Chapter Three

Understanding personality types at work

Improve your performance at work by understanding the personality types around you and how you can collaborate effectively with those you work with.

GUIDE: Preparing for a new Personal or Executive Assistant Job

The workplace is full of individuals with different characteristics and personalities. Working alongside so many different traits, cultures, emotions can be tricky at times. For Assistants, it is important to work collectively and collaboratively with our colleagues to succeed in the role.

It is even more essential for Assistants to understand the different personality types of those around them, how they can manage their needs and expectations and communicate effectively.

In this chapter, we are going to look at different personality types that Assistants often have to work with and how to build a relationship and partnership that works.

We will cover:

Working for a workaholic

To become a successful board-level director you would expect that individual to be somewhat of a workaholic, if not extremely passionate about their job.

All of the Executives I have worked for have been passionate about their career and the organisation they work in; some have been what I would describe as workaholics. You know the type; they are always switched on, they are always available, and they are still on their iPhone.

Not to even begin mentioning the hours they work.

Working for a workaholic boss can be tricky for most people, but for Assistants, it can be challenging.

Are we supposed to match the hours that they do? Are we supposed to be in the office when they are in the office and are we supposed to get through the amount of work that they do?

On top of that, how do you even start supporting someone who considers their job as the most important thing?

Here are some tips for those of you that are working for a workaholic.

Ask what is expected of you

With every new manager, I have worked with, in the initial interviews, I have asked what they expect of me as their Assistant. Once I have been given the job, I ask the question again during the first meeting together. You must understand what your manager needs in an assistant and when they will require you to be around. I always ask what kind of hours they work and when they tend to arrive into the office and leave so that I know if I have to adjust my preferred hours.

Asking these types of questions in the early days of your relationship will set you in good stead. If you didn’t ask your boss this question when you first started working for them, it’s not too late, particularly if you are struggling to keep up with their demands. During your next review, ask that you discuss how you work together. They may not realise that you actually would prefer to get into the office after the sun has risen or leave before your other half goes to sleep!

Set some boundaries

It is essential to set some boundaries with your boss but also with yourself. It can be easy to get sucked into a workaholics schedule, so you have to be quite disciplined. Discuss the hours that you want to work, there will be times when you work long hours, but this shouldn’t be the norm.

Ideally, you want to be able to get all of your work done that day, go home at a reasonable time and not have to check your emails until you go to bed! If you are struggling with your workload and the demands of your manager, you will need to set some boundaries, and you will have to communicate your new position.

What is realistic for you?

The problem with workaholics, particularly when they are your boss, is that they may not realise firstly that they are workaholics and secondly that not everyone else wants to work as hard as they do if they are comparing themselves to other executives in the organisation, fair enough.

But if they are comparing themselves to their staff that is certainly not fair. To work successfully with a workaholic, you have to be strong, and you have to understand what is realistic for you. If you have other commitments outside of work you shouldn’t feel bad about that.

I’ve always said it is essential to match your work style with your boss, but at the same time, you must think about your preferred work style and how it might complement your manager’s. For instance, if you are racing through work to keep up with their demands, but you prefer a more systematic approach, you might end up making mistakes which they will undoubtedly pick you upon.

When it comes to working for a workaholic, you have to think long and hard about your circumstances and what is realistic for your situation.

Try to get as much work done in your working hours.

A compromise that I have found to work well when working with a workaholic is this – you work hard when you are in the office.

Make sure your manager understands that you are doing everything you can to support them within the boundaries you have set yourself. If you have to work through your lunch but leave at a reasonable time, surely this is a compromise worth taking. If you try this approach, time management will be crucial, and you will also have to be pretty strict with those colleagues that interrupt you and take up an unnecessary amount of your precious time.

What are the positives?

Okay, I know I’ve just spent quite a bit of time writing about the negatives, but there are loads of positives when it comes to working with a workaholic.

They tend to be driven, successful and passionate.

Qualities that can be infectious. I always found that I worked harder when I had a workaholic boss, but I was also rewarded more frequently, and my efforts didn’t go unnoticed. I’ve worked for sluggish managers, and that was much much worse.

