If you want a seat at the innovation table, you must take credit for your ideas and make them happen says Dinah Liversidge
According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018, the number one skill that will make you stand out in an over-crowded, ever AI-developing marketplace, is a combination of analytical thinking and innovation. Whilst this might, initially, sound like great news for most Executive Assistants, clearly being core skills in their role, it is also a challenge to fully embrace this way of being and working. Most companies claim to want these things yet show little history of embracing them or promoting the people who champion them.
When companies talk about being leaders in innovation, what do they really mean?
Innovation used to mean ground-breaking technology or novel pharmaceuticals. Now, the speed of progression in these areas has created so much noise, it is becoming ever more challenging to stand out. Innovation in how staff areas are designed and how staff are shown that they are valued may have been sneered at by traditionally profit-driven businesses in the last couple of decades, but they are starting to attempt a catch up. Take a look at the photographs of any company website now, and you’ll see areas that show their values of ‘investing in our teams’ and ‘putting people first’.
Likewise, strategic or analytical thinking used to be all about minimising overlap, maximising efficiency and building profitable partnerships. Focus is going to have to shift to longer-term strategies for the people who make the business stand out from their competitors. This includes investment in apprenticeships, mentoring schemes, and training for both professional and personal development. Without this strategic investment there will be no future for the business and little reason for staff loyalty. EAs are ideally placed to lead in this area. Ask for investment in your development to be part of your remuneration package and show them why it will enable you to add value.
Not all companies have a trailblazer at the helm
Now, before you all shout about Bill Gates or Richard Branson and how they have consistently promoted and encouraged true innovators and change-makers, please acknowledge that these leaders, and a few others like them, are the exception to the general rule. Most corporations talk about innovation and analytical thinking as a way to attract talented employees that they then prevent from being either innovative or analytical, with red tape and the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ brigade. Challenging the status quo often results in people putting up walls; it takes determination to keep chipping away.
I highly recommend the book A Peacock in the Land of Penguins by BJ Gallagher and Warren H. Schmidt. It takes a unique look at the challenges facing the different ‘birds’ that make up a business and explores the challenges they face when forced to work in the, highly conformist, land of the penguins.
If you are inclined, however, to truly apply the principal that every company is going to want to develop in the area of innovation, then you have to ask how you are placed within your organisation to provide these things. Is your role seen as a strategic one, or more reactive? Traditional Assistant roles have changed, but often the views of other team members have not. It’s up to you to evaluate whether you are perceived as you should be in the bigger picture and, if you are not seen as a strategic partner and an asset, it’s time to deal with that.
How can you be seen as a strategic innovator in an Assistant role?
One of the common themes of recent articles about the role of the Executive Assistant is that they are not a strategic asset to the business they work in, but, rather, a ‘nice to have’ reactive role that frees up time for the Executive to be a strategic leader. The implication is that the role will be replaced by AI, an obvious casualty of progress. I have been surprised by how little the authors of these articles have understood, researched or spent time working in the role, or with an EA themselves.
Assistants are required to be middle management and have been taking on this role since the late 1980s, when head count became the latest way to make more profit and large swathes of mid-grade management roles were absorbed by the Assistants in each team. Assistants everywhere were picking up responsibilities, budgets and longer days, being delighted that our skills were being put to better use, whilst muttering in quiet corners that ‘a bit more money might be nice to go with it’ but rarely saying so.
Plenty of Assistants are busy talking themselves out of the very strategic roles they seek
And herein lies the problem for many Assistants: they rarely put their ideas forward (including the suggestion that they deserve a review of salary) and they talk themselves out of being the innovative strategic business partners that they seek to be. Ask any senior Administrator to record and share exactly what takes up their time in a month, and you’d think you were looking at a strategic, core influencer in the business. Ask them casually in conversation, and you’ll often hear the word ‘only’ or ‘just’ to minimise the idea that they deserve credit for any of this.
Add to this lack of self-promotion a lack of self-investment and EAs will not be seen as credible partners by their Executives. How much did you invest in your own development in the last year? The truly exceptional, innovative, and strategic EAs are working with coaches and mentors, attending industry-leading training events (often paying for these themselves) and contributing to publications like this one to be seen as thought-leaders in their field.
While I love a team-player, if Executive Assistants want a seat at the innovation table, they have to be prepared to risk being the centre of attention, taking the limelight for a while and – I know, this is getting really uncomfortable – take credit for their ideas and making them happen. What’s stopping that from happening already? In my experience it is a combination of these:
1. Working for a manager who is not a leader
If you work for a reactive manager, rather than a leader or people-developer, they are not really listening when you put your ideas forward. This is out of your control and the likely way to change this is to look for other opportunities yourself (either in a different area of the company, or elsewhere).
