In this extract from The Founder & The Force Multiplier: How Entrepreneurs and Executive Assistants Achieve More Together, Hallie Warner discusses how to be invaluable and command entrance to the inner circle
Adam Hergenrother: Introduction
The final piece of the strategic partnership puzzle is for your Executive Assistant to earn the right to join the inner circle and for you to invite them into your world. The Executive Assistant role, much like the role of a leader, can be an isolating and siloed position. I find it interesting that on most organizational charts, the Executive Assistant and/or Chief of Staff are always hanging out on the side by themselves. They don’t necessarily have any direct reports, nor are they a part of any one business function (that is, except for the function of handling the executive’s business).
Your Assistant works with you, not for you. Hallie and my Executive Assistant read all my emails, attend the majority of my classes and training sessions, listen in on calls, and sit in on meetings. They are both more effective when they know what I know, how I think, how I solve problems, and what I have decided and promised (so they can follow up and deliver). Do not keep your Assistant on the periphery, assigning tasks that have no context or meaning. They will be far more invested in your success when they are a part of the entire process and eventually part of the big decisions or even making decisions on your behalf.
When you bring your Assistant into your inner circle, everyone wins.
Throughout the rest of this chapter, Hallie will provide Executive Assistants with recommendations on how they can join the inner circle.
Hallie Narrates: Be Invaluable and Command Entrance to the Inner Circle
Don’t deny it. I know you want to be a part of the inner circle. It’s an exclusive club composed of respect, trust, and loyalty, and it gives you unlimited access to confidential information and turns you into someone your executive looks to for advice, knowledge, and expertise on various topics. It’s a club with a strict vetting process, and it’s up to you to become the Executive Assistant you need to become to command a spot in the inner circle. You must earn the right.
Know what your executive knows
The most basic yet one of the most impactful ways to gain entrance into the inner circle is to know what your executive knows. Simple, right? But not always easy. This goes far beyond knowing how your executive takes their coffee (note: Adam takes his strong and black but prefers green tea in the afternoon). This habit requires some serious dedication (usually reading or listening to books and podcasts in your “off hours”). But I think it is the most critical habit to develop as an Executive Assistant, and it’s something you can implement right away, no matter how new you are to the EA role.
This habit has helped me become an invaluable resource to Adam. If he mentions a book he’s reading, I read it. If he is following a blog or podcast, so do I. I watch the movies, read the books, review the annual reports of charities he supports, and listen to the podcasts he does. Why? Because the more I can align myself with his interests and, more importantly, his knowledge, the more I am able to not just listen but also converse with him and participate in conversations that he’s having with other leadership members or key business partners. He never asked me to do this, but my natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge led me to create this habit from the beginning, and it has truly been invaluable. When he is in a meeting and says, “Who was that quote by?” or “What year did that company go public?”, I know. He doesn’t have to repeat himself or fill me in on a critical article he read or a book that he would like to discuss at a company meeting – I’m already familiar with it.
Does your executive read The Wall Street Journal or Inc. magazine? Get a subscription. Are they watching Suits or Yellowstone? Watch it. Are they listening to an Adyashanti audio series or The Tim Ferriss Show?Listen too. If nothing else, instead of being on the periphery, this will bring you closer to the inner circle. Your executive will want to be able to discuss the latest episode of Yellowstone with you just as much as the most recent article on Jeff Bezos. Be ready and able to participate in and add value to the conversation. This is such a simple habit to implement, yet it will set you apart and help you grow that much faster.
Study your executive
As a Force Multiplier, the more I can align my knowledge and thinking with Adam’s, the more valuable I become to him and the company. Executive Assistants are responsible for furthering the reach of their executives. Often that means completing tasks and projects that, while important, are not the best use of their executive’s time. More often, it means making decisions and speaking on behalf of their executive. The most effective way to do that is by having the same information as the executive and thoroughly understanding the way they think. Yes, some of this will come with time. But start right away! Gain as much knowledge as possible. Study their emails and responses to questions. Listen in on phone calls (get permission first!). Attend as many meetings as possible. Be able to speak your executive’s language. Beyond that, you’ll also be learning how they think, make decisions, and lead. This will allow you not only to be a part of the conversation but, eventually, to be able to speak and lead on their behalf with accuracy and authority.
Learn the business
It’s one thing to do your job and another thing altogether to do your job really, really well within the context of your company and industry. Executive Assistant positions are similar in their daily functions but can be drastically different based on the executive or the industry in which you are operating. So as much as you can learn about the business, do that! Be ready to lead and ready to follow. Hone your business acumen. Ask questions and be engaged.
One way to go about learning the business is by studying each major division and understanding how they operate. How does the company make money? What is the life cycle of a customer? What are your target markets? Does the company plan to expand their operations any time soon? If so, how and where? What are the current operational challenges? How does the Human Resources department manage career development and create an engaging culture?
