You and Your Executive / Guide to Building a Strategic Business Partnership with your Executive / How to start building a strategic partnership between an Assistant and an Executive
How to start building a strategic partnership between an Assistant and an Executive
We look at the skills, competencies and characteristics Assistants need to work as a strategic business partner.
Creating a business partnership with an Executive is a critical move that Assistants must make to future proof their career. It is imperative that Assistants transition from being task-driven and reactive into a valued member of staff who is aligned with the strategy of the business and adds value with the partnership and across the organisation.
In this chapter, How to start building a strategic partnership between an Assistant and an Executive, we are going to cover all of the skills, character traits and competencies Assistants need to work as a strategic business partner.
We will take an in-depth look at the basics you need in the Assistant role before thinking about how to move into a strategic position. We will look at how Assistants can elevate themselves in the role by creating a new way of thinking and a new way of working that is strategic, business-focused and proactive.
Let’s have a look at what we are going to cover in this chapter:
Moving from a ‘traditional’ Assistant role into something more business-focused and strategic can be a long process for a lot of Assisants.
For others, it might come more quickly, particularly if your Executive is supportive of your career and professional development.
But, for the majority of Assistants, taking this step is often something we do by ourselves, it is something we have to be vocal about and it a development that often comes because we demand to be seen as strategic and an asset to the business.
Therefore, we thought the best place to start, in this guide, is looking at how Assistants can be more assertive. It is something we have discussed a lot on Practically Perfect PA, and indeed a character trait that is required of all Assistants who want to be a strategic business partner.
Having an awareness of your rights
This will differ from individual to individual, but for me, I think it is an awareness of your rights but also the rights you have as an Assistant.
Sometimes it can be difficult if you feel your role is not taken seriously or you are seen as non-assertive because you are an Assistant.
As I’ve said before Assistants have to own their role and they have to see themselves as more than ‘just’ an Assistant. Being seen as assertive will grow once you first acknowledge your rights are the same as any other employee in your organisation and then really value yourself.
Self-esteem is crucial.
Not being overly aggressive
Or too passive.
Assertiveness is that sweet spot in the middle where the two communication styles live happily together.
Assistants love to be behind the scenes making everything happen and ensuring everything runs smoothly so it can be easy to fall into the trap of acting passively and giving in easily to other’s demands without pushing back, especially if we genuinely want to help and be supportive.
When we are managing our Executive’s schedule, it can be difficult for us not to act aggressively when someone wants to get in front of our Executive while bypassing us.
So how do we maintain a healthy balance?
Well, it is firstly respecting everyone’s feelings, including our own and trying to be open and honest.
Plan what you are going to say when you need to be assertive and while delivering the message, monitor your tone of voice and your body language, both of which should be relaxed and consistent.
Being able to defend your boundaries
I was told that I have the ‘disease to please’ (who knew!) I think it might be an epidemic amongst Assistants, as a large number of us joined the profession because we like to support others and we are often people pleasers.
It can be hard for Assistants to put ourselves first and respect our boundaries. It can be hard to say no to work when we are there to help others, but, we must learn to defend ourselves, and we must be assertive in this, it is so essential for Assistants.
If you have been asked to do something that you don’t feel comfortable with or you do not have the time or the capacity tell the individual no.
Of course, come prepared with reasons why you can’t do it and also offer a different solution if you can.
As hard as it is don’t feel guilty because you have made yourself the priority for a change.
Efficiently communicating your personal opinions and feelings
Expressing how you feel at work is hard and can be quite daunting if you are an Assistant working for a Senior Executive.
Being assertive with your opinions will help your manager in the long run, so it is well worth considering.
They need someone they can trust and rely on, and that will only come if you are open and honest with all of your opinions (well to a point anyway!)
Prepare to be assertive
We don’t have to be assertive every second of the day, so that is why we are not always so good at it.
When the need arises, make sure you prepare what you are going to say, how you want to appear and what tone you want to take and then practice practice practice!
Think about what is going to happen after you’ve been assertive too, are they going to push-back? If so what will you do then? If you are successfully assertive on one occasion learn from that experience and put it into practice again. The same result should be achieved.
This is a big question!
What do I mean by being more accountable, and why is it essential for Assistants moving into a strategic partnership?
For me, being accountable means taking control of your success, managing your workload, your career and your relationship with your Executive and your colleagues. It means making decisions and taking ownership of the results.
It is incredibly crucial for us to be accountable for our work, but, for some reason, this is something that we struggle with.
I think it harks back to the age-old problem that we see ourselves as ‘just the assistant’, that we don’t have the authority to question things and make decisions.
