Joan Burge’s top tips on how to become a strategic partner to your executive

You have heard it a hundred times: You don’t work ‘for’ someone. You work ‘with’ someone. That is the way it should be. Do you truly feel like you are a business partner with your executive? Are you included in the decision-making process? Do you attend your leader’s staff meetings and do more than just take notes? Does your leader take you seriously?

Fortunately, I learned this early on in my career.  At the time I was working in a large corporation. My executive, John G, was bright, enthusiastic, and creative. He had tons of energy and it was not unusual for him to be in the office until all hours of the night or to come in on the weekends. John traveled internationally and when he was in town, he was running from one meeting to another.

The one trait I truly valued in John G was that he always made time for me. He made me feel like I was the most important person in the 26-person department. I even came before the Directors who reported to him. John taught me about morning huddles and how to be a strategic partner. I worked with John for almost three years and then he was moved to another part of the company. I wasn’t too excited about the gentleman who was taking his place, so I accepted a position in another company.

I took what John G taught me everywhere I went. Whenever I started working with new executives, I taught them how to be my strategic partner.

Since 1990, when I started my administrative training company, I have been teaching assistants and executives how to build strategic partnerships and wrote an operating manual called Executives and Assistants Working in Partnership: The Definitive Guide.

1. Learn what’s important to your leader

Pay attention to details.

Observe your executive’s actions, behaviors, even attire. One assignment I have given assistants over the years is to keep a style diary of their executives. I tell them to really pay attention to their executives’ work style, thinking style, how they approach problems, how they react to challenges, and really listen to what they say. You will learn a great deal about your executives if you just pay attention. This will lead you to understand them at a deeper level so you can build a stronger partnership with them.

Listen closely.

Executives drop clues all the time. A long time ago I had an assistant and I would say, “This is important.” She sometimes ignored what I said. She didn’t take it as important even though I had said it was important. When in doubt, ask your executive what his or her priority is.

2. Help Your Leader Look Great

Be an outstanding office liaison.

When I was an assistant, I had hundreds of opportunities to be the bridge between visitors and my executives. It was up to me to recommend great hotels; provide the names of the best restaurants; recommend town car services; and inform them of local events. I took the initiative to personally check out local providers of these services.

Anticipate (and act on) challenges.

Recognize what might make your leader look bad or embarrass him or her. Make it go away!

Know who’s who.

Who is important to your executive inside and outside the organization? Executives sometimes refer to people who are important to them as key stakeholders. Keep your executive informed of any news you read or see about these people or their companies.

3. Be a Value-Added Partner

“Robots need not apply!” You are a cognitive being. You are more than an order taker and task doer. You have brains and you need to engage them throughout your day.

The big secret is to dig deep, engage every sense throughout the day, and don’t just work the surface.

Another way to demonstrate your worth is by taking the initiative and doing little things that have a big impact. For example, when your leader travels to a place where an industry-related convention is in town, should she attend some sessions? It may be an ideal networking opportunity for her. Find out.

4. Understand their style/How they operate

We all know and have heard the word ‘style’ for years, particularly in terms of personality. There are all kinds of assessment tools to identify particular styles.

I am referring to style in a different light. When I say style in terms of your executive, I mean the way one approaches problems, one’s philosophy, feeling about the organization, reactions to others, general work habits, likes and dislikes, peak time of day, and hot buttons. This is another area where you need to be cognitive and fully engage your senses. To fully understand your executive’s style, you must observe, listen, be fully present, and pick up on nuances. You watch every little thing he does to learn his likes and dislikes. Listen for his philosophies about work and life. What are his beliefs about coloring in the lines?

5. Play to Your Audience

Create a partnership that works – regardless of the ‘players.’ Sometimes we don’t get to choose the executive we support. Occasionally, we are ‘given’ other executives or managers to support in addition to our key executive. And other times, our executive leaves and we are given someone else. That has happened to me.

I was 17 years into my administrative career. My executive, Steve, was a young hot shot: very social, fun, and smart. He rarely stayed in his office. He managed by walking around and talking to his directors. After being there for some time, I wanted to talk to him about providing higher partitions for the assistants. Knowing Steve was a social, laid back guy, I asked if we could go to lunch. At lunch we talked about his kids, family, and flying lessons. We were enjoying general conversation. Then I approached him with my request for higher workstation partitions and explained why they were necessary.

Do you see how I played to my audience? You will win more people over by playing to their needs first.

Regardless of the players, make it work. Unless you really cannot tolerate working for a particular person, just play to your audience.

6. Initiate communication

Everyone has a demanding schedule every day.

You need to make time for purposeful conversation. This is where you discuss beyond the task work; you dig deeper. Instead of just asking about an upcoming meeting, talk about exactly what is required for that meeting, what is the impact or importance of that meeting, who are the players? What do those players mean to your executive? Is your executive completely prepared? What is the Plan B? The list goes on and on.

