To be seen as a true leader you need to find your authentic voice, have the courage to face your fears and show your vulnerability explains Melanie Richardson
Leadership. It’s a real buzz word across the assistant profession at the moment and rightly so. Everything that I have experienced over the last couple of years, from attending conferences and training events, to reading articles and networking, indicates that the role of the assistant is changing – and I agree. It’s essential, therefore, that we are equipping ourselves with the skills required to remain relevant in the future, not only for the sustainability of our own careers, but also for the benefit of the organisations in which we work. Right up there at the top of the list, for me, is the development of leadership skills.
Last year, I was honoured to be awarded the title of Yorkshire PA of the Year and was curious to understand exactly what had set me apart from the other finalists. The judges told me that this was because I had demonstrated, without doubt, that I was a leader.
If you’d asked me when I was starting out in my career over 30 years ago, if I’d be writing for Executive Secretary magazine all these years later then, quite simply, I wouldn’t have believed it. I was the quietest person ever back then, certainly not someone viewed as a future leader, and believe me when I tell you that even today you’d be hard-pushed to find someone who is more inherently full of self-doubt than I am.
So, what was it that took me from that person all those years ago to where I am today, presenting at a conference as an award-winning assistant, being a member of the leadership team in the business where I work and also acting as a one-to-one developer and coach? I believe that there have been several key themes that have emerged and I’d like to share with you some of the characteristics which I’ve had to develop in myself to find my own voice as a leader.
The first of these is to be yourself… be fearlessly authentic. Oscar Wilde once famously said “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken” and this is so true. For years, I thought there was a certain way that I had to behave as an assistant and that I had to be seen to be flawlessly competent and know what I was doing or talking about at all times. However, age, wisdom and experience have taught me different. If you want to be seen as a true leader then you need to find your authentic voice, to have the courage to face your fears and be able to show your vulnerability, to say I need help, or I don’t know how to do that, or I got that wrong. If you don’t, and mask who you really are, then I believe that people can see right through you. It’s true, you might be good at what you do, but you won’t take people with you and you won’t be an authentic leader.
One of my all-time heroes is Brené Brown, a researcher into the subjects of vulnerability and shame, and author of two great reads, Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection. Brené shot into the limelight a few years ago with her TED Talk on vulnerability, which has now been viewed by millions of people around the world. She states that, “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we really are”, and goes on to say that vulnerability, and our willingness to show it, is a true measure of our courage. In an age when we’re constantly under pressure to conform and ‘fake it till we make it’ that’s so important to remember and I’d encourage us all to dare to be our unique selves.
Courage and Risk Taking
The second area is courage and risk taking, which has a real link with vulnerability, and it’s the real biggie! If you want to develop yourself as a leader then I can guarantee the one thing you will have to do is to have the courage to take risks and push outside your comfort zone. As we all know, the comfort zone is a safe place to be, where you’re in complete control of everything, and extremely confident and competent. But I think we also know that you won’t develop if you stay there. The chances are that you will become bored, stale and be merely going through the motions. It’s vital that you continually extend your comfort zone outwards and then as you become competent at something else, push outwards again and again, such that if you do this another circle forms… a circle where the magic happens. One of the reasons why I believe I have become a leader is because I’ve continually been pushing outwards into the ‘magic circle’. And how have I done this? Well, more often than not I’ve just said ‘yes’ and then figured out how do to it afterwards! So, many times, that’s called upon my personal courage to face my fears and to have to change deeply-entrenched behaviour which isn’t easy. For me, it’s pulling myself back from that natural habitat of self-doubt to a place where I know I can achieve anything I want to. Undoubtedly, it requires determination, dedication and development of self-awareness to allow you to make a conscious choice to move to a different place. And as with learning anything new, it requires practice, practice, practice!
One thing I’ve experienced is that it can be very difficult to move forward with momentum when stretching yourself into new territory because it takes considerable energy and effort. It’s essential, therefore, to keep pushing ahead and keeping front of mind whether what you’re doing is aligned with where you want to get to. Asking yourself what small step you can take to advance when something new or unfamiliar seems overwhelming is key. Then when you’ve taken that small step, consider what the next step is and the next.
Be a peer and find your voice
It’s so important to consider yourself a peer and equal with the executives you support. I know that many assistants find this incredibly difficult, but it’s essential if you are to operate at a strategic level as a leader. I have to confess that I don’t think of the executive I work with as my ‘boss’, although I absolutely respect his position within the business. Does that mean because of his power and authority he always has the answers? No, it doesn’t. Does that mean that I should always do what he tells me? It definitely doesn’t!