What can you do to free up their time?

Last but no means least what can you, as their assistant, do to free up their time so that they can go home early for a change!

Take a look at the tasks that take up a lot of their time and think of ways that you can help reduce their workload. For example, do they spend most of their day in meetings? If so, can their diary be structured in a way that they have a few hours to spend at their desk?

Are colleagues meeting with your boss when an email will do? Do they spend a lot of time doing their admin – that is something you will have to wrestle out of their hands straight away! Tell them you want to free up their time and work on solutions together. As much as a workaholic loves their job, they will appreciate getting away from the office early – well at least once in a while!

Does your Executive make decisions?

I’ve worked with several Executives over the years and seen many many different types of management styles. Some Executives have been incredibly inspirational, others have been controlling and micromanage your every move, and then there are those type of managers I want to discuss today. This manager never makes a decision.

The non-manager so to speak!

These types of Executives will leave a decision unmade until someone else makes it for them, or the problem simply goes away. In this circumstance, everyone sort of muddles along, without clear objectives or knowing what is going on.

For Assistants in this situation, it can be pretty tough.

Often colleagues will ask you to make decisions on behalf of the boss, which is incredibly stressful. Colleagues might think that you are not relaying information or questions back to your Executive when in fact you have asked them on more than one occasion but have yet to receive a clear answer. Often you will find yourself covering up for your boss when they are incapable of making any decisions.

The Executive may be technically brilliant at their job but unable to manage staff which means their assistants will also find themselves picking up the people management slack. This is great to start, but after several years working as an assistant with all of this management experience, the thought of being promoted into an actual management role is nigh on impossible. Particularly with a manager that has no clue that their assistant is doing all of the additional work.

In this situation, I have always found it hard to change a non-manager. I’ve had honest conversations about our working relationship. Still, their behaviour is so ingrained that most of the time, they don’t even realise their lack of leadership is causing any problems. If they are aware of it, they tend to be good at their work which is keeping them in a job and their boss happy, so why do they care what their staff think?

When I have found myself in this situation (thankfully it has only been once), I worked around my manager, accepted that he was never going to manage me particularly well and instead made the best with what I had. I didn’t stay in the role very long but here are my tips if you do find yourself working with a boss that never makes a decision.

  • Keep a list of everything that you do, including all of the additional managerial tasks that you take on. I would also keep all of the emails or communications that contain details of the decisions that you have made. If your manager is ever interested in finding out what you do – you have a list. Also, if your manager eventually gets found out, you will have documented evidence of your managerial experience. This can be used to prove you are ready for a promotion or a pay rise.
  • This type of boss will pretty much leave you to figure out what kind of role you have and what kind of work you want to do. Think about the positives – when you have eventually had enough, and you leave this role, you will have a ton of additional expertise and skills. Proactively manage yourself by taking on extra work that you find exciting and challenging. Ensure your colleagues know you are running the office and use that position to gain as much managerial experience as possible.
  • Although your boss is not aware of how much they are reliant on you, other people within the team will notice. Keep pleasing and supporting your colleagues – one of them may end up being promoted and want to take you with them. Alternatively, your current boss might be replaced by one of your colleagues. Either way, your good work will pay off.
  • In this situation, you have to be honest with your colleagues. Make sure they understand they you are not the reason your boss is not getting back to them with decisions.
  • You also have to be assertive. Some members of staff may exert their authority if they realise their leader is not leading. These types of people will undoubtedly try to make support staff do work for them, which they should be doing themselves.
  • Should you keep your boss in the loop when it comes to decisions that you’ve made? I would say yes because you are covering yourself if there ever comes a time that decision is questioned. I’ve found with managers that don’t care if they are bad at managing staff are good at blaming their team if anything goes wrong.
  • If the situation is making you frustrated and unhappy with your role, this is probably one to remove yourself from. You will have gained a huge amount of experience so find a job that values those skills and actually rewards you for having them.

Working with an introvert

The key to a successful relationship between an assistants and their Executive is having a good understanding of how each other operate. Actually let me rephrase that… the assistant should have a good understanding of how the Executive operates and adjust their style accordingly.

