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

Chapter One

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 partners.

Creating a business partnership with an Executive is a critical move that Assistants must make to future-proof their careers. It is imperative that Assistants transition from being task-driven and reactive into a valued member of staff who is aligned with the business strategy and adds value to the partnership and across the organisation.

In this chapter, How to start building a strategic partnership between an Assistant and an Executive, we will cover all of the skills, character traits, and competencies Assistants need to work as a strategic business partner.

Before considering moving into a strategic position, we will look at the basics you need in the Assistant role. Then, we will look at how Assistants can elevate themselves in the role by creating a new way of thinking and a new strategic, business-focused and proactive way of working.

Let’s have a look at what we are going to cover in this chapter:

How to be an assertive Assistant

Moving from a ‘traditional’ Assistant role into something more business-focused and strategic can be a long process for many assistants.

It might come more quickly for others, particularly if your Executive supports your career and professional development.

But, for the majority of Assistants, taking this step is often something we do by ourselves. We have to be vocal about it, and it is 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. We have discussed a lot on Practically Perfect PA, which is a character trait required of all Assistants who want to be strategic business partners.

Having an awareness of your rights

This will differ from individual to individual, but I think it is an awareness of your rights and your rights as an Assistant.

Sometimes it can be difficult to feel your role is not taken seriously or seen as non-assertive because you are an Assistant.

As I’ve said before, Assistants have to own their role and 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 others’ demands without pushing back, especially if we genuinely want to help and be supportive.

When we manage 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?

First, it is respecting everyone’s feelings, including our own and trying to be open and honest.

Plan what you will say when you need to be assertive, and while delivering the message, monitor your tone of voice and body language, both of which should be relaxed and consistent.

Being able to defend your boundaries

I was told I have the ‘disease to please’ (who knew!) I think it might be an epidemic amongst Assistants, as many of us joined the profession because we like to support others and are often people pleasers.

It can be challenging for Assistants to put themselves 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 be assertive in this. It is so essential for Assistants.

If you have been asked to do something you don’t feel comfortable with or 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 offer a different solution.

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 complex and can be daunting if you are an Assistant working for a Senior Executive.

Being assertive with your opinions will help your manager in the long run, which is 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, prepare what you will say, how you want to appear and what tone you want to take and then practice, practice, practice!

Think about what will 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.

How can you be more accountable at work?

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 and managing your workload, career and relationship with your Executive and 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’ and 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 only to offer support, do the things 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 be accountable for our success. This is the first of many steps to move into a strategic business partnership role.

What are 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, 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 look at how Assistants can 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. However, these are the tasks that you should have complete control over.

They may be minor things like picking up the post every morning and more significant tasks like managing your Executive’s schedule.

For every task you have complete control over, think to yourself: How can I make every task successful? 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 time making them more efficient. Then, you are accountable for these tasks and should take responsibility for their success.

Be results-focused

Being more accountable for your actions will lead to you being much more results-focused, making 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 valuable outcomes?

This level of critical thinking benefits your business because you will continuously be looking for a return on investment in everything you do.

If you spend ages on a task that is not business-critical or adds value, you can adjust the process and make it more effective because you are accountable for that task.

What areas can you influence?

Next up.

What areas can you influence?

You may not have direct responsibility for a whole load of tasks, but you do influence them.

Again, if it helps, make a list. A task that springs to mind is working with suppliers. You are not the person who necessarily signs the contracts for new suppliers, but you probably use them 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 see them 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 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, you’ll have to put your hand up when you might fall behind with deadlines or struggle 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 staff member).

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 excited about it and spent a lot of time on the details.

My Executive called me into her office one afternoon for a quick catch-up. She told me she was proud that I was working on this big project but had noticed that I wasn’t entirely up to speed with my day-to-day tasks, and I’d missed a few things I had always done for her.

She was right.

I was having a great time working on this new task, but I had to consider all the other stuff I had to do. So 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 help to make each task successful.

This is why it is crucial that you ask for training and that 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 an essential competency for assistants, and it will only become more valued as our industry moves from a support role into a business-critical one.

With every adjustment to your work style, you should speak to your Executive about implementing these changes.