I consider myself to be a business manager and an equal within our relationship and that means developing and holding boundaries, learning to understand and plug the gaps from each other’s blind spots, and being prepared to offer your view and challenge each other’s position if necessary. I believe it’s much easier to define boundaries if you have a clear view of your values and have determined what’s important to you in a role. And does this just happen? No, it’s something that both of you have to really work at. I stress both of you, because it’s absolutely crucial that the two of you are invested in the relationship and it cannot come from one of you alone.
Trust is so important and is something that builds over time as you have your accountabilities and boundaries in place. One of the most important aspects, in my view, of working as an assistant operating at a strategic level is to act as a mentor or sounding board. My weekly meetings with my executive, whilst including some practical issues, more often than not relate to him downloading what’s on his mind and then me ‘coaching’ him to get clearer on next steps and him helping me to unstick any issues to determine how I can move forward. I firmly believe that this mentoring aspect has been of paramount importance in my relationships with all the executives I’ve ever worked with and that I’ve contributed to helping shape them into better leaders and they’ve done the same for me – that’s a very powerful thing! In working with your executive, you have a real opportunity to be a leader by developing your influence and making a difference so don’t under-estimate the part you can play.
Another key aspect of operating as a peer is to be able to find your voice. One of the areas where I found this most difficult, particularly in the early days, was in my role in our leadership team. I put an awful lot of pressure on myself to be constantly expressing an opinion when there was no need to do so. What I began to do, therefore, was listen, from where my knowledge grew. I also quickly realised that because I wasn’t immersed in any one functional area, I could often see the bigger picture and the subtle dynamics of what was going on, which gave me a totally unique perspective that no-one else had.
The other thing which helped was that I learned to ask really great questions and this is where my experience as a one-to-one developer and coach in our business kicked in. By asking incisive questions, you can get your voice heard in the room and then views and opinions can start to flow.
The game changer for me though was that once I actually believed myself that I was worthy of a seat at that table then everything changed… my views assumed real power and authority, the team took note of what I had to say and I truly began to influence and make my presence felt.
Flexibility and adaptability
The next area I want to cover is flexibility and adaptability. It’s an absolute given that unpredictability is going to become ever more prevalent in the years to come so we need to ensure we are doing all we can to build our robustness and capacity to cope with change. The ability to bounce back from adversity is a key element in defining a successful leader. One of the most effective ways of doing this is by developing a growth mind-set and accepting challenges from a place of hope, curiosity and possibility, learning from setbacks along the way.
As I’ve stretched the remit of my role over the last few years and worked at a more strategic level, this has inevitably meant I’ve taken on new and different responsibilities. I’m often asked how I manage to fit everything in and I have to confess this hasn’t been easy. If I had to give any advice here, I would strongly recommend that you don’t stretch yourself too thinly. You really cannot afford to let the wheels come off the core basics such as managing the diary or meetings otherwise your executive will lose trust in you, which would be a disaster.
I’ve also had to look at how I could do things in a different way, or even not do them at all, striving for effectiveness over efficiency. As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve had to ditch the ‘tying up parcels with beautiful bows’ and adopt a ‘good enough’ approach to determine where best I can add value.
Balance in life
The last area, but one of the most important, is ensuring you have balance and are giving attention to all aspects of your life – be this work, relationships, family, finances, spiritual or wellbeing. It’s so important to ensure you’re looking after yourself and the old adage that you need to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can attend to others is very true. This is something that doesn’t always come naturally to assistants. After all, we are the ones who are constantly providing support for others, but if you are to develop your role to operate strategically and as a leader in your own right then you need to give attention to the whole. There are times when I’ve definitely got the balance wrong, but I firmly believe that success in life should not be determined by the number of hours you spend working. If you want to explore this concept further, then I would suggest that you read Thrive by Arianna Huffington, who urges us all to lead a revolution in our workplaces, our thinking and our lives, something which I wholeheartedly support.
If there was only one thing that I could recommend to you that would have an immeasurably favourable impact on all aspects of your life, then it would be to learn to meditate. The benefits are well documented so I won’t go into them here, but suffice to say they have been life-changing for me and instrumental in helping me to develop my leadership skills.
No matter how the role of the assistant evolves in the future, I’m utterly convinced that there will only ever be a growing requirement for more of us to step up as leaders.
I firmly believe that leadership is not about a position you hold nor is it given to you by proxy from the status or power of the individuals you support. It’s about a decision you make in how you behave, in how you find your voice, in how you communicate and the resulting ripple effect to the world around you from everything you say and do. Remember that you are the greatest leadership tool you have.
I invite each and every one of you to awaken your inner leader and allow your leadership light to shine far and bright. Of one thing, I am absolutely certain: if I can do it, then I know you can too.