In today’s blog post I’ve adapted the presentation I gave at the Future Assistant Conference back in February. The title of the session was ‘The road to strategic thinking’. 

Over the last 7 years I’ve followed how the PA industry has changed, publications have come and gone, new thought leaders have stepped up…. How we view the role within the industry is constantly changing. Particularly this year I think, if you follow some of the voices within the industry we will be challenging a lot of notions around the role and misconceptions about the role. This year more than ever we will see strong voices talking about how we must elevate ourselves. So in this session I wanted to talk specifically about one really practical idea that has been part of the changing nature of the PA role in the last 7 years since I started writing about the profession and that is the road to strategic thinking. Or in other words, aligning your skills with the strategic growth of the business.

What’s the story?

I first hear the term ‘strategic business partner’ probably about 7 years ago when I read the now ground breaking article by Melba Duncan in the Harvard Business Review. She wrote that Assistants are incredibly important to their organisations because they save their Executive’s time. She wrote a simple formula that calculated the amount of money an organisations spends on their highly paid Executive’s doing administrative tasks compared to the cost and salary of an Assistant doing the administrative work. Obviously as we all know, it is a no brainer. As an Executive said to me last year, ‘if you are doing the admin you are an admin’. Melba went on to say that the more work that an Executive can give to their Assistant the more time they can spend pushing the organisation forward.

This article came at a time when the financial crisis was still causing major problems for businesses and middle management roles were being made redundant. It made sense that Assistants take on more work, not necessarily with the increase in pay however. Since then the American Association – ASAP conducted a survey with its members to see how many tasks Assistants were taking on that traditionally had been with middle management. It was a lot.

I’m sure many of you have seen that happen in your own roles, I certainly noticed at the time I was doing a lot of work that my colleagues had been doing, like organising events, looking after budgets, running projects and look at how we  could cut costs. So the evidence was certainly there that the role was changing.

From this the term’ strategic business partner’ was born. For me, I think the term was used to elevate the Assistant from the ‘typing pool’ mentality of many businesses and show that what we were doing was contributing to the bottom line. Specifically, when we could show how much time we were saving our Executives.

Now, a lot of the industry is talking again about the PA as a strategic business partner, there are a lot of training courses on the subject, there are a lot of articles and it certainly is where the industry leaders are pushing the role. It is also, having spoken to a lot of Assistants over the years, the term that really defines them as successful. So I thought it was really worth looking at what it means and how do we get there because….

Are we feeling it?

Many of us aren’t. I speak to and get a lot of emails from Assistants who are still facing the challenges we’ve always faced. This lift from the Personal Assistants as an Administrative resource to a real strategic business partner has been in affect for the last decade and we have a long way to go. Many of us still don’t have a clear career path, we aren’t taken seriously, our boss’s don’t give us the platform to be strategic and we are excluded from the conversation. There are a lot of challenges…

One of them for me is what exactly does the term mean when they are talking about strategic business partners, because for me strategy is the thing that is put into place that moves the business forward. That is what the Executive board do… the CEOs and the CFOS so how do we fit into that? What does it look like to be a strategic business partner?

I’ve spent a lot of time reading articles about this term and speaking to thought leaders in the profession and here is a look at some of the skills and competencies that make up what is considered to be a strategic business partner.

The road to strategic thinking

The challenges…

Okay, so if these are the areas that the role is moving into and the characteristics of a strategic business partner what are the challenges? Why aren’t we all there yet? Here are a few examples of the challenges we face:

  • Finding the time to be strategic
  • Having the confidence
  • Moving from a reactive to a proactive assistant
  • Having the backing of your Executive

What steps do we have to take?

I think the first thing to say is that you will all be at different points along the road to being a business strategic partner. Unfortunately there is no road map for this because our career paths are so varied and we all have such different experiences in the role, that change from job to job, company to company so a lot of this work you will have to do on your own. But.

You’ve got to do it! The thought leaders are elevating the role to this level, which means recruitment companies are using this jargon in their job descriptions and this is what ultimately businesses are going to want in their staff. To make sure that you future proof your career and that you are ready for the next five years, this level of interaction within your business is imperative. It’s getting to be as vital as it was 15 years ago to know how to use Microsoft.

Also, it’s worth noting that the strategic stuff, this is also where the reward and recognition lives, this is how you get yourself noticed.

Okay now I’m going to start sharing some of the work that I did as an Executive Assistant to push myself into more challenging work and also over the last 7 years running my own business. Before I crack on I just wanted to share one of favourite quotes, which is from the Great Gatsby…

The road to strategic thinking

This is your career and you have to put yourself out there if you want the rewards and the gratification that really can come from being an Assistant.

What is strategy and where does it come from?

