The road to strategic thinking – taking the initial steps to becoming a strategic business partner
The move from the Personal or Executive Assistants as an Administrative resource to a real strategic business partner has been in effect for the last decade. Many of us have a long way to go to get our organisations and our Executives to understand the value we can bring to the role.
Many Assistants still don’t have a clear career path, we aren’t taken seriously, our bosses don’t give us the platform to be strategic, and we are excluded from the conversation.
Strategic thinking, proactivity and adding value as an Assistant. 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 the job of the Executive Board, so how do Assistants 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.
Here is a look at some of the skills and competencies that make up what is considered to be a strategic business partner.
They maximise efficiency
They think like managers
They are results driven
They are analytical
They are proactive rather than reactive
They align their objectives to those of the business
They reduce complexity to simplicity
They are willing to adapt and change
They are not afraid to apply new skills
They make decisions based on the strategic direction of the business
They are daily, minute by minute, problem solvers.
They find the time to plan and strategize
They make decisions based on the needs of the Executive and the organisation
They are prepared to disagree with their Executive and offer alternative solutions
They eliminate conflict
They can work without instruction or direction
They can work under pressure
They can hold their own in a wide variety of situations
They advance the career of their boss and the growth of their company
They relate everything back to the bottom line
20 Ways to Impress Your Executive
The worksheet gives you 20 ideas to elevate you in the Assistant role.
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 all Assistants there yet? Here are a few examples of the challenges Assistants 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 Assistants 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 strategic business 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.
You’ve got to do it!
The thought leaders are elevating the role to this level, which means recruitment companies use this jargon in their job descriptions. This is what ultimately businesses are going to want in their staff.
To ensure 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 work is also where the reward and recognition lives; this is how you get yourself noticed.
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.
Strategic thinking, proactivity, and adding value as an Assistant is more important than ever.
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 successful.
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 know what they mean. All of the examples I gave above could be considered strategic, but for me, this is what I mean when I talk about PAs being strategic.
Strategy is the art of adding value
This applies to Assistants because we are very much there to add value to the organisation but save our Executive’s time (and now also working on projects and tasks outside of the traditional Assistant role).
Okay, now we know what we mean by strategy. Let’s look at the steps you can follow to get there.
In his book, David Sinek talks about the idea of starting with why and understanding your organisation’s purpose.
Start with the why
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 begin to understand what the bigger picture is – in other words, why something has to be done rather than just getting on and doing it.
Live and breathe the company strategy
Assistants have to live and breathe the company strategy.
You have to be 100% involved in it.
You have to understand it, and you have to activate all of your work based on the overall objectives of the organisation and then the goals of your Executive.
Here are some solid tips on how you start to understand the strategy of the business.
#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?
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 is a lot to learn!
Suppose you have an Executive 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 the foundation to good overall business acumen and understanding the direction of the business.
Networking for PAs is essential for so many reasons, but it will significantly improve your knowledge in terms of business acumen.
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 beverages, 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 Assistants. They know that Assistants are worth knowing and have a lot of information, so you use this to your advantage to build your 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.
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, but it also gives you something to talk to your boss about. This is excellent when you build rapport and find common ground, which is vital to being a strategic business partner.
Reading doesn’t stop there.
Make sure you read everything put up on your internal communication systems – intranet, collaborative tools such as Slack or Trello and briefing documents. I always found the intranet 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 read fiction, so I make sure that I will read one non-fiction book that will develop me professionally with every two fiction books I read.
Feedly is my app of choice.
When it comes to reading, prioritise 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 feed the brain!
#4 Listen to Everything
Because this is how you 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 particular interest in different areas of accountancy.
I attended all of the Committee meetings and took all of the minutes. During the meetings, I would listen to what everyone was saying and take notes on anything I didn’t understand to research it later. I would also talk to the members during refreshment breaks and read all of the supporting documents and regular newsletters.
By the end of the four years I worked in that role, my knowledge of accountancy was extraordinary!
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 organisation’s culture.
#5 Attend Meetings
Do you attend meetings with your manager?
If you don’t, you need to. You must be 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. E
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, you can start making 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. Be part of the meeting. As your Executive’s Assistant and as a member of the organisation, you have every right to be there.
For me, I used to get nervous in meetings, and I would sweat if I know I had to present something, and I had to force myself to speak up.
To get over my nerves, I started to 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, think about questions I might be asked, and 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.
