In this extract from her new book, The Modern-Day Assistant: Build Your Influence and Boost Your Potential, Lucy Brazier explains the importance of building powerful partnerships
When you start working with a manager for the first time, getting to know them and building that relationship takes time, and it’s very definitely a process. It doesn’t matter whether you have been an Assistant for five minutes or for 30 years, the process is the same. And it helps to understand that it is a process.
Tuckman explained it best in his Model of Team Development (1965):
If you’ve ever seen the TV programme Big Brother, the process follows a similar path. When the housemates first enter the house, they are polite and excited to be there. But after a couple of days, the tension starts. They are working out each other’s personalities and some of those personalities clash. They have different ideas on how they want to do things – particularly the challenges set. They find living together stressful and sometimes irritating. And then, somehow, they work it out. They figure out how to work together most effectively. In most cases by the end of the season, there are strong bonds made and the housemates work well together to achieve the challenges.
The same is true when you are onboarding with a new executive. At the start, you both play nicely. It’s polite and structured so that you both work through the first few weeks to set up or learn new systems and processes and get to know each other on a surface level. This is the FORMING quadrant.
But then the trouble starts as you move into STORMING. This quadrant can be anything from gently disagreeing to all-out war. You are both trying to establish the way you want to work and what expectations are. Because you now know each other a bit, you are pushing boundaries and working through what you want to change or improve.
I have had people on my course tell me afterwards that they feel they have spent five years in this storming phase and that it’s so helpful to understand that it is just a process. They now understand it isn’t personal and that they just have to push out of the other side to NORMING.
The NORMING phase is where you have both established how it’s going to work and are working confidently with each other.
But where you really want to be is in the final phase – the PERFORMING quadrant. When you reach this point, you have got to the holy grail of the Assistant/manager partnership that I talked about earlier in the book, where one of you breathes in and the other breathes out. You have reached the status of true partners. The two of you have become one perfect employee for the business by taking the two very different skill sets that you possess and working together so seamlessly that you are now two sides of one coin.
It’s worth noting that it takes time to get to the PERFORMING quadrant. Assistants often write to me because they are worried that the trust element is not there in their relationship with their executive. When I ask them how long they have been working together, typically it’s under 18 months. The minimum amount of time it takes to properly build the partnership is 18 months in my opinion, so if you aren’t there yet, don’t fret. You are simply just still going through the process.
When you get a new manager, you are always going to be reactive and subordinate, but as you become more involved, you gain in confidence, which makes you more assertive. You feel able to offer your own ideas and insights until eventually you get to the point where there is structured communication, and you enter into a collaborative partnership.
You should also be aware that you aren’t necessarily going to be at the PERFORMING quadrant with every aspect of your role even then. My current EA has been in the role for over two years but during that time we haven’t run any of our live events because of COVID-19, so although she is very definitely PERFORMING beautifully in most areas, we are still in STORMING with our live events piece because it’s a new part of the role.
But What Happens If You Have More Than One Manager?
For more than a century, Assistants would have expected to work with just one manager, but that is no longer the case. Assistants all over the world are being asked to look after more than one manager and many are looking after teams too. And most are unhappy about it. The media doesn’t help with this misrepresentation of how it works, perpetuating the myth that the Assistant/manager relationship is exclusive. In fact, our latest statistics paint a very different picture. Almost half of all Assistants are managing four managers or more, and it’s only one in five that have that 1:1 partnership relationship. It all depends on how your business is structured. More often than not, the model that I am seeing adopted is one where those in the C-suite get that 1:1 support from a level 4 Assistant, the next level of management get 1:3–4 from either a level 4 or a level 3 Assistant, and the lower levels have access to a pool of level 1–2 Assistants who purely do reactive, administrative tasks.
And of course, it’s cyclical. What tends to happen is that organizations decide that 1:1 support is vanity on the part of those supported, so they move to a model where the Assistants have multiple managers to support. Then after a few years, they realize that this is making their managers less effective and productivity is affected, so they move back to the 1:1 model. When an organization understands how to calculate each of their administrative professionals’ worth based on the hours they save their manager, it becomes a no-brainer. Does it for example make sense for a manager to be doing their own expenses? Strictly speaking, these types of tasks should be delegated to someone being paid a lesser rate per hour. It’s simple economics. Doing the maths will help your organization to understand what Assistant–manager ratio you need.
The problem with managing multiple managers is that if you get it wrong, you can end up jeopardizing not only your career but theirs too. Working for too many managers can cause burnout because you are overloaded with work. In addition, the more managers you have, the more conflicting messages you are likely to get, and some managers want to feel like they are the most important person you work with, so the politics around that can be a minefield. How do you prioritize what you need to do when everyone is shouting at once?
A word to the wise. If you find yourself in this situation, get them to talk to each other and decide what their priorities are. This situation is a little like warring parents. It isn’t your responsibility, but you will end up getting hurt and whether deliberately or not, it will suit them to have you stuck in the middle. Tell them you need them to work out the priorities and let you know, otherwise you will find yourself in the wrong and being blamed for things not getting done.
The best way to manage multiple managers is to provide visibility to all parties on what you are working on, and what your workload currently looks like.
It’s hard to communicate how much you have on your plate and manage expectations with multiple people, but we very quickly worked out a great system for doing this.
It’s called Timeboxing and essentially what it means is that everything my Assistant is working on goes into her calendar. Not just meetings, but everything. So she not only handles my calendar but also has her own. Into that, she puts all the things she is working on currently.
