It takes experience and time to develop the skills to anticipate your executive’s needs explains Adam Strong

Have you ever experienced times when you and your executive don’t see eye to eye? Have you ever felt insecure and uncomfortable? Have you ever felt overlooked and misunderstood? Or have you ever felt you’re taken for granted and no matter what you do it’s just not good enough?

I completely understand! I run a small company myself and some executives just don’t get it. But let’s face it, we are all human beings and we’re not going to get it right all the time. I know from my own experience in running a company and working with other senior decision-makers that sometimes we can be blind to those around us and live in our own fantasy world. However, although senior executives are often under huge pressure with the responsibility of keeping shareholders and clients happy, they need to keep the people who work for them happy too.

Here are six ways that will help you become a more efficient and proactive assistant – and help your executive manage these competing pressures:

1. Create good chemistry

There is nothing worse than having an executive that you clearly don’t get on with, which is why having the right chemistry is vital. Let’s take the American legal drama, Suits, where Executive Assistant, Donna Paulsen, works for Harvey Specter at a fictional New York law firm.

Donna is Harvey’s right-hand woman. They both trust each other implicitly. She is extremely confident and has a sharp wit. Harvey relies on her, viewing her as essential to his role and irreplaceable. In turn, Donna is very loyal and takes great pride in anticipating Harvey’s needs and business challenges. She takes great pride in being able to provide Harvey with what he needs without him having to ask. She views her job role as looking after and protecting him.

If you get a chance to watch Suits, ask yourself about Donna and Harvey’s positive chemistry. In my opinion, they are a true team and have great synergy (well most of the time). What kind of positive chemistry do you want to create with your executive? Think about the behaviours Donna exhibits in Suits and whether you can use any of these behaviours to help create the right chemistry with your executive!

2. Understand each other’s expectations

This is absolutely vital, especially when starting a new role. You have to work with the same person for 8-9 hours a day, five days a week. Often the reason why relationships break down is because people make assumptions and/or they haven’t made the effort to sit down and have that all-important conversation about what they both expect from each other.

A good executive will take an interest in your development and give you the necessary tools to help you advance your career, enabling you to become more efficient. A good assistant understands the needs of the executive and aims to help them grow the business. You have to learn to trust and respect each other and value each other’s opinions.

Another vital consideration is to make sure you’re really happy with your role, not just with your executive, but also with the whole company culture as well. I’ve had conversations with executive assistants who are just doing the job to pay the bills. While money’s clearly important, your role is about much more. Your job must always match your values. Never compromise those values – they are personal to you and will determine whether you’re going to be happy or not in your role.

3. Use your initiative and be proactive

There is nothing worse than having an executive assistant who can’t think on their feet and who has to be constantly told what to do or ‘babysat’. I always tell my teams to think about the worst that could possibly happen because then you can be prepared for all eventualities. This way of thinking helps you to stay in control and get ahead of the game. It’s also important to realise that it’s OK to make a mistake and it’s equally liberating to own up when something does go wrong. As I say to my team: “Honesty is the best policy”. Don’t feel embarrassed to ask for help. Sometimes we can be fearful and develop negative thoughts about rejection or feeling stupid. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

4. Thrive not survive

Continuous personal development is critical; you have to sharpen your axe in order to improve.  I tell my staff “if you’re not learning you’re not achieving your true potential”. We all have dreams that we aspire to, whether that means advancing your career into senior management, becoming a mentor or coach to other assistants, or even starting your own business. Executive assistants are more than just someone that helps out, they are an integral part of any successful organisation. Remember you should never allow yourself to be overlooked or held back from what you aspire to be. Don’t let yourself be treated as a neglected second spouse!

Create your own development plan together with your executive. This needs to be designed to help improve your skillsets and improve on any weaknesses. Ask your executive and colleagues what your strengths and weaknesses are so that you can take these into account when putting together your development plan and deciding on any relevant training courses.

It is also vital that you connect with other executive/personal assistants in different industries through networking and attending social events to compare and contrast different experiences. I highly value the assistants I’ve had in the past, which is why I created a social enterprise, ‘The Association of Extraordinary PAs’. The purpose is to help build synergy between personal and executive assistants and their executives, to develop human connection and to nurture top talent amongst the PA/EA community, especially when it’s increasingly hard to recruit top talented assistants as so many stay loyal to their executives for many years.

5. Think like your executive

Put yourself in the shoes of your executive! Don’t be afraid to speak up if you have ideas that would benefit the business or could make your executive’s life easier. Take some weight off his or her shoulders show interest and make suggestions that could increase business efficiency. We all have limiting beliefs, but the best way to overcome them is to be confident and to use your power when you feel it’s right. Understanding your executive’s emotions and feelings at all times is critical. Show empathy and listen to his or her needs. Become fully conversant with your organisation and its business needs.

In the drama, Suits, one of Donna’s most important traits is that she is a great networker. Her extensive network covers the New York City area and there is not much that she doesn’t know. As a result, Donna has great people skills, allowing her to create and maintain relationships and develop new opportunities. If you’re new to networking, and maybe nervous about it, don’t be! We all have to try new things. Initially, this can often be scary. However, focus on what’s the worst and best thing that could possibly happen. Research and find organisations that can fulfil your career needs.

6. Seek a mentor or coach

We must have role models, mentors and coaches in our lives. It could be someone whom we idolise, it could be a work colleague, a former executive or even someone who’s decided to take you under his or her wing. The last organisation where I worked had someone we all called ‘Mother Theresa’. She was the one who looked out for all of us and was a great person to go to if you ever needed advice. Many different types of coaches and mentors can help you accelerate your skills and increase your understanding of your job role. Just make sure you choose someone who can empathise with your needs and help deliver the results you want.

It takes experience and time to develop the necessary skills and mindset to anticipate your executive’s needs. Every executive has a different personality and different needs, so inevitably you will learn to adapt through your own experience of working together. Learning new skills is like running a marathon not a sprint. Use these strategies to fast-track your career and to ensure you achieve more recognition in your role. Think big to achieve more!

Adam Strong is an ultra high achiever, corporate productivity authority, serial entrepreneur, elite speaker and thought leader. Adam is also a former elite athlete who trained with Mo Farah for 3 years. He takes the same skillset that he learned as an ... (Read More)

One comment on “How to Anticipate Your Executive’s Needs

  1. Rita Efuah on

    I only want to thank you for this piece. For me, it’s a big relief chancing on this as I’m already having a hard time in my role as a PA. Not only is the industry new to me, but the role is too. I took on the job because I wanted to learn something new from what I already knew and also because I saw the real estate industry as an interesting one.

    I would say my one big problem is how to anticipate my boss. I believe once I’m able to figure that out, I will be a step ahead of him. It can be frustrating sometimes especially when the whole experience makes you feel like you don’t matter or you are a problem when you are supposed to be a solution.


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