Your Assistant works WITH you, not FOR you. Hallie reads all of my emails, attends the majority of my classes & trainings, listens on calls, and sits in on meetings. She is more effective when she knows what I know, knows how I think, how I solve problems, and what I have decided and promised (so she can follow-up and deliver). Do not keep your Assistant on the periphery, assigning tasks that have no context or meaning. They will be far more invested in your success when they are a part of the entire process, and eventually part of the decision making or even making decisions on your behalf. When you bring your assistant into your inner circle – everyone wins.
#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 always to 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 at the registration desk, you will meet different people.
Be visible at all times.
Getting ahead doesn’t just start with how competent you are, which sucks for women in business; it also has a lot to do with confidence. You can be the most qualified person in the room, but if there is somebody with more confidence, they will be heard first.
So you have to be confident, and I hope you can feel like you can get yourself to a strategic business partner level.
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 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
It is so standard for assistants to dive into work, get things done, and shift through tons of work. We are the go-to person.
When you need to think strategically, you need to slow down and think through your options. Some of the great Executive Assistants that I have met take time out of the office to plan and prepare for the month ahead.
Putting it into Practice
Each month pick a topic that you would like to develop.
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 around you, you will be continually improving your business knowledge. Still, it is also essential to take time to dedicate it too.
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! It is the only way you will show strategic thinking, proactivity and adding value as an Assistant.
Developing your business acumen
I like this definition of business acumen. It is from the Financial Times Lexicon:
In practice, people with business acumen are thought of as having business ‘sense’ or business ‘smarts’. They are able to obtain essential information about a situation, focus on the key objectives, recognise the relevant options available for a solution, select an appropriate course of action and set in motion an implementation plan to get the job done.
Developing business acumen takes time. It has to be achieved through learning and training, and ultimately it has to be part of your ongoing development plan. Expanding your business awareness has to be constant.
Having strong business sense isn’t easy to develop, but it is incredibly vital for an assistant. We support people that have solid business acumen.
They wouldn’t be in the position they are in without it! How can we help them if we do not understand their business, their strategic objectives and the pressures they face daily?
The difficulty is that many organisations don’t understand this need and do not offer assistants the opportunity to attend training courses or take time out of their day to build their business acumen.
Many bosses do not see the potential in their assistants or the bonus of having an assistant with a good knowledge of the business and what that means in terms of the extra support they would receive.
In this video, Nicky will discuss all the different methods she has employed to improve her business acumen as an Executive Assistant and business owner.Strategic thinking, proactivity and adding value as an Assistant.
It goes without saying that for an Assistant to be successful in the role, they need to have strong business acumen. I’ve written about this skill a lot over the years, and I have presented on the topic at various events.
It is a topic close to my heart because I genuinely think once Assistants develop business awareness and get a good grasp of the organisation they work in and the industry, they will open up their career to lots of fantastic opportunities and more reward and recognition.
Understanding the business makes you a better Assistant. You are part of the organisation and team rather than someone who works separately from everyone else. You can make informed decisions based on the strategy and objectives of the business.
I have two resources from Practically Perfect PA to share with you before we delve into more resources to increase your business acumen.
Strong Business acumen starts with an understanding of how your organisation makes money. As an Assistant, you have access to a lot of information that will show you how your organisation makes money.
Understanding your organisation’s financials
I always say that Assistants should read everything that passes their desk, but specifically, you should read:
Financial Statements (the Annual Report is generally made available to staff). What do the leaders say is vital to your business? What metrics do they use to measure success? Where does the company make and spend money?
Project charters (that your Executive is involved in)
Internal newsletters and updates
The organisation’s website – specifically the press releases, company structure and value statements.
Once you understand how your organisation makes money, you will begin to know how your business fits into the overall industry and the bigger picture.
If you are not sure about the financial jargon that comes with every financial document, I would highly recommend you read What the CEO wants you to Know.
Overall awareness of your business’s financials, if they have had a good year, won clients, or if they have had setbacks is crucial for your business acumen, and it will help you build a partnership with your Executive.
Understanding your industry
Getting to grips with the industry you work in can be pretty overwhelming, mainly if you work in a very technical industry.
But you’ve got to try and understand what your business does and how it fits in with the industry. If you work for a global organisation, say a financial institution or a large conglomerate. You should understand the bigger picture, of course, but then concentrate on what your department does and how it fits into the overall business structure.
There will be a lot of resources available for you to read up on your industry, and I would suggest you start with:
Trade journals and magazines that you can pick up in your office or are sent to your Executive
Follow leading industry experts on social media
In-house courses on your industry (Introduction to Insurance, for example)
Research the competition
Again this will develop your business acumen and give you something to discuss with your colleagues and your Executive. You will understand the climate in which your business operates and start to grasp the company’s objectives.
