Trust me, I’m an Assistant

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Trust is the glue of life, it’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships ~ Steven Covey

At an interview recently, an assistant candidate asked the executive what he thought was the most important aspect of the working relationship between him and his assistant.  That’s a great question to ask! And the answer he gave says it all about the collaboration an assistant has with the boss. The answer is …. TRUST.

Of course, it’s expected that you can communicate well together, that you know exactly what each other’s expectations are, and you understand each other’s challenges, but did you ever stop to think that this is all because of trust?

What exactly does it mean to trust someone? When there’s trust in a relationship, you feel confident that the intentions of the other person are honest, genuine and open.

So how does that trust get built?  Well, it takes time. You must show trust to gain trust, so here’s how:

Take time to get to know each other

If you’re in a new role, discovering each other’s personal style is critical to building trust.  You’re going to be working very close together every day, so your relationship needs to grow.  Have you – or they – done a profile assessment, like MyersBriggs, I OPT or Everything DiSC? That’s a good way to find out about your and their personal style of working.  Are they introvert or extrovert? Are they logical processors or action-oriented? How do they like to receive information, how do they make decisions?  Once you know, you can adjust your style to theirs to optimise your working relationship.

Asking questions is the best way to find out everything you need to know, so don’t be afraid to ask for as many details as you can. We all prefer working with people that we like, so take the time to get to know your executive.  A good sense of humour goes a long way in the office, as well as not taking yourself too seriously – at the appropriate moment.

Meet Expectations

Being trusted means that your executive expects that you will get things done in the way he or she wants, without having to ask or check back.  You need to know what their preferences are, for the calendar, emails, projects, meetings, flights, hotels etc.  Who in the organisation needs the most attention? Who are the most important internal and external stakeholders? What are his or her challenges and how can you support them in the best possible way?

Having a daily catch up is a great way to touch base on what you’re working on, so you can give updates to reassure the executive that progress is being made. The more you show that his or her needs are being met, the more trust you will gain. It’s also an ideal time to share things you may have seen going on in the organisation of which your executive is unaware.

You will probably have access to his or her personal data, passport, credit cards, etc., so look after that information as carefully as if it were your own.  If you’re managing his or her expenses, your executive trusts you to do them accurately, so it’s up to you to ensure that they are correct. But do you also check for compliance? Review hotel invoices and dinner receipts to make sure things are not being claimed that may fall outside company policies.  Your executive trusts you to take care of these issues to ensure that he is doing the right thing.

Give and receive constructive feedback

Authentic leaders are very open to feedback; as Bill Gates stated, “It’s how we learn”. In a trusting relationship with your executive, it is important that you feel comfortable giving them constructive feedback, not just about their behaviour, but also about how you see your working relationship developing. Let them know that you would appreciate their feedback too, whenever things go well, or not so well, without waiting for the performance review, as then it’s too late to fix what needs fixing.

Assistants are great sounding boards for their manager and are in a great position to see their leader in action, as well as seeing the results of that action that they might not be aware of.  We all have our blind spots, so don’t shy away from holding up a mirror now and then to your executive.  Always tell them the truth, there may be enough people in the company who dare not be completely honest with their executives, so it’s up to you to reveal ‘the Emperor’s new clothes’. Make sure you ask their permission first. As time goes by, they will appreciate your support, and trust will grow between you.

Show and Tell

One of the joys of being an assistant is that you see leadership in action at very close quarters.  This makes the job a great learning opportunity.  You can help your executive to make the most of their valuable time by relieving them of those mundane tasks that keep them away from what’s important to them.  If you can demonstrate that you can be trusted to take things off their plate and do them differently/better/cheaper/quicker /more effectively, then the magic will happen.  They will realise that you are a proactive partner. Trust will grow and with it the opportunities to learn and take on more responsibilities.

Checkpoint Charlie

Many assistants tell me how frustrating it is when they are used as a channel to get to the executive. Colleagues may have their own reasons for not discussing their issues directly with the executive, but they obviously trust you enough to roll up to your desk for a moan about something, dumping their problems onto your desk.

So, what do you do with this information? If you are perceived as the border crossing between the organisation and the leader, people will come to expect that by talking to you, you will be the one to carry the message upwards.  So be clear about where you stand and don’t be dragged into these tactics.

Simply say “Well, I can hear you’re very frustrated about this, would you like me to make an appointment with X so that you can discuss it?” or “Thanks for sharing that with me, what would you like me to do with this information?”  By doing this, you are showing that your executive trusts you enough to decide what happens to this kind of information.

Be Switzerland

Maintain your neutrality. Never get dragged into office politics or ‘boss bashing’. In a trusted relationship, you have your executive’s back, and know that they will also have yours.  So, you must remain impartial in the office.  You always support your boss’s decisions publicly, even though you may not agree with them, and rise above gossip and negativity. Never criticise them to others, whoever they are, and don’t be drawn into revealing information that is not meant for others. Nobody trusts a gossip, so your reputation as a trustworthy employee is on the line here. By staying neutral, you will increase your profile as someone who can be trusted.

The origin of the word secretary comes from ‘keeper of secrets’. Maintaining confidentiality comes with the job, there may be people in your organisation who try to get you to reveal those secrets. Never, ever give in to that, if you do, then trust is lost forever.

Show some vulnerability

This may sound scary but being able to show vulnerability is not the weakness that some people think. Owning up to weaknesses and being honest about your mistakes shows your authenticity. I knew an assistant who, when asked by her manager if she’d done a specific task, would routinely say “Yes, that’s done”, when I knew she’d forgotten all about it.  She then had to scramble to mitigate the damage, but eventually, she was caught out and her credibility and the trust her manager placed in her was destroyed.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook has talked much about “Bringing your whole self to work”. After the sudden death of her husband, she claimed; “If I believed in bringing my whole self to work before David died, what I learned after is that I have no choice”.  You deserve to work in an environment where you can be yourself all the time. Revealing something about ourselves to the person that we work most closely with, says “I trust you enough to share this with you”. Again, this takes time, and you must take the personality of your executive into account before sharing too many details.  If you have a trust-based relationship with your boss, it will be easy to share things in a mutually respectful way. Of course, your relationship must always be based on professionalism, so beware of mixed messages when talking about your personal life.

Your working relationship will thrive on mutual trust.  Your job is to make your executive look good. It’s up to you to make sure they are in the right place, at the right time, with the right information.  Do this every day, again and again and you will become the trusted assistant.

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About Author

Helen Monument

Helen Monument inspires and encourages Assistants to be the best they can be, by sharing 30 years of experience as a management support professional. Her career has taken her through many stages, from Secretary to Office Manager and Business Support Team Leader, so she understands the profession inside out. An honorary member of International Management Assistants (IMA) Netherlands, she also served as Association Secretary, then as European Chairman. Helen has recently launched her new venture Monumental Assistance. Helen offers coaching, counselling, mentoring and training to assistants at all levels and is a stimulating, knowledgeable and entertaining conference speaker. She can be reached at https://monumentalassistance.com/

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