No one can do the work that is necessary to be done in your life but yourself, explains Melba Duncan

How hard is it to be successful these days?  The bar just got higher.

Who are We as Human Beings in the workforce?

Who are We as Bosses?

Who are we as Employees?

Who are we as Corporate Leaders, Entrepreneurs?

Who are we as Executive Assistants?

Road Map for Professional Assistants’ Future

The Executive/Executive Assistant partnership is a dynamic that is critically important to the success of any organization, in which everybody has a stake: the Executive, the Executive Assistant and the enterprise. This is the Executive Assistant’s competitive edge!  Know your value!

You are the next-phase Assistants who will fill the talent gap through the processes of ingenuity, concentration, analysis, communication, time management and decision-making. You are the individuals who work confidentially with Executives. You are expected to be open to new ideas, and to turn these insights into new skills in order to keep pace with the business leaders you support.

Executive Assistants contribute at the highest levels in environments where markets are highly networked, organizations are global and information technology suffuses everything a company does. Your contribution is in your ability to handle work that is fast-paced, requiring an extraordinary number of skills that are displayed in quick motion. Processing information, making decisions quickly, grouping tasks, making intuitive judgments on the fly, are manifestations of your intelligence, and your adaptability to change. Pay attention to the following summary of the self-sustaining qualities, techniques, skills and traits that prepare Assistants to meet the future:

  • Personal character
  • Sense of humor
  • Self-confidence
  • Tough-mindedness
  • Enthusiastic about learning
  • Adaptable
  • Intentional
  • Focused
  • Demonstrated management and leadership potential

These are precise specifications for the global Executive Assistant to be recognized as a collaborative business partner. Together, these elements reinforce the creative quality of this position.

Executive Comportment                    

There’s a point I would like to make, right here, right now: I am referring to the act of Executive bullying of those individuals who help them to achieve and retain success, and for whom there is no safety net. It is said that personality is divided into two parts, temperament and character. To get to this matter, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about three very important elements in the business relationship that are almost totally overlooked.   If I were to say to you that one of the great elements of assisting is accuracy, I am sure you would agree. But there is another element to assisting, just as central, just as essential as accuracy. And it is right here that we come to the central core of the Executive and Executive Assistant relationship. Moreover, without these elements there is no real relationship, no real business partnership. Without these human qualities there can be no real success, no sense of accomplishment, no sense of working together as a team for each to achieve success. And what are these aspects of assisting?  Mutual respect, trust, and reliable friendship exemplified by evident respect for humanity.

Here’s why I address this issue:  People in power sometimes do as they choose to do, and continue to do so, even if there are well-chronicled deficiencies. Some behaviors are overt, and some methods are more subtle and perhaps less destructive; yet, we should recognize these actions for what they intend.  Executive Assistants who are subject to the whims of Executives behaving in unpredictable ways pay a huge price. Talented, self-confident Executive Assistants know the importance of trust and respect. When you think about it, the Assistant’s ability to sustain composure and focus while some Executives (and sometimes their families) behave in a demeaning manner is remarkable.

Such behavior demands universal condemnation.

Career Assistants, who remain strong in this role, yet who are subjected to these circumstances, do not succumb to learned helplessness:  they know how to take a provocation pause. But, occasionally they do need psychological boosting.  A place to start is to set and keep to your boundaries on how you want to be treated.

Remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote: “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  It is your choice, and every choice of who and how to be is a choice of great consequence.

Where I remain confident in these circumstances is that Assistants possess self-knowledge, self-leadership and self-management. These are imperatives. Most important is that they are able to know their predisposition to independence or dependence on authority figures. They know that we are continuously shaped by our experience, and that it is our outlook that confers value on those experiences.

The Executive is in charge, and the Assistant knows it.  Of critical significance is that if you are facing these workplace challenges it is important to realize that (1) we can’t “fix” people; and (2) our self-esteem is reinforced when we are in environments that reconfirm our contribution and our value.  If the Executive you support has total disregard for your welfare, make sure you are not a complicit responder; rather, be an advocate for your own well-being.

Executive Assistant Comportment

Here’s another point I would like to make, right here, right now:  I know that there are some Assistants who speak negatively about the Executive(s) they support, or who transfer their frustration to their team members either by emulating Executive behavior, or assuming the power and authority of the Executive in getting things done.  If you are among those who pass along to your team (or others) the tension of your business relationship, or if your style and manner is problematic, perhaps it is time to seek assistance.

Remember (1) that when it comes right down to it, our reputation and our influence are all that we have; and (2) that respect is a universal language, and it is free, and (3) it takes courage to say “No.”

Getting Personal

In the context of specific interpersonal relationships between Executives and Executive Assistants, let’s look now at the personal assets, useful traits and characteristics of greatness that make these teams’ performance possible in the first place. These include the 3Hs:  Honor, Intellectual Humility, Humanity.


