Over the last few years, I have written a lot about creating a successful Executive and EA partnership. It is the key relationship for Assistants and the one part of the role that you have to get right. Without a successful partnership, the work just becomes that much tougher. So, today I thought I would share with you the ultimate guide to creating a successful Executive and EA partnership.
Respect, trust and loyalty
As with any relationship, the one you have with your Executive should be built on respect and trust. Trust is established on a two-way street, but for an assistant, it is vital and necessary for your manager to trust you explicitly. So to guarantee their confidence meet deadlines, deliver work when you say you are going to, keep confidential matters top secret and do not be seen as the office gossip.
Talking to your manager about the things you do outside of the office may seem a bit daunting or even a complete waste of time, but it does help build rapport and a good understanding of how and why you are both doing what you do. Always ask them how their evening/weekend was and look genuinely interested when they answer, you may find that you have things in common and even if they do not reciprocate the question you have gained at least a small insight into how their mood will be that day. Also, if you focus on the positive traits of your manager, it will help you understand what motivates them to succeed.
As an Assistant, we are in a fortunate position in that quite often we get to tell our boss what to do. We tell them when they have to be in meetings when they can take their lunch, what they have to read, which emails they have to answer first. Again, not many of our colleagues have this type of relationship with the boss so we can use it to our advantage when managing up. We can be honest; we don’t have to be ‘yes men/women’. We can be a breath of fresh air, we can be asked our opinion and give advice, and most importantly we can be trusted. All of this leads to respect, which is so necessary for an assistant to progress in the workplace.
Again this is something I’ve mentioned in previous posts. It is the case that the better your relationship, the easier it is to manage your boss’s expectations. Invest time in getting to know each other, go out for the occasional coffee and do ask about their life outside of work. Also, appreciate their sense of humour and laugh at the occasional joke (even if you have to force yourself!)
Make sure they know that you are on their side!
Executives have so much going on that quite often they can drop the ball on certain things. This is where you come in. One of the main aspects of the role is to make your boss look good. So to do this, ensure you know the tasks they tend to neglect and make sure you do them. For example, if they are always late for meetings make sure you build contingency time in their schedule so that they can get to their meetings on time or if they are continually losing things make sure you keep a copy of all of their paperwork. Once you are making them look good the next step is to let them know you are on their side. It can be easy for them to neglect you so make sure they are aware of how much you are doing for them. A simple way to do this is to feedback all of the work you do at each face to face meeting you have.
Ask for advice and then act on that advice. You work for a senior Executive; they will have some good business knowledge that they can pass down to you so do ask them to share their experiences with you. Everyone likes to voice an opinion, including your boss. Do be selective about the type of advice you ask for, obviously, don’t ask advice on something that is fundamental to your role. You still need to be seen as an expert assistant. Instead, ask them how they dealt with certain situations or what they think the best course of action is on more difficult tasks. Asking for advice should encourage your Executive to see themselves as a bit of a mentor which in turn should help your relationship develop a certain amount of trust.
Communication between an Assistant and their Executive is everything! It is so important that you communicate regularly and face to face! Again this is a two-way thing and should be consistent throughout the time you work with your manager. Naturally set up regular meetings to discuss both workloads and diaries but also be there for them when they look like they need to talk about something. Check in with them throughout the day, even if it is to say where you are going. If you communicate with them effectively, you won’t be blindsided with unexpected problems
A continual dialogue is so important
Don’t make the mistake that you and your manager are on the same page! It’s hard enough being on the same page with your friends and family let alone your work colleagues! The only way you can ensure you understand what your boss wants from you is to continuously communicate with them and have an open and honest dialogue. It is in your best interest to understand their priorities and align your goals with theirs.
Communication – when and how
Understanding when and how to communicate is also essential. You have to communicate effectively and strategically so that you get the most out of every interaction. Before attempting any type of communication think about what it is that you are trying to convey. Organise this in your mind and stick to the key points. If you need to, write these key points down so that you can refer back if the topic runs away from you. This should be used in any form of communication from emailing someone to meeting them face to face.
Remember that Communication is a two-way street. Don’t let your manager get away with vague instructions. This is so important because it is so easy for them to do. You are there to support them so they may spend less time explaining what they need from you than they would do with your colleagues. Always define the specifics back to your manager (either with a follow-up email or during the initial project conversation). With long-term tasks, such as diary or email management do the same thing, define exactly how they want you to manage their correspondence and calendar. Again have this conversation immediately if you haven’t already – how else do you know if you are meeting their expectations? If you have been working with your manager for a while, it is always worth having a review meeting to suggest new ways of working and any best practice you have picked up from colleagues or previous roles you’ve had. Suggest this to your manager and work in ways to ask precisely what their expectations are!
