Making the Step Up from Assistant to Business Partner

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As a Business Partner, not only should you have all the requisite technical and IT skills, you and your Executive should support each other and trust and understand one another implicitly says Sue France

You are their right hand person, their second brain and their positive coach. You are someone who not only acts as a “gatekeeper” – protecting them from unwanted visitors and time-wasters – but you are also their “gateway” enabling them to see the right people at the right time, do the right things and the right things right. Your communication skills  (including listening, questioning and body language skills) will be honed to an expert level. You will have the confidence, courage, negotiating and assertiveness skills to be able to speak your mind to advise, influence and make your point in a way that helps others keep face and not feel defensive, belittled or manipulated.

This kind of working partnership obviously takes time, honesty, effort and commitment on both sides. You will both need to communicate with each other extremely effectively on an ongoing basis – making sure you both know each other’s expectations and boundaries.

You have the proactive attitude of finding change an exciting challenge and step out of your comfort zone to volunteer for projects, allowing your Executive to get on with other things. Your Executive should be able to empower you by giving you the “three P” – Permission to take on a project, the Power to make decisions, and Protection for the decisions you make. Of course, you will keep your Executive informed at all times, as ultimately they are accountable.

You would expect to be their most trusted confidante and sounding board, and allow them to let off steam whilst not taking it personally! You will be forgiving; knowing that they too are only human. In the same way, you will have the wisdom and understanding to know you can own up to any mistakes as long as you have offered and developed solutions  – and you make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.

You should know the “real” true personality of your Executive – how they think, what they like and dislike, what their passions are, what their pet hates are, what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are. Executives often put on a ‘”face” for the public or for their colleagues, but it is the Business Partner who really knows and understands them – and your Executive knows they can trust and rely on you. You should make your Executive’s weakness(es) your strength(s); to complement your Executive’s weakness and become expert in where your strengths lie.

As a Business Partner, your Executive should help you understand their aims, objectives, goals and aspirations so that you are in better situation to help achieve them. You should create your goals in alignment with their goals, and they should be agreed with your Executive. You should protect their time and make extra hours in their day by using excellent time management and organisational skills. You may need to teach your Executive skills  – and even how to use the latest technology and why they should use it. Social Media is here to stay and every day new things are coming onto the market – it is up to you to learn about them, embrace them and use them to full advantage, making sure your Executive does too.

A Business Partner would be fully aware of the strategy of their Executive, department and organisation.  You would understand the market they work in, who the competitors are and what they are doing,  by reading the industry magazines, newspapers, social media and keeping your eyes and ears open. You could set up Google+ alerts with the name of your company or the name of your Executive so you will receive emails in your inbox if anything is being said about your Executive or organisation, so you can inform your Executive immediately.

The easiest way to remember a strategic diagnostic tool and understand what can affect the strategy of your company is the mnemonic “PESTLE”:

Political – internal office politics as well as external Government changes etc.

Economics – cost of living, the recession, as well as internal matters such as possible redundancies.

Social – internal such as what is acceptable within the culture; external such as lifestyle of people today and their fast pace (which is why supermarkets are now at train stations and airports).

Technology – the latest technological developments; internal – new computers systems etc.

Legislation – new laws such as employment law or data protection laws.

Environment – carbon footprint, green issues, recycling, ergonomics etc.

Business Partners should think about the needs of their Executive and how they can make sure everything is taken care of even when they have to be away from the office; especially when it is unexpected. Business Partners should aim at becoming a valuable, but not indispensable, member of the management team. I believe that no one is indispensable and that we should put our Executive and organisation first. You should always have back up and train others in the work you do. You should have systems and procedures in place for when you have to take time away from work, whether expected or unexpected, so the office continues to run smoothly and you can rest easy knowing everything will be taken care of whilst you are away. It’s about being organised and thinking of others. Some people think that keeping the knowledge to themselves is power but I believe in this case it is false power. I know it is a good feeling when your Executive says, “What would I do without you?”, when they believe they can rely wholly on you and only you. Being the only one who can do certain aspects of the job is neither efficient nor sensible. I believe if you are successful in supporting, complementing and exceeding expectations in your role as a Business Partner then you will be appreciated, valued and most of all self-fulfilled and motivated. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that self-actualisation is the highest form of motivation.

Business Partners should keep a worksheet both in hard copy and digital of what their job entails so that another person who sits temporarily in their role, could read it and do a fairly good job of standing in for you. I believe if they do the job well it is because you have prepared them – making you an even more invaluable Business Partner and an asset to the management team.

