Real leadership doesn’t need an official title explains Hannah Van Hyfte

Being a leader is more than just handing out tasks to people. Leadership is about helping the team become greater than they could be on their own. Even more, it’s about inspiring others to do more than they ever thought they were capable of. Leaders are often the first ones to believe in their team and they encourage their teammates to strive for results that seem almost out of reach. They also provide direction when anyone in the team hits a bump or hiccup when working on a project.

Because executive assistants work so closely with their executive or entrepreneur, other people in the company naturally look to us for guidance. Assistants are also aware of plans or changes the company intends to make, so teammates often watch how we respond. And since we are already there to help the team, assistants can become great leaders, even without the title.

As I was working my way up the ladder of responsibility, being a leader and having the respect of everyone in the company was very important to me. Being a high-powered executive in some big corporation was something I’d always dreamed of. When I was growing up, most girls played with Barbie™ and My Little Pony™. Me? I played office. I had a desk, an old phone, and a hand-me-down day planner from my mom. It was the best.

While I’m not in a huge corporation and not technically a high-powered executive, I have reached the point where I am a leader in the company. I still have the title “Senior Executive Assistant,” but my responsibilities extend far beyond that. (And really, now that I have worked so long in an entrepreneurial company, a big corporation would be quite an adjustment.)

Time has allowed me to become so familiar with my entrepreneur, that I usually know how he’ll respond to situations or what questions he would ask to pull responses out of the team. When he’s not there, I can use that experience to give advice on situations or ask the same questions to help people reach possible solutions on their own. It’s important to also know when something is beyond my authority and needs further discussion with my entrepreneur. It’s okay to not always have the answer.

I also keep track of the projects that are happening and the assigned tasks. People come to me first with questions because I’ve been in the meetings and have my notes. I’ve started taking and sharing notes through Google Docs, but any time there is uncertainty, it’s helpful to talk through any questions. My being available to discuss projects and tasks speeds up a lot of the process because the team doesn’t have to wait for an answer from our entrepreneur. It also allows him to use his time on the things only he can do. Giving him that time is ultimately my goal as an assistant.

Behind the Scenes Leader

You’ve probably heard the axiom, “lead from behind,” but that’s the best way for assistants to be leaders within their companies. Lead by example and demonstrate how others should act at work. Follow the current procedures in place. If you discover that more are needed, get permission from your executive and help develop them. Procedures and systems are important because they help everyone know what is expected. I have also found that it’s hard to ask people to follow procedures or behave in a certain way if the leadership does not. I used to work with a leader that got on everyone’s case when they were late for work, but was rarely on time herself. It was hard to take her seriously and respect her rules when she didn’t follow those same rules.

Leaders serve their company and their team members with honesty and integrity. They earn real respect that way. Your teammates will trust you more because they believe you have their best interests, as well as the company’s, at heart. And it’s important to not treat one person better or worse than any of the others. Every person is a valuable part of the team and as a leader, you need to do what you can to keep everyone working together well. It could be one of the toughest aspects of leadership, but leaders are the glue that holds the team together. A title doesn’t create this glue, it’s all about attitude.

Real leaders also celebrate victories and praise their team members when they do something well. I try to find reasons to let my team know they’re doing great. Of course, don’t overdo it because then it no longer seems genuine. But when you take time to let someone know they’ve done well and you noticed, you’ll see their face light up. It also helps lesson the sting when something doesn’t go well because they know you’re not just looking for mistakes. And honestly, I think you’ll find that it makes you feel good to see someone else after you’ve pointed out something positive. It makes me happy to see my team happy.

It’s also important to admit your own mistakes when they happen. I am not afraid to apologize to my team when I make a mistake or let one slip through. They know I’m human just like them. More importantly, they know that I won’t try to cover up my mistakes to make myself look good.

Tips to Try

  • Keep excellent notes. Pay close attention during meetings and keep a record of assigned tasks. Include any” how” and “why” for the tasks if possible. Team members need the “why” for their tasks to make sense. For example, we’re launching a new website at my office.  Only after I explained why we needed to know when a particular field was filled in did my web designer start working on that functionality. Without the “why”, tasks can come across to your team like unrealistic or unnecessary expectations.
  • Think bigger. Being a leader means thinking beyond what’s right in front of you. You need to consider the bigger picture. My entrepreneur often tells us to think not just about the issue, but look at everything from a “helicopter view.” Having a helicopter view also helps when tasks need to be prioritized. By looking at the bigger picture, it’s possible to see what are important (and possibly urgent) tasks, and what can wait.
  • Avoid gossip or talking negatively about others. This goes back to respect and trust. Good leaders don’t talk about others behind their backs or engage in gossip of any kind. Stay above the fray and be kind to everyone. Remember, everyone contributes something important to the team so it’s not fair to demean or demoralize them. They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have something to offer.
  • Keep commitments. If you say you’re going to do something, be sure you get it done. If you can’t get it done, be honest about it. People want to know when they can expect something to be finished, so they may put pressure on you to give a timeframe sooner than you can deliver. One of the things I’ve found myself saying (except when it’s my entrepreneur – his requests rise to the top of my priority list) when I see my plate getting too full is that I don’t want to overpromise and not be able to meet the expectations. I create a halfway benchmark that I feel confident I can meet and then reassess my tasks after the meeting to efficiently complete the project. Sometimes that means delegating or reprioritizing other tasks.
  • Arrive early to meetings and be prepared for the discussion. This is especially important as an assistant because you are most likely the one organizing the meeting. It doesn’t look good to be late to your own meeting. Unproductive or disorganized meetings are not something anyone looks forward to.
  • Get other opinions. The best leaders are ones that listen to their team’s ideas. The people on the front lines of the business have valuable insight into how outsiders view the company or how certain processes work (or don’t). Bring different voices into the discussion to get a more complete picture of whatever project you’re trying to tackle. More importantly, encourage team members to voice opinions contrary to your own by not showing signs of defensiveness. Don’t immediately disagree or dismiss any idea different than your own. Try not to argue the point until they give up their position. Consider all ideas and possibilities.

I believe, with time to build your leadership skills and the trust of your teammates, you’ll become a great leader within your organization. Don’t worry about the title – real leadership doesn’t need an official title.

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Hannah Van Hyfte is the Senior Executive Assistant to an entrepreneur with multiple companies and is the founder of a website for assistants of all types, BeTheDreamAssistant.com. She is committed to helping wherever she can – her entrepreneur, her team, ... (Read More)

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