Dan Hadley explains the four key opportunities for executive support professionals to enhance strategic success
The word “strategy” tends to hold a certain connotation within business: a function room filled with executives, senior managers, advisors and investors, developing a critical plan for the future of the organization. Closed doors in many instances, days of no communication from leadership, and employees waiting nervously or excitedly for the future direction to roll out.
Sales, business development and marketing are fundamental parts of an organization’s strategy. Nothing happens until somebody sells something. All sales rest in the representation of a brand offering a product or service. Relationships with clients and customers are vital, particularly in a global market with access to instant comparable information. Taking every opportunity to positively influence each client’s experience and interaction with the brand is essential. This responsibility is not exclusive to sales and marketing staff; there are opportunities for brand representation available to all employees.
Corporate leadership has often been accused of developing fancy strategies, plans and schedules for change without the actions to back them up. So, although leaders and managers at various levels may be given implementation actions, there are fundamental, yet often understated, avenues of success that can be contingent upon executive support staff.
Understanding these opportunities means executive support staff are more empowered, dynamic, and proactively engaged in the success of an organization.
1. Dissemination of information (downstream communication)
Emails, memos, notice boards and phone calls are the most basic form of intra-organizational communication. Real value in conveying an organization’s message rests in the ability to accurately champion the message from person to person. True commitment for a cause can be undermined or enhanced by the level of personal buy-in by workers in an organization. Executive support staff are often in the position, whether they know it or not, of being a personal conduit between senior management and those on the “front line.”
Executive support staff are also only one step removed from the strategy through quiet association with management. They are in a unique position to highly influence the success of the future strategic direction. These opportunities for success come through the face-to-face interactions that executive support staff have with front-line management, workers and other internal stakeholders.
Communication is important during periods of change. In the absence of information, people tend to assume the worst. Change, even branded as being positive, may be taken negatively by many. Ground-level communication is a fundamental part of strategic success.
Executive support staff can influence the rollout of change, strategy, and new initiatives. Executive support professionals can become champions of the company’s strategic direction. This is particularly useful in larger organizations where management may be logistically removed from much interaction with workers across differing sites or divisions.
2. Translation (condensing and representing upstream)
The funnel of information runs both ways (or at least it should). Those organizations that suffer from one way, top-down only communication are classified as autocratic-undynamic organizations in terms of culture by management consultants. To be successful, there needs to be a measure of communication and consultation from workers up to senior leadership with genuine consideration. This is such an important element that it is even covered in ISO 9001:2015, the International Standard for Quality Management Systems.
The benefits of such communication include greater levels of reality check with the front line of the business, a greater sense of connectivity between senior management, workers and even consumers as well as a greater level of worker retention over the long term.
In the same way the executive support professional may keep their ear to the sky (towards management), a unique opportunity exists to keep an ear to the ground (workers at all levels). They are the vital link to not just portray information downstream but also relay it back upstream. Executives often suffer from a lack of time, and the importance of condensing and translating information en masse effectively cannot be understated.
Executives may be shocked to find that their support professionals receive more honest, blunt, and useful information than the executives themselves may receive if they attempt to gain it in person. This of course depends on the individuals, but in many instances the executive support professional may be seen as more relatable and may have more access to workers at different levels and across different divisions. There may also be the opportunity for such professionals to compare notes across different departments and divisions within the organization. This may provide an informal level of aggregate data on what workers think, feel, need, want and know about the organization. Conveying this succinctly to executives may add tremendous value in terms of strategic planning and management.
3. Close range brand enhancement
In terms of sales, marketing and business development strategy, there are types of opportunities or “leads” that are considered better than others. This is largely because certain leads “close” (come to a point-of-sale completion) more often than others. At the top of the scale is the customer or client that is absolutely desperate for your company’s product or service. They are chasing you; demand exceeds supply, and this scenario is considered the greatest position to be in.
At the other end of the scale, the company providing the good or service holds the factor of desperation. It may be represented by cold calling en masse, unannounced marketing, or clients who hold little to no interest. Supply is much higher than demand in this instance, often with many alternatives in the market.
Between these two opposite ends of the scale are a variety of other opportunities. The science of business development comes down to the representation of goods and services to generate demand. Marketing, sales and business development teams exist because if no-one knows a product or service exists, they will never find it and never acquire it.
Towards the higher end of our scale are referrals or representations by existing or other clients. Happy, satisfied customers convey a great message to the market. In a similar way, non-sales-based employees of companies can have the same effect. This even includes ex-employees. The market can and does judge a company on a variety of factors, not just its product and service offering.
Clients are not surprised that sales agents, sales reps and marketing presenters promote their company and brand as the best thing since sliced bread. That is their job! A positive, clear message of positivity, unification, and strong direction from a less biased party in a more casual setting may have a greater impact than most realize.
Herein lies the potential for additional brand representation simply by cultivating a dynamic culture that employees believe in. Furthermore, executive support staff having softer, less marketing-based interactions with clients can serve a greater purpose. Every interaction adds up to contribute to the greater client experience. This can be as simple as the executive support professional accompanying senior leaders to presentations or having conversations more casually over lunch when the presentation has been paused. How such professionals present themselves in terms of a balance of authenticity and professionalism may mean the difference between a signed deal and a no-go.
4. Granular implementation of management system change
Companies evolve and change over time. In general, the larger the company, the slower the change or evolution is to roll out and deliver. Change management professionals also recognize that, in general, larger organizations are more difficult to evolve through concerted efforts due to the often present, though not universal, gulf between executive management and front-line employees.
Even the best planned management system implemented today will require change and evolution tomorrow. Work instructions, procedures and other resources throughout the organization have an intended purpose. This is subtly yet drastically more important than the face value for any one procedure or resource. Alone, one work instruction may represent how a company needs one granular process performed. On a more macro scale, a management system is far more philosophical in nature and represents an intended direction and purpose consistent with the themes and culture of the organization. These themes and directions come from executive leadership.
The practical rollout, enhancement and change of the management system is often spear-headed by executives or external change management professionals. However, success rests in the rollout and use of the management system, and in this instance executive support staff can influence the speed of change, effectiveness of use and return on investment.
As a vital link between executive leadership and the rest of the organization, such professionals can respond to ground-level resistance to change and management system evolution with something as simple as “I know change can be difficult, but this is all part of a plan to achieve…” Such granular, ground-level conversations can positively impact the use of a management system and its changes over time. Conversely, roadblocks in the path of the management system may be represented by executive support staff to leadership. When workers see that executive management and their support staff utilize the system genuinely, they are more likely to do so themselves.
Executive support professionals are in a unique position to influence organizational culture in line with strategic direction. Conversations, both upstream and downstream, are more powerful than memos and group emails. The actions that flow from the top down to the bottom can also be highly influenced in the same way. Such professionals can keep an ear to the ground whilst keeping an ear to the sky.
It’s important to note that management does not necessarily mean leadership. True leadership is represented not by pointing the finger and directing but by taking a workforce, arm in arm, and driving the direction with them. The old saying that “leaders fight in the trenches whilst managers sit on the hill” is often true.
You do not need to be a manager to be a leader. With all of this in mind, executive support professionals can become (and often are) leaders in their organization. The vital position of executive support staff leaves such professionals with one or two questions. The first is: are you a leader contributing to the strategic future of your organization? The second is: if you are not a leader in your role now, when will you become one?