Here are some every day examples of a lack of respect for others; a lack of personal honor:  which is defined as an act contrary to what you feel you should for another:

  • Think about a time you felt you should apologize to someone, but never got around to doing it.
  • Or a time when you knew you had some information that would be helpful to a co-worker, but you kept it to yourself.
  • Or a time when you needed to stay late to finish some work for someone, but you went home instead, without bothering to talk to anyone about it.


  • We might alter this behavior by admitting that what we believe forms our perceptions and that our perceptions determine our actions.
  • We could observe how we react to our mistakes.
  • We could remember that the Executive Assistant’s contribution is unique to his/her company’s business and to the health and welfare of the Executive or teams he/she supports. Perhaps if we pursue the course of self-discovery, we will find that we have created a sense of personal worth or importance by comparing ourselves with others. We, therefore, have a vested interest in the subtle inferiority of others.
  • We need to notice whether our actions reveal that we live in a world of closed options, set judgments, predetermined positions and guaranteed conclusions that leave us no room for “others.” This action reflects a lack of personal honor!
  • We instead focus on results.
  • We don’t try to be perfect; we try to be better.
  • We worry less about whether others are helping us and worry more about whether we are helping others.

Intellectual Humility

Your attitude and personality attributes are defined by who you are, your vision, your character, and your priorities. This is evidenced by intellectual humility, which confirms your knowledge: what you know, and how that is reinforced by your passion for on-going learning. You are aware of the talents you offer, you do not pretend or claim to know more or to be able to do more than your skills and experience allow.  You do not brag, you listen to others and you are respectful.  You have respect for the knowledge and talents of others, you are open minded and can work towards the best solutions as a member of the team.  What is key is that you know that you do not know everything; thus, you are open to new learning and respectful of others’ knowledge and experience.

When we are operating at peak performance levels, we bring all these assets to bear, and we are “world-beaters.”  The quality of humility in the face of power is greatness.


When we are not at our best, we create problems that diminish the value of all that productive energy. We may just go down in flames, and perhaps drag our co-workers, and our organizations, down with us. In my work as a consultant for support staff, I observe that while companies are focusing on global competitiveness, employees are sometimes engaged in workplace drama that can demoralize the team’s effectiveness.

In the more general sense, humanity refers to human beings.  So, regardless of our color, age, size, religion, position, wealth, we are ALL human.  Along with that comes the understanding of what being human means, including our shortcomings.  We make mistakes!

Our humanity is evidenced by three strengths:  our love and our kindness in acceptance of our and others’ shortcomings. We try to forgive and help others.  The third strength associated with humanity is social intelligence, the most modern of the three.  Our humanity is in our ability to understand relationships with other people including the social relationships involved in intimacy and trust, persuasion, group membership and political power.

If we think of cruelty as man’s inhumanity to man, what we do to hurt one another out of greed, fear, etc., then humanity is the opposite. It is what we do to help one another out of the love, kindness and understanding we have of our frailties and our beauty as humans.


One thought is particularly tantalizing, which I discovered in a book titled Leadership and Self Deception, published by the Arbinger Institute. This is a discussion about the Self-Betrayal/Self-Deception problem, which is an important new idea in organizational thinking. Self-Betrayal is defined by the author as the “germ that creates the disease of Self-Deception.” To help ensure that your career path will be long and rewarding, I want to challenge you to recognize your own habitual performance deficits. Keep in mind that it is said that personality is divided into two parts; temperament and character.

For an in-depth discussion of this problem, I recommend a cover-to-cover reading of this important book. For purposes of this discussion, I point to the Institute’s theory that self-deception can be so pervasive that it determines one’s experience in every aspect of life. I believe this behavior of self-deception does play a major role in our current, best explanation of the difficulty we sometimes have with building and maintaining healthy workplace environments.

The Arbinger study points out that self-deception, also called “resistance”, undermines successful performance, both our own and others. It keeps us from seeing how we can be part of the root cause of much of the problems that impede organizational performance, including problems relating to leadership, teamwork, communication, accountability, trust, commitment and motivation.

Being self-deceived means that we inflate others’ faults, inflate our own virtue, inflate the value of things that justify our actions, and we attach blame. And we pull others into our way of being by justifying our actions, through our gossip, communication skills, and body language.  This is an example of a lack of intellectual humility.

This is easier to do than we might imagine. With very little effort, we can become infectiously self-deceptive and demoralizing to ourselves, our colleagues and our organizations. We must strive not to be the person whose blind spot becomes a flaw, or whose “derailer” activities have become development needs. This is clearly the wrong direction. We are successful only if we are learning how we can be more helpful to others.

To give you a sense of how this could influence your actions, the next time you slip into the ‘blame’ space, ask yourself what you have contributed to this action. If discomfort begins and you want to move away from that feeling by justifying, you are stepping into the self-betrayal space. Stay in the discomfort until you see the other person as needing just what you need.

Remember, we act according to the way we perceive things and that perception is not fact. To impose our perception on others renders them invisible. Yet, how do you fix it if you don’t look at it?


  • We need to notice whether our actions reveal that we live in a world of closed options, set judgments, predetermined positions and guaranteed conclusions that leave us no room for “others.” In other words, a lack of personal honor!
  • We instead focus on results.
  • We don’t try to be perfect; we try to be better.
  • We worry less about whether others are helping us and worry more about whether we are helping others.