We are given work to complete rather than put forward our suggestions. The term’ support staff’ doesn’t help either because it suggests that we are there to only offer support, do the things that are asked of us and not much more.
This, my friends, is a load of rubbish!
The role is changing, there are more opportunities for Assistants than ever before, and we must, must, must be accountable for our success. This is the first of many steps to move into a strategic business partnership role.
The benefits of accountability?
When you take control of your workload, accept accountability for your actions and take real responsibility for what you are tasked with, well, the benefits are enormous.
Here are just a few differences you will find in your behaviour once you start to think about accountability within your role:
- You will set yourself goals
- You will recognise that you are the expert at what you do
- You will understand the power that you hold within your organisation
So, accountability – it’s a good thing, right?!
But, the question is.
Where do you start?
Let’s have a look at how Assistants, can specifically, be more accountable within the role.
What tasks do you have control over?
This is the first step to being more accountable.
Have a look at all of the day to day tasks that are assigned to you. I bet there are loads. These are the tasks that you should have complete control over.
They may be minor things like picking up the post every morning, through to more significant tasks like managing your Exec’s schedule.
For every task that you have complete control over, think to yourself – how can I make every task a complete success? What can I do to ensure the process attached to each task runs smoothly and is working well?
Make a list of these tasks and spend some time making them more efficient. You are accountable for these tasks, and you should take responsibility for their success.
When you are more accountable for your actions, it will lead to you being much more results-focused, which in turn makes you more valuable to your organisation.
With everything you do, think to yourself – what are the goals here, what are my objectives, what do I want to achieve, and what are the useful outcomes?
This level of critical thinking is beneficial to your business because you will continuously be looking for the return on investment in everything you do.
If you find you spend ages on a task that is not business critical or adds value, because you are accountable for that task, you can adjust the process and make it more effective.
What areas can you influence?
What areas can you influence?
There are a whole load of tasks that you may not have direct responsibility for, but you do have influence over.
Again, if it helps, make a list. A task that springs to mind is working with suppliers. You are not the person that necessarily signs the contracts for new suppliers, but you do use them probably more than most so again take some responsibility for this relationship.
Let your Executive know if a supplier isn’t quite working. If they are great, let other people in your organisation know so they can benefit too.
Be honest about what you are doing and where you are with tasks
Being accountable for your work doesn’t just mean that you control the good stuff; it also means you are honest when things aren’t quite working.
If you decide to take more ownership of your work, then you’ll have to put your hand up when you might fall behind with deadlines, or you are struggling with something.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
If you are working on projects that push and challenge you, there will be times you need to seek advice from your Executive (just like any other member of staff).
Remember, you have to be accountable for all of your work
I remember one time I was working on a brilliant, company-wide project. I was super excited about it and spending a lot of time working on the details.
One afternoon, my Executive called me into her office for a quick catch up. She told me that she was proud that I was working on this big project, but had noticed that I wasn’t quite up to speed with my day to day tasks and I’d missed a few things that I had always done for her.
She was right.
I was having a great time working on this new task, but I had to take account of all of the other stuff I had to do. I let the ball drop, but being accountable meant I had to put my hands up, apologise and say it wouldn’t happen again.
Being accountable for your mistake sucks, but it is as essential as being responsible for your successes!
What training do you need to be in total control of your work?
Another aspect of being accountable and in control of your work is the realisation that you might need some help to make each task a success.
This is why it is crucial that you ask for training and your organisation takes your request seriously. When you are accountable, you know that other people within your organisation depend on the results of your work, so without training, how can you perform to the best of your abilities?
Last but not least.
Accountability has to begin with you. It is such an essential competency for assistants, and it will only become more valued as our industry moves away from a support role into a business-critical role.
With every adjustment to your work style, you should speak to your Executive about how to implement these changes.
Accountability is a brilliant competency to have as part of your career development plan and you could really flesh this out into specific SMART objectives.
You may not manage a team, but you do work in a management role.
You manage your Executive, you work with and support the leadership team, and you should see yourself as a role model within your organisation for other members of staff.
With all that being said, there are plenty of ways that you can boost your managerial presence, and we have five ways to improve your leadership skills.
Always keep learning
This is something that we see all the time in great leaders – they are still curious.
You should always keep learning as much as you can about the business, about the people around you and your strengths and weaknesses.
Take the initiative when it comes to your learning, put yourself forward for work that will challenge you and look at the areas you can improve and then take some training or read some self-improvement books.
This is something that leaders have to do.
They have to take the initiative, make things happen and take responsibility for driving the business forward.
Even if you are not in a management role, you can act like a leader and take action.