Know your Executive
I’ve said this many times before, but I do think that you should invest time in getting to know your boss. To do this you should find out what their life is like outside of work and try to appreciate their sense of humour (even if you have to force yourself!) If you appear to be happy and can have a good time at work, it enhances the relationships you have with colleagues, including your manager. Let them in on the joke once and in a while and include them in the conversation.
The rhythm of your Executive’s Day
It is essential to know at what point during the day your manager is at their peak. Are they are a morning or afternoon person, do they take a while to get going in the morning or start to flag in the afternoon? A good way of finding this out is by monitoring when they need caffeine! Once you have this information, you will know when is the best time to schedule meetings for them, when to leave time free for them to get stuck into their emails or write reports. As we know minimising interruptions is a vital part of the service Assistants, provide but even more important is knowing when it is appropriate and how you go about interrupting them.
The day flies by and before you know you haven’t got a clue where or what your boss is up to. I find it is so helpful when trying to maintain a good relationship just finding five minutes to ask yourself that question – what is going on with them? Once you’ve asked the question you can then look at their schedule – are they on track? Do they have the right paperwork for each meeting? Do they need you to be there and what can you do to help with any actions that come out of the meeting? Again you can ask yourself the question and then get up from your chair walk into their office and ask them if they need anything – even if it is lunch or a cup of tea.
From the moment you start working with your manager, you should be figuring out what tasks they struggle with. I know this sounds slightly negative and a bit mean but seriously knowing what they are rubbish at means you know what to focus on being good at! Are they untidy, do they lose things all the time, are they unorganised or continuously late for meetings – do they completely forget they are supposed to be in a meeting!? If this is the case, they will have a reputation in the office for having this weakness, and it won’t reflect well on them. Whatever issue they have work on the basis that you will excel at propping up their weaker side and this should make them so much better at their job and therefore more successful. It will also improve their reputation at work, and again this will completely add to their success.
To start managing up, we have to come to terms with the fact that our manager has limitations. We are in the perfect position as assistants to understand what those limitations are. We work very closely with our manager and should already be helping them with the work that takes most of their time. For example, we will know if a big problem for them is their organisational skills, or that they are not good at delegating. We will more than likely have first-hand knowledge of this and already be aiding them with their needs so managing up for us has to be more than just helping with their limitations. We have to take on the tasks that they don’t want to do or can’t do, and we have to make that our speciality, taking on such tasks will only help our career and enable us to learn more in the long run. For example, your boss doesn’t like filing (to be fair, who does?) If we take that job on, we have access to relevant documents that we should read to gain a greater understanding of what is happening in the business. Another example, if your boss doesn’t like dealing with difficult members of staff, act as a go-between so that you can enhance your people skills. Again, if you ever manage a team, this training will come in handy. You are increasing your skills while managing your bosses limitations
Understand when something is urgent
It can take time to develop a good understanding of how your Executive goes about their day, their moods and their work style. It is really important that assistants do understand all of this though. It is the only way to create a great partnership with an Executive. Watch your Executive closely. I wouldn’t suggest stalking, but do get to a point where you know when they are at their most productive, when they need to be left alone and when you should schedule meetings for them. To keep them happy you will also need to know everything about their day and what they have coming up that week, month, year. If they are having a particularly stressful time make sure you are around and there to help at any point. If they have given you a task during these periods, make sure it is completed quickly and with the minimum amount of input from them. If you know, they might require your help – be there.
Ultimately your manager needs to know what they are talking about, whether it is with the CEO, clients, the board or members of staff your manager needs to have the correct information to communicate what they know and what they can offer. To help them succeed in this assistants should provide information in the right quantity and format that works best for the manager. Simple right? Well no not really – how do we know what information they need, surely we would be doing their job if we had that kind of knowledge. Well, this is precisely my point we should have knowledge of their job and the business to be able to provide them with the information they need to succeed. How do we do this? Start by attending meetings with your manager, take notes and have that information readily available if you need to remind them or refer back to what was discussed. Know what is going on elsewhere in the business and feed this information back. Get to grips with the office structure and how it relates to your boss – who does he need to see and who needs to see him? If your manager knows that they can rely on you to be a centre of knowledge, then it will free up space in their brain to concentrate on something else.
What do they need to focus on?
You should ask them this question each week. Find out what their issues are or if they have a certain problem to solve and then try to help. This could simply be clearing their schedule so that they can concentrate on the issue at hand or helping them directly with the problem. Always ask your boss what you can do to help.
It is well worth looking at how your Executive interacts with other employees. Who do they like, interact with and respond well to? What characteristics and habits do these people have? Can you learn from them or follow some of their habits to ingratiate yourself with your manager?