Most people fall into two camps when it comes to their personality – they are either an introvert or extrovert. Now obviously people come in varying degrees of these types. Still, when it comes to building a successful relationship, it is worth noting what side of the personality coin your Executive resides. I will look at the challenges facing assistants working with an extrovert but today let’s have a look at those reserved introverted types.

Communicating with an introvert

In my experience, introverts tend to listen more than they speak. It can be quite tricky getting an introvert to say much at all. This can be frustrating for people that are used to talking, bouncing ideas off others and receiving direct instructions. It can also lead to people talking at introverts to cover up silences or any awkward moments. Not suitable, especially for assistants. So how do you communicate? Well, firstly make sure you listen when they do speak because they will have something important to say!

They probably aren’t going to be happy having to repeat themselves so makes sure you remember any instructions they have given. If you do have to clarify anything, make sure you are asking specific questions (ideally with yes or no answers). Expect to use email as your primary source of communication.

Take the initiative

I find that introverted bosses let their staff take the initiative on projects and indeed their workload. They don’t tend to micromanage so assistants, in particular, can use this to their advantage and take on more work. In terms of feeding back, I would suggest you use an online task list that you can share with your boss, that way you don’t have to continually let them know when you have actioned requests they can see the evidence for themselves.

Prepare for meetings

Most introverts, I know like to have space in their day to prepare for meetings. They want to go into a meeting with an idea of what they are going to say and how the discussion is going to pan out. An assistant can help with this process by ensuring they have all of the necessary paperwork before the meeting and that they have time to prepare appropriately.

Gatekeeping

Introverts are not going to enjoy unnecessary interruptions, and random conversations so make sure you use all of your gatekeeping skills to keep your Executive away from scary Extroverts (especially pushy salespeople). Introverts like to regroup and spend time on their own to think through ideas and plan next steps. Make sure you give them plenty of time in their diary for quiet reflection.

Create your sense of achievement

If things are going well, you probably are not going to hear much about it from your introverted Exec. This can be difficult for assistants who want to know if they are doing a good job (and really who doesn’t!) Don’t take it personally just assume that silence is a good thing and give yourself a pat on the back when you know you have achieved something.

Remember that working with an introvert brings its rewards

Not all leaders need to be extroverts.

There is something pretty special about someone who can quietly encourage their workforce to shine. Introverts have amazing qualities and can be fantastic bosses. I love this Ted Talk from Susan Cain called The Power of Introverts. If you do work for an introvert I would highly recommend you watch her talk.

Working with an old-school Executive

Many Assistants work for Executives who do not and will not embrace new ways of working, new (or even kinda old) technology and expect their way of working to remain exactly how it has been for decades.

Now, some Assistants may be used entirely to this style of working, but it can be frustrating if you want to introduce new ways of working and are shut down every time you mention it. If this is you, here are a few tips on working with an old school Executive.

Is your Executive living in their bubble?

Quite often, old school Executives are incredibly resistant to change, and we will come on to this. However, sometimes they just live in their bubble where new ways of working just don’t cross their path. I had one Executive that had a bunch of the old-style Rolodex business card holders dotted around his office. When I asked if he wanted me to put them onto his Outlook contacts, he was delighted.

When I told him that I could put an app on his new iPhone that scanned the business card directly into his Outlook contacts, he was over the moon. If you have an old fashioned boss that just needs a little encouragement, then take the time to suggest things to them.

Schedule time for tutorials and tell them about the benefits of new technology. You will probably have to manage the tech until they get the hang of it, so before you suggest something make sure you are an expert so that they don’t get put off by any minor glitches.

Are they just resistant to change?

There is old school, and then there are those that are just resistant to change. Don’t get me wrong; people who are resistant to change are incredibly challenging to deal with. Particularly, if you are proactive and can see that a few tweaks here and then will make a big difference. There are plenty of articles out there that will help you manage people resistant to change.