Accountability is a brilliant competency as part of your career development plan, and you could flesh this out into specific objectives.

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Five ways to improve your leadership skills

You may not manage a team but work in a management role.

You manage your Executive, work with and support the leadership team, and see yourself as a role model for other staff members within your organisation.

With all that being said, there are plenty of ways to boost your managerial presence, and we have five ways to improve your leadership skills.

Always keep learning

We see this all the time in great leaders – they are still curious.

You should always keep learning as much as you can about the business, 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, look at the areas you can improve, and then take some training or read some self-improvement books.

Take action

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 the initiative, understanding how the business works, motivating others, and taking responsibility for your work and the company’s success.

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 project groups, you should also ask for feedback after finishing the project.

Have those difficult conversations

Difficult conversations are always hard to have, but when you think about it often when you have these difficult conversations, something positive comes out.

Authentic leaders can initiate these types of discussions and structure them to make them worthwhile.

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 you can work on.

What does it mean to be a collaborative Assistant?

Every business and organisation needs employees to work together, move projects forward and reach common goals.

Collaboration is an essential skill for everyone.

However, for Assistants, collaboration is vital. We must work with other staff members on projects and reach common goals.

We also have to build a fantastic relationship with our Executives, which is heavily based 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 will list all the different areas that I think will showcase a collaborative Assistant.

  1. Understanding the mission: You need to know what your work means and how it fits into the scheme. You can be much more collaborative if you know the goals and strategies of the business.
  2. Understanding what is expected of you: What does your Executive expect? How do your work and what you do make a difference? Understanding the expectations of those around you – and of course, living up to the expectations will help you be seen as a team player and someone who collaborates.
  3. Sharing the responsibility: When you are a collaborative Assistant, you know what your work means and 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.
  4. Asking for feedback: When working collaboratively with your Executive and colleagues, you need clarity around your goals and objectives. You need to ask for feedback – are you on the right track? Is there anything you can change so that your work adds value?
  5. 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.
  6. Going to the meetings: If you want to collaborate and feel part of the team (or in a team with your Executive), you must attend the meetings. Find out what happens at the meetings (not afterwards or through the grapevine). Go to the meetings.
  7. Having a ‘can-do’ attitude: When everyone is working towards achieving something, a ‘can-do’ attitude can help 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.
  8. Communicating all the time: We all know that Assistants need to have very effective communication skills. These skills shine when you also collaborate effectively. The traits of a collaborative Assistant include learning how to communicate so that your message is heard and 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.
  9. Emotionally intelligent: Collaboration is 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 executives 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 team’s mood and helping others with their challenges. This requires detaching yourself from your feelings and emotions, remaining calm and seeing the bigger picture.
  10. Respecting other people’s perspectives: There will be many different opinions when working towards a common goal. Recognising everyone’s perspective and thinking process will help you collaborate more effectively. Collaborative Assistants are open-minded and willing to listen to other people to achieve a consensus.

How should Assistants represent their Executive at a meeting?

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. As a result, I didn’t do anything in the meeting except take a few notes and agree to report 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 I didn’t feel confident voicing my opinion because I was so unprepared.

After a bad start, I decided I wanted to be involved in meetings and enjoy making decisions on behalf of my manager. So, I devised a plan that would help me represent my manager at the drop of a hat and confidently. How should Assistants represent their boss at a meeting? Here is that plan.

Have regular meetings with your manager

Regular meetings with your manager help Assistants stay on top of everything that is happening.

In your catch-up meetings, review your manager’s diary that day and also for the week ahead.

It would be best if you discussed 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 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 understand the overall business better 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 schedule a specific catch-up meeting to get a brief from your Executive.

Find out how they want you to feedback on the meeting outcomes.

Attend meetings with your Executive

As part of your development programme, ask your Executive if you can attend meetings with them to 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 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 are worth listening to. 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 your other skills.

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.

It is impossible to know everyone in a big organisation, but you should know all the departments heading up each department, how big the teams are, and what each part of the business does.

This should be easily accessible on your intranet or via HR, so do study up.

If you represent your Executive at a meeting, you may not know who the people in the room are personally, but you should understand 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 will not be pleased if you agree with something that isn’t in the organisation’s best interest.