The first thing we have to do is define what we mean by strategic because as I said this is what drives the business forward. It is the plan that all employees follow to make the business success. The CEO and board members make the strategy and we follow it. So how does a strategic business partner fit into that process? For me Strategy covers a lot and people say it when they don’t really know what they mean. All of the examples I gave above could be considered as strategic and but for me this is what I mean when I talk about PAs being strategic.

‘Strategy is the art of adding value’

I want you to consider strategy as the following ‘strategy is the art of adding value’. I think this really applies to Assistants because we are very much there to add value to the organisation but saving our Executive’s time (and now also working on projects and tasks outside of the traditional PA role).

The road to strategic thinking

Okay, now we know what we mean by strategy let’s look at the steps you can follow to get there.

Start with the why

Okay, I’ve nicked this from the book by David Sinek, he has done a brilliant Ted talk that you should all watch by the way. In his book he talks about the idea of starting with why – and that is where I want you to start. Why does your organisation do what it does? Not what it does or how it does it but why? What is the purpose of your organisation? And then within that – why does your Executive or Executives do what they do? What are their core beliefs and values? Why do they work in a certain way and what makes them tick? Once you start to think about the why of things you will start to gain an idea of what the bigger picture is – in other words why something has to be done rather than just getting on and doing it.

Live and Breath the company strategy

You have to live and breath the company strategy. You have to be 100% involved in it. You have to understand it and you have to action all of your work based on the overall objectives of the organisation and then the objectives of your Executive.

This is easy to say right? A little harder to do so now I’m going to give you some solid tips on how you start to understand the strategy of the business… First one is…

#1 Never Stop Learning

Attend training in areas that you can improve – business strategy, finance, marketing whatever it is. Where can you add value. Where is there a gap in expertise – can you fill that gap?

  • Graduate programmes
  • In house training
  • Shadow others in your PA network, your colleagues, members of the board etc.
  • Get a mentor – is there a PA in your office who is a strategic business partner, what did they do, how did they get there?

There are those PAs who say, I’ve been in this job for 20 years, there is nothing left to learn. Well they won’t be here in the next 5 years because they will be left behind. There is a lot to learn! If you have a boss that doesn’t appreciate what you do or what you can do. They will find that you’ve left in 5 years and found someone who does get what an EA can offer and they’ll be stuck trying to work out how to use AI to schedule a meeting with their new millennial boss!

#’2 Never Stop Networking

Networking is basically the foundation to good overall business acumen and understanding the direction of the business.

Networking for PAs is essential for so many reasons but in terms of business acumen it will greatly improve your knowledge. And here is why. When you network you find out about stuff! So go to networking events (which are quite often free or a small fee), meet with other PAs, attend the training sessions that go along with networking events, meet with suppliers. Go to team drinks, go to departmental drinks, go to your organisation’s networking events and talk to people! One of the cheapest ways to find out about the organisation is to talk to people and ask what they do!

As an Assistant you are automatically given a level of trust that other people within the organisation are not so take advantage of that. Always ask ‘what is happening with you?’ People want to get on well with PAs, they know that PAs are worth knowing and have a lot of information so you use this to your advantage to build your own knowledge of the company and what is going on. As I said before, be curious!

If you don’t already, it is well worth setting up an internal network for all of the assistants within the organisation. I know some of you are already part of an internal network and obviously Simone will touch on that a little bit in the next session. If you have an internal network to share business information and have speakers from the business come and talk to you about the strategic direction you will increase the visibility of the Assistants within the organisation. And, again, this doesn’t cost your company too much money!

#3 Read Everything

This might seem obvious to some of you but I’ve met Assistants who don’t do this and it is this… READ everything!

And I mean everything! Read your Executive’s emails – both their inbox and sent items. Read their reports, read their memos, files, past emails – everything!

Does your manager subscribe to business magazines? If they do, this is great because you open their post and can read the magazines before giving it to them! Not only does this help with your business knowledge it also gives you something to talk to your boss about, which is great when you are building rapport and finding common ground which in itself is vital to being a strategic business partner.

Reading doesn’t stop there. Make sure you read everything that is put up on your internal communication systems – intranet, collaborative tools such as Slack or Trello and briefing documents. I always found the intranet to be a weird and wonderful place to get lots of information about the organisation.

I highly highly recommend that you read lots of career and personal development books. I love getting lost in a good book and will always find time to ready fiction so I make sure that with every two fiction books I read I will read one non-fiction book that will develop me professionally.

Feedly is my app of choice.

When it comes to reading, prioritize what to read. Business related and boss related stuff comes first. Then create some time to read everything else. As I said, I love a good book so I have the routine of reading one non-fiction to every two trashy fiction or celebrity autobiographies that I love but don’t really feed the brain!

#4 Listen to Everything

Because this is how you really find out how your Executive operates and the people they surround themselves with.

Do you take minutes at meetings? Again this is another fantastic way to increase your business awareness. In a previous role I managed 12 Committees all of which had a special interest in different areas of accountancy.