It takes a lot of time to make changes, and sometimes you can feel like ‘what is the point’ but trust me it will be worth it in the end. Let’s have a look at the most common problem I hear from assistants – working with paper diaries. Just as a starting point – this would drive me nuts! The problem tends to be that your Executive has everything in their paper diary, you work from that, but also put all of the appointments in Outlook or your online calendar.

If anything changes out comes the eraser for the paper diary, and then you have to make the same changes to the online diary.

So how do you get your Executive to move to an online calendar only? Firstly, have you asked them to change to an Online calendar – do they know how much extra work you do to manage both aspects of the task? If you have not told them and made it very clear you do not like working with two diaries, why would you expect them to change their routine?

If you have told them and still they refuse to give it up, ask yourself – what are they afraid of? Is it the lack of control, is it the technology itself, is it merely stubbornness? Once you have figured this out, you can slowly manage the changes that need to take place. A simple place to start is during your one to one meetings. Instead of working from the paper diary, ask them to open up the online calendar on their computer so that they can see who is coming to the event and any additional details that might not be in the paper diary.

Keep doing this until they get used to looking at the computer. Change takes time, and you will have to be patient.

Old school in every way

So you’ve got an Executive who is resistant to change, but who is also old school in every way.

They follow old school management styles where what they say goes. They don’t collaborate on ideas. They expect you to drop everything when they ask and even the mention of ‘working from home’ is looked upon with scorn and slight confusion.

Yup, I think most of us have probably encountered this type of Executive at some point in our career. I know I certainly have. What to do?

Well, there are a few methods I’ve tried in the past… Briefly, here they are:

  • Is it me? I walked into a new job with lots of ideas and examples of changes I’d made in other organisations only to realise that these ideas were not welcome. I was quite frankly, pissed off. But over time, I came to realise that my old fashioned Executive was brilliant at his job and despite being completely old fashioned had excellent systems in place that worked well for the department. So in this instance, I had to adapt to his way of working rather than introduce changes that may have been better but weren’t all that necessary.
  • Not everyone is perfect. There are many reasons people are stuck doing what they have always done. Not everyone understands that ways of working have moved on. Can you be a little more understanding of your Executive’s imperfections? If so, take the time to work out how they operate and how you can fit in.
  • Is it the culture? Is it just your Executive or is the whole organisation like an old boys club? If it is only your Executive speak to like-minded people in your office and ask how they deal with your Executive. Don’t accept that your Executive has all of the power because they don’t. You can manage up and make proactive changes. You can also say no to requests and demand the same respect the rest of your colleagues get.
  • Bide your time. Old fashioned managers won’t be around forever. They retire if you are younger than them you may consider waiting it out.
  • Quit. I did this and I went on to work for some excellent, dynamic, forward thinking Executives who really helped support my personal development. Not an easy choice but quite often the right one when it comes to working with bad managers.

Working with an incompetent Executive

Everyone moans about their boss. Fact!

There are occasions when your Executive takes ages to get back to you on something, they are always in a meeting or out travelling. They never have enough time. They don’t manage your needs or expectations. They don’t make decisions, or they make the wrong decision, and they don’t lead effectively. These are all common gripes. But, for Assistants, we get to see the reasons behind all of these failings. They are mega busy, they have so much responsibility, their team is enormous, and they don’t have time for everyone.

They don’t delegate enough, or they delegate too much. They have problems at home, or they are also stretched. We see it all, and usually, we know there are reasons for these behaviours. We can offer support so that the team moan less about the boss and work gets done. That is where we add value, right? But what happens when the support we offer isn’t enough? What happens when we are working with an incompetent Executive and no matter the level of support, they suck at their job?

Leave?

Easier said than done for some people. So, what can we do? How do we overcome the frustrations and support someone terrible at their job? Here are a few thoughts!

Don’t make them into something worse than they are.

They are a person who is failing, don’t make them into a monster, because they probably are not. Remember that as an Assistant, you need to show empathy, even when their incompetence is soul-destroying!

Where is the incompetence?

Usually, people are promoted because they have the technical ability to get the job done, or they can generate a lot of income for the business. Either way, very few people are promoted because of their people skills or leadership abilities. So, in your Executive’s case, where do the incompetencies lie? Is it that they can do the work but can’t manage the people?