Make decisions that are in the best interest of your business and put yourself forward for work that will get you noticed (sometimes that means taking on tasks that nobody else wants to do.)
Ask for feedback
During your one to one meetings with your Executive (that are about your personal development), you should ask for input on the skills that make you a leader. Such as, taking initiative, understanding the way the business works, motivating others, taking responsibility for your work and the success of the company.
There are many leadership skills that you can acquire, and it would be good to get feedback on what areas you can improve. If you work with teams or in project groups, you should also ask for feedback after the project is finished.
Have those difficult conversations
Difficult conversations are always hard to have, but when you think about it often when you have these problematic conversations, something positive comes out of it.
Real leaders can firstly initiate these types of discussions and structure them in a way that makes them worthwhile having.
Understand your strengths and weaknesses
Having self-awareness is an excellent strength for Assistants to have in general, but for leaders being aware of their strengths and weakness is essential.
If you can, complete a survey like Insights Discovery or Myers Briggs to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie as a leader and then you will have a good understanding of the areas that you can work on.
Every business and organisation needs its employees to work together, to move projects forward and reach common goals.
Collaboration is an essential skill for everyone.
However, for Assistants, collaboration is vital. We have to work with other members of staff on projects and reaching common goals.
We also have to build a fantastic relationship with our Executives, which are based so heavily on collaboration, trust and cooperation. To succeed as an Assistant, we need to be collaborative.
There are so many ways that Assistants can be collaborative and showcase their skills in this area.
I’m going to list all of the different areas that I think will showcase a collaborative Assistant.
- Understanding the mission: You need to know what your work means and how it fits into the overall scheme of things. You can be much more collaborative if you understand the goals and strategies of the business.
- Understanding what is expected of you: What does your Executive expect of you? How does your work and what you do make a difference? Understanding the expectations of those around – and of course, living up to the expectations will help you be seen as a team player and someone who collaborates.
- Sharing the responsibility: When you are a collaborative Assistant, you know what your work means and you are responsible for the delivery of the work. Make sure you hit deadlines and present good quality work. Share the responsibility of getting the goals completed and moving the business forward.
- Asking for feedback: When you are working collaboratively with your Executive and colleagues, you need to have clarity around your goals and objectives. You need to ask for feedback – are you on the right track, is there anything that you can change so that your work is adding value?
- Knowing your strengths and building on your weaknesses: Collaborative Assistants understand what they are good at and showcase their talents. They put their hands up for projects they know they can ace and help drive the business forward. They also know which areas they can work on and develop. A collaborative Assistant can play to their strengths and help support their team.
- Going to the meetings: If you want to collaborate and feel part of the team (or in a team with your Executive), you need to go to the meetings. Be involved, find out what is happening at the meetings (not afterwards or through the grapevine). Go to the meetings.
- Having a ‘can-do’ attitude: When everyone is working towards achieving something, a ‘can-do’ attitude really can help to overcome obstacles and reach the result. For Assistants, a positive can-do attitude will get you far. It can also lead to innovation and finding new ways of working.
- Communicating all the time: We all know that Assistants need to have very effective communication skills. These skills shine when you also collaborate effectively. Traits of a collaborative Assistant include knowing how to communicate so that your message is heard, actively listening to your Executive so that you truly understand what is required of you. You should never withhold information that will move the business forward. Never be scared to share your perspective.
- Emotionally intelligent: Collaboration is so essential for a successful Assistant / Executive partnership. To get to a point where you can collaborate quickly and efficiently, you have to get to know each other on an emotional level. Assistants have to understand how their Executive’s operate and what drives them. If they are snappy and irritable, why is that? What is the bigger picture, and what can you do to help get them back on an even keel. Collaboration is often about assessing the mood of the team and helping other people with their challenges. This requires an ability to detach yourself from your feelings and emotions, remain calm and see the bigger picture.
- Respecting other people’s perspectives: When you are all working towards a common goal, there will be many, many different opinions. The ability to recognise everyone’s perspective and acknowledge their thought process will help you collaborate more effectively. Collaborative Assistants are open-minded and are willing to listen to other people so that a consensus can be achieved.
I can remember the first meeting I went to instead of my manager was terrifying.
It was a last-minute decision because she was running late and I didn’t have time to prepare myself properly. I didn’t do anything in the meeting except take a few notes and agree to report back to my manager later that day. I was so annoyed at myself because I knew exactly what was being discussed once I was in the meeting. I knew I could contribute, but because I was so unprepared I didn’t feel very confident in voicing my opinion.