We save our boss time. It is the foundation on which our role is built. We, more than any other member of staff should understand how much time our Executive has to dedicate to certain tasks and shouldn’t take more of their time than we need. For every meeting come prepared with the correct paperwork, before the meeting anticipate the questions they are going to ask you and find out the right answers. If it helps, set an agenda for each meeting so that you both know exactly what needs to be achieved by the end of each meeting. Think about how long you are going to need, don’t just put an hour in their diary because it is easier for you. Senior Executives are not going to like time-wasters so we should do everything we can to respect their time.
Know your role
When it comes to working with an Executive a sure fire way of keeping them happy is to under-promise and over-deliver. Assistants should first and foremost deliver what they have promised, whether that is meeting a deadline or nabbing the hard to reserve tables, and then think about any additional work they can do that goes above and beyond their Executive’s expectations. Assistants can’t over-deliver on every single task (that would be crazy) but once in a while, making an effort will keep that smile on even the hardest to please Executive’s face.
So you have a to-do list right? Sure you do but do you have a to-do list for your manager? Do you know what they need to achieve by the end of the day, week or month? It is such a good idea to have access to their task list (MS outlook is great for this) so that you can keep an accurate record of what they need to do and remind them of any outstanding work. A key characteristic of a successful person is that the outward appearance of being on top of things and meeting deadlines. If you know, they have something urgent you can schedule time for them, rearrange meetings or simple stop anyone interrupting them until that task has a tick next to it. Also if you have access to their task list, it is easier just to do the small things that they shouldn’t be doing anyway!
Proactivity is always going to be key
In everything we do proactivity is a required skill and this is the case when it comes to managing up. You need to be on top of everything that you do so that your manager doesn’t have to worry about managing you. A good way of appearing proactive is keeping a record (either physically or mentally) on the status of each task that your manager has given you. If you can reel off updates whenever asked, you will look in complete control. Also, you know, be proactive. If something is broken, fix it and try to keep everything ticking over nicely so that your manager doesn’t have to be concerned with the usual office issues. Do let them know that you are proactive though, don’t think that your work speaks for itself… As an assistant, it rarely gets noticed. So be indispensable to your manager, but let them know you are too!
Proactivity will always be a central skill for assistants, and again it is very important when you want to exceed expectations. Do be self-motivated and go the extra mile for your manager. Be helpful and easy to work with. One little tip is to always ask your manager if there is anything more you can do for them before you go home at the end of a working day. It is a nice way of showing that you are thinking of them when you are thinking about going home. If there is anything they need you to do at least they have delegated it and you can deal with the request first thing in the morning. Do think to yourself ‘what can I do today that will make my boss’s job easier’.
Return every call, reply to every email
This kinda goes without saying, but when you are slammed with work, it can be difficult replying to every message, particularly if you get a gazillion messages from your Executive per day. To keep your Executive happy you must, must, must reply to everything. Even if it is a simple email that says you’ve received the message and you are working on it. I know this is time-consuming, but keeping your Executive in the loop means they don’t have to chase you for a reply and they know that you are dealing with everything. It might be worth keeping a few standard replies in your draft folder if you get the same sort of email requests from your Executive.
Don’t wait to be told what to do
Don’t wait to be told what to do. If something is causing your Executive stress or is an unnecessary waste of their time, you should be doing everything you can to fix it for them. A good solid working relationship between you and your Executive is achievable if your manager doesn’t feel like they have to manage you. Don’t get me wrong; they have to be a good manager who supports you professionally through regular catch up meetings and feedback. But on a day to day basis you should be anticipating their needs and ensuring everything is running smoothly around them. Not only is that going to improve the relationship with your boss it is going to make you one hell of an assistant!
They have to see you as an equal
This is important as an assistant. Your boss has to see you as an equal, not as their servant or dog’s body or any other negative stereotypes that assistants often have to face. The relationship may not be quite that bad, but it could be that your boss doesn’t think that you are as important as their other employees and spends less time investing in you. Either way, you have got to make them see you as an equal in every regarding (even if they are the CEO of the organisation). How do you do this? Well, firstly you have to see yourself as their equal. You have to think that you are just as important as them and that you have the right to be heard and the right to speak. You bring a tremendous amount of value to the organisation, and your Executive should respect you for that, you should also respect yourself for that too! You should see yourself in a partnership with your boss based on mutual understanding and the same objectives. Yes, your Executive is more senior to you, and you should indeed show them respect, but regarding your partnership, you are equally important.
I hope you enjoyed the ultimate guide to creating a successful Executive and EA partnership. If you are new to the Assistant role, you can also take a look at our eBook – Starting out as a new Assistant.