You must have human moments.

Human moments are talking face-to-face or on the telephone. I often ask assistants if they talk to their executive and they tell me, “Sure. All the time. We email each other.” That is NOT what I mean. Nothing will ever replace human moments (with any person). Stop following the crowd and grow some courage! If you and your executive are to have a true partnership, you must talk to each other. And not just about your daily tasks.

As an executive and CEO, I have held daily huddles with my assistants and key team players. Nothing will ever replace the face-to-face or talking on the telephone. Often it is a lot faster than sending emails back and forth. When you have human moments, you instantly clarify what you thought you heard or what you thought the assignment was.

Be concise and know what you want to say.

Executives don’t have time for chit chat. The big secret is to use emotional intelligence and pay attention to when your executive wants you to move on and when he or she is in the mood to talk.

Be prepared.

Keep a running list and/or folder of what you need to discuss with your executive so that when you get their attention, you are ready to go. Your highest priority items need to be at the top of your list in case the conversation gets cut short.

7. Teach your executive how to work with you

In my early days as a secretary, I didn’t know how to teach my executives how to work with me or what I needed. However, because of my great experience with John G, I learned how a strategic partnership should work and I taught every executive after that how to work with me.

Ask for challenging assignments.

Sometimes executives just don’t think to give you challenging assignment. Or often they are thinking about the time they will have to spend to teach you. I often asked my executives to give me more, teach me, and that I would handle it. This is a huge benefit to you because you grow your skill set. You become a more valuable asset because now they are relying on you for that task or piece of the project. It also keeps you from getting bored at work.

Maintain your processes even during busy times.

You and your executive should have clear processes on every aspect of the typical tasks that need to be performed. For years I have coached executives and assistants how to implement processes on everything from daily huddles to debrief meetings, managing email, travel planning, and holding quarterly strategic meetings.

Demonstrate what you can do for your executive.

Don’t always ask for permission. For example, maybe you can think of a better way to spruce up your executive’s PowerPoint presentation. Don’t ask if it’s okay to change it, just change it. Show it to him. Let your executive see what you are capable of doing.

Communicate your desire to help and be a business partner.

Let your executive know you want to create this partnership and the benefits both of you will derive from doing so. If you support multiple managers, you won’t have the time to build strategic partnerships with each of them.

8. Model the behavior you want to see in your executive

When my husband and I moved to North Carolina I was already 15 years into my career as an assistant. I knew how to be an executive’s assistant. But when we moved, I had a hard time finding a job that really suited me.

I tried a few different jobs and was never really fulfilled. Then I finally got an opportunity to interview for a great position as Executive Assistant to the GM of Steelcase North Carolina. I interviewed and got the position. My executive’s name was John. For about eight years prior, John had an assistant who really didn’t know how to be a great assistant. She performed at a basic level and just got done what was necessary. Then I came on board with 15 years of experience and I knew how to build a strategic partnership.

It took me one year to teach John how we could have this amazing partnership and how I could be an asset to him. I modeled the behavior I wanted to see in him. In other words, I was open and honest. John eventually learned to be open and honest with me. I would write little notes to him on Post-its® with “Great job, John!” and eventually John would tell me, “Great job, Joan.” Little by little I shared some personal things with John regarding family and such. Before I knew it, John was sharing some information about his wife and family.

9. Demonstrate your worth and knowledge

  • Talk is cheap. You must walk your talk.
  • Be accurate in your information.

Most executives who have got to the top have got there because of logic and accurate information. In my case, if you are going to speak with me or try to persuade me or convince me about something, you better be accurate. Make sure you take time to gather facts.

  • Stay abreast of current trends and technology.
  • Do not settle for mediocrity; raise your own bar.

10. Learn Executive Speak

When you learn to communicate in a fashion that executives like, you will create a more synergistic relationship with them. It will open the lines of communication and your leaders will view you more as a business partner. Developing this skill will be beneficial when you interact with high-level executives outside your organization, community officials, Board of Directors, C-level executives, or even potential employers.

Here are some insights into leader language or executive speak

  • Use straightforward communication.
  • Be precise and concise.
  • Speak with intelligence, thought, and clarity.
  • Use a confident tone.
  • Be prepared (organize and prepare what you are going to say).
  • Mirror words and phrases they use: analyzed, flawless execution, strategic, ROI (return on investment), holistic, alignment, get in the game, engaged in the business, synthesis, forecasting, near-zero tolerance.

For me, there is no greater relationship in the workplace than that of an executive and assistant.

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Joan Burge is known as the pioneer of the administrative training industry. Joan is an accomplished author, professional speaker, corporate trainer, and coach. After working in the administrative profession for 20 years, Joan founded Office Dynamics ... (Read More)

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