The ability to anticipate what our executive needs is the holy grail of administrative professional skills explains Marie Herman
In my last job, I received one of the highest compliments of my career. A high-level government team visited our company for a review that I had organized behind the scenes. During the closing session, they called me out by name to the conference room filled with top management, scientists and engineers as the “Radar O’Reilly of the company” and complimented me on how smoothly the entire review had gone. I had spent the prior several days ensuring he had everything he needed before he even had to ask for it.
On the television show M*A*S*H, company clerk Radar O’Reilly exemplified being ready with whatever was needed before anyone knew they needed it. He often sensed helicopters arriving before anyone could hear them, he knew what form was going to be needed and could finish his executive’s sentences. He was the classic example of a mind-reading assistant.
I think many executives bring an expectation to the workplace that every admin can (and should) be a Radar O’Reilly. They want their assistant to know what they want without it being spelled out. They want us to read their minds. After all, as far as they are concerned, it’s right there in the job description. What’s that? You don’t see it? Did you miss that helpful little phrase “other duties as assigned”?
That ability to anticipate what our executive needs, before they even know they need it, and to have it at hand is the holy grail of administrative professional skills. We would all love to possess that skill.
But is this something we are born with or is it possible to develop that skill? Let’s find out.
Starting on the Right Foot
The first step in Mind Reading 101 is to try to choose the right executive in the first place. The interview process is not just an opportunity for a company to identify the best candidate for the job. It’s also a chance for you to determine if that company and that executive are the right place for you to work. Sometimes we forget that part of the equation, but an interview is a two-way street. The next time you go searching for a job, make sure you are selective in the executive that you select. The right executive will be open to developing a partnership with you, allowing you to learn their preferences and needs so that you can become better and better at meeting them.
Once you start working with the executive, you want to spend some time observing them. Executives can give us a clue of what they want with their language choices. This neurolinguistic programming is quite fascinating, really.
When you have an executive that uses phrases like “I see what you mean”, “I’m keeping my eyes open”, etc. those are clues that your executive is a visual person. They may respond better to things like color coordination, post-its on the door as reminders or other visual cues of things they need to pay attention to. They want information presented visually and might appreciate charts and graphs and pictures summarizing key details.
On the other hand, if you have an executive that uses phrases like “I hear what you are saying”, “I’m keeping my ears open”, your executive is an auditory learner. They prefer to hear things. They might like a voice mail message rather than an email message, for example. They want information presented verbally. They process things through speech and listening.
Yet another category of personality is kinesthetic learners. They might use phrases like “it feels to me like…” or “let’s stay in touch”. They like tactile and would do something than watch it being done. They are slower to make decisions and want more of the facts before proceeding. These are the people that are more active and get frustrated with endless meetings when they could be out there doing.
By observing your executive’s work style and communication preferences, you can adapt to provide them with what they need how they need it.
Observe the level of detail your executive is interested in receiving. Are they a “just the facts, ma’am” kind of person? Someone who wants only the bullet point highlights? You may be flooding the executive with e-mails while she finds it easier to speak via phone or face to face. If you are the kind of person who feels the need to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’, you may think you are being helpful by providing minute level of details to your executive, but your executive may be quite frustrated working with you. The executive may become visibly upset and impatient during face to face meetings. That will tend to make you want to cover yourself by including all the information that might be needed, thus compounding the problem. Instead, just create a short summary of the key details, but have the additional details available if requested.
In the same way, watch to see if your executive is a numbers type person, who loves to get absorbed in the small details. If so that executive will get frustrated and feel like it’s “pulling teeth” to get you to provide information. They will ask endless questions because they are looking for a greater level of detail than you anticipated.
Subtle adjustments on your part will make your job easier and reduce your executive’s frustration – which makes you look better and eases your relationship. It will also show the executive you are observing and addressing their concerns.
Identifying the Executive’s Priorities
One of the best ways to begin anticipating your executive’s needs is by establishing clear expectations up front. A little time spent at the beginning of a relationship talking through things like communication preferences, current projects, how the executive would like you to handle certain types of situations, what the boundaries are on your authority and responsibilities, etc. will go a long way in guiding you to know what you are encouraged to do or not do when trying to anticipate what your executive needs from you.
If you are kept in the dark about your executive’s projects and priorities, you will never be able to be a true partner or practice your mind reading skills. It’s simply impossible to plan ahead and be prepared if you have no clue what is going on. This might require some gentle training of your executive to learn how to use you to your (and your executive’s) full potential. But it is time that is well invested when done. Your relationship will grow and flourish as the trust is built between you that you will be able to act in your executive’s and the company’s best interests and be able to successfully complete tasks that need to be done.
