Becoming a Strategic Partner

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Stop thinking that you are supporting the function of your business and start realizing that you are a strategic partner invested in its success says Rhonda Scharf

The days of taking dictation, personal assistance for each boss, and using an old-fashioned typewriter ended in the ‘70s. The secretary is gone.

From secretary, we moved to administrative assistant, executive assistant, personal assistant, and roles in which we were supporting professionals. We supported departments, executives, and operations. We ensured that business moved forward by taking care of the little details that no one noticed such as scheduling, travel, expenses, and generally made life a lot easier for others.

And now, due to the use of artificial intelligence, a lot of those roles are disappearing entirely. Artificial intelligence, like Alexa or Google, can perform a lot of tasks that administrative professionals have typically done in the past (make appointments, confirm schedules, make calls, order supplies, even have a pleasant conversation.) These devices are able to support, thereby eliminating a lot of the tasks we perform daily.

What we have left is the “strategic partner.” I’m not sure what the title will be, moving forward, but we no longer support the function of the business or the executive. We work in conjunction with the department, the executive, or the business. We are autonomous. And we are far more visible than we have ever been in the past. We are no longer invisible (or we should not be invisible); we are very much a part of the success of the department, executive, or company.

Working as a strategic partner requires a mind shift in terms of how we approach our profession. And note, it is a profession, not a job. This is not a stepping stone position. This is as important as the Project Manager, the HR professional, or the Payroll professional. This is a career. This is a calling. This is the future.

You will be your executive’s right-hand partner. The same way the secretary and administrative professional was there to make their executive look good, you are there to ensure that they have not forgotten anything, they are not making mistakes, and to give a thumbs-up on what they’re doing. They will look to you for validation. They will look to you to ensure they have not forgotten anything, and they will look to you when things go wrong. This isn’t about maintaining their schedule (Alexa can do that). It isn’t keeping them organized or booking their travel (they can do that themselves); it is about making sure that when they show up, they are 100 per cent ready for every meeting, every phone call, every emergency, and every event that occurs in the workplace. You are their partner to ensure strategically they are exactly where they need to be.

The two of you are a partnership. You will succeed together, or you will fail together. Like a figure skating pairs couple, you are working together for the long-term.

How are you going to embed yourself in your executive’s mind to ensure that every I is dotted and every T is crossed in this new partnership?

1. Have open, honest, and transparent discussions

Your executive needs to know what your boundaries are, and you need to make them clear. If it is unreasonable for you to be contacted after 8 p.m., you need to say that. Don’t assume that this will be okay with your executive either, so be sure to clarify this immediately (in the interview if you can). Many executives have given their hearts and souls to their job, and they expect that you will, also. If something goes wrong half way around the world, they want to know that their partner can jump in and help. If that isn’t reasonable for you, that needs to be communicated to the executive.

Perhaps it is your executive who has more clarity on her boundaries. You need to know that, too. This is like a marriage in that if something goes wrong at 2 a.m., we need to know who is getting up with the screaming baby. If you can’t agree or respect each other’s boundaries, the partnership will feel like work.

2. Identify communication preferences

When my husband and I first started dating, I was much more of a text-based communicator than he was. I wanted a text in the morning asking how my night was. I wanted to know he was thinking about me before he went to bed. But his brain did not operate that way at all! If we need to talk, he will want to speak on the phone. And if we don’t need to talk, a telephone call just to say Hi doesn’t need to happen, from his perspective. Email or text is not his go-to method of communicating, but it certainly is mine. I text one of my best friends almost daily, but I have no idea what her phone number is. I never speak to her on the telephone.

The same way we need to have that conversation with our life partner, we need to have conversations with our business partner, too. What is the best way for the two of you to communicate throughout the day? Text, instant messenger, email, telephone, Skype? There is no “right or wrong” style of communication, but the faster you can figure out what works best for both of you, the better it will be. Should you book a standard appointment together, or just touch base as needed? Are you okay to get right to the point, or do you prefer someone to say good morning first?

Warren (my husband) still doesn’t love to text, but he will if it makes sense (like when I’m sitting on an airplane and don’t want the entire plane to hear my conversation, or when I’m in a taxi), and I am willing to give him a call if the situation allows it because that is what he prefers. We both must be willing to compromise. I don’t get the good morning text, and sometimes I want to call him even though nothing catastrophic has happened. We both compromise.

When I am working with a client and he texts me, I don’t respond. If I do respond sometimes, it is typically a very curt and abrupt conversation. I do not intend to be rude; I’m just preoccupied. I made sure he realized that I wasn’t intentionally being rude, I am just very direct when I am distracted. He learned that when I am with clients, I didn’t want to text at all. It isn’t personal; it’s just a focus issue.

3. Set goals

Warren and I have personal and professional goals together. He is my husband, and he is my strategic business partner (he is, in all senses of the word, my partner). We have personal bucket list items, and we have very clear business goals. Together, we work on them to ensure we complete them. If he doesn’t know what my business goals are, how can he help me achieve them? If I don’t know what his business goals are, how can I help him achieve his goals? Partners, in business and marriage, need to communicate what is important to each other.

We know where we want to be in five years and will help each other get there. Have those conversations with your strategic partner. If this isn’t a lifetime job for you (and who says it must be?), be sure to be willing to have those conversations with your strategic partner. Be comfortable speaking about what your next role in the company or the industry will be. Find out what your executive’s goals and aspirations are. When someone moves on to another challenge, we should not take that personally, either. Help them get where they want to be, and they will help you get where you want to be.

Creating a strategic business partner relationship is very much like creating a life partnership. It isn’t easy. Divorce rates are high (both personally and professionally). It takes commitment from both people, but when it is formed properly, respectfully, and with the company and personal objectives in mind, it works beautifully.

Stop thinking that you are supporting the function of your business and start realizing that you are a strategic partner, invested in its success.

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About Author

Rhonda Scharf

Rhonda Scharf, CSP, HoF, is a Certified Speaking Professional, Hall of Fame, trainer and author based in Ottawa. She helps organizations feel motivated and educated through her interactive, realistic and fun training programs and keynote speeches. If your team needs a boost by increasing their effectiveness and efficiency, then Rhonda will get you ON THE RIGHT TRACK. www.on-the-right-track.com or call +1 (1877) 213 8608. Rhonda will be speaking at Executive Secretary LIVE in Johannesburg, 28-29 February and London 27-28 March 2020. For further information and to book, visit www.executivesecretarylive.com

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