Use these ideas as a starting point for a conversation with your executive, suggests Sue France

Over the years I have been contacted by executives who have said things like:

  • Could you tell me what makes a good Assistant?
  • My expectations of my Assistant are too low. Do you have any hints?
  • I am not managing my Assistant effectively. Can you help me?
  • I have not had an Assistant before and am not sure how to work with one. Can you give me some advice, please?

I always say that having communication, understanding, respect, trust and empathy is the only way to build a mutually beneficial and successful Executive–Assistant relationship, especially with the trend toward a more hybrid working world.

The best person to lessen the burden of the executive’s load is the Assistant. In not communicating, an executive can make an Assistant feel disrespected, forgotten, and out of the total picture. Help them to help you. Tell them what you need and want.

My advice to both executives and Assistants is to communicate constantly so that they each understand what the other expects and respect each other’s boundaries and rules.

Making the Relationship Work

The following points are taken from my research on advice given by one executive to another, taken from their own experiences, on making the Executive–Assistant relationship work.

  • The executive needs to be open with the Assistant. The relationship cannot work if the executive has secret appointments, secret projects and so on. The Assistant also needs to know where the executive is at all times, whom they are dealing with and what their relationship is with them so that, for example, the Assistant can make an informed decision as to whether or not to get the executive out of a meeting for a telephone call that the caller says is extremely important.
  • Executives must view the relationship as a partnership – working together as a ‘business couple’ involves respecting and understanding each other as well as having one voice in the company.
  • The Executive–Assistant relationship is like a good marriage: there must be mutual respect, trust and understanding, a sense of loyalty and a good sense of humour.
  • Communicate – tell the Assistant what you are doing, where you are going, which are the key clients or projects at the moment and so on.
  • Tell the Assistant your preferred writing style, whether you prefer to receive minutes verbatim or as simple action points, or something in between. Tell them if you prefer to receive reports as a one-page summary with bullet points and a pie chart or a four-page Word document, etc.
  • Understand the Assistant’s preferred work pattern and use that to your advantage (for example whether their most productive times of working are in the morning or the afternoon) to make sure that work is received in enough time to finish on time.
  • Spend time getting to know and understand your Assistant as a person and be aware of their non-work commitments so that you can give flexibility when required, which will be rewarded in the long term.
  • Let your Assistant know about your home calendar so that your personal appointments can be factored into your work calendar, thus allowing you to leave on time.
  • Remember that your Assistant will have to have worked with you for a long time to get a deep understanding of your priorities and pressures – so be prepared to really explain your motives, pressures and concerns so that they can help you get the best solutions.
  • Let your Assistant decide how best to do the things that they are skilled at – use your judgement as to how much instruction your Assistant needs. Too little could end up as a time-wasting exercise when they don’t produce what you want in the way you want it. Also, if you over-instruct, you could kill your Assistant’s initiative and never get to see their potential.
  • When trying to get out of tricky situations with clients, never lay the blame on your Assistant for something you know they did not do, as you will lose their respect, which could cause an effective working relationship to fail.
  • Solicit and be open to constructive feedback from your Assistant on how they think the relationship is working and any suggestions they have to help make the relationship even better.
  • Continually and regularly communicate, whether formally, informally, daily, twice daily, weekly, by phone, meetings, by text, Skype, Slack, Teams, etc. – stay connected with each other via the plethora of different media and stay updated with everything that is happening.
  • It may take a lot of courage on the Assistant’s part to approach the executive and say what they think or feel, so the least the executive can do is to encourage the Assistant to communicate.
  • The executive must actively listen, empathize and give serious consideration to what is being said – it’s about respecting each other.
  • Set aside half an hour each week to sit down and explain not just what you are doing the following week, but also what you are aiming to achieve and why.
  • Remember that Assistants are not paid as much as their executive, so be appreciative of how hard they work and be reasonable with your demands.
  • Encourage self-development and training needs; support and encourage requests for continuous development in both financial and time terms – it pays off in the end.
  • Praise as often as you like – this will trigger the reward response of the brain as well as several other areas, and dopamine will be released, making your Assistant feel good and appreciated. (Dopamine is heavily involved in reinforcing behaviours, as it helps people to remember how good they felt and also has positive effects on the prefrontal cortex, helping people to think clearer and more creatively and increase their problem-solving and memory capabilities.)
  • If an Assistant has consistently been working overtime to reach a specific deadline, then offer them some time off in lieu. This is another form of appreciation. (This releases oxytocin, which counteracts stress and creates trust, generosity and empathy. This motivates us to act in other people’s interests, which is of course the crux of the job of an Assistant. Oxytocin is also known as the ‘bonding’ hormone.)
  • Consider your Assistant an important part of your team and value their opinion as much as you do the opinions of other members of your team, if not more so.
  • Explain the vision and mission of the organization so that your Assistant can see how their role feeds into that overall vision. 

