Don Harms, CEO of Emmre, details six best practices to take your strategic partnership to the next level

I’ve been in leadership roles for over 20 years. I’m very competitive and driven to always make things better. I’ve excelled at seeing what’s broken and fixing it. However, in 2016, I was faced with something new that was not working well… me. I was what was broken. I was the president of a software company, and I was overwhelmed. I was working too much – missing family dinners and too many of my kids’ activities. I didn’t know what to do.

Thankfully, a friend suggested I hire an Executive Assistant. At first, I was hesitant. “What could an Executive Assistant do for me?” I thought. But I was overwhelmed and determined to fix the problem. So without any understanding of what an EA could do or how to lead an EA, I hired my first Executive Assistant.

It changed everything.

Because of my lack of experience working with an EA, our first year was full of missteps, frustrations, and failures. However, it was also filled with experiments, learning, and successes! I was impressed by the power of my EA and quickly began to understand the strategic partnership that could be created between an executive and an Executive Assistant.

To begin to work towards this strategic partnership, I started by turning over my inbox and calendar to my EA. (I never would have done this if my EA hadn’t asked me to. If you want it, ask!) Secondly, we created regular meeting rhythms including weekly 1:1s, daily check-ins, and monthly personal development meetings.

Even as we put all of that in place, my EA and I knew that we could still push further into our budding partnership.

Through trial and error, we implemented the following six best practices that helped take our partnership to the next level.

1. Maintain Two To-Do Lists

As an Executive Assistant, I’m sure you have your own to-do list and manage it quite well. I’d also guess that your executive either doesn’t have a to-do list or is too busy to manage it well.

Does your executive ever ask you, “Can you remind me to do this task?” or “Don’t let me forget to do this or that”? That’s your executive asking you to help them maintain their to-do list.

During meetings, people will ask your executive things like, “Can you send me the updated budget guidelines?” or “Can you approve the job requisition request?” Inevitably, your executive will answer, “Yes.” These are the perfect opportunities for you to add these items to your executive’s to-do list, ensuring they won’t get forgotten. By doing this, you will help your executive be more trustworthy and you will become a more essential, more strategic partner.

2. Ask Questions That Are Easy to Answer

Have you ever asked your executive a series of questions like, “Who do you want at the board meeting?”, “Do you want it in the downstairs or upstairs conference room?”, and “Do you want lunch delivered in? Or do you want to go out?”…

…all just to get the response, “Yes”?

This is a frustrating scenario for both you and your executive. Your executive is answering questions all day long, and it’s easy to start getting decision fatigue. You can be a more strategic partner if you work to ask questions that are easy to answer and help eliminate that decision fatigue for your executive.

Do Prework

Doing prework and giving options is a great way to ask questions that are easy to answer.

A question like, “Where would you like to eat during your meeting with Cody tomorrow?” seems like it would be easy enough to answer, right?

However, if your executive is anything like me, they’ll see this question and think…

“Where’s Cody coming from?”

“What food does Cody like?”

“What time is this meeting supposed to start?”

Without answers to those questions, your executive may think, “I’ll get back to this later.”

Instead, do some prework and ask a question that looks more like this…

“Tomorrow is your lunch meeting with Cody. I’ve checked with Cody’s EA, and he doesn’t have any food restrictions. He’ll be coming from downtown and with only 1.5 hours, I’ve narrowed it down to these options.

1. Chili’s

2. Mountain Brewery

3. Cheddar’s

4. PF Chang’s

5. Other – ?”

Your executive can just say, “Let’s go with Mountain Brewery,” without having to think – zero decision fatigue! When you do the prework to simplify questions with options, your executive will appreciate it!

Ask questions individually

Another way to make your questions easier to answer is to simply ask the questions individually, eliminating ambiguity and confusion on what is being asked. When you ask a series of questions and get the answer, “Yes,” that’s not your executive being a smart aleck. It typically means that they are in a rush and think that they ARE answering your question.

That leads to the final tip…

Prioritize the questions you ask

If all questions seem like they have equal priority, your executive will naturally answer the quick, easy ones and delay answering the more difficult ones. Instead, let your executive know the priority by saying something like, “Here’s a list of eight questions. The first three are critical; the rest would be great to know but are not as critical.” There’s a great chance your executive is going to go out of their way to answer the first three questions.

Anything you can do to reduce decision fatigue and get your questions answered will certainly help grow your partnership, keep things moving forward, and help you be an even better strategic partner to your executive.

3. Provide Next-Level Visibility

Your executive hired you to help them do their job. Every activity that you take off their plate provides significant value, allowing them to focus on other activities. However, there is an unforeseen downside to this – they can lose visibility of all that you do. Everything you’ve taken off their plate, they used to do on their own, and when they did, they had full visibility of it. Now that you’ve taken it over, your executive may feel a level of tension or uncertainty due to not knowing how a critical task is going – unless you provide visibility.

