A Leader? Me?

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Assistants need to develop those leadership traits shown by their Executives explains Helen Monument

An assistant as a leader sounds like a contradiction in terms. Are you leading or are you assisting the leader? Well, if you are doing your job properly, you should be doing both. Maybe not at the same time, or in all situations, but to succeed today, Assistants need to develop those leadership traits shown by their Executives.

I certainly never set out to become a leader. I don’t think anyone does.

To me, taking the initiative to get things done was simply common sense. If something needed to be done, I did it. If an opportunity arose, I took it. This trait has become second nature to me in my career and I seldom stop to ask myself ‘should I be doing this?’

“Everyone has the potential to lead successfully, regardless of the position they hold and the title they have. Be ready today by leading from right where you are and with all that you have.” – Lolly Daskal, President & CEO Lead from Within

Leadership starts with Authenticity

Authenticity means showing your real self, demonstrating your values and beliefs by your actions. Authentic leaders inspire others by their personal integrity, transparency and humility.

You know authenticity when you see it. Some people have natural authenticity and others, like me, may have had to work at it the hard way over the years. But it is something that you can learn and develop in yourself.

Being an authentic leader means that you actively demonstrate your personal purpose and the meaning that you bring to your work every day. If you are clear about the source of your personal motivation, this will increase the trust that others have in you.

In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek, author and lecturer of Strategic Communications at Columbia University explains why “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

His TED talk, ‘How great leaders inspire action’ has been watched over 22 million times and I highly recommend you watch it.

You can only inspire people in this way if you are authentic. Sheryl Sandberg (COO Facebook) said “Bring your whole self to work. I don’t believe we have a professional self from Monday to Friday and a real self the rest of the time. It’s all professional and it’s all personal.”

This is true whether you are serious about being leader of your own life or a leader of others. You need to be able to hold up that mirror, look at yourself and ask every day: Am I being the best I can be?  Am I living up to my values?  Do others trust me?”  You need honest answers to these questions, and the best way to get them is to ask other people.

“I surround myself with people I respect who can tell me if I’ve messed up something. And they know I want them to tell me.” –  Tony Robbins

Make a list of the top five things that are important to you in your job and put them in order of priority. Then ask people around you whose opinion you value and trust if they will discuss this list with you so that you can discover what is the most meaningful to you. Ask for honest feedback from them. Can they tell what your values are? Are you living up to these values and purposes and demonstrating them by your behavior? If you believe in yourself, others will believe in you.

Authenticity means knowing who you are as a person, knowing what your values are, what you want to achieve, maintaining your resilience and keeping your promises.

My first opportunity to lead came about while working for Dow Chemical in the 1980s. The Total Quality Management revolution was taking hold in the rest of the world, led by Dr. W. Edwards Deming, whose work in Japan, resulted in him being known as ‘The Father of Quality’. TQM was fortunately seen by Dow’s Management as a way improving processes and finding cost reductions and increased efficiency through employee engagement. The key to TQM was self-driven teams, and when I was asked to lead the Secretary Quality Circle, I jumped at the chance. This was not a promotion, and I certainly did not get a salary increase, but I saw it as an opportunity to learn something new. In the beginning, the role was more of a facilitator, but it gave me the first taste of leading a group of people with a common objective. The Quality Circles were very democratic, and everyone had a role to play. There had been no common ground for the secretaries in the organization until that time, so everyone was busy doing things their own way, re-inventing the wheel, and being very protective of their work and their tasks. Using the Quality Circle processes, we learned that there was more that we had in common than divided us, so we all benefitted by sharing each other’s knowledge and experience. After collecting data and analyzing it, we were able to come up with more efficient ways of working, and saving costs. We wrote common work processes and produced a Secretary Handbook – the first of its kind in the company.

That experience gave me the confidence to realize that yes, I can lead a team. So, look for opportunities in your organization to bring assistants together, to inspire them to share their knowledge and experience. It could set you on your path to becoming a leader.

Another fantastic opportunity I had to practice my leadership skills was when I became Executive Chairman of EUMA (now IMA – International Management Assistants). I had been an active member of the Dutch group for some years, happy to volunteer my time and work on some local committees, learning as I went along. The big opportunity came when I heard about the vacancy for Association Secretary. The job appealed to me as it was very much ‘back room’ support for the Executive Committee. Standing in the spotlight was not for me, a born organizer and planner. The tasks included arranging the Council, Executive meetings and the AGM, preparing the agenda’s and making sure that the Association was run according to the statutes. So, I applied, and was chosen. Within two years, I had implemented a new meeting process for EUMA, and made several improvements to the behind the scenes processes, including implementing a monthly Business Update Report from 25 National Groups. I really enjoyed being part of the great EUMA Executive team but two years later, when I was asked to step into the shoes of the outgoing European Chairman, Karen Nanninga, I was horrified “ME? NO! I can’t do that!!”

After much persuasion from the team and the support of my husband Robert, I finally took a leap of faith, held my breath and shaking in my boots, said “Yes” and started on the road that would take me through one of the best experiences of my life. With amazing support from my team members, I started to really learn how to lead an international team; how to run a meeting with attendees from 25 cultures.  I learned speaking in public; cross-cultural communication; problem solving; writing skills; networking; strategy and planning; budgeting; conference organization and not least, personal presentation as the voice and figurehead of the association. I would never have been exposed to any of this in my ‘day job’, and yes, it was two years of very demanding work, unpaid and most of it done in my own time, but what an investment!

Since then, I have been able to put all those skills to use in my career and many of them are now second nature to me.

But the most valuable lesson I learned is that to be a leader, you must be authentic. It starts with knowing yourself, looking in the mirror and asking yourself: Am I being the best I can be? Do I care about these people?  Do I want them to feel that they can trust me? Do I want the best for them and will I do my best for them? The answer is Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes – every single day.

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About Author

Helen Monument

Helen Monument inspires and encourages Assistants to be the best they can be, by sharing 30 years of experience as a management support professional. Her career has taken her through many stages, from Secretary to Office Manager and Business Support Team Leader, so she understands the profession inside out. An honorary member of International Management Assistants (IMA) Netherlands, she also served as Association Secretary, then as European Chairman. Helen has recently launched her new venture Monumental Assistance. Helen offers coaching, counselling, mentoring and training to assistants at all levels and is a stimulating, knowledgeable and entertaining conference speaker. She can be reached at https://monumentalassistance.com/

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