship, we can speak with someone at the agency level. Because we don’t have the need for a full-time virtual assistant and instead prefer to have two or three part-time assistants, the agency model is a great fit.

That said, not all agencies are created equal. We worked with three agencies before we landed on a fit. The time and emotional investment were higher than we expected when first undergoing this process, but we got better and better at it as time went on. 

 

Working With a Virtual Assistant

You might see a long list of “low passion, high talent” tasks and want to get them all delegated immediately. The single thing that helped us the most in working with a virtual assistant agency was sticking to small, experimental projects rather than handing many things over at once. When a small test project was a success, we would look for the next smallest possible project to throw into the sandbox. Even if we were certain a VA could handle many projects without a problem, we were disciplined and continued to go slow. It would wind up being six months before a VA was fully running a task without our involvement. By that time, we were completely confident in their work and, just as important, they were confident as well!

These are the three tools we use to work with virtual assistants.

Loom

Our remote-first team is a huge fan of using Loom to record screenshares of processes. If you are not a video person, it’s OK – I wasn’t one either when we started. Loom became my preferred way to communicate after just a week. Handing off online processes is infinitely easier when you record a step-by-step screenshare for your virtual assistant.

Investing in Documentation

We have also learned the power of documentation. The VAs we work with have been instrumental in getting all of our processes documented and in one place for everyone to reference. As we were switching from VA agency to VA agency, we were able to take our documentation with us and use that as a starting foundation. We keep things in Google Docs and organized by topics such as payroll and answering customer service emails. 

All of this documenting has had ancillary benefits as well. Anyone who has run a company during an emergency knows that not having processes documented is a massive liability, so in addition to making it easier for new VAs to get up to speed on how we do things around here, the documentation is our best tool for weathering potential storms that may come our way in the future. Having distributed knowledge is far better than having it live in a single employee’s head! 

We’ve also found that, while documenting existing processes is a wonderful idea, so is letting the virtual assistant navigate waters for themselves. Leave room for the possibility that they may have a new idea that ends up being a hit or see a way to do something more efficiently. Provide guidance rather than a rulebook. Most of the processes we have landed on have been a joint effort between our core, full-time team and the amazing VAs we work with. Asking a VA to document their process  and have them know exactly what that means for us  has been incredibly valuable.

Trello

We use Trello to organize tasks and facilitate communication. Because we’re working asynchronously across time zones and emails can get lost easily, we stay out of inboxes and instead outline projects in Trello cards so all of the information is in one place. We’ve tried a few different formats for organizing the individual Trello boards for each VA, but this format seems to work best.

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Image: Screenshot.

I outline new projects in a new Trello card and place the card in the first column. When Katheryn, one of the VAs on our team, logs in, she reads the Trello card and moves it along to the “Received and Working On” column. This closes an open loop that would have come up in the past where a project was given to a VA but we werent sure if they received it. A quick check of the Trello board closes that open loop, and I know whether or not we’re all set.

If Katheryn has any questions for me, she posts them in a comment on the Trello card and moves it along to the third column. I check this column once per day. It’s important to note that we don’t use Trello’s tagging feature so there are no email or mobile notifications. This helps everyone on the team stay focused on deep work, and it limits the amount of time we’re pinged during the day. Still, Katheryn knows that her question will be answered soon.

When I answer her question in a comment, I move the Trello card back to the “New Projects” column so she knows it’s ready for her to review again. When a project is completed, it’s moved to “Finished.”


Optimize Your Time With a VA

I am so glad that I got honest with myself about how I was spending my time and took steps to design how I wanted to improve moving forward. It’s hard to turn over tasks we’re good at to someone else. It can bring up fears that things won’t get done. I could see, however, that continuing to spend 60 percent of my time on tasks I don’t enjoy would lead to burnout. I kept an eye out for tasks in my “low passion, high talent” quadrant that may be in one of our virtual assistant’s “high passion, high talent” (or Unique Ability) quadrant. As we grow our team, we want projects to be owned by those who are most excited about them. It’s only right that I shift tasks I don’t enjoy off my plate to someone to enjoys them! Win-win.

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