Communication with your Executive is key to managing a complex office explains Joan Burge
As a CEO of 30 years and previous Executive Assistant for 20 years, I cannot overemphasize the importance of meetings between an Executive and their Assistant. In coaching 300+ Executive/Assistant teams, the single most important piece of advice that I gave each team and that the Executive found most valuable was to hold a daily huddle. Whether the huddle was by telephone or in person, it catapulted the Executive’s and Assistant’s ability to be more productive, reduce errors and rework, and clarify expectations.
Because of the multitude of daily activities in an office and the sheer speed at which business is conducted, daily meetings are essential.
The best time to do this is in the morning. If you wait until the end of the day, it may never happen, as things tend to build up as the day progresses.
Ideally, these meetings are short (approximately 10 minutes) though, when first implementing the process, they may be longer. Once a rhythm is established, they will become more concise. At times, however, depending on what’s happening for each party, a longer meeting may be required.
During the Daily Huddle, the Executive can share what happened the night before after the Assistant left work. Many leaders still “work” after office hours and often late into the night. With the use of technology and the ability to work offsite independently, there are numerous things that take place long after the Assistant has left the office. Additionally, many of these leaders start their workday very early, well before arriving at the office. If the partners meet in the morning (whether in person or by phone) they can ensure they’re working in tandem, confirming the day’s top priorities are agreed upon, and can be proactive on any new issues that might have arisen.
Regardless of what time of day works best for your environment and partnership, schedule your meeting consistently (i.e. put it on the calendar) and keep the appointment. These should be considered non-negotiable meetings. Additionally, make it known to others in the department or immediate area that, barring emergencies, this is uninterruptible time.
Assistants who support multiple leaders need to conduct the Daily Huddle with their primary leader, as it would be almost impossible to meet with every person. Consider scheduling weekly or monthly one-on-one time with some or all the other key leaders you support using your best judgment.
If you’re wondering what to discuss during your Daily Huddles, here are a few recommendations:
1. Daily Calendars
Technology is not perfect, and neither are humans. It’s easy to place a wrong time or wrong date on a calendar. Or, because so many leaders are independent, they place events on their own calendars and forget to inform their administrative partner. Executives are too busy to have hiccups in their schedules and such things are embarrassing for both parties.
Review the day’s events together and share materials. Many Assistants are now handling their Executive’s pre-read meeting materials by printing, reviewing, and flagging them as appropriate. Many Assistants are doing research, preparing outgoing pre-reads and filtering email note strings for their leaders in preparation for meetings. Gone are the days when Assistants simply reserved a conference room and readied it for the meeting.
The Daily Huddle is also the time to discuss any new meetings or travel that needs to be scheduled since yesterday.
2. Voicemails and IMs
Discuss requests that need immediate attention or response. The Assistant can return calls and act if provided the appropriate responses or required information from the Executive.
3. Email Communications
When it comes to email management, there are various approaches. Your Daily Huddles are the time for Executives and Assistants to update each other on email communications, whether it’s a status update or clarifying new actions to be taken.
4. Hard Copy Mail
Hard copy mail still exists, even if it’s just internal reports. Executives may want to respond verbally to correspondence or tell the Assistant how to respond. Discuss meeting notices, invitations, or community activities that the Assistant may need to coordinate or respond to on behalf of the Executive.
Discuss any events that will involve external visitors and anticipate actions to be taken before and during their visit.
6. Department Issues
This is a good time to discuss any departmental problems that need the Executive’s attention. Assistants are often privy to information within the department or are aware of potential personnel issues. These can be brought to the attention of the leader before a situation escalates.
7. Status Updates
Discuss updates on projects, meetings, items you are working on, and any other pertinent information. Assistants: Initiate discussion. Executives don’t like to have to ask the status of a specific project or task (nor do they have the time).
8. Special Projects
Discuss any special projects that are happening or coming up in the next few weeks. Assistants can ask what portions of the project they could work on: Is there any research to be done? Will information necessary for the project be coming from others inside or outside the company? If so, can they start assembling that information? Are presentations, graphs or charts required? If so, how many?
9. Upcoming Travel
Discuss upcoming trips so you can anticipate schedules and prepare necessary travel materials. At least bi-weekly, review the calendar for upcoming events as far as three months out.