After a bad start, I decided that I did want to be involved in meetings and did enjoy making decisions on behalf of my manager. So, I came up with a plan that would help me be prepared to represent my manager at the drop of a hat and with confidence. How should Assistants represent their boss at a meeting? Here is that plan.
Have regular meetings with your manager
Having regular meetings with your manager does help Assistants stay on top of everything that is going on.
In your catch up meetings review your manager’s diary that day and also for the week ahead.
You should discuss what each meeting is for, what the objectives are, who is attending, and what your Executive hopes to achieve during the meeting.
Hopefully, you will know most of these answers because you have arranged the meeting but do make sure all areas are covered so if you have to step in for your manager you already know what to expect.
Consistent catch-up meetings with your Executive will help you develop a good understanding of the overall business and increase your awareness of your Executives role within the organisation.
If you have been asked to attend a meeting on behalf of your boss and have been given some prior notice, then do schedule a specific catch up meeting to get a brief from your Executive.
Find out how they want you to feedback the outcomes of the meeting.
Attend meetings with your Executive
As part of your development programme ask your Executive if you can attend meetings with them so that you can see how they operate during the meeting, who they are meeting with and how they go about making decisions.
You will find with time that your boss will ask your opinion more and more and they will confide in you too, just because most people want to share what they are thinking.
After a while, you will become a regular fixture at meetings, so when you do represent your Executive on your own most of your colleagues will be used to seeing you there.
Attend meetings without your Executive
As you take on more work and become involved in more projects, you will inevitably attend more meetings.
In those meetings always say something. Have an opinion and voice it.
This will improve your confidence, and your colleagues will see that you worth listening too. The essential task for Assistants in meetings is to take the minutes, but this doesn’t mean you can’t voice your opinion. You have as much right to share your thoughts as anyone else in the meeting.
You want to be part of the meeting and offer the other skills that you have.
Again, stepping out of your comfort zone will help your confidence.
Get to know your colleagues
Get to know all of your colleagues and how they interact with each other.
In a big organisation, it is impossible to know everyone, but you should know all of the departments, who is heading up each department, how big the teams are and what each part of the business does.
All of this should be easily accessible on your intranet or via HR, so do study up.
If you are representing your Executive at a meeting, you may not know who the people in the room are on a personal level, but you should have an understanding of what they do and what they want from your Executive.
Making big decisions
As tempting as it is to agree that the company should close early every Friday your Executive is not going to be pleased if you have agreed with something on their behalf that isn’t in the best interest of the organisation.
Do remember that you can have opinions in meetings and you can certainly answer questions knowing that your manager would answer in the same way but don’t say agree to anything if you are not sure.
It is okay to say that you don’t know and you will have to find out the information after the meeting.
It goes without saying that at some point in your career, you will have to work under pressure, meet tight deadlines and deal with stressful situations.
Although organisations should care for their employee’s wellbeing and strive to create a calm environment, this is not always achievable.
There will be times when, even for the most organised Executives and Assistants, you will encounter working under pressure. Learning to cope with the demand and dealing with stress is essential for Assistants and of course, keeping yourself healthy during these intense periods.
Here are five tips on how to work well under pressure:
Flip your thinking
It can be so easy to feel anxious when you are working under pressure with looming deadlines, urgent requests and a long to-do list to get through.
When you are working in this environment, you must see this period as a challenge that you are going to win.
Assistants are good at working under pressure. We are creative thinkers and problem-solvers, so whenever you are working under pressure, the first thing to tell yourself is you are going to get through this, and you are going to succeed.
Organise and prioritise
When you are working under pressure, try to stay in the here and now. You have a lot to get through, but focusing on future deadlines isn’t going to get the work done. Instead, take a step back.
Every task can be broken down into smaller parts. Prioritise what needs to be done now, today.
Organise your workspace so that you have everything at your fingertips and try to keep the space around you calm and tidy.
What are you doing with your time?
If you find that you are quite regularly working under pressure, you will need to think through the reasons for this?
What are you doing with your time? How are you spending it? Are you procrastinating? How can you reclaim your time so that you are meeting deadlines and finishing projects?
If you are working under pressure because you are saying yes to every task that comes your way, you will also have to evaluate this position. You can’t be everything to all people in the office, no matter how hard you try, somethings have to give!
In every organisation, there will be times when the work ramps up, and everyone is under pressure to complete specific projects.
Assistants will undoubtedly be heavily involved in these periods, and you should plan to make sure that you are in an excellent position to care for yourself during these periods and handle the pressure.
Make sure you have cleared a lot of your work or put it on hold until the stressful time has passed. You know what is important to you and your Executive, everything else can wait.
When you have got through a high pressured period, make sure you reward yourself.