2. Your language
Your own language is holding you back and keeping you thinking small. Until you stop the head-talk about why nobody is going to take you seriously, or how your opinion isn’t relevant, you will be creating your own truth here. This is within your control; I am not suggesting it is easy, but with support and mindset, you can choose to end this behaviour of self-deprecation.
3. A past experience that did not go well
We have all been in one of those situations at work where we wish the ground could swallow us up. At least, we’ve had this experience if we’ve dared to take the risk of speaking out, putting forward ideas, risking making a mistake. The good news is, once we’ve got back up and gone for it again – despite that awful moment – we get the chances we were hoping for to make a difference.
There comes a time in your life where you have to ask yourself a tough question or two, and if you’re planning to step out of your current ‘I’m not enough” place and become a strategic partner, then now is a good time to ask those questions. I suggest you start with ‘what am I getting out of staying where I am?’ You do not have to share you answer to this, so be honest. The reason we choose to repeat behaviour, or to fail to challenge our patterns that have become habits, is because we get something out of it staying as it is. That voice in your head, keeping you small, that imposter, is costing you the chance to risk being innovative. It’s time to challenge it.
The first project I was given to work on at SKB, when I returned to work after my car accident, was to organise an event about innovation. It was to shape my career with them for the next eleven years. Why did it have such an impact? Because the audience were the top innovators in our business, from every country in the world. I spent a week with them, watching how they communicated, how open they were to ‘crazy ideas’ and how prepared they were to try new, often scary, things. I was inspired by them to be less afraid of making mistakes or looking foolish, and more open to the possibility that I had something new to add.
Embrace your core values
Most EAs I have had the privilege to coach and mentor have several values at their core in common; others before self, always giving my best, being truly present for others, sharing best practice, helping others to achieve. Are you seeing a pattern here? EAs are amazing people. These are values that every business wants (and often claims) to have at the core of their business. These are the values they want their customers to think of when they think of them.
What these values are not yet seen as, however, is innovative or analytical or strategic. And I say ‘not yet’ because I believe they are core to being all of these things. What we need to communicate effectively to Executives and board members and – ultimately for many – shareholders is how and why these values are both these things.
In this depersonalised world of online commerce and AI, customers are going full circle and moving back to the concept of supporting smaller, ethical and regional businesses. They are doing this for largely value-based and often environmental reasons and these eco-consumers use every business. Corporations are following the example of the smaller, ethical firms as they see how they appeal to and attract new customers. Keeping these customers is going to require that businesses ‘walk the talk’; in other words, they will have to have values not just as part of a clever strap-line but as a way of working and at the core of how they treat their customers, their staff and their suppliers.
This is excellent news, as the core values that you work from daily have been, until now, viewed as non-strategic and impossible to measure in terms of profit. These values are going to be the way a business keeps it customers for the long term. We, as customers, want our expectations surpassed and our ‘experience’ to be one that we want to share, in our Instagram feed, with our friends.
Become involved to have an impact on strategy
Grab every opportunity to join project teams or committees that are looking at the way your business needs to evolve for the next decade and make sure you speak up about how vital it is to be more value-based, driven and focussed if you want to appeal to an evolving market. And do your research; how are your clients/customers/consumers making their ethical choices heard? I regularly see news stories that show shoppers having impacts on how big brands make their goods, pay their staff and test their contents.
Act on this today
If you are feeling motivated, how about starting to shift your Executive’s thoughts about you as a strategic and innovative partner? Taking action right away is one of the behaviours that make great innovators. Here are my suggested next steps:
If you don’t know them already, ask your Executive what their goals are for the department/business for the year.
Take a look at all the actions you perform in your role for the next two weeks and write them all down, along with how much time they took up. I recommend you do this on a pad and leave it open next to you, so you do it as you go.
Review both lists and note how much time you are spending on tasks that are not related to your Executive’s goals.
Review how many of the things on your list of tasks are things you repeat regularly but have yet to find a way to automate. Automate them.
Each time in the next three months that you are about to go to your Executive with a problem, consider two solutions that you can also discuss. Let them see that you have strategies in place to handle situations that impact the long-term success of the team and the business.
Taking the risk to innovate, to stand out and say, ‘I see a better way of doing this’ or ‘have you considered this?’ comes back to those inner conversations that we allow to talk us out of opportunities. We call it a ‘comfort zone’ for a good reason and hey, if you are comfortable as you are, then I’m happy for you. If you’re being honest with yourself about the future of your role, however, they you’ve got to put your internal voice to bed and start believing in your own ideas.
Once you free up time that is currently being invested in repetitive, non-strategic tasks, what impact might you have on the business? How often have you had to say no to a project because these tasks have been taking up your time? Which areas of the business would benefit from your experience? These are questions worth exploring with your mentor and, ultimately, with your Executive.