Why was an actress’ public acknowledgement of Assistants to her agent and managers so meaningful to so many? asks Shelagh Donnelly

I was struck early this year by the extent of the reaction to actress Ayo Edebiri herself a former Assistant – thanking her “agent and managers’ Assistants” during the January 2024 Golden Globe Awards ceremony.

In contemplating the Assistant career, let’s stay momentarily with the theatrical theme. Much, though not all, of an Assistant’s work is somewhat akin to skilfully creating effective set designs and well-constructed backdrops in front of which others perform and shine. However strategic, skilled, and attention-worthy an Assistant may be – and however critical a role you fill in positioning your principal to perform at a high level – it’s not your role that’s typically front and centre.

I offer these views based on experience as someone who led her own department, when I was a corporate software trainer, and from almost 30 years of walking your walk. Over the course of those years, and along with all the responsibilities listed (and not listed) in my job descriptions, I routinely tapped into a combination of hard and so-called soft skills to position many executives and leaders to succeed in their roles.

That’s not to suggest I was not also a leader myself while filling these supporting roles. I led teams and projects and planned and executed events involving significant budgets and hundreds of people. I created onboarding programs, initiated annual staff development conferences, co-launched two internal networks, led committees, chaired a national board of directors, and represented my employer and my peers when I presented at domestic and international conferences. As an EA, I joined a handful of senior leaders in developing and implementing an annual institution-wide employee development conference. I also served as an advisor (yes, this responsibility was listed in the position description) to board Chairs and CEOs, and more.

Was I recognised for my contributions? In the corporate world, I certainly was, and consistently so. In the public sector, things were different from one institution to the next and I understand all too well that Assistants don’t always receive deserved recognition from their principals (executives) and other stakeholders. Each person’s experience will depend on a mix of organisational culture, the person or people to whom you report, and on you. More on that in a bit.

Ireland Has Already Informally Adopted the Actress

The charming Ms. Edebiri has endeared herself to many in a nation of people also renowned for their charm – the Irish. An earlier joke she’d made about having spent four beautiful months in Ireland playing the role of Jenny (the donkey) in The Banshees of Inisherin was well received in the Emerald Isle. With actual family roots in Barbados, Boston, and Nigeria, her reciprocal fun with Ireland has continued. In just a couple of examples, the Irish Times proclaimed to her, “… we’re proud to call you Irish,” while Film in Dublin congratulated “Ireland’s own Ayo Edibiri” on her nomination for the 2024 BAFTA Rising StarAward. Celebrating her 2024 Emmy win, Ms. Edebiri acknowledged her “found” family, saying, “Shout out to my people… shout out to Derry, shout out to Cork, shout out to Killarney, shout out to Dublin.” The woman clearly has good taste.

Assistants may want to take note that, amid all the fun, Ms. Edebiri had no issue publicly telling an interviewer “no” when asked to read aloud on television something she clearly didn’t want to read.

How Do You Derive Affirmation?

It may be worth considering whether Assistants, many of whom pour their hearts, souls, and personal time into their careers, sometimes attach too much of their identity to a job. Yes, it’s unfortunate and at times downright rotten when an Assistant is excluded from a team or from recognition. I’ve experienced exclusion myself; that sometimes happens when we work closely with power. If we choose to derive or affirm our sense of value or worth in part through our careers, though, we may do well to instead focus on affirmation through appropriate compensation, learning and development opportunities, and career progression. Whether we secure such outcomes can depend in part on how consistently we align some of our performance objectives and goals with those of the individual(s) and organisation we support – and how we represent ourselves and our contributions.

Do You Consider Yourself Seen and Valued Within Your Workplace?

When I think about the outpouring of appreciation for Ms. Edebiri’s January 2024 remarks, it appears many found personal affirmation and validation in the actress’s acknowledgement of other Assistants. The extent to which it seemed (in my eyes) Assistants took this personally made me question how many Assistants do not feel seen and valued in their roles. I know women and men in the Assistant career who do feel seen and valued, yet it seems many may not be feeling seen and heard.

While it’s important to be efficient and technologically adept, the way you communicate as you navigate relationships and manage yourself as well as your deliverables is a significant consideration. Career progress is impacted by nuance and by stakeholders’ confidence in our credibility as well as our executive presence and strategic insights.

Does Hearing Someone Thank Your (Unknown to You) Counterparts Really Constitute a “Breakthrough Moment”?

Ms. Edebiri’s acknowledgement of a handful of Assistants justifiably endeared her to many. Her remarks have even been hailed as a “breakthrough moment” for Assistants. Now, I understand the warm and fuzzy feeling associated with receiving credit where it’s due, particularly when it’s been lacking, yet I’d aim higher when it comes to defining breakthrough moments in one’s career. Would lawyers, accountants, or people in other traditionally office-based careers have had such visceral reactions had one of their own been mentioned in a public acceptance speech? Do you think people in such careers derive their sense of value through words of thanks, or do they focus more on compensation, development, and career progression?

Walk Like You Have 3,000 Stellar and Supportive Assistants Behind You

The words we use and the body language with which we present ourselves speak volumes. Do you undermine your expertise and impact with the words you use, or do you assert yourself and professionally showcase your contributions in meaningful ways and a timely fashion? If you apologise unnecessarily, are reluctant to say “no,” or use phrases that diminish others’ confidence in you and your credibility, breaking any of those habits would surely constitute a “breakthrough moment.” If you’ve heard me present on prioritising resilience over perfection, you may appreciate how firmly I believe recognising and taming those perfectionist tendencies can be another breakthrough moment.

Last year, one impressive EA I’ve coached acknowledged her habit of diminishing her visibility when joining senior executives in meetings. This smart, personable, and effective EA had been choosing to place herself in the background as much as possible and realised this wasn’t doing her any favours when it came to how others might perceive her. We talked through strategies to physically convey confidence when we’re alongside people in power, even – or I should say especially – when we’re interacting with someone we find intimidating, or when we’re embarking upon an important conversation. I’d say this EA’s self-awareness and her commitment to changing her body language represented a true breakthrough moment.

Think about whether you physically present yourself with confidence (not arrogance), and whether you may benefit from considering what your body language tells others about your opinion of yourself. If you’d like a single tip to help you enter a room with confidence, allow me to paraphrase what’s believed to be an African proverb as I suggest you enter a room as though you have 3,000 stellar and supportive Assistants walking behind you. Think of them having your back.

Another potential breakthrough moment? All of us have weaknesses or gaps that signify room for improvement and progress. When you identify and capitalise on your strengths, even as you’re making efforts to close those gaps, that’s a breakthrough moment.

If you’re ready for a breakthrough moment, create your own. Decide what you’re going to do or stop doing. This may involve adopting or changing a habit, securing a credential or a particular type of role – whatever is meaningful to you. Be bold. Commit yourself. Put your goal in writing, and in your calendar, with timelines, steps, and targets for yourself. Identify how you’ll recognise when you’ve reached that breakthrough moment. Hold yourself accountable, while giving yourself grace for the occasional slip-up. Persevere, and celebrate when you achieve whatever breakthrough is meaningful to you… and then reflect and identify your next breakthrough moment.

Shelagh Donnelly Assistants around the globe have been turning to Canadian Shelagh Donnelly and her Exceptional EA website since 2013 for professional development and the international community she’s nurtured. Authentic, expert, and inspiring, Shelagh ... (Read More)

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