Executives and Assistants Working In Partnership

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In our fast-moving world, how do we find time to get along? asks Joan Burge

There is no greater relationship in the workplace than that of an executive and an Assistant. I can honestly say that because of my experience in the administrative profession for 20 years in a variety of organizations. During my administrative career, I was fortunate to work with three outstanding executives who truly saw me as their strategic partner.

I had other relationships that weren’t so rewarding and I did not stay very long at those jobs. Then there were other situations where the executive was nice and we got along, but there wasn’t real synergy.

As founder and CEO of Office Dynamics International, I have been on the “other side of the desk” for 25 years. I have had some good Assistants and one bad Assistant. I’ve been fortunate to have Jasmine Freeman as my Chief Executive Assistant for seven years. Jasmine was promoted to Vice President about two years ago.

A third dimension I can add to the validation of a good partnership is that I have personally coached more than 150 administrative/executive teams – both one-on-one and in groups. So what I am about to share with you is based on more than 42 years of experience in building executive/Assistant partnerships.

The world is a much different place today

Rather than dig into the past (which is of no use to you), I am starting with where we are today. Our world is a much different place than it was when I began my career and the stakes are high! Every person in every industry is expected to operate at the top of their game and the same is true for executive and Assistant teams.

  • Our world is moving at Mach speed. Regardless of your industry or the size of your business, everyone feels the pressure of rapidity.
  • We are bombarded with information. While technology and the Internet is amazingly wonderful, we are flooded with information.
  • Executives are working from multiple devices. Not all Assistants have the same devices or as many devices as their executives.
  • Information is floating in the “cloud”. Assistants do not have access to all the information that they need to do their jobs well. Executives do not share necessary information with their Assistants and do not always include their Assistant in their email communications.
  • Employees feel time-compressed. Management and administrative support professionals, as all employees, feel like they don’t have enough hours in the day to complete their work.
  • Executives are independent and tech savvy. Between email, virtual Assistants, palm pilots, high speed Internet connections and a host of other technological marvels, executives mistakenly believe they are more independent than ever – making their own travel plans, faxing their own letters and scheduling their own meetings. In reality, these so-called independent executives have lost sight of the one asset that can truly impact the company’s bottom line: an empowered administrative office professional.
  • Assistants are supporting more than one executive. This makes it more difficult to sufficiently assist an executive at the highest level possible. Plus, the downside is that executives and managers have to share delegating their workload to the Assistant thus keeping projects or basic tasks on their plate.
  • Executives and Assistants cannot keep up with the emails that flood their Inbox on a 24/7 basis. The average number of emails Assistants manage between their email and their executive’s email is 225 per day to upwards of 400 per day!
  • Assistants are being underutilized. Executives are wasting precious time and money by doing things an Assistant should be handling. The cost to companies can be huge.

Executive and Assistants are struggling!

Put simply: executives and Assistants are struggling. The way they’re working just isn’t working. There’s frustration on both sides of the desk. Everyone is looking for a simple, straightforward guide to help resolve the issues that plague these partnerships.

For decades, Executives have quietly complained of frustrations such as:

“I inherited this Assistant and we’re just not on the same page.”

“I’m not comfortable giving my Assistant honest feedback.”

“I don’t have time to teach my Assistant how to do her job.”

 At the same time, Assistants have struggled with their own frustrations such as:

“I don’t know what my Executive wants from me.”

“I feel like my Executive doesn’t know how to utilize me.”

“I know I could be more useful; I just don’t know how to make it happen.”

At last…

“Isn’t there some kind of instruction manual that outlines exactly how to create a great working partnership between administrative professionals and the people they support?” This is a question I have been asked for years. I am pleased to say, “Yes! There is a Guide defining how executives and Assistants should operate on a daily basis.” Executives and Assistants Working in Partnership: The Definitive Guide (by Joan Burge with Chrissy Scivicque) will be released early October 2015.

For now, I want to share with you the singular, most important piece of advice for building a strong foundation to any executive/Assistant partnership or any entrepreneur/Assistant partnership. It falls under the bigger umbrella of communication.

Clarifying perceptions and expectations

Understanding perceptions and defining expectations form and strengthen the foundation to build the partnership between you and your leader. Often, when executives and administrative professionals begin to work together, they do not begin by taking the time to discuss what they expect and their views of each other’s roles, beyond a written job description. As a result, the pairing may spend months struggling, wasting time and misunderstanding each other, rather than building a stabilized partnership with a strong momentum that grows daily.

Perceptions have to do with roles (yours and your executive’s), the team relationship and the quality of work performed by the Assistant.