It begins with setting regular time on your executive’s calendar to meet with you (daily if possible). This is an opportunity to review what’s happened, what’s coming, and how you can best support your executive in being successful.
One of the best ways that you can identify your executive’s priorities is reviewing their calendar. How are they spending their time? What projects are they focused on? What deadlines are coming up? What tasks can you complete early in order to help projects and meetings flow smoothly? What do you anticipate will be needed next? In what order and when? Discuss your identified items with your executive to ensure that they agree with your thoughts. This is one of the best ways to begin thinking in sync – discussions of why choices were made and what the rationale was behind decisions. Getting a larger scale picture of priorities requires stepping back from the day-to-day minutiae and understanding how projects interrelate on a higher level.
It may not be necessary for you to attend all your executive’s meetings but sitting in on several can be enlightening in understanding the challenges facing your executive and department. Staff may initially be hesitant to include you and may just think you are there to take minutes if you attend, so you may need to ease them into the idea of treating you as a full strategic partner who supports what they are doing. Keep your eyes and ears open during every meeting or every conversation that you are privy to, to get a better understanding of relationships between peers, status of projects, challenges currently being faced, and issues that are lurking, waiting to explode.
What are your executive’s goals? You don’t know? Well that would be an excellent area to research. After all, how can you help your executive achieve their goal if you don’t know what it is? This again is where trust comes into the relationship. Your executive needs to know you have their back (within ethical boundaries of course).
Getting Ahead of the Curve
Mind reading really comes down to getting ahead of the curve. Sometimes we are so drowning in the details of the moment that we can’t even imagine working on things prior to a deadline. You want to proactively get ahead where you can, so that things aren’t being left to the last minute. In fact, if you get yourself sufficiently organized and your workflow streamlined you can even start to be proactive and initiate things. This could be as simple as planning ahead for future trips, booking travel details further in advance, anticipating that speakers will be needed for a meeting and that speakers bring PowerPoint presentations. So, you could approach them to work to get those presentations submitted in advance so you can assemble them in one place and ensure everything is working properly with your equipment. If you wait until everyone is in one conference room, you may get some unpleasant technology surprises.
Proactiveness means rising above the muck of the moment and seeing the road ahead of you. In a project context this includes things like double confirming room rentals, printing things far enough ahead of time that you are not rushed and can reprint if there is a problem and just generally thinking ahead to what is next regularly so things don’t sneak up on you.
Taking initiative can be a risky venture. Your executive or your coworkers may be comfortable with the status quo. They may think that you taking initiative puts them in a bad light – making it look like they aren’t doing their job properly or well enough. You need to be sensitive to these underlying fears and how they could impact your relationship. Being proactive in communication may address some of these issues before they arise. Talk your ideas over with them, get their buy-in and support and generally ease them into the plans so they have less resistance when you move forward with them.
Where and when possible though, handle the details so that your executive doesn’t have to. Keep your executive informed, but you will be able to take quite a weight of their shoulders as you get better at doing this.
Be especially careful about not making assumptions. Assuming that of course someone would want a certain task done is a surefire way to make poor choices. Ask initially, verify afterwards, and get clarification when you discover that your executive didn’t like an action that you took.
Take full advantage of your software to help you stay on track. Utilize to do lists, calendar reminders, recurring tasks and more to have a way to easily see immediately all the balls you are juggling while also having some method of identifying what the critical balls for today are. Use that technology to help your executive be more proactive as well.
It’s also helpful to build your network (online and offline) so that you are aware of all the resources available to reduce your learning curve in new situations. Knowing who to ask about new procedures or tasks can help you avoid pitfalls when you are open to learning from their experience. As the old saying goes, a smart man learns from his mistakes, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.
Think Like Your Executive
A key part of mind reading is the ability to think like your executive. Most of us in life think about ourselves and how change is going to impact us. But executives move beyond those thoughts and consider how change is going to impact the department and the company. They step back to look at things with more of a big picture perspective. You can practice this skill as well.
If you find yourself having a knee jerk reaction to change, stop and ask yourself why. Are you being cynical? Do you feel like that change has been there/done that and will never be successful? Can you do anything to help that change be successfully implemented? Can you do more to be personally prepared for when that change arrives? Can you do more to help others be better prepared for when that change arrives? Can you anticipate what the next steps are in that change process, what the likely roadblocks will be, and how you can help to minimize those speedbumps?
A critical component of this process is learning to ask the right questions. Ask questions to strive to understand that bigger picture and to indicate that you want to support the company’s new initiatives. Show that you are receptive to the change and want to ensure it goes smoothly. Being prepared with solutions before those problems even arise will help to gain you a reputation of being a mind reader.
By showing initiative and providing some gentle training of your executive, you too can become the Radar O’Reilly of your company!