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Executives and Assistants Working in Partnership — The Magic Formula

The most important team in the workplace is that of the executive and his or her administrative assistant. Just think about it…. they work together more closely than any other team; the assistant is responsible for running her executive’s life in addition to her own job; most executives rely heavily on their executive assistant to get the job done, be the gatekeeper, information flow manager, department liaison, decision maker, sounding board, organizer and Chief of Everything Officer.

I have been very fortunate to have coached hundreds of executive and assistant teams over 26 years. I just finished a powerful 3-day executive and assistant coaching project with a large financial firm in Minneapolis. In addition to a formal executive training session on how to maximize the time and talents of your assistant, I privately worked one-on-one with 10 executive and assistant teams for 90 minutes each session. It was amazing and valuable!

There are so many facets of the executive and assistant partnership that I’d like to spread my tips and advice over 2 or 3 blogs. Regardless of which side of the desk you sit, I hope you find this informative and will share this with your assistant peers, executives and managers.

Today, let’s focus on my magic formula: People + Processes = Success! For an executive and assistant to work in tandem, they need the “people” side of the relationship and they have to have the absolute best processes and use those processes consistently. Consistency is the key word. Assistants will tell me, “Yes, I meet with my executive once and awhile.” That is not going to bring the highest level of efficiency and productivity to your team. Star executive and assistant teams meet/speak on a regular basis. This is how they keep the work and information flowing. The people side includes excellent, ongoing, regular communications (and I don’t mean texting and IM). I mean talking in person whether at the office, on the phone, or via Skype or Facetime. Of course, there are many facets that fall under communications but here is one of the most important secrets I will share with you.

Communicating Expectations and Perceptions

To prepare for my one-on-one coaching sessions with the executives and their assistants, each person had to complete our Office Dynamics Administrative Skill Competency Assessment. The executives completed the assessment on how they viewed their assistant’s performance; the assistants completed the assessment on how they viewed their own performance.

There were 12 main competency areas, including appointment coordination, manager support, meeting preparation and coordination, and office communications. Under each main competency, there is a list of behaviors performed by stellar assistants. In all, there were 83 behaviors the assistants were rated on.

Here is the interesting but not surprising part to me: 9 out of 10 executive and assistant teams were not on the same page in 48 or more areas! That means that 9 out of 10 teams were not viewing the assistant’s support or meeting the executive’s expectations in the same way. This is not unusual. I see this all the time.

A key area of miscommunication, poor communication, and mistrust between executives and assistants is around the topic of expectations and perceptions. Many executives have a difficult time honestly and adequately expressing expectations of their assistants. In truth, they often don’t have the awareness or tools to do so. They believe they don’t have the time. These executives either know they don’t feel as supported as they would like, or they’ve come to believe that this is all there is—that their assistant is only capable of so much.

As a result, assistants are left frustrated, wondering how they’re doing and what they’re missing. Often, assistants misinterpret signals regarding what’s needed. They don’t fully understand their role and receive little useful feedback. Most under-leveraged or under-performing assistants falsely believe they’re meeting expectations.  Others are well aware deficiencies exist but unable to determine exactly what they are, and how to improve.

In short, executives and assistants aren’t on the same page.  This leads to resentment, anger, and lack of motivation on both sides. Understanding the written job description is not enough for Assistants to be successful. Most Human Resource professionals agree that a well-written job description still only accurately describes 50% to 75% of the actual job.

Two-way communication is required to build a true partnership.

Executives must gain the self-awareness to know what they need and want from their assistants. They must honestly, promptly, and clearly articulate this information. Without communicating, the executive is cheating his assistant out of important information that she needs to do the job well.

Assistants must gain the self-awareness to know what they are delivering and whether or not that matches expectations. They must listen and inquire. They must learn to be a conduit of information. Without communicating, the assistant is cheating her executive out of the support experience he deserves.

The idea is to work together as a team, running the ball down the field toward the same goal. Picture a football game and the players on the field. In a partnership, the assistant is helping the executive run the ball down the field rather than sitting on the sidelines just cheering him on. The assistant has skin in the game. In order to make this happen, the Assistant must understand the “score” of the work, the goals, and what qualifies as a touchdown in the executive’s eye. All of this requires exceptional two-way communication.

As you approach this week, I’d like to challenge you to get more face-to-face or phone time with your executive or assistant.

  • Identify the top 3 – 5 day’s priorities (because they are constantly changing).
  • Discuss the day’s calendar but not just who or what is on the calendar. Executives need to give their assistants more context around each meeting so the assistant can increase her awareness. This allows the assistant to be more proactive.
  • Look at next week’s schedule and discuss what needs to be prepared this week to be ready for the following week. Does your executive need items from other people? For executives: what do you need your assistant to help you with to prepare for those meetings?
  • Debrief yesterday’s meetings that the executive attended. What action items came from each of those meetings? These would go on the executive’s or assistant’s to do list or follow up list.

Please be sure to check our blog in the next few weeks as I will provide valuable and life-long strategies on how to create a rewarding, productive executive and assistant team.

We also held a FREE WEBINAR on Building A Star Partnership and you can watch the replay here.

Joan Burge

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