Or they spend too long managing the people that the actual business gets neglected? As their Assistant, you gain insights into the behaviours that are hidden to other members of staff. Use that to your advantage. Work out the issues and then start to plan how you can help support those weaknesses.

How can you help?

The first thing to say is that your incompetent Executive will have some understanding that they are not quite making the grade (even if they are outwardly the most egotistical person on the planet) which means, they will have their barriers firmly in place. They are not going to ask for help, so you need to work out, on the sly, what it is that you can help with and then work out a plan to get them to trust you enough to accept your help.

To do this, you need to be the person that never moans about them. You need to be on their team, on their side and you need to find a human angle that you can work with.

If they are entirely unaware or in denial, they are never going to acknowledge their shortcomings. You need to accept that and find a way to communicate with them. For example, if they are not giving you the access you need to do your job, you should say something like “I need your help.

I want to be great in this role, and I know I can offer a lot of support, but I need you to help me with that [and list the specific things you want him/her to do – access to the calendar, make decisions on their behalf, attend meetings etc.]”.

Remember always to come prepared with solutions. They will have so many problems to fight, be the person that comes with answers.

Fill in the gaps.

Speak to your colleagues, what is your boss lacking? What are they not getting from your Executive? Where can you help? Do they need a sounding board and your boss is too busy to listen? Do they need things signed off? Can you plan an effective way to get those decisions made quickly? Can you sign things off on your Executive’s behalf?

All of the above are examples of managing up, which is just something you will have to do if your Executive is incompetent. Always think to yourself, what do you need to do for the good of the business?

Build your support network.

As an Assistant, you must have a support network in the office, made up of different levels within the business. It is even more critical that you do this if you work for an incompetent boss.

If you don’t have a network of people who all know that you are brilliant, everyone is going to think you are just as incompetent as your Executive, and the danger is that you get blamed for their incompetencies.

So, get out there, get known, make sure everyone knows who you are rather than being perceived as only your Executive’s Assistant. Make sure you are known as someone who makes things happen despite your Executive. Get good at specific niche tasks that you could potentially move into if your Executive gets fired (which is likely if they are entirely rubbish).

Think strategically, who do you want to impress the most? Probably your Executive’s boss, right? Well yes, but shine in front of all of your Executive’s peers, make good connections with your HR representative, make sure those key players know that you are not responsible for your Executive’s failings.

Look after your mental health.

There is no denying that working for an Executive who is floundering is a drain on everyone around them, but this is particularly true of Assistants. Concentrate and focus on what you like about your role, the organisation or the other people around you. As soon as you start to feel resentful, angry and ultimately unmotivated, you are not going to be able to lead yourself and your colleagues out of this situation. And that is when it is probably time to move on.

How to work with a visionary manager

Every business is started by someone with a vision. They are the driving force behind the business, and they want to change the world.

You might not work for the person who started the organisation. But, if you work for an Executive who is the creative thinker in your organisation, someone who innovates and drives change in the business – you are working for a visionary manager!

Working as an Assistant with a visionary manager comes with a lot of advantages and a few disadvantages! In this post, we are going to look at how to work with a visionary manager, how you can support them, and what it means for your career. Firstly, let’s define a visionary manager.

What does it mean to be visionary?

Author and speaker Josh Linkner defines a visionary as someone who is “willing to dream wildly and think ahead. When your organisation has a senior leader who focuses on what’s possible and breathes reinvention, you ­have a chance to reach those stellar, dreamed-about heights.”

It sounds incredible.

What an opportunity to work with someone who disrupts the status quo, innovates and drives the growth in the business! Visionary managers expect and often demand their team create new ideas, think differently and embrace change. It is an exciting place to be, especially for Assistants. Working with a visionary brings so many opportunities because these types of leaders will not work with their Assistant traditionally. They don’t work with anyone in a conventional way. The possibilities are endless.