10. Follow-up Items
Bring to the Executive’s attention any information or work requested from staff that has not yet been received.
Training and Development
Development happens when we take conscious action to improve. It is not a “check the box” aspect of your career; you must be intentional about it.
Discuss your training and development requirements with your Executive. Tell him/her about upcoming seminars and workshops you would like to attend and why. Be prepared to show your leader the information about the workshop, the objectives of the program, how the topics tie in with your job responsibilities, and the benefits of attending.
If either the Executive or Assistant recently attended a seminar or training session, share the ideas you learned with the other. Explain how you intend to incorporate the ideas you learned and if/how the other person can participate.
You may experience a considerable amount of resistance toward Daily Huddles. Or perhaps, after trying them for a few days, they suddenly get deprioritized. It happens easily in a busy office. The reason this usually occurs is because it’s uncomfortable, particularly for the Executive. I often hear that Executives worry it takes too much time or interrupts their eagerness to get started on the workday.
I want to strongly encourage you to adopt this practice and stay with it. It is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to improve your working partnership. Eventually, you will see the tremendous benefits of these meetings and will naturally want to make them a part of your work routine. I have often heard Executives who previously resisted state that they miss their Daily Huddles once they engage in the process and skip a day or two. They realize these communication opportunities are critical and quickly get back on track.
To help make the process easier, consider starting slow with a meeting one morning a week. You might start with Monday or Friday to discuss the upcoming week.
Gradually increase meetings to two days and then three days, and so on. Your goal is to have a Daily Huddle – every day – with each other whether in person or on the telephone. Of course, sometimes this just isn’t possible. For example, if the Executive is in a location with a different time zone or headed into an early meeting or conference.
Once you get in the rhythm of these meetings you may find that when things get chaotic at the office or the Executive has been out of the office for several days or weeks, the team will get away from the Daily Huddles. It does happen! However, the team must make a commitment to get back on track. Recommit to talking or meeting on a regular basis again.
Quarterly Strategy Meetings
The business world is largely structured around quarters. For this reason, I recommend scheduling a more in-depth strategic meeting at the beginning or end of each quarter.
The purpose of these meetings is to:
1. Review workplace performance in general.
2. Update one another on projects coming up:
- Establish deadline dates for each project.
- Identify who will be handling each part of the project (whether it be the Assistant, the Executive, someone else in the department, or an outside vendor).
- Anticipate any foreseeable barriers or obstacles that might slow down the project and proactively develop plans for overcoming them.
- Forecast expected time involved for each project or event.
- Estimate costs involved in any projects or events; establish budgets; assess current budget.
3. Debrief one another on projects that have wrapped up:
- What worked? Why did it work? How can you repeat successful behaviors in the future?
- What didn’t work? Why didn’t it work? How will you fix this in the future if this comes up again?
4. Discuss projects still in the works.
- Do you need to adjust any assignments, timelines, budgets, or resources?
5. Share victories (personal and professional).
6. Re-establish priorities.
7. Re-commit to deadlines.
Once again, the goal for this meeting is to reduce the tendency of being reactive and to become more proactive.
For Executives operating with several layers of support (or assistants supporting several executives) these meetings are most essential for the primary Assistant and the primary Executive.
The structure of a Quarterly Meeting is similar to that of the Daily Huddle in that it is scheduled, and interruptions must be strongly avoided. However, due to the more in-depth nature of the topics, the Quarterly Meeting requires a greater commitment of time. I usually schedule 2 – 3 hours with my Assistant for the Quarterly Meeting.
In preparation, the Executive can create a list of everything they know on the horizon; especially the projects, events, or trips that the Assistant is not aware of, but the Executive knows in their mind. Discuss every possible aspect and detail of the project or event. This will save time going back and forth with the Assistant in the upcoming months and the Assistant will be able to be proactive and get involved from the start. This is also a great benefit for the Executive in anticipating and preparing for the next three months. Executives can then be future-focused so they can better prepare themselves and their staff and be less reactive.
Within one week, after the meeting, the Assistant can combine her ideas and the Executive’s ideas into one working document that will be the guiding map for the upcoming three months.
Ongoing Status Updates
Communication does not and should not only happen within the context of a formal scheduled meeting. It is something that should always be happening, fluidly, between Executive and Assistant.
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