Centralizing Executive Assistant services has created efficiencies whilst developing outstanding Assistants, explains Mary Rose Bouwman
Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences (Ontario Shores) is located in Whitby, Ontario, Canada, and is a public teaching hospital providing a range of specialized assessment and treatment services to those living with complex and serious mental illness. The Executive Assistants (EAs) support the hospital’s C-suite executives, whose portfolios are focused on medicine, clinical services, professional practice, clinical informatics, communications, research, academics, finance, information technologies and data analytics. The Ontario Shores’ EA team consists of one Manager, Corporate Executive Assistant and six EAs. The EA team supports the hospital’s board of directors, eight executive staff and three senior directors.
The reporting relationship for the Executive Assistant Team at Ontario Shores changed significantly in 2009. Prior to this, each Assistant reported directly to the executive to whom they provided support. The reporting relationship shifted so that the EAs reported to the president and CEO’s Executive Assistant. This EA’s title was changed to Manager, Corporate Executive Assistant. In the beginning, this transition from reporting to a C-suite executive to reporting to a peer was difficult. The prestige of the role seemed diminished; however, over time and with dedicated work to establish a strong EA team, the value of coordinated executive administrative support to the C-suite was successfully executed.
Building the Team Ethos
The Manager, Corporate Executive Assistant, is responsible for ensuring equitable workloads across the team, performance management and recruitment for the Executive Assistant team. In addition, the manager provides Executive Assistant support to the board of directors and the president and CEO of the hospital. The manager checks in regularly with the executives to ensure their satisfaction with the administrative support being provided. If there are any concerns or feedback from the executive, the manager is expected to find solutions. The executives appreciate having the support of the EA manager and the EA team appreciates the manager’s support for their perspective on a situation.
In the spring of each year, during an off-site, one-and-a-half-day retreat, the EA team develops team goals. When the new reporting lines were first introduced, these goals were focused on building the team relationship. One goal at that time was scheduling dedicated time to celebrate each of the team members’ birthdays. Initially, there were a lot of raised eyebrows, as it was not a goal focused on business practices so seemed a bit trivial. However, this goal and others like it accomplished their objective: to solidify the team dynamics and promote a collaborative and caring team culture.
The importance of a solid team with shared values cannot be stressed enough. The manager has had to step in and mitigate when a team member has undermined the team dynamics. It is equally important that a new team member is a good fit for the team as well as the executive and portfolio they will support. The team’s goals have progressed, and while they still include team-building goals, they now also focus on business processes to ensure seamless administrative services for the executives and to support corporate initiatives.
Establishing Team Goals
The EA team holds regular monthly meetings to review the status of team goals and for the manager to keep the team informed of corporate initiatives and priorities. As mentioned, the team’s goals are identified at an annual off-site retreat. This exercise is facilitated by a member of the hospital’s Centre of Education and Organizational Development team. In advance of the retreat, the manager meets individually with the executives to gather ideas for improvement or information about initiatives that can be supported by the team. Using the executives’ feedback and the hospital’s strategic plan as a guide, the Executive Assistants create a multi-year workplan to guide their goals to strategically align with the hospital’s. Once the workplan is created it is used to guide and refine each subsequent year’s goals. At the retreat, the Executive Assistants brainstorm ideas until they come to a consensus on three to five team goals for the upcoming fiscal year. Part of this process is also determining how to rate the success of these goals for performance appraisal purposes.
Each goal has one or two EAs assigned as the lead. The leads are responsible for developing the high-level milestones to achieve the goal and ensure timelines are met. Typically, one of the goals will be focused on strengthening team relationships and professional development. Others will be focused on streamlining office processes and supporting corporate initiatives.
In 2018, the team’s goal of hosting a regional Administrative Professional Conference was successfully realized. The conference was a multi-year team goal that was a tremendous success. It is important to note that these team goals are in addition to the Assistants’ day-to-day responsibilities and activities. Projects like the conference provide the team with valuable skills such as project management, communication strategies, networking and event planning that are easily transferable to future endeavors and roles.
Ensuring Seamless Cross-Coverage
It was identified early on that the goal of having the EAs report to their own manager was to enable the team to provide seamless cross-coverage to the hospital’s C-suite executives. In support of this objective, an early team goal was to establish shared folders to store executive-specific information such as video and teleconference account information, credit card information, timecards, travel preferences, workflow preferences and standard operating procedures for routine activities within each portfolio. Appropriate access to portfolio folders, payroll and other automated financial transaction items needed to be put in place as well.
Another process that had to be considered for cross-coverage was ensuring all EAs had access to the C-suite executives’ calendars. Each EA has an identified partner that provides primary back-up for them. Initially, this back-up was based on office proximity to each other and the executive. Now, although location is important, consideration is also given to the business focus of each portfolio and aligning coverage accordingly. Each Executive Assistant initially reaches out to their partner EA to arrange coverage for planned vacation, and the partner is the first person the manager would ask to cover any unplanned absences. The manager ensures the executive knows which EA is their point of contact when their assigned EA is unavailable, and the senior management team is appreciative of this arrangement. The executives also feel comfortable coming to any EA team member for assistance, as all are willing to step up to assist. The executives’ experience with cross-coverage is reflected in a comment by Dr. Phil Klassen, VP, Medical Affairs: “The senior management team have confidence in the group’s individual and collective professionalism.”
Providing Exemplary Service
The EA team have developed collaborative relationships that recognize each other’s strengths. When the manager is recruiting for a new team member, they are not only looking for excellent administrative skills but evidence that the individual is a good fit for the team. The executives can sense when an Assistant does not genuinely want to assist them and will be less likely to go to that individual, which defeats the goal of cross-coverage support. Executive Assistants that are not ready, willing and able to work as part of a team will not thrive in this model.
The Executive Assistant team at Ontario Shores continues to grow and support each other to provide exemplary, seamless administrative services to the hospital’s C-suite executives. This fiscal year, the team developed a goal to assist the clinical program Administrative Assistants to implement cross-coverage between their programs. The lessons learned from the EA team’s cross-coverage journey will be of enormous help in achieving this goal. The shift in reporting relationship at Ontario Shores has allowed the EAs to take on new challenges through team goals that have broadened their knowledge of the organization while enhancing and developing their business acumen. It has also benefited the hospital’s senior executives by ensuring they receive seamless administrative support without being responsible for the management of this resource.
Centralizing the Executive Assistant services under one manager has afforded Ontario Shores opportunities to identify inefficiencies and implement administrative best practices while developing outstanding Assistants that have evolved into a supportive and collaborative team.