The worksheet is personal to what you do for your Executive, and each Executive would have a different worksheet. as they each have their own preferences, such as:

  • how you organise emails and whether you read them for your Executive;
  • how they like their telephone messages;
  • how and when they want their catch up meetings/communication with you;
  • where they prefer to sit on trains and planes, their frequent flyer numbers that you should use every time you book their travel; the hotels they prefer to use;
  • how they like their information and reports presented  – for example some Executives prefer detailed wordy documents whereas others would prefer one page of bullet points or a graph;
  • what weekly, monthly and annual meetings need to be set up, who should attend and the equipment needed etc;
  • all other pertinent information required to do your job well.

The worksheet should document how they like their minutes taken – and Business Partners should definitely attend the leadership and management meetings to at least take the minutes, if not be a part of it. Taking the minutes allows you to understand exactly what is going on and you can therefore really understand the mission, vision and strategy of the organisation and any problems and plans in the making. It enables you to follow up any points needed for you or your Executive and to be able to give an opinion if appropriate. The exceptions to the information that should be contained in the worksheet are passwords, private information and bank details.

You should also have prepared a “Standard Operating Procedures” binder, which is different from the worksheet – this contains forms, protocol, policies, procedures, crisis management and disaster recovery plans that you may need to use in your role – this tool is more generic to the office, as opposed to the worksheet, which is more personal to each Executive.

A Business Partner takes the initiative and works without direction, embraces change and looks for opportunities. They represent their Executive at all times and are the ambassador of the Executive and organisation; you may even need to represent the Executive by writing their blogs or tweets for them. A Business Partner should treat people the way they want to be treated, be someone who is diplomatic and encourages win:win creative solutions to problems or deflects the problem before the Executive even knows it may have happened! They should be assertive and not afraid to put their point forward and be able to do so in a way that does not offend anyone else. They should be able to understand and work with different personality and management styles and communicate in a way that is clear, concise and honest. Business Partners avoid office gossip and understand the fine-line difference between gossip and being the eyes and ears of their Executive. The Executive and Business Partner communication should be in an adult:adult way rather than parent:child (this is reference to Transactional Analysis; if you want to understand more you will find it in The Definitive Executive Assistant & Managerial Handbook.)

Business Partners will be aware of their image, the perception of others and their body language, and how they come across to others; not making any assumptions that they are actually communicating what they think they are – understanding that we all perceive things differently depending on our own personal filters including educational, culture and our childhood etc. They check and reconfirm that everything is understood correctly.

Business Partners are flexible, forgiving and versatile, they sometimes coach and mentor others including their Executive, and are excellent at building relationships and working within a team with their Executives and with customers, clients, colleagues and peers. They are effective, professional, networkers understanding how to actively listen and communicate in such a way they can persuade and influence without being manipulative. They can prioritise, innovate, solve problems, manage others, make decisions and all with the right attitude of “can do/will do” and “bring it on”. They are able to motivate themselves as well as others and are passionate about their role and who they are.

The Business Partner role is one of the most important roles in an organisation especially when you work for top management. Business Partners are emotionally intelligent and are one of the most “clued-up”, informed, knowledgeable, accountable and responsible employees in the organisation. They know what is going on at ground level, from the filing department to the leadership team; they are approachable and the lynch-pin between departments and people; and they are able to make connections and suggestions on improvements and moving forward. They are multi-skilled, nurturing and considerate of others, taking into consideration cultural awareness and different working styles. They lead by example, like all good leaders.

Business Partners are authentic, believing in themselves and the role they do, understanding how important it is and why they do it. To be a Business Partner is to be confident, a leader, open-minded, ready to take on new challenges and continually learn. Above all they work in partnership with their Executive and have a deep understanding of what having an excellent relationship and work ethos really means.

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About Author

Sue France

Sue France FCIPD FInstAM INLPTA Trainer, coach and conference Chairperson, Neuroscience enthusiast. Creator of the ‘Workation’ training. Author of award winning “The Definitive Executive Assistant & Managerial Handbook” and “The Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook 3rd edition. Qualified FCIPD Learning & Development Practitioner and coach, Certified Neuro Linguistic Programming Master Practitioner, The UK Times Crème/DHL PA of the Year 2006, Certified TetraMap® Facilitator, Editorial board member of ‘Executive Secretary’ magazine. Contact Sue at [email protected] or call +44 (0) 7747 118914

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