Expectations are tied to tasks. What tasks do you believe you should perform? What tasks does your leader believe you should perform? When expectations are not clearly stated or understood by work partners, job frustration, anger and resentment, and lack of motivation will result.

“We live in an age of rapid technology shifts and instant gratification. The new knowledge economy in which we work demands almost instantaneous, intuitive moves to jump ahead of the competition.”

If I were providing you and your executive with personal coaching in the area of perceptions and expectations, here is what I would tell you:Even when an Assistant and executive work together for years, they don’t take time to clarify expectations and perceptions. If you have been working with your current executive for a long time, it’s never too late for clarification. Remember, people are not static. People do not remain unchanged year after year! They develop over time, shaped by input from events, occurrences, successes and failures, both personal and professional.

What’s an Assistant to do?

  • Initiate conversation! I am not talking about the day-to-day conversation regarding travel, appointments and meetings. Take the time to have purposeful conversations about the bigger picture of your executive’s job. Explore ways that you can be more involved in helping your executive achieve his or her goals.
  • Talk about your relationship as a team. Look for ways to up your game, increase the quality of work being produced, streamline processes, and anticipate the future. Discuss your game plan for the next three months of upcoming projects.
  • Get clarification on likes and dislikes. Does your executive really like the way you set up his itinerary? Years ago, I coached a President of a rather large organization and his very savvy executive Assistant. She did an outstanding job with his travel itinerary. However, when I spoke with the President he was not completely happy.
  • Book yourself on your executive’s calendar and do not remove it (unless there is an emergency.) Way too many Assistants put themselves at the bottom of the totem pole. What do you think this says to an executive? It says the Assistant does not value herself enough. If you are going to be a business partner to your executive, then you need to be on the calendar just like everyone else on your executive’s team.
  •  “Think” like an executive. That might seem difficult if you have never been an executive for a length of time. You learn how to think like an executive by listening, absorbing, asking questions and reading correspondence.
  • Go the extra mile. We live in a world of mediocrity. There is a small percentage of people who strive to be their best. So if you just take that extra step or demonstrate extra care, you will stand out.
  • Attend your executive’s staff or department meetings. This will be a good investment of your time and have a big payoff.
  • Read everything. Be interested in a variety of information. This does not mean you have to read every periodical or magazine from cover to cover. Skim headlines and quickly grasp news and trends. I highly recommend reading USA Today. Read what your executive reads whether online or in hard copy.
  • Learn what’s important to your executive which may be different from what is important to your colleagues’ executive. How do you do this?
Talented Partnerships:

Communicate clearly and regularly.

Schedule time together to communicate.

Know each other’s expectations.

Get to know each other’s likes and dislikes.

Work to improve performance and job satisfaction.

Realize you are dependent on each other to achieve results.

Understand what it’s like to be in each other’s position.

Have clear assignments.

Listen to each other.

Be comfortable with disagreement.

Anticipate each other’s needs.

Be organized; have systems in place.

Respect personality differences.

Compliment each other on a job well done.

Understand when either person is having a rough day.

Have personal talk without getting too personal.

 Understand the scope of your executive’s work.

This is not the same as what your executive does such as budgeting, hosting meetings, or sales. These tasks don’t represent the “big picture”. If you don’t fully understand why your leader does what he or she does, find out. If you’re ill-informed, you won’t hear opportunity knocking at the door.

  • Demonstrate your worth by taking the initiative and doing little things that have a big impact. For example, when your executive travels to a place where an industry-related convention is in town –should she attend some sessions? It may be an ideal networking opportunity for her. Find out.
  •  Partner with your executive. That means, if he brings you something, do you do it as you see fit or synergize together to form a common mindset. Partnering with your executive means you have “skin in the game” and you are not just working at a job.

Mutual commitment

Mutual commitment is absolutely essential for process improvement. While not all executives are agreeable to building a partnership with their administrative professional, many more are open to the idea; they just aren’t sure how to go about it. This places you in the perfect position to educate your executive.

This requires the following characteristics from you:

  • Courage
  • Good communication skills that will elicit cooperation from your executive
  • Demonstrating the good qualities you want to see in your executive – if you want your executive to be open and honest with you, then you need to be open and honest with your executive
  • Expressing your feelings about the relationship – what works well, and what does not work so well?
  • Asking your executive to be your business partner and explaining what that should look like.
  • Persuasion skills. Depending on your executive, you may need high-level persuasion skills. Remember, when you are trying to get someone to change habits they have had for years, it takes a while. Don’t expect to see a big change right away.
  • Patience for change to occur and build a better relationship.
  • Ask your executive, “Is it working for you? Is this what you want?” Who would not want to be asked this, as it demonstrates professionalism and a focus on results?

