Dinah Liversidge explains how to mentor your Executive by becoming a trusted and credible ally
You’d think that in the relationship of Executive and Executive Assistant, the majority of mentoring would be coming from the Executive; you’d be making an assumption that isn’t true for many of the most successful Executive partnerships.
CEOs, CFCs and MDs spend much of their time guiding, motivating, challenging and inspiring their teams, and it is to their Assistants that they turn when they seek to top-up their internal resources, reassure themselves they’re getting it right, and to seek a trusted and credible opinion to help them create solutions to the bigger problems. In short, they turn to a mentor: you.
What is a Mentor?
Being a mentor is in part like being a coach, a bit like being a teacher, and a bit like being a friend who has strong opinions, that you’ll listen to because you value and respect them. Being a mentor is about trust, straight talking, being an expert listener and about knowing you’re not always the one with the solution but having the relationships that mean you know the people who can help.
Executives in today’s organisations need people they can confide in and trust and yet they are surrounded by headlines telling them not to. They are bombarded with the message that they’re being hacked or watched or, worse, impersonated at every opportunity, and that information shared is likely to be used against them. Feeling able to trust their Assistant, to the point where they are able to confide in them, is a huge mark of the strength of the relationship. And it usually starts when credibility has been established.
Establish Your Credibility
Credibility is what people say about you when you’re not in the room; it’s your reputation, built based on track record. When you do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it, you build credibility. When you keep your Executive’s secrets, you build credibility. When you get things done without creating drama, you build credibility. And the more you build this, the more likely your Executive is to confide in you and seek your opinion as a mentor.
The mentoring relationship you create is unlikely to be a formal one; there are few companies or leadership programmes so advanced in their thinking that this has been formally established. However, this can be an advantage, as Executives may feel liberated by the informal nature of the conversations, and more able to discuss the things they’re really concerned about.
Encourage your Executive to confide in you
I would suggest you consider whether:
1. They trust you to keep their secrets
This is down to your pattern of behaviour (here comes your credibility again) when there are situations that require discretion. Are you known as someone who spreads office gossip? If so, you’re never going to find your Executive is willing to share the important, confidential aspects of their job with you. Little impacts your credibility as an Assistant more than a lack of discretion.
Set the tone with less experienced Assistants on the team by showing that you don’t get involved in gossiping; I remember exactly who did and who didn’t gossip in every team I have worked in and, surprise surprise, the gossips were rarely promoted or asked to be part of projects.
2. They see you as a viable mentor
How do you see yourself? Do you describe yourself as ‘just the assistant’? Do you see your role as less valuable to the company than that of your Executive or more ‘senior’ colleagues?
You need to show confidence in yourself and your contributions to the team and the business as a whole, if you want your Executive to see you in this light. There will always be days when you are less than sure of yourself, but you need to take action on this (perhaps you need a mentor to help you with this) if you want to mentor others. This is a vital step and the benefits to you and to the team will be huge.
3. You are seen to mentor and support your peers within the team and the business
If you are regarded as a team-mentor figure, someone that is often the person others go to for guidance, support and resolution in difficult situations, then you are more likely to find your Executive turning to you for the same support. If your company has a training programme for mentoring, I highly recommend you ask your Executive to put you forward for it; and explain the business impact this has for the team to show your long-term thinking behind the training.
Add Mentoring to your Development Plan
Wanting to support and see others thrive is key as motivation to why I became a mentor and coach; I’d ask yourself what your motivation is; and let your Executive know this is something you care about. Now is the perfect time to ask them to add mentoring to your development plan for the next 12 months. Ask for investment in training or to spend some time with mentors in the business who are already officially mentoring others.
Being a mentor, supporting someone and offering them honest feedback can be a challenge when the person you are mentoring makes decisions about your career on a daily basis. Many of the team members who report to your Executive will be wary, or even unwilling, to give feedback that might be taken as negative, as they are worrying about the way that impacts their prospects. If you cultivate a relationship of trust and respect with your Executive, you might be the only member of their team who tells them the truth when it isn’t what they want to hear.
Frame Your Feedback
When supporting your Executive, it is important to frame your feedback in a way that isn’t going to create a defensive response; this takes time and practice and it is a key skill to learn from your own mentors and coaches. How do they use language to give you feedback that makes you want to improve rather than feel like you’re not capable? Watch how your colleagues frame constructive criticisms and see if you can use the same language. And don’t allow getting this wrong a couple of times be the reason you stop trying.
Develop Your Listening Skills
Assistants are often noted for their listening skills, and for ‘hearing’ the real message when communication styles are not straightforward. This is a key skill for mentoring. Listening without preparing your answer before the other person has finished talking is one of the most vital parts of delivering solutions for those we support, and I believe I first learned these skills as an Assistant in the 1980s.
Your listening skills can always be developed as part of your training investment. I am a great believer in focusing on our strengths, so ask to attend training and conferences that will develop the strengths you have (including those listening skills), that will make you a better Assistant, and a better mentor. Asking for training is a good indicator to your Executive that you’re serious about your career and is another way to raise your credibility as a mentor.
Areas for Development
If you are keen to take on a mentoring role within your company, I would recommend the following areas for personal development be your focus to support you in this goal:
1. Communication Skills
No matter how good you are at talking and listening, you can always learn new ways to develop your vital skills in this area. Watch TED talks, subscribe to Podcasts and sign up for conferences on every topic that covers this area and gets your attention.
2. Strategic Planning
If you are still being reactive more than proactive, you’re never going to be seen as a credible mentor. Look at how you react in your role and how you can adapt this to be more strategic for your Executive, their team and, ultimately, the business as a whole. Coming forward with ideas in this area is one of the quickest ways to raise your credibility and your Executive’s perception of your role.
3. Expanding your Own Mind
Wow! Don’t worry if this sounds a bit huge – I am talking about reading and listening to new things. Why not start by asking friends to recommend the last book they loved and then actually reading it? Ask for a reading list of personal development books in the same way, and again, start reading them.
Mentoring has brought me some of the best and most satisfying moments of my working life; from colleagues I mentored in event management during the 1990s, to clients that I work with today who support others and want to be more confident mentors themselves, I have a great sense that I have passed on my life learnings to others and that they are now doing the same. Mentoring, for me, is a constant journey of support and learning, where both parties gain from the relationship and both feel stronger and more validated as a result.