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 unsure.

It is okay to say that you don’t know and must find the information after the meeting.

Working well under pressure

You will have to work under pressure at some point in your career, meet tight deadlines, and deal with stressful situations.

Although organisations should care for their employee’s well-being and strive to create a calm environment, this is not always achievable.

Sometimes, 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 easy to feel anxious when working under pressure with looming deadlines, urgent requests and a long to-do list.

When working in this environment, you must see this period as a challenge you will 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 will get through this and you are going to succeed.

Organise and prioritise

When working under pressure, try to stay in the here and now. You have much to get through, but focusing on future deadlines isn’t getting the work done. So 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 to 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 regularly work under pressure, you will need to consider 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 evaluate this position. You can’t be everything to everyone in the office. No matter how hard you try, some things have to give!

Plan ahead

There will be times when the work ramps up in every organisation, and everyone is under pressure to complete specific projects.

Assistants will undoubtedly be heavily involved in these periods. Therefore, you should plan to make sure that you are in an excellent position to care for yourself during these periods and handle the pressure.

Ensure you have cleared much 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.

Reward yourself

When you have been through a highly pressured period, reward yourself.

When you are in the middle of the work and can’t see the endpoint, you can at least think about the excellent reward you are giving yourself at the end! Rewarding yourself and reflecting on what you have achieved is essential.

Everyone deserves a reward for their hard work, and you should never deny yourself something that makes you feel good about yourself.

Bridging the interpersonal gap between staff and a busy boss

A considerable part of an Executive’s job is to lead their staff, motivate and encourage them.

However, this isn’t always the case. Many Executives are too busy or under too much pressure to manage their staff effectively. Some executives 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 tangible 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. Of course, we must be managed as much as any other staff member. 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 Executives to make them successful. So 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.

First, this is not a comfortable place to find yourself as an Assistant.

Working with an Executive who doesn’t manage very well is challenging. First, you must determine why they are not great at motivating or managing. Are they too busy, are they under pressure, or do they lack interpersonal skills? Do they struggle to connect 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 must also 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, 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 implement to help your Executive manage their team effectively and make your team much happier in the workplace.


Management’s lack of communication is 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 happening? Assistants can add value here. Weekly communication with 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. As a warning, you need to be very involved in your Executive’s day, so you know what you can communicate and what is confidential.

1-2-1 meetings

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 not to move them.

Before the meeting, ensure the direct report submits an agenda 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 cancel the appointments.

Office culture

When working with an Executive who struggles to motivate their team, you can be sure this will affect the office culture and have a knock-on effect throughout the business.

You can turn the office culture around depending on how much scope you are given to oversee staff management. 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 organisation’s goals, values, and mission statement, and how does this affect our team?
  • What can we do to make work fun?
  • How do we show gratitude for their hard work?

Social events

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 impossible, organise something cheap and cheerful monthly for your team to pay for themselves.

Making your team feel comfortable

In the past, I’ve worked with incredibly formidable executives who can be completely unapproachable. I’ve worked for executives who never leave their office and sit scowling at their screens all day.

I sat outside their office and watched as their team members built 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 worldwide. If you are working with a tough Executive, be the happy, approachable person your colleagues see before they 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.

Inspiring trust

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 and the rest of the employees, so they must 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 in terms of keeping confidence and inspiring others to trust your skills. Getting this right will make your job a whole lot easier.

The Executive Assistant role can be more than managing a calendar and taking minutes. The greatest Assistants recognise they can become strategic business partners who contribute to their business goals, add value to people around them and encourage growth within the organisation.

You can evolve beyond task-oriented activities with knowledge, awareness, resilience, and courage. Enrolment in our Strategic Business Partner Online Course can help you gain the skills necessary to advance your career as a valued partner. It will help you understand what it takes to create an effective relationship with Executives and develop yourself into a strategic thinker who puts your organisation’s success first.

Investing in yourself, enrolling on the online course, developing these skills and transitioning from being stuck in reactive mode will ensure that your career remains infinitely valuable and secure now and into the future. So why not take those crucial first steps now?


Next Chapter:

Working with your Executive

Chapter Two