I attended all of the Committee meetings and took all of the minutes. During the meetings I would really listen to what everyone was saying and take notes on anything I didn’t understand so that I could research it later. I would also talk to the members during refreshment breaks and read all of the supporting documents along with their regular newsletters.

Oh my goodness, by the end of the 4 years I worked in that role my knowledge of accountancy was extraordinary! I once attended a networking event for one of the Committees and talked to a new member for half an hour before he realised I wasn’t actually an accountant (thank God!)

So while you are reading everything, also listen to everything too!

Listen to what is going on around, what your colleagues are talking about over lunch or during post-work drinks. You don’t need to divulge this information to anyone but being business savvy isn’t just about the nuts and bolts of the business it is also about the mood and feel of the office. People make businesses so make sure you also have a good understanding of what is happening with your colleagues and the culture of the organisation.

#5 Attend Meetings

Do you attend meetings with your manager? If you don’t, you need too. It is imperative that you are privy to the same information as your manager. Okay, there will be times that you don’t attend meetings – 1.2.1s with other members of staff but you should be attending client meetings, board meetings, team meetings and project meetings. Everything that involves your Executive making a decision, noting information.

Attending meetings will bring you into contact with the company’s decision makers and you will be privy to their conversations and how they come to make decisions. Ensure you listen to these people. If you know why decisions are made in the company then you can start to make choices about your everyday work following the same strategy as the executive team.

Even after 1.2.1 meetings you should probably get an update on any actions from that session. I will come on to this in more detail so let’s stick with listening for a second.

When you are in these meetings you are an active participant, as Janine said – be part of the meeting, you as your Executive’s assistant and as a member of the organisation have every right to be there. For me, I used to get really nervous in meetings and I would sweat if I know I had to present something and I had to really force myself to speak up. To get over my nerves I started to really over prepare and although this tactic is quite clearly a lack of confidence (I doubt my male colleagues were doing the same). I would rehearse what I had to talk about, I think about questions I might be asked and I would read everything that was happening around the meeting so I felt more prepared. It wasn’t necessary half the time but it helped me feel more confident to speak up.

I want to read you this excerpt from a LinkedIn article written by Adam Hergenrother who is the CEO of his own global business.

The road to strategic thinking

#6 Push your boundaries

You have to push your business boundaries. Put yourself out there, ask questions. If you don’t know the answer to something go and find out. Research and investigate things. Ask to be part of a cross departmental project. One tip is to always offer to organise events, you will find out a lot of stuff when you organise an event for your business. You will work with different colleagues and if you sit on the registration desk you will meet different people too. Be visible at all times.

Getting ahead doesn’t just start with how competent you are, which really sucks for women in business, it also has a lot to do with confidence. You can be the most competent person in the room but if there is somebody with more confidence they are going to be heard first. So you have to be confident and I hope after this conference you can go back into the office and feel like you can get yourself to the level of a strategic business partner.

Also when you get back and you start following these steps you will feel more confident to sit with your Executive and show them that you understand the company’s strategy and that you are implementing it into your own work by thinking strategically. This depth of knowledge will be impressive because they might not think you consider the bigger picture.

#7 Finding the time to think

Lastly, like your manager you have to have the time to think strategically

For PAs it is so standard that we dive into work, get things done and shift through tons of work. We are the go to person.

When you need to think strategy, you need to slow down, find time and think through your options. Some of the great Executive Assistants that I have meet take time out of the office to plan and prepare for the month ahead. I also had a fantastic tip from Emma Kernan Staines, EA at the Rugby Player’s Association. She found that every week her 1.2.1 with her boss would slip off the calendar so she changed the title to ‘business critical matters’. Just by simply changing the title of the session she was able to sit down with her boss each week for half an hour and go through strategy, weekly, monthly and yearly objectives. It never came out of the diary and as time went by her Executive became completely reliant on the meetings as a place to think and strategize with the help of Emma and Emma was privy to all the information she needed to do her job strategically and effectively. If you make one change when you go back to the office after this session, make sure it is that one!

Putting it into Practice

I always like to finish my training by offering some advice on how you can put all of this information into practice. For strategic thinking here is my tip.

Each month pick a topic that you would like to learn more about or brush up on. During that month find some time – over lunch, during your commute or if you can take some personal development time during your working hours  – to dedicate to developing your strategic knowledge. Remember if you read and listen to everything that happens around you will be constantly improving your business knowledge, but it is also important to take time to dedicate it too. I would also say, let your Executive know that you want to improve your business savvy and ask for their input in this – get them involved and interested in your development. Lastly, make this part of your overall objectives for the year. If this is part of your career development plan you are actually allowed to dedicate time within your working hours to this!

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One comment

  • Saba April 16, 2018  

    Nicky, what a wonderful article. Thank you so much for taking the time to write and share.