When you are in the middle of the work, and you can’t see the endpoint, you can at least think about the excellent reward you are giving yourself at the end of it! It is so important to reward yourself and reflect on what you have achieved.
Everyone deserves a reward for their hard work, and you should never deny yourself something that makes you feel good about yourself.
A considerable part of an Executive’s job is to lead their staff, motivate and encourage them.
However, this isn’t always the case. There are many Executive’s who are too busy, or under too much pressure in their roles to manage their staff effectively. There are also Executive’s who are very good at what they do but don’t have the interpersonal skills to lead or motivate the team around them.
This lack of leadership can have a real impact on the office culture and morale of the staff. Assistants, of course, will also be affected by this lack of leadership and interpersonal skills, we need to be managed as much as any other member of staff. But, this is a problem in the office that we can help to solve.
We can add value when working with an Executive who struggles to manage their team.
Here is why.
Part of our role is to represent the best interests of our Executive to make them successful. We can see the areas that they find challenging, be it time management, organisation or, in this case, people management and we can support them with these issues.
Let’s look at how Assistants can bridge the interpersonal gap between staff and a busy boss.
The first point that is worth making is that this is not a comfortable place to find yourself in as an Assistant.
Working with an Executive who doesn’t manage very well is tough. You need to work out why they are not great at motivating or managing. Are they too busy, are they under pressure, are they lacking in interpersonal skills, do they struggle connecting with people?
Whatever it happens to be, once you work out the reason you need to ask yourself if you can still work with this Executive. They also need to open up to you and trust you enough to help them manage their staff if they are happy to delegate this responsibility so that they can concentrate on their objectives, great! This makes your role here much more manageable.
If they don’t see their lack of leadership as a problem, well, that is a problem, and you need to consider your position.
Okay, so let’s assume they want you to help bridge the gap.
Where do you start?
Here are a few strategies you can put into place that will help your Executive manage their team effectively and make your team much happier in the workplace.
Lack of communication from management has to be the number one reason people get frustrated in their roles and lack motivation. How can you feel empowered when you don’t know what is going on? Assistants can add value here. Sending out a weekly communication to the team about your Executive’s activities will keep everyone up to date and in the loop.
Ask each of your Executive’s direct reports to send a similar email to you so that you can put that into a report for your Executive to read over on a Friday afternoon. A word of warning, you need to be very involved in your Executive’s day, so you know what you can communicate and what is confidential.
Ensure your Executive has a 1-2-1 session with their direct reports at least once per month.
These 1-2-1 meetings must stay in the diary, so try hard not to move them.
Before the meeting, make sure the direct report submits an agenda that they can work through together. This is essential because you don’t want your Executive to feel like the meeting was a waste of time and cancels the meetings.
When working with an Executive who struggles to motivate their team, you can be sure this will affect the office culture, and it will have a knock-on effect throughout the business.
Depending on how much scope you are given to oversee the management of staff, you can turn the office culture around. There are a few questions you can ask yourself that will start this process:
- How can we make the team feel valued?
- How can the team give feedback?
- What are the goals, values and mission statement of the organisation and how does this affect our team?
- What can we do to make work fun?
- How do we show gratitude for their hard work?
There should be a social aspect in every organisation. Your team should be able to bond in a less formal environment and get to know each other on a personal level. It will be up to you to organise social events for your team. Make sure your
Executive gives you a budget each month for team drinks or team-bonding activities. If this is not possible, organise something cheap and cheerful each month for your team to pay for themselves.
Making your team feel comfortable
In the past, I’ve worked with Executive’s who are incredibly formidable and can be completely unapproachable. I’ve worked for Executive’s who never leave their office and sit scowling at their screen all day.
I’ve sat outside their office and watched as members of their team have to build up the courage to go into the office and speak to them.
It is horrible to see, and no one should have to work like that, but it happens every day in offices throughout the world. If you are working with a tough Executive, be the happy, approachable person that your colleagues see before they go in to speak with your Executive.
Make them feel at ease, let them know what mood your Executive is in and give them a head’s up if specific topics aren’t going to fly today.
Assistants must gain their Executive’s confidence.
It is even more critical when working with an Executive who struggles to motivate their team. They will rely so heavily on you that the only way for the relationship to work is if they can trust you with their team.
You also have to inspire trust in your colleagues; you are the bridge between the top level, Executive’s and the rest of the employees, so they have to trust that you know what you are doing.
If they don’t, you will find they go straight to the Executive rather than coming to you first. This can cause no end of headaches for you. So, inspiring trust both in terms of keeping confidence but also inspiring others to trust your skills. Getting this right will make your job a whole lot easier.