In this article, Author Jan Jones, discusses how executive assistants can expand their influence within their organization.
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FlyPrivate: In your article on Servant Leadership, you spoke about the relevance of Servant Leadership for executive assistants and how they can develop their influence through a servant leadership role. Perhaps an even more interesting concept is that of Followership which is a newer area of leadership research. Please share why you consider Followership more relevant for the executive assistant role than servant leadership.
Jan Jones: My article discussed the idea of the servant-leader, a concept created by Robert Greenleaf, which is now a widely accepted business practice. It also discussed the parallels to emotional intelligence, particularly regarding empathy and social awareness.
The concept of Followership and the Effective Follower was developed about 30 years ago when Robert Kelley, a well-known social scientist, concluded logically that discussions about Leadership must also include discussions about Followership, because leaders don’t exist in a vacuum without followers. The Effective Follower complements their leader. So the Followership concept is an ideal model of the executive-assistant partnership.
I’ll lay out Robert Kelley’s five basic styles of Followership, but the style that interests me the most is that of the Star Follower: They are self-managed employees who think for themselves and whose hearts are in their work. Many executive assistants will identify and hopefully aspire to this style of Followership.
Kelley’s article for Harvard Business Review generated some controversy and Followership got the same initial negative reaction as the idea of servant leadership. I think assistants will agree with Mr. Kelley that “Making the assist, is just as important as making the score.” In sports, an assist is the person who passes the ball to a teammate, helping that teammate to score. This is a primary element in the role of the assistant. Making it possible for their executive to “score” – to hit their targets, goals and objectives.
While Kelley’s Five Basic Styles of Followership apply to all employees, assistants will find it helpful in understanding themselves and their teammates. These are work styles we all encounter every day. It is not a personality test and I am not suggesting you label people. Consider how can you use these styles to assess yourself and look for ways to enhance your performance and expand your influence. In whichever description you see yourself, remember it’s not a judgment. It’s simply an indicator that can give you perspective and help you make the leap into more effective, next-level practices. If you mentor assistants, you will find this a helpful guide as well.
The Sheep: Passive people who look to the leader to think and to motivate them.
This description is not a negative if assistants are new to the role and look to the leader to direct them. Without experience in the job, they need to be shown the ropes. Paying attention to what is asked of them, they can develop their anticipation ability. The skills they learn in this initial stage will be the bedrock on which they build a successful EA career. This is a time of learning, observing, absorbing. It can be the genesis of your ability to influence in the coming years, so it should not be taken lightly. As I’ve shared with EAs, the know-how I learned in my first job laid the foundation on which I developed and built over the course of my career. It consistently set me apart from other assistants who were not trained as effectively. If you are a new assistant, don’t downplay this stage of your development.
The Yes-Person: Positive people who support their leader, but look to the leader for thinking, direction and vision. When a task is done, they ask the leader “what do you want me to do next?” Yes-people say “I’m the doer. The boss is paid to think, and I do the work.”
The Yes-Person has a good attitude and a willing heart, but they have not yet learned to think independently and require guidance. This is acceptable for less-experienced assistants who are gradually honing their craft. Many assistants in this phase see themselves as helpers who faithfully and willingly carry out their executive’s wishes. Ideally, this is the time to also start incrementally developing initiative, the ability to reason, and taking an interest in the business, looking for ways to gradually branch out into independent thinking and acting.
I encounter many assistants who fit the Yes-Person category, particularly if they’ve been with their executive for a while. These are capable people who do their tasks well, but they stop short when it comes to anticipation and resourcefulness, two vital characteristics for an assistant to be fully effective in the role. If you are a Yes-Person who has been in the same job a while, use your job knowledge and find ways to increase your value through participating in your job more. Maybe it’s time to give innovation a try. Offer suggestions, volunteer for projects, initiate employee programs. Spreading your reach will develop your ability to influence. It will give you a new enjoyment and enthusiasm for your job and your life.
The Pragmatics: Pragmatics are fence-sitters, looking to see which way things are headed before they get on board. They do what they must to survive and are invested in maintaining the status quo (whether the status quo is short-term or long-term. For example, prior to the pandemic, Pragmatics maintained a certain status quo around the way they functioned at the office. Post-pandemic they want to maintain the way things were during the pandemic, such as continuing to work from home).
Pragmatics know their job, but are sometimes perceived as mediocre with execution. Many are invested in doing the minimum they can get away with. Most of us have come across such co-workers and felt a sense of frustration having to pick up the slack for them. Pragmatics are lucky if they fall into a job that allows them to have their wait-and-see attitude. My concern is the implication this has on the image of assistants in general, portraying them as lacking gumption and get-up-and-go, resulting in being paid the minimum for doing the minimum. In this time of explosive business and technological growth, trying to maintain the status quo is an imprudent long-term strategy. Pragmatic assistants, please come down off the fence and challenge yourself a little. Start conquering inertia by making small adjustments. Offer to help your colleagues. Take on additional tasks. Communicate more and get comfortable with uncertainty to wake up your senses and lead you to new opportunities.