To eliminate this, give your executive a summary or an executive brief. These can take many formats and are extremely powerful and valuable. The President of the United States gets an executive brief every day, including things like key happenings from the previous day, a list of decisions that need to be made, the top items that need to be done that day, and the key items on that day’s schedule. Obviously, if it’s a practice the President follows every day, it can be valuable for your executive also!

You can send these executive briefs daily or weekly based on the way you work with your executive. Personally, I think the more strategic your partnership is, the more often you should send them. For me, I chose to get one every evening. It contained key tasks that I needed to do, key updates on items my EA had worked on or completed, and questions that I needed to answer to keep my EA from being roadblocked.

Those executive briefs drove our partnership to a new level. I so appreciated the visibility they gave me, the focus they provided, the time savings they enabled, and the peace of mind I experienced every day.

4. Use a Dedicated Channel of Communication

I’m sure you currently have one or more channels that you use to communicate, which may include tools like Slack, MS Teams, email, or just texting. However, if any of the channels that you use to communicate are also used by the rest of the company, then things can get missed and your partnership will suffer.

If you currently communicate on a shared channel, it’s time for you and your executive to change to a dedicated channel for just the two of you. When you send a message to a channel that multiple people use, those unread badges begin to mean nothing. They get ignored. Your executive doesn’t know if that unread badge is an important message from you or a GIF from Jane in HR letting people know there is extra pizza in the break room.

Using a dedicated channel means that any unread message you see is from your executive and every unread message they see is from you. It’s that simple. Responses are faster, and communication is not missed. Your partnership can move more efficiently with a clear, agreed-upon, dedicated channel of communication together.

5. Effectively Use “Close-the-Loop Feedback”

The next best practice is to create processes around “close-the-loop feedback.” What’s that mean? Let me explain using these two scenarios…

Scenario one

An executive asks their EA to get the board meeting agenda sent out that day before 1 p.m. The EA jumps all over it, immediately reaching out to the people on the agenda and asking for the time they need for their items. The EA works hard to get everything finalized and sends the agenda out 15 minutes early at 12:45.

That’s great, right? Well, kind of.

Unfortunately, what the executive experienced was…

After sending the request to their EA, they worried that the message didn’t go through. They didn’t want to micromanage, so they waited. Around 12 p.m., they started getting nervous because they hadn’t heard anything. They went into their meeting from 12 to 1 p.m. They struggled to concentrate because they knew the agenda had to go out, and they weren’t sure anything was being done about it. As soon as the meeting was over at 1 p.m., they jumped into their email and were relieved to see that the agenda had been sent 15 minutes earlier.

Scenario two

An executive asks their EA to get the board meeting agenda sent out that day before 1 p.m. The EA immediately responds with, “No problem!” The EA jumps all over it, immediately reaching out to the people on the agenda and asking for the time they need for their items. Right before the executive’s 12 p.m. meeting, the EA sends a quick update letting the executive know that they are getting everything finalized and that the agenda will go out before 1 p.m. unless they communicate otherwise. The EA works hard and sends the agenda out 15 minutes early at 12:45. When it is sent out, the executive gets a notification on their dedicated channel of communication that it was sent.

That’s great, right? Yes! Yes, it is!

The executive received close-the-loop feedback and never worried. In both scenarios, the EA got the job done well. But in scenario one, the executive experienced a lot of tension and concern. In scenario two, they didn’t experience any of that.

To provide helpful close-the-loop feedback, let your executive know things like…

  • You’ve received key communication
  • You’ve accepted or are working on a task they asked you to do
  • When a task is done
  • When a task is delayed
  • When you are roadblocked on a key task

Close-the-loop feedback is simply a way to keep an executive from feeling anxiety because of a lack of communication or feedback. Before close-the-loop feedback, I would often ask, “Did you get my request?” Or I would send my request and just hope they got it, allowing for situations where requests got missed. After my EA started utilizing close-the-loop feedback, I knew to follow up when I didn’t hear anything back (which was very rare). The peace of mind close-the-loop feedback provided was so valuable.

6. Understand Daily Priorities

Put together a process where you can see the top priorities every day. It’s frustrating for you when you work on something that you later realize is not a priority, while something that is a priority was missed. This is not good for you or your executive. A simple process that gives visibility of priorities can make all the difference in maximizing the effectiveness of your partnership. Understanding daily priorities means you never waste time focusing on something that’s not critical. You never work on something that was important yesterday, but not today. You and your executive are in sync and moving forward together on the items that are the top priority.

Grow Your Strategic Partnership

These best practices are things that my EA and I discovered over years of trial and error. They revolutionized how we worked together and greatly increased the effectiveness of our strategic partnership…so much so that we built an entire software around them called Emmre.

I’m confident that if you implement even just one of these best practices, it will improve your partnership and help you be a more strategic Assistant.

I know from my personal experience the value an Executive Assistant brings to their executive and their organization. Thank you for everything you do and the huge impact you have every day.

Don Harms is the founder and CEO of Emmre, a software platform designed to help executives and Executive Assistants build more strategic partnerships. After experiencing firsthand the life-changing role an Executive Assistant can have on an executive’s ... (Read More)

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