A Little Empathy, Please

A Little Empathy, Please

Phoenix Normand 25/02/2018 4

A couple of months ago, I had a bit of an epiphany while talking with my mother about the various frustrations I've encountered while growing my business. Creating international awareness of your brand is difficult. Making people part with their hard earned cash is difficult. Convincing my students to give up a Saturday in order to literally change their career trajectories has been the biggest hurdle so far, despite insane levels of success by my alums. Still, I know that my intentions are pure, my results are quantifiable, and HR managers, even CEOs, have started reaching out privately to "score a MEGA" because they're quickly finding that MEGA Assistants are the new, gold standard in the biz. 

I really want to provide a quick teaching moment for those who still look at Executive Assistants as paper pushers or low key travel agents or soulless cockblockers for Execs whose time you want to waste even more of. While I can drone on about how we're so much more and vital to an organization's success many people, for whatever reason, continue to make assumptions that are not only inaccurate but unjust. I'll explain.

There are so many unseen sacrifices and pitfalls inherent in this role that make it virtually impossible to be treated with the same respect and decorum as other roles.

1. Mistakes are Magnified

As an Assistant at the highest level of the organization any mistake that is made is magnified about 3-7x as the audience is usually made up of senior management and the C-suite, both internal and external. A simple error, usually occurring under duress, is broadcast not just internally, but externally, which can quickly turn into a PR meltdown of epic proportions. Someone comes flying out of their office screaming. Assistant's blood pressure flies through the roof (again). Error is corrected, and the train continues onto the next stop. No cancer cured or world peace procured, to my knowledge. However, that one, simple mistake has likely cost an Assistant a significant portion of their annual bonus and called into question their reliability and attention-to-detail for at least 3 months. So every time another meeting is booked with the same cast of characters you can rest assured that their Exec is going to micromanage the process and ask stupid, clarifying questions. It was one mistake! Go sit down and run the company.

Few other roles within the company have this level of scrutiny. Mistakes are made all the time in other departments, but they are typically internal. They get "pointed out," fixed and onto the next. No work ethic or professionalism called into question. Whereas an Assistant's livelihood, relationship with their Exec, or even their career can hinge on a simple, fixable, date change. For those of you who dare to say, "You had ONE job..." don't walk alone at night near my house. We typically do about 4 jobs in the space of your one, with all eyes watching and an insane level of (singular) accountability. A little empathy, please.

2. When Your "Boss" Leaves the Company, so do you. Often Not by Choice

In a good market there is often quite a bit of movement at the top. COOs become CEOs elsewhere. Managers get promoted to VPs. VPs get bumped up to the C-suite. It's a great thing! People realizing their dreams. But let's unpack this a bit. Let's take, for instance when a new CEO is hired. The old CEO who's heading for the hills has likely secured some sort of Golden Parachute from the company that allows him plenty of runway to fly to Fiji to detox for a month and think about his next move. Meanwhile, there's an Assistant left in the balance. An external CEO will usually invite his Assistant to come with him to the new company, which means the existing Assistant is out of a job. Companies are usually at capacity with their Admin teams, so they can't magically absorb a high-earning, highly skilled Assistant back into the fold. And no Assistant worth their metal is going to drop out of the C-suite to take on 4 middle managers in "the pit." So that means a six-figure earning, Executive Assistant to the CEO now has no livelihood and is scrambling to land their next role.

What you don't see in this equation is the fact that at C-level, Executive Assistant roles are more difficult to come by. Simply, there's less of them. On average, it takes between 3 - 6 months for a C-suite Assistant to land a new role. Competition is fierce. Many companies simply fill it internally. Execs are extremely picky and (fickle AF) and can draw out a decision for months, completely disregarding the fact that Assistants are likely single income, haven't amassed 5-figure savings accounts, and are likely living check-to-check or close due to cost of living in the large metropolitan areas where they work. I assure you a frightening few of any of us actually have 6 months salary in the bank. This is exacerbated if you happen to be an older Assistant. Having to work 3x as hard as a younger applicant to prove your relevance only adds to the anxiety, which can feel paralyzing as the hiring process becomes more and more protracted.

