Actively seek feedback to improve performance & productivity says Edwina Graham

When was the last time you asked your executive, “how am I doing? or “what else would you like me to be doing?”. They’re not the sort of questions that get thrown around the office that often. We all know that when it comes to performance, sometimes it’s easier to keep quiet and hope for the best, rather than actively seek feedback and be forced to alter the way we do things. Heaven forbid you open that can of worms and risk having your flaws and faults exposed and hung out for criticism and critique! Many of us leave these difficult conversations and questions for the annual performance review period, where our areas for improvement are tabled and recorded, until yet another year clocks around. But seeking feedback on how you’re delivering in your role is not just a source of improving your own skills and delivery, it’s also an important activity in improving your working relationship and productivity with your manager.

We all know that having a solid and cohesive relationship with your manager is the key to happiness and desirability for any role, EA or not. Contentment and stability drive motivation and enthusiasm; if you’ve got that ideal relationship with your manager, as they back you and help you to accomplish your goals, then you really have reached the top of your game.

So, whether or not it’s a conversation that you want to have, it needs to happen.

The Approach

Nobody likes to receive criticism, but sometimes it’s necessary to make room for improvements. And, although you may not like to rock the boat, the question of what you can be doing better, or doing more of, is best initiated by you.

You essentially want to take control of all performance conversations and walk into them prepared and ready for any potential criticism or feedback on what you can do better. However, this is not to say that you must expect criticism; you may be a stellar assistant that is blowing your boss away with what you do and how efficiently you do it. But even if this is you, discussions around performance should never be swept under the carpet. Don’t become complacent and think that you can do no wrong – none of us are perfect. And just because most of us are genetic mutants of organisation and efficiency, that’s not to say that we can’t always strive to be better.

The question, “what can I do better?” doesn’t just apply to you. It’s also a question that our managers should be asking of us around their performance. And if they’re not, then it’s something we need to train them on, so that next time they’re ready to ask that question.  And, although these discussions are not a time to get petty or get too specific, there is always room for constructive feedback – and I must emphasize constructive. It’s not the time to tell them that the you can’t stand the way they constantly click their pen in meetings, or that you wish their wife would ease up on the calls to you. But letting them know that you would benefit in having some more face time with them each day, or that you would appreciate some further transparency on upcoming company announcements for example, is not out of the question. For your relationship to work, both parties need to adjust their behaviours and approach.

I’ve always been a strong believer that it is the assistant that should be adaptable in the relationship, and that the manager shouldn’t have to change for the relationship to work. For example, if they like every single email and attachment to be printed out, along with being given hard copies of every presentation and spread sheet they work on, but you feel you like you have better things to do each day than stand at the printer, then unfortunately that’s just something you’re just going to have to do.

However, when it comes to things like communication, trust and boundaries, there is always room for movement. In fact, these things are essential for the relationship to work. If they’re lacking from your manager, then you are well within your rights to speak up and let them know.

The Strategy

Every year our managers will sit down with us and help us set our Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) – for example managing the team entertainment budget, the team’s holidays, and involving yourself in project work – and lock in what we are going to deliver and how we are going to perform. Your manager will do the same with their manager. Similarly, it’s a good idea to set your relationship a set of KPIs and measure how you’re both tracking.

I suggest as part of your annual performance discussion, take some time to set these KPIs together, both suggesting and agreeing on areas that you will both agree to uphold in order to sustain a long and fruitful relationship. As a starting point, I’ve made some suggestions below:

1. Trust

The most important pillar of any working relationship, trust is always a two-way street and is something that should always be given, not earned. There are so many areas of trust required from a manager with their EA, that it’s something that really should be handed over in full, from the get-go. We all know that relationships suffer when trust is lacking and when there are hesitations from the manager around the tasks that have been delegated, then ultimately those tasks cannot be carried out properly or as efficiently by the EA.

There are also many different types of trust that exist in a working relationship, for example the manager must trust that particular jobs and tasks will get done by the assistant; they must trust that the assistant will do what they say they will do; and they should trust that the assistant will protect them. On the flip side of the coin however, the assistant doesn’t have as many requirements of trust, only one – and that is that they trust that their boss will return the favour, protect them and have their back in times of need (and I’m talking here about during times of redundancy for example, company restructures, or pay reviews).

The topic of trust is something that needs to be talked about openly between an EA and their manager, as if there is no trust then everything will break down.

2. Loyalty

Again, a two-way street, and where an EA gives their loyalty to their manager, the manager in turn gives their loyalty back. Assistants will do their utmost to simplify and ease their manager’s lives, ensure they are protected and guarded from anything untoward and basically deliver on everything that’s asked of them. In turn, managers should protect their assistant in every way, stand up for them in their time of need and be their biggest advocate. Essentially, they should have your back. But the topic of loyalty is often a topic that gets swept under the carpet and rarely spoken about. If it’s not addressed or brought to the forefront of discussions and one party does something untoward to the other, things can, and will, turn sour very quickly. This will inevitably see the relationship come to a very fast end.