The Alienated: They think for themselves, but they are disgruntled and cynical. They see themselves as mavericks, the only ones with courage to stand up to the boss. Tending to have a chip on their shoulder, they are viewed as rebels without a cause.
Intelligent, capable and sometimes a cut above the rest, I regret that some assistants are buying into the idea that sullen behavior proves they are important thinkers, generally superior to their EA colleagues, whom they view as status quo and boring. Alienated workers feel angry that their talents are not being recognized and they can feel exploited. If you crave recognition, the executive assistant profession may not be for you, because it requires one to be highly service-oriented and committed to excellence, yet comfortable staying in the background.
Despite their feelings of alienation, many Alienated assistants are visible and appreciated for their talents. They could be major influencers, but they shoot themselves in the foot by being bolshie. I’ve worked with assistants who behaved this way and were hostile towards me because I was getting the recognition they craved. What was the difference? Like them, I was a strong personality, unafraid to speak up, willing to take charge. But unlike them, I brought fresh energy, my attitude was upbeat and positive. My professionalism was always on display. I showed respect and upheld the dignity of my executive, the office of my executive and the organization. I understood that I was there to be of service, a fundamental requirement of the role of the EA. I implore Alienated assistants to let the spotlight be on your performance and not your attitude. Recognition and respect will follow.
The Star Followers: Star Followers are sometimes viewed as “leaders in disguise.” If that isn’t the hallmark of an exceptional EA, I don’t know what is! Star Followers think for themselves, are active, and have positive energy. If they agree with the leader, they give full support. If they disagree, they offer constructive alternatives that will help the leader and the organization. Star Followers are often referred to as “my right-hand person” by their executives.
As described by Robert Kelley, Star Followers are self-starters who can work without close supervision. They are independent problem solvers, who show initiative and contribute well. Star Followers are critical thinkers, highly participative, and habitually exercise superior judgment. Star Followers build their competence and focus their efforts for maximum effect. They take on extra work gladly, but first they focus on superior execution with their core responsibilities. They manage themselves well, they are committed to the organization and its purpose, always striving to collaborate, build relationships and be the best. Like exceptional assistants, they tackle overlooked problems that need addressing and present the issue along with a solution. For this reason, many EAs who are Star Followers wield considerable influence with their executives.
Assistants, the Star Follower is the style that should interest you the most. Many of you are on the way, or are already there. These traits will distinguish you from the millions of other assistants and make you an invaluable addition to any executive suite. This is the caliber of assistant I wrote about in “The CEO’s Secret Weapon.”
What Style Do Executives Prefer? When Robert Kelley asked executives if they could have a mix of the 5 Followership styles in their organization, which would they choose, a large percentage said they would like Yes-People. Why? 1) Yes-People are “doers”. They’ll do the grunt work. 2) Yes-People have limited aspirations and won’t pressure the leader for promotions, or quit for better jobs.
Other executives wanted a mix: Start with a handful of Alienated because they keep the leader honest. Add a small group of Star Followers who would lead the charge, but avoid having too many Stars because they can get demanding and they think for themselves too much. Then split the remaining majority with Pragmatics who serve as a status quo base, and Yes-People who will get the job done.
Very few executives wanted only Star Followers on their teams because they worried they could not keep them sufficiently challenged, or satisfied with their role. They believe Star Followers will get bored and seek greener pastures, leading to high turnover. I see this as a misunderstanding by executives because Star Followers, by their very nature, find ways to keep themselves challenged and motivated at work.
So where does this leave administrative and executive assistants? Which category does your executive fit into? Do they want a Star Follower, or someone who will maintain the status quo and get the job done?
Despite Robert Kelley’s research, I have yet to meet an executive who was happy with their assistant simply doing as they are told. A Yes-Person. They put up with it because it takes too much effort to make a change, it’s uncomfortable to have an honest conversation, or too difficult to push the assistant to step up their performance. They all tell me they want their assistant to show more initiative and interest in the business, in order to take some of the burden off the executive.
Whichever of the preceding styles apply to you, keep striving for excellence. If you identify as a Sheep, look for ways to stand on your own two feet and build your confidence. If you identify as a Yes-Person, try to take yourself beyond relying on your executive for guidance and direction. You have what it takes so start using your talent. If you are a Pragmatic, get off the fence and coax a little disruption into your life. If your style is Alienated, life can be lonely. Try trusting life and remember the world is not conspiring against you. If you are a Star Follower, avoid becoming complacent. Keep adding higher value. Consider mentoring colleagues who might need a sprinkling of your expertise and energy.
The best leaders are also the best followers; it’s how they developed their leadership skills. Know when to wear which hat, and you will smoothly transition when you are called upon to play a leadership role.
©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.
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Jan Jones is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness.” The book 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 Tony Robbins, the world’s #1 business and life strategist. Jan continues to champion the executive assistant profession with her writing, consulting and speaking. She offers timeless, practical advice that is relevant to the day-to-day role of the executive assistant.
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The CEO’s Secret Weapon.
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