But, with endless possibilities can come long hours, constant change, little structure and no strategy. It can be pretty stressful and frustrating working in an environment where there is no clear path or plan of action. A lot of visionary leaders can make for bad managers because they are tasked with creating new ideas and thinking ahead, rather than focusing on the here and now and dealing with the practical aspects of management. There are advantages and disadvantages when it comes to working with a visionary leader, let’s look specifically at how Assistants can work with and support a visionary.

Provide Structure.

This is the number one, most important skill that you can bring to the table when working with a visionary. You need to be an executor. The person that gets things done. You need to provide the structure that will get their ideas and concepts up and running. How do you do this?

Create a schedule that allows them time to brainstorm with their team. They will need time to spit-ball ideas, come up with new strategies and bounce off other creative types. Structure these meetings so that they have a definite end time and make sure you are very strict with the time. Go to the sessions so that you can take notes and keep track of what has been discussed. If you can’t be there, find a facilitator in the organisation that can help structure the brainstorming sessions.

Giving them this time will also make sure they use the rest of their time to work in a more structured and strategic manner.

Understand the business.

You have to know what is going on at all points of the day and in the organisation. This means you need to network like you have never networked before. You need to be involved in everything, you need to know what is going on and everyone in the organisation needs to loop you in. The only way you can provide structure for your Executive is if you are involved.

Remember, if you work for a visionary manager, you will need to inspire confidence because you will often be the lynchpin between your Executive and the rest of the team. You need to know your job inside out, and you will need for everyone else to know that too. Confidence does play a key role in how you work with a visionary.

Build Rapport.

Your Executive has to know that you have their back. You will be there for them and support them through every up and down that they face. You have to build an unshakable rapport with them. Get to know them, be in their life and understand how they think and how they function. Bethany Burns, EA to the CEO of BrewDog, calls this ‘comfortable intrusion’.

You have to get involved, and your Executive has to let you. You also need to build rapport with everyone your Executive comes into contact with. Visionary leaders will have a strong team around then that what to also execute the vision. Make sure you have a strong relationship with everyone who works in your Executive’s inner circle.

Constant Communication.

Your communication skills need to be on point for a few different reasons. Your visionary leader might struggle to communicate what they need from you and their team. You need to adapt to their way of communicating so that you are both on the same page, and then you need to help disseminate information to the people around you. Again, having a good understanding of what is happening in the business will help with this. You also need to communicate regularly with the other Assistants in your industry.

This is a brilliant way to keep in the loop. Working with a visionary leader will mean that you will work at such a fast pace. You don’t want to have to re-invent the wheel, so make sure you are all communicating with each other and sharing best practice. Back to communicating with your Executive – they will work at a fast pace, and they will have a lot of ideas that you need to capture.

This is where technology can help.

Find a tool that will help them offload their thoughts to you. This could simply be WhatsApp, Slack or even email. Use something that helps them get their ideas out of their heads and over to you for action.

Roll with the punches.

There are many famous cases of visionary leaders not treating their staff well – Steve Jobs springs to mind. This isn’t the case for every visionary leader, but for many, the thoughts and feelings of their team are secondary to their vision. If you work for an Executive like this, it can be tough, and you will need to develop a thick skin and learn to roll with the punches.

This isn’t for everyone, and you need to decide what your boundaries are and how you want to be treated. Depending on the relationship you have with your Executive, you may also have to pull them up on behaviour that is not acceptable. This comes with confidence and practice. Speaking truth to power is not easy.

Just remember that at the end of the day, your Executive will always win out. They often misbehave because they can. That is how business works. If they are innovating, making the business a lot of money and genuinely leading change, their power and abilities will outweigh your feelings. Hopefully, times are changing, but it is slow progress. You need to decide what works for you.

Share the vision.

This is my final point, and it is an important one.

You have to share the vision that your Executive is putting out in the world. If you don’t get on board, then you are going to drown! You have to share their passion, enthusiasm and drive. You don’t have to work the same crazy hours or intensity, but you do have to live and breath the business.

Again, you have to ask yourself if this is truly what you want to do. If you are going to succeed as an Assistant to a visionary leader, you have to strap in and enjoy the ride!

Next Chapter:

Communicating your influence
Chapter Four