Despite relying on assistants to handle vital responsibilities, many leaders fail to provide training opportunities says Sandy Geroux
What would happen if a leader needed to make unique or complicated travel arrangements or arrange a meeting with a well-known VIP but neither the leader nor their assistant had the knowledge or connections to do it? What if they were late making hotel reservations for a conference, and the conference hotel was sold out, causing them to end up at a different, less convenient hotel?
While the result may not kill them or their business, it does represent lost opportunity, wasted time and inconvenience. Who needs to deal with that in today’s busy world?
The story often ends quite differently when leaders have a highly competent and experienced administrative support person or team who know how to get things done, even when they have never done anything like it.
Despite relying on these professionals to handle numerous vital responsibilities, many leaders fail to recognize the full value of providing training and/or networking opportunities for them.
Here are five benefits every leader should consider when deciding whether to allocate budget dollars and time for administrative training:
1 External conferences provide valuable knowledge and connections that don’t exist internally.
There is simply too much diverse knowledge for any one organization to possess, not to mention the value of connecting with others in different industries and locations. For example, years of experience taught one Executive Assistant that “sold out” does not always mean no hotel rooms are available. Placing a call to the Assistant to the President of a sold-out 5-star hotel (a recent conference connection) allowed her to book an upgraded ocean-view room for her boss at a reduced price.
2 The knowledge is useful to leaders, as well as assistants.
Smart leaders realize that one must be prepared for any eventuality. At a seminar I presented on the power of creating a skills portfolio. One assistant informed me that her executive had asked her to attend the session in order to learn how to create this tool for herself, as well as for him.
3 Time spent away from their normal duties allows assistants to “sharpen the saw”.
As Stephen Covey points out, highly effective people take the opportunity to get out of the office once in a while. Never underestimate the impact of a few breaks from our everyday routine to broaden our experiences, gain new knowledge and skills, do some networking and have some fun.
4 Special events provide a forum to share knowledge.
Everyone is too busy performing their daily duties to brainstorm improvements to internal policies, procedures and processes, but doing so could provide valuable productivity, workflow and cost-savings benefits. For example, the first time the administrative staff of a large organization with multiple locations conducted a joint networking event, they discovered that each location was ordering office supplies from a different vendor. They initiated a competitive bidding process, awarded the contract to one vendor, and reduced expenses by $500,000 in the first year, which quickly grew to more than $1 million.
5 You may locate needed resources… or sell your products and services.
When a well-known author needed a PR firm, his assistant reached out to a former celebrity assistant who now runs her own successful PR firm in New York. The two had recently met at an EA conference, proving that we can create magic by providing vehicles for luck to meet opportunity.
Brief case study
One additional overlooked benefit of encouraging knowledge- and resource-sharing in this manner is the ability to build strong relationships that allow our support staff to expand their effectiveness, add to their peace of mind and even expand the physical staff when periodically necessary – all without costing the organization a cent.
When a well-known international entrepreneur and NY Times best-selling author was holding an event for VIPs at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, he turned to his soon-to- be Personal Assistant, Julie Kavanaugh, and asked her to make it happen – with only two days’ notice! Within a week of being hired, he asked Julie to arrange another event for over 200 people… taking place the following week.
Julie accomplished both events in grand style, arranging for a harbor cruise for close VIPs, friends and family, car services and a cocktail reception (that was donated at no charge) at Ronald McDonald House. Prior to this role, she was even able to arrange a backstage meet- and-greet with Garth Brooks for her VIP-level attendees. Both the donated cocktail reception and the meet-and-greet were made possible only through connections she had previously made at conferences for administrative professionals. She was also able to delegate various duties to several high-level EAs in her local area who volunteered to help her on site on the night of the second event (during their free time!), which she would have been unable to handle alone.
“Without my connections and their generosity in offering their expertise and their time,” Julie says, “there’s no way I would have been able to pull off either one of those events.”
Her latest accomplishment occurred when she was recently asked to contact a prominent world figure who was difficult to reach… and of course, Julie came through. How did she do it? You guessed it: by tapping into the connections of connections she had made at an event for executive assistants.
Over the years, networking at training events that were focused on assistants from all levels, from many companies and with a wide range of experiences, has helped Julie grow her knowledge and skills much more quickly than if she’d tried to gain that level of knowledge on her own. And when asked, at the drop of a dime, to pull together very important events, especially those dealing with charities, networking is key… it’s just how things get done.
Julie also adds, “You never know when you need someone’s help or who they know. And you can’t wait until you need someone before you start building relationships. You must start building relationships early on.”
Confidence and Connections
Here’s another revelation that shouldn’t surprise any leader. Just as leaders are unwilling to put their personal reputation at risk for someone who asks for a referral or favor (but of whom they are unsure), it’s the same in the world of high-level assistants. EAs must portray confidence when asking for information and favors on a leader’s behalf; otherwise, no one will put their connections (or their leader’s connections) at risk. They must be confident that the asker will handle the interaction properly, so it doesn’t come back to haunt them or their leaders later. Discovering how others aptly handle delicate situations is a tough skill to learn on your own, but it is much easier and quicker when you establish relationships with experienced role models who can pave the way and offer advice.
Jack Welch is quoted as saying, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” He points out that highly successful leaders surround themselves with other highly successful people. This includes everyone around them, including their administrative staff. In fact, if you think of how much less productive leaders would be if they didn’t keep their skills and knowledge up to date, just imagine how difficult it would be for them to function properly if their personal representatives weren’t allowed to do the same.
The bottom line is that, although it is difficult to do without assistants for a few days or a week while they attend training events, leaders must not allow their reliance on them to keep competent and trusted assistants from receiving the many benefits offered by additional training and networking opportunities.
If a leader has faith that they have the right assistant in the right job – and that person has the potential to contribute at an even higher level – they owe it to themselves and their assistant to offer them opportunities to make the most of their intelligence, their knowledge and their commitment to everyone’s success.
And if a leader doesn’t have the right person for the job… well, that’s a whole different story – and a topic for another article.