Julia Schmidt explains how to build a strategic business partnership with your Executive
What is a partnership?
Partnership, by definition, is a two-way street. A business partnership is defined as a legal form of business operation between two or more individuals who share management and profits. Partners work together in a variety of specific objectives. Partnerships can be formed to address specific issues and may be short or long term, formal or informal. They offer opportunities to view and understand complicated problems from different angles and encourage joined-up thinking between colleagues, departments, and industries. Partnerships enable collaboration, innovation, knowledge sharing, growth, and optimization in the use of resources, skills, and networks. They are based on clarity, openness, trust, shared goals and values, and regular communication between partners.
Does this sound familiar to you? Can you recognize some of these characteristics in the relationship you are building with your Executive? I am talking about the true Assistant and Executive strategic and business relationship. The one that enables mutual growth and creates synergy.
True strategic and business partnerships between Assistants and Executives are attained by hard work, proactivity, and shared goals. If each of you is only following your own pathway and playing a solo game, no partnership will be possible.
Why a strategic partner?
To be successful, every business needs a strategy; a roadmap with actions that will lead to desired results, that will drive competitive advantage by harnessing the potential of all available resources, to overcome challenges and seize opportunities.
Why a business partner?
In the book Business Partnership Essentials – A Step-by-Step Action plan for Succeeding in Business with a Partner, the author, Dorene Lehavi, highlights that “the business world is an arena of interaction among people, so relationships are naturally a key factor.” The time is now, for us, Executive Assistants, to understand that we are part of the business strategy in the same way that our Executives and Managers are. Everything we do is linked to a set of competitive moves and actions that the business uses to attract customers, compete successfully, strengthen performance, and achieve organizational goals.
In our role as Executive Assistants and as part of a management team, we are directly exposed to the responsibility of becoming a strategic business partner to our Executives and Managers – a natural key factor.
When I start in a new position or am interviewed for a new job as an Executive Assistant, I always make it very clear that my goal is to become the best strategic business partner to my Executive. If the people on the other side of the table are not aspiring to the same, then that position is not for me. Why am I telling you this? Because you must know that you want to operate as a strategic business partner. It is your golden ticket to access all your talents and skills and work consistently in attaining this goal. To become a true strategic business partner to your Executive, you will have to act and think like a leader. You will have to go from “working for your Executive” to “working with your Executive.”
Understanding your level of contribution
With the corporate level strategy, Assistants will be exposed to a long-range, action-oriented, integrated, and comprehensive ground plan articulated by the top management. With a business level strategy, the Assistant’s work will be connected to tactics related to a specific business unit. It is developed by the general managers, who translate mission and vision into tangible strategies, a kind of blueprint of the entire business. With the functional level strategy, developed by the first-line managers, an Assistant’s work will be supporting decisions made at an operational level concerning functional areas like marketing, finance, human resources, communications, and research & development. So, do not underestimate your role in the business partnership – you have to understand at which level your collaboration is needed.
Becoming a true strategic business partner is about understanding the meaning of partnership at all levels and being able to translate it into action. So, I want this article to help you design your best strategies in your current and unique work situation to build a sustainable and robust work partnership with your Executive. To my mind, this set of strategies has to contain eight core elements that are keys to its success:
1. Shared values
In a marital union, a family partnership is based on fundamental shared commitments: how to manage finances and household duties, raise children, religion practices, caring for aged family members, social life with extended family members, friends and colleagues, and much more. Besides agreeing upon the basics, the two partners in a marriage have to create a groundwork and a clear action plan for the partnership to evolve. The same happens in alliances at work. The partners must find out what core values they share and how they can stand on solid ground together.
2. The end of isolation
One of the advantages of a partnership is the “joining forces” factor. Some executives I have worked with express this multiplier effect as the “end of isolation” or working as a solo entrepreneur. Having an Assistant that takes the strategic business partnership seriously allows executives to have someone they trust to share decision-making processes, as well as strategizing and visioning the future of the business. With a partner, they will have someone with whom to share and discuss ideas and weather the highs and lows. Together, Assistants and Executives can increase their opportunities to share the day-to-day responsibilities. As Dorene Lehavi states, “with each individual bringing his or her unique strengths to the table, new possibilities become feasible and, indeed, one plus one begins to equal three.”
Sometimes, the partners (Assistants and Executives) haven’t had the opportunity to choose one another. So, work hard in building a real business partnership from day one in any situation. Be proactive and create the standards for the relationship together with your Executive and team.
- Why do we want to build a business partnership relationship?
- Why would I be a good business partner to my Executive?
- What do I bring to the table?
- How do I rate myself as a team player?
3. Trust & Quality
My work experience shows me that trust is the most important element in a true business partnership. Dorene Lehavi states in her book, “trust is built on openness, transparency, commitment to each other and the business.” Trust is the glue that holds every relationship together, especially a business partnership. If you are not able to trust your potential partner completely, then the partnership will never work. You have to trust the quality of what both of you will be bringing to the business partnership.
