Unless you have been in some far flung part of the universe for the past two years you will have been witness to one of the most damaging economic downturns in living memory. More importantly it is a real fact that we are not out of the woods yet. There have been businesses that have coped well and some less so. A general indicator of a business that will succeed in difficult times is the way that it harnesses the collective power of talent.
In my experience, one of the most underutilised talents in any organisation is the Executive Assistant. The reasons for this vary. More often than not, it seems to be a general oversight on the part of the senior leader they support. The position that the Executive Assistant occupies is part of a privileged web of information, which few come in to contact with in such detail or regularity. If you can decode that web, even unpack it, you will be in a position of real value to the organisation – and the leaders you support. In many respects this ability to decode is as valuable (more valuable in the eyes of some) as the MBA.
So while the leader is happy that they are screening and organising the nature of their workload, they really are missing the opportunity to harness the real power of this invaluable resource. Herein lays a real challenge. If the person responsible for line managing the Executive Assistant does not recognise the real value they can bring then how can they break that cycle? The real answer is so simple that we tend to forget the real value of it.
A little over a decade ago, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who taught me two very important lessons, which are useful no matter what your background or position in the business.
The first is that by listening you learn far more than when you talk. The second (and critical to this story) is that there are no obvious questions in business and life. How many times do you witness people in meetings being made to feel stupid because they asked, what is thought to be, an obvious question? The reality is that it is not the question you should be focused on. You should be looking at the reason behind the question. The Executive Assistant can play a crucial role here. They can legitimately ask for more detail on the reasons for the question and play the role of greasing the corporate cogs. There is no more powerful team builder than this in my opinion. Yes, you have to be careful of corporate politics. However, in reality most people in the business want the same thing. They crave success. Nobody goes to work thinking how good it would be to bring the business to its knees. The Executive Assistant has a massive influence in helping build teams, and this resource is so often untapped.
The other key area that will shape the Executive Assistants of the future is the ability for them to shape and adapt to asking brilliant, ‘obvious’ questions. So many corporate executives look at the same data over and again, and become paralysed by the information to the point of not being able to react. Others will ask for so much data that they cannot see the wood from the trees. By using your exposure to large volumes of information you can ask questions that are so obvious they are often overlooked. As a business advisor I use this technique very often. I call it the ‘playing dumb approach’. I will see something and play dumb, using past experiences to shape how and what I ask questions about.
For example, I was recently sat in the boardroom of a business that was having trouble. The people in the meeting had been talking about all the cost saving activity that they had undertaken over the past five years. There is a very simple calculation that is used for efficiency. It is used by most people in the investment community. They take the business turnover and divide it by the number of people employed. This turnover by employee is a crude but highly effective measure on efficiency. This business had been getting worse at this over the past five years. In itself, this was not a bad thing. But by asking ‘Was this what they intended?’ I managed to flush out the fact that they had been so focused on certain measures of success that they had missed other costs coming in to the business. This is why there is no such thing as a dumb question. And it is why the role of the Executive Assistant will become more important as time moves on. Grasp hold of this opportunity. Now is the time to move things forwards.
Worth your weight in gold
The big advantage that an Executive assistant has here, which is often under played, is a natural and implicit level of trust within senior leaders. It is this natural position that is the key strength of the role. It is also possible to work with other senior leaders in the business to help shape a better future overall by co-ordinating the various pieces to the puzzle.
Now this is a natural order of senior management, they should be able to understand complex relationships. That implies that a good senior manager should understand the value of your influence and trust base. However, as an individual, you need to be acutely aware that this can be used to try and influence things for personal or business gain. You need to be alert to this dynamic so that you are not caught in the middle of something unhelpful. That said, we must remember that statistically 98 per cent of people are honest.
So, be aware, but not afraid. You are a critical cog in the business machine. If you are unsure then be safe and ask the question of someone you do trust.
Playing the critical role you are given well will not only serve your personal career well, as Executive Assistants are worth their weight in gold. It will also be financially rewarding, as you will help the business towards a better overall result.