Empowerment

Empower your Assistant by delegating project work that can relieve your schedule to do other things. Remember, empowering someone is about the three Ps:

Permission

Give permission to do the work, although the request can also come from an initiative-taking Assistant.

Power

Give power to make decisions (so you need to ‘let go’ to an extent).

Protection

Protect your Assistant if things go wrong or they need your support, as the overall accountability still lies with the executive.

When an executive ignores, blames or accuses an Assistant, they will immediately have an ‘amygdala hijack,’ meaning that their threat response will come into play and they will either want to run and hide, stand there and say and do nothing, argue back or find someone to talk to about it. This threat response produces cortisol and adrenaline, both of which can be harmful in continued doses. They have a direct effect on efficiency, productivity and memory that will in turn affect your productivity.

If ongoing communication and updates do not happen, or permission, power or protection is missing, empowerment cannot occur. Empowerment allows learning and development; it makes the job more interesting, satisfying and motivating as well as raising self-esteem and morale, and therefore fosters a happier relationship and excellent work output.

Motivation

Human beings are primarily social beings. We need to connect and speak to others, share knowledge and get to know people and network. If your Assistant is away from their desk in short bursts, realize that they are getting their social boost or ‘brain break.’ If you have clearly articulated your expectations, they will know exactly when they need to be at their desk and when they can stretch their legs. Remember, an Assistant can function as your eyes and ears, so ‘walking the floor’ could be useful to you too.

When you request a meeting room to be made available in the next 15 minutes with refreshments, audio-visual equipment, flipcharts and stationery as you have important clients on the way into the office, if your Assistant has efficiently networked and built relationships with the people in facilities, catering and IT, then your request will be done with a smile, no problems and in time.

Value Your Assistant

Show that you value your Assistant by actively listening and asking appropriate questions. If you feel that your Assistant is indispensable, make it known. Learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Figure out what makes each other ‘tick.’ Pay attention to each other’s style of thinking, learning and communicating.

Have daily (or whatever works for you both) communication meetings, even if it is only for 15 minutes, so that you can catch up with each other’s activities. Confide in your Assistant about things you are working on and let them know what your objectives are – make them feel involved and part of a true partnership.

Treat these meetings as you would a client meeting – stick to the time and date, make sure the door is shut so that no one pops in to see you in the middle of your communication meeting, and put the telephone through to someone else to take calls. This shows that you take the meetings seriously and you will be able to get through the tasks much more quickly.

Take five minutes in the morning to ask how your Assistant is doing/feeling – and be genuinely interested. That will mean you will get to know them better and be able to understand if they are not on top form that day for whatever reason, or indeed are ‘hyper’ because of something exciting in their home life. It’s about building relationships, getting to know each other, building trust and communicating.

Ask your Assistant out to lunch sometimes for a ‘catch-up thank you’ lunch – away from the office environment. Talk about things that are not office-based to get to know one another – it works wonders for building your relationship and evoking a feeling in them of wanting to do all they can for you.

Give regular feedback for the completion of projects and talk about your goals and objectives so that your Assistant can align their goals with you and the organization. Work on, and agree, some of your Assistant’s goals together. If your Assistant has organized an event well, say so and congratulate them. Similarly, if something has not gone quite to plan, help them to learn from the mistake.

Conclusion

Your relationship is a partnership that is powerful and beneficial to you both, exceeding all expectations. Your Assistant can be your coach, your sounding board, your ear to the ground, your timekeeper, your confidante and your friend. Once you trust and respect each other, your Assistant will be loyal, hard-working and motivated. You will both enjoy going to work more, have more fun and feel more exhilarated and satisfied. As a result, your efficient and effective working relationship will help you to deliver your objectives and exceed your clients’ expectations, which in the end improves the bottom line.

This article is based on a chapter from Sue’s book The Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook, 3rd Edition.

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Sue France FCIPD/FInstAM/INLPTA is passionate about the development of all Assistants, having been one for over 30 years. She was The UK Times’ Crème/DHL PA of the Year. She was also the training manager at a global firm, responsible for the development ... (Read More)

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