FlyPrivate: Is saying “no” smart business practice for executive
assistants? Typically executive assistants do what their boss asks, but sometimes a situation arises where the assistant feels they can’t oblige because they are being asked to meet unrealistic deadlines, or the tasks are not clearly defined. Some assistants have said that they say “no” to their boss, others say they may be inclined to “push back” on certain
requests that they consider unreasonable. In these situations how would you advise assistants to respond to such requests?
Jan Jones: Being an executive assistant requires a lot of flexibility. Assistants are constantly being asked to shift priorities, or meet deadlines that crop up unexpectedly. These things are part and
parcel of the assistant’s job. If your boss is asking you to perform a task that relates to your job, or is part of your job description, then saying “no” or pushing back would not be smart business practice, or the first option to consider without an extremely valid reason for doing so.
I understand that Millennials want more autonomy and control over work conditions, but saying “no” or pushing back on legitimate work requests is not somewhere you should make it a habit of expressing your individuality, because you could end up losing your job if you are perceived as uncooperative or insubordinate.
Recently, it has become popular for business coaches to advise EAs that they should say no to their executives if they feel their workload is at capacity. What these coaches don’t understand about the EA role is that the majority of the EA’s workload stems from them being the assistant to their executive. Some assistants have additional
duties not directly tied to their executive, such as office
management or HR duties, but generally these accountabilities don’t take precedence over the EA’s availability for their executive’s
requirements. It is not usually at the EA’s discretion whether they will perform a task if their executive requests it. So it is risky for coaches to advise assistants to say things like “I’m not taking on new projects at the moment”, or “let me check my schedule and get back to you” when their executive asks them to do something. This
misdirection by coaches is causing confusion for many assistants, particularly those who are less experienced, or who don’t have a good rapport with their boss. They are conflicted about whether or not they should be taking direction from their executive (per their job description and common sense), or whether they should refuse to accept additional tasks because this is the latest buzz being spread in the EA world.
Let’s take a closer look at some examples where assistants might consider “pushing back”, and explore options that are more
productive than pushing back, or saying no.
Let’s say you’ve been given a huge amount of work that has to be completed by a specific deadline. If you are unable or unsure of how to prioritize the work, ask your executive for guidance. Explain that it is going to take a certain amount of time to do the tasks and you need to know which of the tasks is absolutely vital to get done to meet the deadline.
If you have an unreasonable executive who insists that all of it has to get done immediately and has equal priority, then tell the executive you are going to use your best judgment to determine which of the tasks has the highest priority. Quickly draft up the order of priority and ask your executive for input. If you can’t get input, just get
started and do your best. If they are not satisfied with the decisions you made, ask them how they would have prioritized so you will know in future and politely say that investing a little bit of time to guide you would have been helpful in getting the job done to their satisfaction.
EAs often ask me how to prioritize work when supporting several executives. To do this effectively, at the outset you must establish a procedure for how you are going to prioritize everyone’s work.
Typically, the executive who is more senior gets a higher priority. If they are part of a team, likely they would know which project and which team member’s task should get priority in order to complete a project by deadline. If each one is saying their work is high priority, and if they are being unreasonable, if you are unable to determine by yourself which task should get the highest priority, then go to their boss and ask for guidance. Politely make it clear you need help in
order to do the most effective job possible. If speaking with their boss is not an option, then go to the executive who is typically the most reasonable of the bunch and ask for help. Explain that you want to make everyone happy, but you simply can’t do all the tasks at the same time, so what do they suggest?
If no one is cooperating, respectfully ask them to work it out among themselves and get back to you as quickly as possible so you can move forward on the right track. That would be the most “push back” from an assistant that I would advise.
In the meantime, get started according to your understanding of which is the most important project. Worst case, you will have to stop working on the task you selected as being important, and have to start something else. But assistants are used to interruptions and switching quickly from one priority to another. Always behave
professionally, even if you want to wring their necks.
When things have calmed down, have another discussion with that team and reiterate that you want to do the best for them, but you must have their cooperation in sorting out how work is to be prioritized.
These are some reasons why it is important for the assistant to
understand the business they are in. Having an understanding of the workings of the business lets the assistant make better judgments about which tasks are a priority. When you understand the reason for why you are being asked to do something, there is less inclination to “push back” or say “no”, because you see the bigger picture of why something is necessary and needs to get done. Then you pitch in enthusiastically.
When your executives see you taking an interest in knowing the business, they will start working collaboratively with you, rather than simply giving you instructions and asking you to carry them out. You may soon find that the unreasonable requests are diminishing, and your executives start to treat you with a new level of respect.
There are times when executives haven’t planned sufficiently and are asking you to do things at the last minute, which may involve staying late, or changing your personal plans. If there is a day when you absolutely have to leave by a certain time, be proactive and give your team plenty of notice that you have to leave and will not be able to take on any last-minute jobs. Then there’s no question of pushing back because you’ve told them in plenty of time you will not be
available. If your executive has a habit of giving you things at the last minute, discuss with them that you can’t always accommodate last-minute requests. Ask what you can do to help the executive plan their day. Sometimes last minute requests are completely
unavoidable because things do crop up unexpectedly. Do your best to oblige without being resentful. You are better off with a
reputation for being cooperative than for pushing back or saying no.
Not Part of Your Job Description
So what? If you are being asked to do things that are not part of your job description, consider the nature of the request and who is
asking. Always consider the bigger picture. Even if it’s not in your job description, it could lead to something bigger and better for you. Maybe it gives you a chance to work on a project that expands your sphere of influence. It could give others in the company exposure to you. Let them see you at your best and spread the word about how outstanding your work is and how cooperative you are. How would that hurt you?
At one job I had, once in a while our CEO’s housekeeper was away and he’d bring his dog to work. A few times during the day I would take the dog out for a quick walk. Certainly not something in my job description, but as assistant to the CEO I knew the value of his time so I was happy to do that for him and he was grateful that he didn’t have to stop what he was doing to take the dog out. If you can be generous, be generous. It makes everyone feel good and people
remember you for it.
Instead of being quick to “push back” or say “no”, find a way to get the job done even if it requires some sacrifice on your part. I’m not saying make yourself a martyr, but if you can accommodate
requests, do so.
Take a lesson from comedian, Tina Fey who said: “Say yes and you’ll figure it out afterwards.” Why? “Because the fun is always on the other side of the ‘yes’.” Not just in your job, but in your life, stop
pushing back and start saying “yes”. For EAs who are reading this, some day I’d love to hear your success stories about the miraculous journey on which that simple word “yes” has taken you.
Want more from Jan Jones? Check out her Q & A Series!
©Copyright Jan Jones, 2015 “The CEO’s Secret Weapon”
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