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Executive Assistants must use power, influence wisely

(Published in the Executive Assistant Update newsletter – December 2004)

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Several years ago, as an HR professional in a large Canadian financial institution, I supported the most senior group of executive assistants in the organization.

Mary: feared by executives
The CEO’s EA (let’s call her Mary) had spent her whole working career eyeing the most senior secretarial post. Having arrived at last, Mary wielded a tremendous amount of power – power she unfortunately used in a very destructive way.

Mary was aggressive, rude and demanding. Cross her and access to the most senior executive would cease. More than one vice-president found his position compromised because he had interacted with Mary as though she was “just a secretary.”

Mary took it upon herself to point out mistakes to her colleagues and rarely did it in a respectful or helpful manner. She was feared by her colleagues and more than one executive as well. Simply put, Mary was a bully and it was a role she relished. This bright and capable woman chose to make the lives of others miserable.

Tina: a shining star
On the other hand, Tina, the president’s EA, equally bright and capable, was one of the most helpful, knowledgeable and talented women I have ever met. A true shining star, she connected people, solved problems, answered questions, and made decisions on who should have access to her boss based on a thorough understanding of the critical business issues of the day. Tina’s peers hoped that the president would succeed the current CEO when he retired so that Tina would replace Mary as the queen bee.

Tina was a loved and respected teacher and friend, and she understood that her behaviour was the first impression people had of her boss.

So why did Mary get away with it? Why didn’t someone tell the CEO what was going on? Surely he would not have condoned the behaviour had he known the impact it was having.

The EA-executive relationship
The relationship between an executive and his EA is a fascinating one. You’ve worked together for years and moved with your boss from job to job, perhaps even from company to company, as he’s moved up the corporate ladder. You know your boss as well, if not better, than his spouse does. He’s effective because you are. When all is not right with your relationship, the office doesn’t run with the comfortable smoothness your boss needs, in order to cope with the responsibilities of running the business. So the last thing an executive wants to do is upset you.

And so he is more likely to turn a blind eye to Mary-like behaviour, probably because he doesn’t see it and others are reluctant to bring it to his attention.

So it’s up to you to manage yourself and to be mindful about the role you’re going to play in your organization.

  • Understand the potential power and influence you wield as the gatekeeper of your boss’s office and the choice you have in how to use this power and influence.
  • You are in a leadership position. The most senior people in your organization depend on you for information and access to the boss. Think carefully about what kind of leader you will be and create a vision for yourself. When people interact with you and your boss, what is the experience you want them to have?
  • Read the mail you open, review the documents that cross your boss’s desk and understand the content and context of the letters you write. Talk to people as they wait for their meeting with your boss. Learn more about their piece of the business and their challenges.
  • Sit down with your boss regularly and review your understanding of the critical business priorities commanding his attention. Understand who the key players are who need access to the boss over the next few weeks and make the necessary schedule alterations. Provide access based on business priorities.
  • Understand that performance feedback will likely not come from your boss so figure out how to get it elsewhere - the head of HR can likely help you figure out how to get the feedback you need to continue your personal growth and development.

Karen Todd is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant. She can be reached at 416-284-6752, karen@karentodd.com , or visit www.karentodd.com


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