Companies should write some sort of Golden Parachute clause into their HR policy that helps to financially support the transition of an Assistant in good standing, who has given years and years of great service to the company. It's only right. And if a company won't do it, then the 7-figure earning CEO with the Golden Parachute should strap on the Assistant and make it a tandem jump. Again, it's only right. But rarely done.

3. Silos and Chinese Walls

One of the most pervasive issues among Executive Assistants and Administrative teams is their inability to actually work as a team. Execs typically keep their Assistants in silos, working only on their requests, away from other Assistants and teams. While there may be several other Assistants working for Execs at the same level within arm's reach, they are often completely disconnected from one another, by design, and frequently have to barter for time on each of their Exec's calendars via email or IM instead of simply swinging their chair around and verbally asking. This leads to disjointed, ineffective Admin teams who often feel isolated individually or, in some way, competitive with one another. We've seen it. You'll ask an EA something about another EA's Exec's calendar and you'll get something akin to, "Why TF are you asking me? Ask her. I'm not his EA." Funny thing is, they likely have the same calendar access, however ancillary, to give you the answer you need. But they've been conditioned to "stay on their side of the fence" and not "step on toes." I find this to be complete and utter bullshit that is pervasive in many of the companies where I've worked.

The Administrative function is one that benefits and supports the whole of the company. Period. It is selfish and not very forward thinking for Execs to create these silos and Chinese walls for their Assistants, often insisting that they only concern themselves with their work. The most effective Admin teams work synchronously. They have access to one main calendar with access to one another's Exec's calendars. They have understanding of the broader objectives for each Exec and support each other in achieving them. They are dynamic, negotiate on-the-fly able to seamlessly step in and support another admin's doctor's appointment or vacation time, which most feel they can never take because of these silos. They've created their own accountabilities to one another, separate of their Exec's, and hold each other to a very high standard. If Execs and companies would allow Admin teams to operate more autonomously many of the aforementioned mistakes would never happen as there would be a number of extra sets of eyes and cross checks to make sure of it. Day-to-day pressures and burnout would be lessened because Admins would feel truly supported and empowered to do even more knowing that they have the calvary at their backs. Sadly, many Execs are stuck in a 70's mindset having the trophy of their very own Assistant when they could easily have the power, efficiency and reach of a cohesive team of Assistants at their disposal. Sad commentary for a 21st century business.

While I now devote my life to teaching Executive Assistants how to successfully navigate within the company structures and hierarchies their given, it's time we all understand the game a little bit better. And, perhaps, be a bit more empathetic toward the red faced, flustered EA outside the building, poorly smoking a cigarette with a jittery hand...who had just made a mistake on her Exec's calendar and got ripped a new one. Ummm...she doesn't smoke. Realize what's going on. Snag the cig from her hand and put it out. Walk her to the nearest Starbucks and buy her a cup. Offer a few minutes of your time and a few words of encouragement, evoke a smile if possible, and walk her back to her desk. You've just become a saint.

We all make choices in the roles we take. Got it. But please understand that there is a flip side to every coin that should be investigated before rushing to judgment. Despite its propensity toward daily mistreatment, misunderstanding and martyrdom, the role of Executive Assistant is unlike any other in business. It's a career that, if done well, can provide a lifestyle, learning and growth opportunities and unparalleled access that no other job in the company has. But it often comes at a cost. Don't be part of that cost. Show a little empathy and compassion when the opportunity presents itself, knowing that we're doing the best we can with the cards we were dealt. In short, be a hero. Not a dick. We'll all benefit as a result.

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  • Charlie Ray

    Executive assistants deserve more respect. They run "the show" while your boss is on holidays. It's too sad that they have to follow their CEOs whenever they are dismissed.

  • Tanya S

    great read

  • Mark Santi

    We need to be more empathetic by understanding the circumstances before making any judgment.

  • Kobe Logan

    Sad but it's definitely so true.........



Phoenix Normand

Society Guru

Phoenix is coaching and supporting American billionaires, CEOs and executive teams in tech, retail and banking for over 25 years. He also founded and created MEGA Assistant University, a revolutionary skills and mindset “boot camp” for top Executive and Personal Assistants who want to level up quickly and begin forging a mutually successful business partnership with their executives and teams. Phoenix holds a Bachelors of Arts in European Studies/Civilisation from Trinity College Dublin.


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