In this article, Author Jan Jones discusses how Executive Assistants can work to be seen as a business partner to their Executives.
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FlyPrivate: How can executive assistants get their executives to see them as a “Business Partner?” What are some things executives do that show they respect their assistant as a business partner?
Jan Jones: I’m repeatedly asked “How can I be a secret weapon if my executive doesn’t see assistants that way?” “I can’t get my executive to notice me and acknowledge my contribution.” “My executive doesn’t know how to use me.” “How can I be a business partner to an executive who wants to do everything herself?”
The answer to the first part of your question is not straightforward, and these questions from assistants clearly demonstrate that. There are many misconceptions and misunderstandings about the term “business partner”, that present a barrier to the title being widely acknowledged and used, with respect to the EA role.
A major hurdle in that effort is that many executives – across the age spectrum and across the world – are reluctant to bestow the title, or consider the idea that their assistant is their business partner. When I’m consulting with those executives, I allay their concerns by
suggesting they view it for what it is – a collaboration, an alliance
between the executive and assistant, rather than seeing it as an
assistant giving themselves airs, or trying to presume an authority, or legitimacy they don’t have.
While there is a strong push by EA advocates in western countries for the title, I hear from our EA colleagues in other parts of the world that their executives won’t countenance such a title for an assistant. Indeed, in parts of the world assistants continue to be called
“secretary”, although that may be because the title is closer to the job being done, rather than disrespect towards the person
performing it, or the profession as a whole. I know cultural norms are a source of dismay for assistants in some countries. But our EA colleagues in exotic lands should take heart because Adam Fidler, the UK’s premier EA trainer, says that many UK executives also
resist calling an assistant a business partner. It’s not only a cultural impediment, other factors are in play. But that’s a lengthy discussion to be had at another time.
As we see from these EA questions, too many executives are
unaware about the caliber of assistance an assistant brings to the table. And the truth is, a percentage of executives don’t require or want that level of assistance. Often, it’s the executives who are
conversant with technology, but have yet to determine how they can widen the scope of their own jobs, beyond the task-based way they are currently doing it. They are so deep on their treadmill of
churning it out and getting it done, that they can’t stop for a moment to delegate, collaborate, or consider there may be an alternative. Many of these executives have never had an assistant before, they’ve never seen assistants who are role models of effectiveness, they’ve never been taught the purpose and value of an effective
assistant. So they can’t immediately see how an assistant can be of service to them.
Assistants: You’ve got a job to do educating your executives on the role you play and what you can do. Just because they’ve hired you, doesn’t mean they know how to use all the features that come with a product like you. They’ve bought something and have yet to read and understand the how-to manual.
My unending mantra to assistants is: Showing is Better Than Telling. Show them what you can do. Until you show them, they won’t know. Many have no idea because they’ve never seen it done. They don’t know that it can be done, let alone how it can be done. It’s up to you. Realize that partners don’t wait to be told what to do. They know what the business requires and they do whatever it takes. Business partners have an investment in the business. They have financial skin in the game. What’s your stake in the business in which you work? How are you helping to grow and build that business the way a financial business partner would? What are you bringing to the partnership in return for asking to be called a “partner?” This is an important question that you should be asking yourself. How are you stepping up to the role of business partner?
Showing is Better Than Telling. That’s why I wrote my book for
executives and not for assistants. It’s deliberately called “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders And Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness.” I did that because executives need to be educated on what an assistant can do. They need to realize they have a secret weapon ready for deployment right beside them. And it’s the job of every assistant to demonstrate every single day, just what an assistant can do. If you don’t teach them, how will they learn? That’s what I did with my executives. I showed them more and better ways to utilize the depth of my expertise. I demonstrated that I clearly understood the business, what they were trying to achieve and how I could add value. You can do that by speaking intelligently, using the language of the business or the industry. Make pertinent suggestions. Bring relevant matters to their attention. If you can
relieve them of making one more decision, do it. You have to play the role of educator. You can’t sit back passively and wait for people who haven’t got a clue, to magically get a clue. People believe what they see more than they believe what they hear. So let them see what you can do.
One highly experienced assistant was struggling to get her
executive’s attention to discuss how she could help this new
executive. Every time she tried, her executive would push her away with some excuse. And then it was another, and another thing that she just could not look up from. I suggested the assistant make a list of all areas she saw where she could take tasks away from the
executive. Give specific examples: Here are some areas where I
notice… Let them see exactly where they are getting bogged down, and how you can help them to reclaim that precious time. Give them the list and let them look it over at their convenience. Let them know you’d be happy to discuss when they are ready. Meanwhile, you keep performing to the very best of your ability and keep siphoning off things that you can handle to make their load lighter.