If possible, I would recommend shadowing each department and even going through the onboarding process for a new sales executive, operations manager, customer service team member, finance director, etc. You could get a great glimpse into how each division operates by getting the initial run-through. You’ll also learn who your go-to colleagues will be in the future and what challenges each division is facing.
Of course, if you can attend the various department meetings and all-leadership meetings, do that too. Learn the industry, learn the business, and, more importantly, learn how your role plays into the overall success of the division or company. Couple that with a clear understanding of your executive’s thought process and communication style, and you will be unstoppable.
Plan and prepare
Another way to command entrance into the inner circle is to plan, prepare, and be resourceful. Advance planning is a term I picked up from my husband. It’s often used by law enforcement officers or the military to refer to pre-mission preparations, such as the President visiting a foreign country or a tactical team infiltrating a hostile environment. While the stakes aren’t usually as high for you and your executive, no matter how big or small the project, I want you to think of yourself as a one-person advance-planning team. So much planning and preparation go into play to ensure your executive has a flawless presentation or even just a flawless day at the office. From meeting prep to travel arrangements, board meetings, and event planning, part of leading up means planning extensively, preparing for any eventuality, and then being resourceful when it all goes wrong.
Before any meeting, phone call, interview, event, speech, etc., you should research and prepare (actually, over-prepare) information and notes to best equip your executive. Most of this information will include detailed bios, company information, or recent news pieces or awards. You want your executive to go into the meeting or interview fully understanding whom they are meeting and how that person fits into the overall objectives of the organization. Often, this information is more for you to study than for the executive. They will likely want a quick brief before a meeting or event, but if you don’t do your research, you won’t have the answers. To that point, make sure you are clear on what the meeting or call is about and what point your executive will be presenting. You may need to pull additional reports from the sales team or data from the finance department.
In addition to hard data and information, much of your executive’s day is spent dealing with people’s problems or last-minute requests. In these instances, you’ll want to understand the issue at hand as much as possible. This could mean talking to the members involved first and then relaying as much information as possible to your executive – including the person’s attitude, tone, and agenda – before the meeting. Bonus points for coming up with a proposed solution to how your executive could deal with an upset employee or a disgruntled client.
Finally, be resourceful. Know whom to go to with questions when you get stuck. Understand how you can get to the desired outcome differently. No matter how much planning takes place, something is going to go wrong. Hopefully, you have a Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D in place and have worked through a few other contingency plans in your mind. But when you’re in the moment, sometimes no matter how good the plan, you’ve got to scrap it and just act. Fight or flight? You’ve got to fight through to make it happen. Being resourceful is simply another way to say, “Get it done!”
Ultimately, one of the best ways to join the inner circle is to master the art of leading (i.e., managing) up. The topic of leadership warrants its own section. Read on as Adam explains how to increase your leadership skills and the art of leading up.
Adam Hergenrother: Leading Without a Title
For Executive Assistants, understanding how to discuss problems with your executive, working on being a well-rounded asset, and understanding your executive’s goals are all critical to being a successful strategic partner and gaining entrance to the inner circle. By making yourself invaluable, you will command a seat at the table. And the fastest way to become an invaluable asset is to learn how to lead your executive.
Leading and assisting
Executive Assistants are in an interesting situation where they don’t have the traditional title of a leader, yet they’re required to act in a leadership capacity much of the time. The challenges of this situation are compounded by the fact that many people still misunderstand the EA position and don’t want to deal with the “Assistant.” While Hallie and I both think that perception is changing, the change starts with the EAs. They must learn to navigate these murky waters and develop influence. Influential, not positional, leadership is what truly separates great leaders from average leaders.
In his book High-Performance Habits, Brendon Burchard notes the three things one must do to develop influence:
1. Teach people how to think about themselves, others, and the world.
2. Role-model the values you wish to see others embody.
3. Challenge others to develop their character, connections, and contributions.
To develop influence, you must build the habits of a capable and confident leader and then role-model that behaviour. If you want others to look to you as a leader, then you must show up as one every day. To develop influence, you must teach other people how to think. Much of this comes through coaching, training, and, again, role-modelling the behavior. Provide a safe yet challenging place for people to come to help them work through their thinking, and then hold them accountable for taking action. Push your team members. Issue them challenges and see who rises to the occasion. Regardless of your title, when you are challenging others to think differently and to become the best versions of themselves by trying new things and getting out of their comfort zone, you can’t help but be seen as a leader.
So, what does this look like in real life? Well, an EA likely knows the goals of various team members. They may even know the goals and dreams of external stakeholders. How can they cultivate those dreams? Maybe they check in with a VP each week to see how their Spartan Sprint training is going. Maybe they engage in a discussion with the director of HR to encourage him to consider alternative recruiting options. Maybe they challenge an EA in another company to participate in Toastmasters with them. Maybe they play devil’s advocate with the sales manager so she better understands the client’s perspective.
Developing influence is a practice and an art. EAs must commit to the process of developing their leadership and practice it at every opportunity. Leading without a title isn’t without its challenges, but the rewards are immense. Make it easier by working on your executive presence.