Michelle Bowditch and Marika Garton discuss the elements of a high-performing partnership
When we experience a moving piece of music or dance, it is the composition of the combined elements that results in a masterpiece that can transform the audience. This is achieved with considerable thought and organisation of key elements as part of the creative process. These fundamental elements are the foundations on which a unique and personal masterpiece is created. They are employed, ordered, and combined in a specific way so that the overall goal can be realised.
Business partnerships between the CEO and Executive Assistant could learn a thing or two from the foundations of music composition or dance structure. The EA and the CEO need to combine fragments of the strategic elements that will support them to create a high-performing business partnership.
Throughout our research and advocacy, we have heard from numerous CEOs and Executive Assistants about what they believe the key elements of partnering with each other are to take the EA–CEO partnership from ordinary to extraordinary.
The first element is changing the everyday vernacular around the word ‘admin,’ and, by extension, the value placed on the industry.
“I am just the admin.” There is no faster way to undermine the worth of your role and the value placed against your skillset in the business than by uttering that sentence. Essentially, you’re saying that you are no more than admin, reducing the superpowers that you wield and the insight you offer as you support your team, leader, or executive. When we introduce ourselves with “I am just the admin,” we permit those around us to devalue our work.
If we want to change the narrative around what it means to work within an administrative function or pursue a career in the administrative profession, the journey must begin with the individuals working within the roles.
When we shift the focus and look at roles in the profession as careers, we change our perception of what these positions can achieve!
Gone are the days of Executive Assistants being ‘coffee makers and copy takers.’ The world has moved on, and as Jeremy Burrows, author of The Leader Assistant: Four Pillars of a Confident, Game-Changing Assistant, says, an Assistant is a chaos tamer, culture creator, pulse taker, inefficiency disruptor, strategic partner, fearless negotiator, game changer, relationship builder, time bender and operations expert.
Businesses need to stop undervaluing the role of an Executive Assistant and give them a seat at the table as a leader. However, that position needs to be earned; Executive Assistants can’t expect to enter a partnership with the CEO and be given the keys to the castle. Their understanding and demonstrated practice of the remaining partnering elements are essential if they want to be a true business partner to their CEO.
‘Be authentic’ is easier said than done, but it is an essential quality in any relationship. If you are genuine, you are being true to yourself. You can be present and act with confidence and conviction. You become predictable and reliable because your ethics and morals never waver, and the people around you know what they will get!
For the CEO, this means they can trust that their EA will execute tasks or decisions consistently. They can rest comfortably knowing that their EA is trustworthy and honest. They don’t just ‘talk the talk’; they ‘walk the walk.’ They put their money where their mouth is, which the CEO can rely upon.
For the EA, it means knowing where they stand with their CEO. They have the opportunity to learn and grow from someone that will intrinsically seek to add value to others. An authentic CEO will be more likely to make conscious decisions and create meaningful action that has positive outcomes for their team. An authentic person is also more likely to accept new ideas, which means the EA has the chance to present considered solutions that contribute to the success of the CEO and business deliverables.
Mastery means that the individual has attained a deep, secure, extensive, and adaptable understanding or skill in a role, activity, or business. To achieve this level, the individual must put in time “in the trenches,” receive training, and work to develop their skillset.
Partnering with an EA that is at, or willing to work towards, a mastery level means that the CEO has someone who can be entrusted with the strategic tasks rather than the transactional tasks; the Global Skills Matrix helps us further understand these levels of support.
As an EA, you can leverage the comprehensive knowledge and expertise of a CEO at the mastery level to develop your business acumen, which in turn supports your career development in the profession.
A mastery level EA will intuitively understand how to analyse critical factors that affect the business’s long-term success; the CEO has a strategic partner that is an extension of their brand and voice when they aren’t there. The EA has the opportunity to be a leader in their field.
And in today’s climate, with people changing roles more frequently than we change the bedsheets during ‘The Great Resignation,’ a CEO that invests time in supporting their EA to attain a mastery level may find their strategic partnership makes it out of the honeymoon phase and into a long-term collaboration.
EAs and CEOs that demonstrate accountability create a constructive atmosphere of responsibility. A partnership built on accountability sets common expectations around the values and goals of the business or department and holds both parties responsible for realising them.
To balance this out, however, CEOs also need to give their EAs a little self-governance in their role so that they feel empowered to complete their deliverables and take ownership of their work. According to a Forbes article: “Senior leaders must create cultural experiences that support the necessary beliefs required for the team to take proactive action to get results.”
You need consistency and execution from the CEO and EA to weave accountability into the culture of your business relationship. Being accountable for one’s actions will yield a high-performance partnership.
5. Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
A proclivity for emotional intelligence increases our leadership abilities; we can make sound decisions, manage stress, handle change, and accomplish our goals more quickly! If an EA and a CEO both have strong measures of EQ, they are more likely to be receptive to subtle changes in the other party. Each will take time to understand different perspectives and, in doing so, will help the other to feel seen and heard.
The role of an EA is service-based, and being perceptive of the needs of the CEO is crucial for understanding how you can create a path of least resistance for them to achieve their deliverables effectively and efficiently.
Understanding your partner’s nonverbal cues, whether you are the CEO or the EA, allows you to communicate successfully. You can address situations before they become problems and help ease negative emotions around particular scenarios.
For example, if the CEO is heading into a meeting where they may be reprimanded because that quarter’s numbers weren’t great, the EA might schedule some breathing room on either side of that meeting to allow them time to prepare and space to reflect or debrief. With both the CEO and EA displaying strong emotional intelligence, the partnership becomes one that encourages active listening, patience, and empathy and is intuitive in nature.
Interestingly, it was the soft skills that took the spotlight when we spoke to CEOs and EAs about what they felt made a strong partnership, and whilst the hard skills play an essential part in the whole, it would seem they are not considered the key elements of partnering.
Composing the duet is a repeatable skill that has clear goals. However, it is not about copying the past; gathering those key elements will be unique to each piece. To create a true business partnership, each combination of elements needs to be unique to the EA and CEO within the relationship. There are endless ways to gather these elements together to create something masterful, and the composition will evolve as the creators learn and grow.
If the EA and CEO can harness value, authenticity, mastery, accountability, and emotional intelligence elements, they will transform their strategic partnership from ordinary to extraordinary.