- Am I exceeding my Executive’s expectations?
- Am I perceived as a team player?
- Are we celebrating our big career achievements?
4. Communication and Transparency
In my experience, my best work relationships and the best results have been possible because of the openness in our communication, honesty about the questions we have, and the limitations we have. This caused fewer misunderstandings and a better quality of performance. Active listening, listening to hear deeply and to respect the other’s point of view is crucial to show that you value the connection with your Executive. Transparency is about being clear about the context of the tasks, activities, and any work we have to perform. Knowing the motivations behind the requests, such as information about individuals involved in the tasks, allows us to advise each other and communicate more effectively and with greater certainty of purpose.
- Are you reminding your Executives that they are responsible for keeping you informed about the business?
- Are you having conversations with your Executive that allow you to present solutions, identify areas of improvement, propose projects, and give a complete update on relevant topics?
- Are you asking the right questions?
- Are you communicating as a leader?
- Are you using the business language?
- Do you give feedback to each other?
5. Getting to know each other
Very few of us have the opportunity to choose the Executive we want to work with. We know that most of our day is spent at work, in relationships with colleagues, teams, and managers. Therefore, knowing each other will make our job easier. Executives and Assistants have to court each other in an effort to become familiar with each other’s personality, preferences, values, and work styles. We must have these conversations with our Executives.
Present your leadership purpose, vision, or mission to your Executive if you have it. Ask your Executive what his leadership style, vision, and leadership purpose, goals, and objectives are. Be ready to have these conversations and to share things about yourselves. Partners must be on the same page from the beginning.
- What strengths do I bring to the partnership?
- What are my weaknesses?
- What vision do I have for what this partnership should look like?
- How flexible am I willing to be?
- How can we add to our skills and talents?
6. Mission and Vision statements
Your vision statement is the big picture of the future you intend to achieve. It is the goals that you have set for yourself. For your company, it represents the aspirations for the business. A vision helps drive decisions and goals in a company. It should be a source of inspiration. A mission statement is what your company is doing. It explains why “an organization exists, what its overall goal is, identifying the goal of its operations: what kind of product or service it provides, its primary customers or market, and its geographical region of operation.” (Wikepedia).
Having a vision and a mission statement shows that you are creating standards, shaping your future, and answering the questions about what you do now, for whom, how, and why.
My vision statement is a source of inspiration and motivation. It is what I want to achieve. It represents my present and my future. My vision, in a hashtag format, is #BeTheBestAssistant. It shows my commitment to excel in everything I do.
My leadership purpose (and mission statement) is “I will continuously and consistently develop and facilitate the growth and development of myself and others leading to great performance and positive results.” These words are the ones helping me follow my standards for high performance. It keeps me on track when I ask: Is this project, task, job description, or role in sync with my mission? It will assure my focus and direct my decisions, actions, and behavior towards the right pathway.
How about aligning your vision and mission with your Executive’s vision and mission? And why not align them with your company’s vision and mission? Having these elements integrated at all three levels will allow your business relationship to become stronger along the way.
- Are you and your Executive are in sync?
- Do you share your vision and mission with yourselves?
- Are you helping each other to follow your vision and mission and keep yourselves on track?
7. The Force Multiplier Effect
Employees add to the business, but a partner multiplies it. The best partnerships have partners who complement each other and are able to provide skills and/or connections that you do not necessarily possess. Imagine that you work with a director who is visionary and excellent in finding new ideas and innovative ways to see the business. Wouldn’t it be perfect for your business partnership, if you, the Executive Assistant, is the one who can put his/her ideas on paper, design projects or identify who are the persons in the organization who can transform the ideas into concrete activities? When you understand who your Executive is, what are his/her objectives, and preferences, everything becomes better in the business relationship. You can easily align your own goals with your organization’s goals and your Executive’s objectives. It allows optimized performance and maximum output. Becoming a force multiplier is about multiplying your impact in the partnership and enabling growth. You must optimize the talents you both have, and be a source of motivation to each other.
To become a force multiplier, you must focus on two things:
- What you can influence
- What you can change or control
The sum of your work + the work of your Executive must be higher than the sum of its parts. So, the force multiplier effect has this rationality:
3+3=7…or 8 or 9 or 29 or some other number that doesn’t equal the sum of its parts.
8. Thinking & Planning Ahead
Every now and then, we should all sit down, meet, and discuss our goals and the best ways to achieve them. As business partners, you have to formulate your plan for the future. I call it the Assistant & Executive Business Partnership Strategic Plan. I am, by nature, a strategist. For me, career success goes hand in hand with strategic planning. The success of your business partnership depends on how you are planning the future and development of this partnership.
To think and plan ahead in an effective way, you have to maintain a regular cadence of connections with your Executive and discuss what is working well and keep an eye out for potential obstacles or barriers. You have to continuously increase business understanding and consciously embrace lifelong learning and adopt a growth mindset.
Start now to create your action plan for succeeding in your partnership with your Executive!