I hate to-do lists with a passion. They are like Medusa. You cut one head off and five more grow back. They are deeply depressing because you never feel you have achieved what you should have done. Timeboxing allows you to timeline the tasks and projects you are working on so you know you have completed what you needed to do today.
Using Timeboxing, Fran decides what her priorities are and adds them to the calendar, along with meetings and specific times for dealing with email (we’ll come onto that later).
We all have visibility of that calendar. And I can see where there are gaps if I need anything done urgently. If you have multiple managers, this is particularly helpful because your workload then becomes clear to everyone and you can better manage expectations.
If your manager is anything like me, everything is urgent. I am not a difficult person but I get stressed and enthusiastic in equal measure. I can keep throwing tasks and projects at my Assistant ad infinitum as I think of them and I trust that, as an adult, when it’s enough she will tell me.
My previous EA, Matt, who was with me for nine years, often raised an eyebrow and said to me, ‘Lucy, of all these urgent things, what is URGENT urgent?’
Timeboxing means that an Assistant is able to point the manager to the calendar and ask, ‘Where?’ Not in a disrespectful way, but in so doing you give them the opportunity to decide whether it’s really urgent or not.
And if it is, you might shift some things around. And if it’s not, it will probably go into the calendar in a couple of weeks’ time.
We’ll talk more about Timeboxing later in the book.
We’ve talked a lot about communication already, but to me one of the greatest tools when it comes to communication is your daily meeting, or morning prayers as we affectionately call them in our office. Why morning prayers? Well, I was brought up Roman Catholic and at school we met as a community for morning prayers. That meeting was as much about making sure we were all on the same page at the start of each day as it was about the praying, I suspect, and that is what this meeting is all about.
Simply put, it’s the most important meeting of my day. Why? Because once we have that meeting, Fran can get on with her job – which is to make me most effective.
But why only 10 minutes a day? That’s for two reasons.
Firstly, we have already established that I have the attention span of a gnat. I really don’t do detail unless I am dragged kicking and screaming. Or unless I have cleared a chunk of time to do it. The idea of spending an hour once a week talking about administrative detail is my idea of hell. That said, my 10 minutes every morning allows us to cover a multitude of things, and because the meeting is every day, we CAN cover things in just 10 minutes.
Every morning we cover:
- What’s in the calendar for today?
- Has anything changed since yesterday?
- Email communications – is there something she wants clarified or to bring to my attention?
- Staff issues – is there anything she thinks I need to know?
- Status updates on projects
- Upcoming travel
- Follow-up items
Of course, not all of these need to be covered every day. It depends on what happened the day before. But when a meeting is every day, you can cover a huge amount in 10 minutes.
The second reason for only having 10 minutes is that nobody else wants 10 minutes of my time. When you have a meeting that is an hour long, you know that inevitably somebody else will come during the week saying that they have something urgent to discuss with your manager. Be honest. How often do you sigh and take yourself off the calendar so they can have your hour? Stop it! You need your 1:1s. But by making them 10 minutes a day, you are less likely to have to give that time to someone else. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal meeting. Melba Duncan talks about how when she was EA to Pete Peterson, former Chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers, she knew he hated the idea of regular meetings with her.
She noticed that every day, he walked past her desk at about 10 a.m. and came back 15 minutes later. I suspect he went to smoke, but she is too dignified to say so. So instead of insisting on a meeting, she started making a list of things she needed clarification on, in order of priority. And when he walked past her desk she got up and walked with him. She says that one day a few months later, he walked past her desk and she didn’t stand up because she was preoccupied and he commented, ‘Aren’t we walking today, Melba?’ They had established their own rhythm. Similarly, Libby Moore, former EA to Oprah, said it was almost impossible to find time to do 1:1s. But she needed the information. Libby noticed that Oprah had her hair and makeup done on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings and again in the afternoon. Just like Melba, she collated a list of questions in priority order and then she sat next to Oprah as she fixed her hair and makeup, asking the questions she needed answered.
Whether they know it or not, this time for answering questions is essential for building understanding, rapport and collaboration with your manager.
I hosted a conference for a secret sorority of top-level Assistants in New York a few years ago. One of the sessions was with a panel of CEOs from major companies. The organizers told me I could ask them whatever I liked. So, of course, I took to social media to see what questions you would like me to ask.
The top one by a mile was, ‘How do I stop them from cancelling my 1:1 meeting?’
So, I asked them.
And they blinked a bit. And then they said, ‘But don’t they manage the calendar?’
And I had a lightbulb moment!
When my staff want to see me, they turn up, one after another, and we talk through what they need to discuss.
When Fran arrives, I don’t think, ‘What’s she doing here?’ She is as important a meeting as everyone else. In fact, I would say my meetings with her are some of the most important meetings of the week.
She needs to know the priorities so she can get on with her job. Which is to maximize my effectiveness!
Don’t take yourself off the calendar! Your manager needs that time with you – whether they know it or not – to help you to help them.
A final word on 1:1 meetings. If you think back to what I said about communication being 55 percent body language, 38 percent tone, pace and pitch of voice, and only 7 percent words, you will begin to understand the importance of communicating face-to-face. If you are only communicating via email or message, it can take on a tone. Ideally, you want to meet either in person or via Teams or Zoom. And if that isn’t possible, the next best option is to talk on the phone so they can hear your tone. Email and messaging are a last resort and should never replace your 1:1 meetings.
Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups, Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), pp 384–399.
This extract from The Modern-Day Assistant by Lucy Brazier © 2023 is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.