At one point in my career, while I was deciding on my next move, I did temporary work. I covered for assistants who were on vacation, maternity leave, sick leave, or while the executive was interviewing for a new assistant. Guess how many job offers I got. When I arrived at those organizations, I didn’t sit back and wait for the executive to give me tasks to perform. I immediately set about finding out how I could make it an easy transition for them. Some EAs, particularly the ones going on vacation, who didn’t want to come back to a mess, left helpful directions. But not always. I would start by checking out what was in their In-tray to see what action needed to be taken, and the Out-tray to see what had been completed and what needed to happen next. I looked at the correspondence. I went through the files, their contacts, everything that would get me immediately
familiar with that EA’s job. Then, with my list of questions, I would ask for time with the executive so I could get some direction and get down to work. Many were surprised at my proactive stance and most welcomed it. I heard repeated whispers that they were getting more work out of me than they got from their assistant. Those
executives got a long-overdue lesson in how an enterprising
assistant takes charge of her role. They needed to be shown – this is what I can do for you. For the middle managers who didn’t want to use me (their work was too important to give to a mere temp), I showed them the meaning of important. I would go to the chief
executive’s assistant, introduce myself and ask if I could help them. 99% of the time, their grateful answer was “sure”.
Here are some examples of how successful business leaders utilize their assistants as business partners. This is how you want to train and develop your executive. This is how you’ll partner with your
executive, by knowing what the best leaders do and gradually
coaxing your executive into doing the same.
Access: Smart leaders give the assistant full access. This access
allows the assistant to understand the business, their executive’s priorities, what they like or don’t like. The assistant learns by directly observing the executive’s decision-making process, their style of communication, their values and interests. This perspective will give you a compass for how to act on your executive’s behalf. Assistants who are granted access to their executive don’t hesitate to act as their proxy when required. Get around your executive. Show
interest. Ask questions. Make suggestions. Encourage your
executive to relinquish tasks to you. If you have to start small, then start small, but start.
Autonomy: Good leaders know when to become immersed in the details and when they should let someone else take the lead. They hire the right person and trust them to get the job done. These
executives share the vision, mission and goals and trust their
assistant to use their experience, skills and creativity to take it from there. If your executive hasn’t been loosening the reins, ask yourself why. Is it because they are micromanagers and mistrusting, or have you not shown any inclination or ability to be autonomous and make good decisions? If you are waiting for your executive to “let” you, you’ll be a long time waiting.
Confidence: Strong leaders boost their assistant’s confidence and give them opportunities to show initiative and learn new things. They notice what you do and give you credit. If you make a mistake, they guide you towards a better way. The best way to gain
confidence is to start taking on projects and working independently. The more you do, the more confident you’ll become. Don’t hesitate to ask for guidance if you don’t know, or if you run into trouble. Get accustomed to speaking up and sharing your opinion. Easy does it at first. Test the waters before you start dishing out advice or
suggestions, unless you are certain of what you are talking about and how it will be received. Even if your executive doesn’t respond to your initiative, keep practicing how to expand your reach, work independently and get involved. It will increase your value and help you as you progress in your career.
Kudos: Smart leaders champion their people and recognize their
efforts. They understand the caliber of performance you are
delivering and never take you for granted. They don’t hesitate to say thank you, or praise you for stellar performance and reward you with increased responsibility, remuneration, or something more
immediate like time off. Even in my first job, when I was a junior
secretary, my boss would once in a while give me an “early mark”. That’s Aussie-speak for leave early. A consideration so appreciated by a young woman who was working hard to learn the ropes and
impress her employers. It told me my efforts were being noticed and rewarded.
Respect: Top business leaders show courtesy and consideration to their assistant – in public and private. They listen to you. They value your input. They treat you as a professional.
Gratitude: Tuned-in leaders acknowledge the immense job their
assistants do on their behalf. Time after time, leaders have told me they could never do what they do without their assistant. In my book, management guru Ken Blanchard remarked, “Assistants give you the capacity to do so much more.” Great leaders remember to express their thanks, show consideration and once in a while, look for ways to reward their assistants.
These are some habits that for generations have enabled
extraordinary leaders to function at optimum levels, working
effectively with their exceptional assistants. If a mind shift is going to happen, it’s going to come from you and through you, dear
assistant. How successfully your executive makes the transition to seeing and accepting you as a “business partner”, is in your hands. The goal is to be treated as a professional, a respected business partner, with or without it being your official title.
©The CEO’s Secret Weapon. The ideas expressed in this article and any text extracted from “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” are the,
intellectual property and copyrighted to Jan Jones. All rights
reserved. No unauthorized usage or duplication by any means is permitted without the express consent of the author.
Want more from Jan Jones? Check out her Q & A Series!
Jan Jones is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and
Effectiveness”. The book debuted at #1 on Amazon’s Hot New
Releases in the Office Management Category. It has received
widespread acclaim from executives and executive assistants worldwide. Jan spent 20 years as an esteemed international
executive assistant to well-known business people, including
personal development icon and author Tony Robbins. Jan is
passionate about the executive assistant role and continues to champion the profession through speaking, mentoring and offering timeless, practical advice that is relevant to the day-to-day role of the executive assistant.
Visit Amazon to purchase Jan Jones’ book and visit her website:
The CEO’s Secret Weapon.
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