Let me highlight a key element of the solution: Don’t focus on what others are doing wrong. Focus on what you can do right to help. Be open to this as a possibility. Let’s agree to adopt this as the simplest perspective and imagine that all the steps are fundamental to ensure the distinguishing characteristics of the Executive Assistant.

In my capacity as an organizational consultant for administrative support teams, I sometimes find that there is reluctance to accept the theoretical assertion that there can be a destructive power operating within support teams; that are facilitated by Executive/Executive Assistant relationships, and that are allowed to remain unchecked because they are misunderstood and not addressed as a group concern. This process makes it almost impossible for companies to develop a healthy pattern of organizational ecology. The consequences of such benign neglect can keep companies in creative destruction, while experiencing excessive turnover, poor performance or marginal enthusiasm for the success of the business.

The circumstantial evidence I have in mind here relies on the fact that we are fundamentally capable of these behaviors. Once we accept this, our work really begins. The truth matters.

Three important criteria are necessary to begin this undertaking:

  • First: you adapt to a constantly changing job description.
  • Second: you maintain an integrated work/life, and healthy living.
  • Third: you execute efficiently, and you demonstrate a relentless effort to understand and correct mistakes. You learn from and do not repeat the same mistakes.

To meet the first and second criteria, you adjust your mind-set. You course correct. You figure out how the changes in your environment will affect what you’re trying to do.

To make that third bullet happen, we must look at a process I call Action Learning, the Direction of Motion. Here, you develop technological savvy, analytical skills, creativity, global sensitivity, impressive communication skills, and the ability to solve time-sensitive issues.

  • You make critical connections: who you know is as important as what you know. You build a rich, diverse network which enables you to gain access to information, collaboratively solve problems and achieve goals.
  • You adjust your mind-set. You course correct. You figure out how the changes in your environment will affect what you’re trying to do. You know that greatness is about human beings respecting one another; it is not about power.

People with rich networks tend to solve problems faster and with better results. Be the person who knows “whom to call”, the person who knows “what to do next”, the person who energizes others, not the person who creates bottlenecks. Strengthen your collaborative capabilities. Much depends on what you know, and whom you talk to.

One last word as we contemplate our performance strategy:  we’ve seen that change is a constant. Expand your responsibilities and demonstrate how much you can contribute to your organization. Stay informed. Support and motivate; bring the team together. Be prepared to take on more responsibility. Your organizations expect more of you personally and as a healthy contributor to your team, so be ready to develop new skills and build on current ones. Be diligent. Cooperate. Integrate. Last but not least, simplify! Trust Albert Einstein when he said, “make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Executive and Executive Assistant business relationships are demonstrated by the following skills and attributes:

  • Resilience
  • Wisdom
  • Courage: confirm your credibility
  • Critical thinking: the ability to see clearly and think independently and to make knowledgeable decisions
  • Coping capability
  • Managing uncertainty and complexity with agility
  • Skilled in conflict resolution practices

A Message to Executives:


It is important to state that Executive success is dependent upon the careful and strategic support offered by professional Assistants as they respond to the needs of Executives. The purpose of their role is to support Executives in their career goals and to contribute to the companies in which they are hired. Executive Assistants contribute at the highest levels in environments where markets are highly networked, organizations are global and information technology suffuses everything a company does.  Your Assistant’s contribution is in their ability to handle work that is fast-paced, requiring an extraordinary number of skills that are displayed in quick motion.  Processing information, making informed decisions quickly, grouping tasks, making intuitive judgments on the fly, are manifestations of Assistants’ intelligence and their adaptability to change.

It is paramount to remember that some of us operate from a place of arrogant confidence, or the collapse of confidence.   Neither serves us well.

A Message to Executive Assistants:


It is not surprising that you have realized such rich continuity in a global business universe that challenges Executives to accomplish more with fewer resources.  In this rapid-cycle economy that demands the capacity and willingness to change, organizational leaders are relying on skilled professionals, like you, and positioning them as indispensable members of senior leadership teams around the world.  So, embrace change and imagine possibilities.

And, lead a deliberate life:  manage your work; manage your life. Don’t ignore the warning signs.  Be very astute. No one can do the work that is necessary to be done in your life but yourself.

To Executives and Executive Assistants:

The challenge of strategic leadership is that it demands integrity and empathy.

To Executives and Executive Assistants:

As leaders, character is your #1 attribute.

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Melba J. Duncan is the Founder and President of The Duncan Group Inc. Since 1985, the firm has been advising CEOs and other corporate leaders regarding specialized senior management support resources. The firm offers expertise in four practice areas: ... (Read More)

One comment on “A Road Map for the Future for Professional Assistants

  1. Paula Moio on

    This is an all-time must read article, I read time and again. And each time I marvel myself at the complexities of our role, described by Melba’s peculiar wisdom, which she so well articulates with a sophisticated, knowledge and finesse, yet so relatable. What a delight. Thank you.


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