Improving your business knowledge
There are a lot of great resources available online that can help you improve your overall business knowledge. Here are just a few suggestions:
As I said at the beginning of the post developing your business acumen is so essential for Assistants. It does set you apart and will push your career forward.
The rewards are there if you take the time to develop this skill. The good news is that you can build your business acumen by delving into many free resources. You just need to make the time for it! It is so necessary when building your strategic thinking, proactivity and adding value as an Assistant.
Getting to grips with your organisation’s strategy
For Assistants, it has become more apparent that the way forward in our profession is to work as a strategic business partner with our Executive. To introduce strategic thinking, proactivity and adding value as an Assistant.
We have written about this a lot over here on Practically Perfect PA and something I have advocated for many years. The role of the Assistant isn’t going anywhere, despite the developments in AI, but it is changing and will continue to change at a rapid pace.
The changes have mostly come in how we work and the skills we have developed and must continue to grow. We are much more aligned with our organisation’s goals, and our work adds to the bottom line.
What does all this mean practically?
Well, we should work more strategically and make decisions based on the strategy of the organisation. But, strategy is such an overarching word and means different things to different people, so how do we get to grips with our organisation’s strategy and think more strategically. How do we introduce strategic thinking, proactivity and adding value as an Assistant?
There are many resources available to Assistants on how to think and work as a strategic business partner. I would push you in the direction of Melba Duncan and her work on this topic, starting with her incredible and ground-breaking article in the Harvard Business Review – The Case for the Executive Assistant.
Understanding your organisation’s strategy
There will be many documents that you can read to help you understand your organisation’s strategy. They should be on your intranet or knowledge database but if not, ask your Executive for a copy (or look through their emails). For starters, try to read the following:
Vision / Mission statements
Goals and objectives
Key Performance Indicators
Organisational charts and structures
Try also to gain an understanding of how your organisation makes money. As an Assistant, you have access to a lot of information that will show you how your organisation makes money.
Getting to the top of the industry will be the ultimate strategy for your organisation, so it is essential to understand how they plan to do that and, if they are already at the top, how they plan to stay there!
Improving your strategic thinking
Along with understanding the business you work in, Assistants need to think more strategically and make decisions based on the organisation’s strategy.
How do you go about doing this?
Like your Executive, you have to have the time to think strategically. Giving yourself time helps develop strategic thinking, proactivity and adding value as an Assistant.
It is so standard for assistants to dive into work, get things done, and shift through tons of work.
We are the go-to person.
When you need to think strategically, you need to slow down, find the time and think through your options. Here are just a few resources that can help you to think more strategically:
The trait that I admire most in exceptional leaders (think Oprah Winfrey and Brene Brown) is the time they dedicate to learning new things.
I love that they read, take on new ideas and concepts and never stop growing.
This is something that I always try to find time for, and I think it is essential for Assistants to do the same. I get how hard it is to find a space in your business schedule for career development. But taking the time is the only way to understand strategic thinking, proactivity and adding value as an Assistant.
Let’s face it, picking up a career book probably isn’t top of your priority list when you have some downtime. But, there are so many great resources out there that can propel your career forward. I’ve put together a list of eight great business books for strategic Assistants.
If you want to take your job to the next level and work as a business asset and strategic partner – these are the books that will help you get there!
Favourite quote: “Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
Favourite quote: “Powerful people initiate speech more often, talk more overall, and make more eye contact while they’re speaking than powerless people do. When we feel powerful, we speak more slowly and take more time. We don’t rush. We’re not afraid to pause. We feel entitled to the time we’re using.”
Favourite quote: “People’s emotions are rarely put into words, far more often they are expressed through other cues.
the key to intuiting another’s feelings is in the ability to read nonverbal channels, tone of voice, gesture, facial expression and the like.”
Favourite quote: “People can have two different mindsets, she says. Those with a “fixed mindset” believe that their talents and abilities are carved in stone. Those with a “growth mindset” believe that their talents and abilities can be developed. Fixed mindsets see every encounter as a test of their worthiness. Growth mindsets see the same encounters as opportunities to improve.”
Favourite quote: “I’ve come to believe that connecting is one of the most important business—and life—skill sets you’ll ever learn. Why? Because, flat out, people do business with people they know and like. Careers—in every imaginable fieldwork, the same”
Favourite quote: “This is what I find most magnetic about successful givers: they get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefit themselves and the people around them. Whereas success is zero-sum in a group of takers, in groups of givers, it may be true that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
The mindset of a successful strategic business partner