3. Priorities

Are you your executive’s priority? And are they always yours? Do your texts or calls sometimes get ignored when you’re urgently trying to get hold of them? Your messages should always be responded to, and where possible first – especially when you’re desperately hunting them down. And if you have issues in this area, it’s something that you most definitely need to add to the KPIs to ensure that both parties understand how important being a priority is to the other.

You want to ensure that you’re getting the face time that you need with your manager and that you’re meeting frequently to review the diary and do the necessary planning. As clever as EAs can be, we are not mind-readers and sometimes do need guidance!

4. Boundaries

Boundaries must be established from the get-go, but are also something that will develop and be discovered as time progresses. It’s essential to know what responsibilities are yours and what are theirs. As an EA, there is nothing worse than being micro-managed on tasks that have been delegated to you. Lines must be clear on tasks/responsibilities and boundaries should not be crossed.  When this happens it only puts elements of doubt in the assistant’s mind as to whether they are sincerely trusted, or worse still, capable of doing the task at all.  A great example of this is when an assistant is asked to do something, but then their executive goes and does it anyway. Or perhaps you’re constantly followed up on things and asked if you’ve completed them, when you have already done them. If you find yourself gritting your teeth in these situations, it’s time to address the boundaries.

5. Delegation

It is the manager’s responsibility to ensure the tasks delegated to their EA don’t stray too far from their core role and what is collectively trying to be achieved. EAs can get bogged down on work or tasks that sit outside of the realm of their role. Every project they are looped in to, every job they get delegated, ends up being just another task that takes away from their main priority – the manager! And when assistants are spread too thin, the quality of their work suffers as a result. It’s the manager’s job to be conscious of their workload and ensure they’re not overloaded with tasks that should, or could, be done by others. Essentially acting as 2IC (second in charge) to the manager, if the EA is off working on projects that have little or nothing to do with their manager’s priorities, then the communication between the two parties is clearly faltering.

6. Value

Value is an interesting area of the performance conversation and an area that should not be omitted. It’s important to remember that EAs are experts in management. No longer are we just the ‘secretary’, where our skill sets don’t stretch further than typing and making coffee. We’re proud that the EA role has developed well beyond that, but sadly some managers still need that gentle reminder on the value we add. From seamless diary management, to arranging complicated travel arrangements and agendas, to running meetings, managing approvals and processes, leading administrative teams and event management, these days we seriously do it all. Further to that, we all have plenty to contribute to meetings or decisions; we’re an equal on the leadership team, and should be treated as such. So, if you are not feeling your worth, then it’s something that needs to be discussed and then further strategized on how you can collectively change the perception of what you do and the respect you receive. Assistants that feel their worth, know their worth.

The Frequency

How often should you be having these check-ins with your executive? This needs to be determined by you, your boss, and the pace of the business you work in. There is nothing worse than setting time aside in the diary, only to see it moved, week after week, and not only by you, but by your manager too. This can leave you wondering whether the health of your working relationship is as important to them as it is to you – but if you’re the one who is moving that meeting around in the diary like a piece on a chessboard, then it’s time to (wo)-man up and just have that conversation!

Don’t cower away for fear of what they will tell you; remember that as painful as the conversation may be initially, it will only see things improve in the long-run. So, agree with your boss on the frequency of these check-ins and ensure that they happen (and not just once a year at your annual performance review time). Make the commitment to each other and watch the relationship evolve and flourish.

We all know that communication is crucial in improving and sustaining any relationship, and your relationship with your manager is no different. Whether you’re completely happy and in a perfect working relationship, or you’re at the other end of the spectrum and are clenching your teeth every time your manager opens their mouth, opening the communication lines and discussing and tracking your performance can take your relationship to the next level and improve productivity and performance all round.

I’ve coached many EAs whose initial reaction is to take offense when criticism comes their way, or worse still they jump on the phone to their recruiter the minute things start to go south of the border. And yes, sometimes the grass can be greener on the other side but don’t start jumping that fence before first trying to improve the existing relationship.

If you are seeking ultimate happiness in your working life and are striving to be at the top of your game, trust me when I say, that it will come from investing the time on perfecting the working relationship you’re in with your manager and improving your overall performance together.

Director and blogger at Who’s the Real Boss, Edwina Graham boasts more than 15 years’ experience in administration and support roles in her career supporting C-suite level Executives and industry leaders. Currently working as a senior Executive Assistant ... (Read More)

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