Win win!

When executives and Assistants work in partnership the wins are huge! There are extensive savings to the company, mutual respect, increased productivity, expansion of each person’s role, inspired creativity, greater job satisfaction and less stress.

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About Author

Joan Burge

Joan Burge is known as the red-lipstick-wearing “Rock Star” of administrative and executive assistant training. Joan is an accomplished author, professional speaker, consultant and corporate trainer. Her company, Office Dynamics International, is a global industry leader which offers a broad range of solutions and provides high-performance, sophisticated executive and administrative Assistant training and coaching. For more information visit www.officedynamics.com. Receive Your Free “Clarification of Tasks” assessment. Download at www.bit.ly/clarificationoftasks. Joan will be speaking at Executive Secretary LIVE in Atlanta, 15-16 November 2019 and London, 27-28 March, 2020. For further information and to book, visit www.executivesecretarylive.com

10 Comments

  1. This is the best advice I have read to date on this topic. I am a seasoned EA who has struggled with a new manager for the past year and a half. There is not one item in the article that has not touched home with me. Nice to know I am not alone.

    • Joan

      Thank you Anne for your compliment. You definitely are not alone. I’ve worked with tens of thousands of assistants over the past 25 years in owning my training company and I worked in the administrative profession for 20 years in a variety of businesses and industires. I was fortunate to work with 3 excellent C-Suite and senior executives over that 20 year span with whom I had a strategic partnership. So, as an assistant, I know how your work life changes when you have that relationship. I also had some not-so-good relationships with bosses. And I didn’t stay very long at those places. Yes, this advice works. It comes from decades of experience. So I hope my tips will help you in your career.

  2. This article is right on point. As a litigation assistant, supervisor, trainer and EA for over 30 years, I can relate to having 4-5 amazing partnerships. My natural instinct is to ask questions and offer feedback. To ask a person “does this work for you,” or say “be honest, I am not thin-skinned,” has proven to be the most valuable thing I could ever do. When you have the trust of your executive you have the opportunity to make such fantastic progress as a team. Making wonderful friendships is an added benefit.
    I really enjoyed this article. Having recently started my own business, I can appreciate this teamwork more than ever. Thank you for your article.

  3. This is an excellent article, and I really enjoyed reading it. There are so many truths that you have addressed. I wish I had an article like this when I was starting out over 30 years ago; to realize that other admins have gone down the same path and experience the same problems as I have, would have been a huge support.

  4. This article is so on point! Fantastic. Thank you so much for highlighting. As an assist of over 17 years and one who only over the past 3 years has realised the wealth of information available out there… I so wish I could shout this from the roof tops and have assistants and executives pay attention.

    Having a great relationship with your executive is so important. As you highlighted assistants are often inherited, simply because the role although it has developed over time, the perception of what we do has not changed… We are still in most cases ‘just the assistant’ seen but very rarely heard, and even more so, rarely viewed as a professional!

    If more of us took on your advice to openly communicate with our execs and also to train them how to benefit from our amazing skill set, instead of always being reactive and having them tell us how to do our job… the outlook for us would be so much brighter. Somehow though I find that we still do put ourselves down, do not actively speak up and take control and manage our roles upwards. Too many of us still put ourselves in last place (or not even in a place) in our teams. If we do not value our contribution, no one is going to, so we need to take the lead and help make change.

    This article is a great way to do so, if we all just read and then reacted and went out there and do it.

    Thank you for another piece of great advice. I shall definitely be sharing this.

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  6. Lily Gebrewold Tufa on

    I m Executive Secretary and the article is very nice and definitely guide improving the office and upgrade working experiences.

    Thank you

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  8. Caroline Zinkiew on

    In reading this article again, for a second time, I still see how well everything is said. I wanted to follow up on a comment from Simone. How do you train your executives to use your abilities to the fullest? I’ve been in a new job about a year and am really enjoying it. The down side is that neither executive has had an EA before and I’m struggling with getting them to use me more. I’ve tried a few things but was wondering if you could recommend an article or book that could maybe give me more guidance. Thank you.

  9. Understanding the situation and hardship. But having the experience of getting the right direction towards the ability to make sure that everything will work with improvements needs to be done. How and about what is learning to guide to reality to make this possible to reality and to build that foundation so solid that will never fall apart. This is my thoughts and dreams. But oh well maybe someone can take this to thoughts because I been there just trying to figure this out speaking from my ideas but not smart enough for me know what how and about. Mahalo.

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