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