How To Utilise a Rockstar Executive Assistant

How To Utilise a Rockstar Executive Assistant

Phoenix Normand 17/12/2018 7


Now that you know how to [actually] hire a rockstar Executive Assistant, it probably makes sense for me to counsel you on how to utilize them. Notice I'm using the word utilize vs. use. Big difference and the #1 reason why we quit and despise you to the grave. Just as EAs are responsible for adjusting our perspective and attacking this role as SMB entrepreneurs vs. "the help," (it's what I teach), Execs are now responsible for erasing bad experiences with bad EAs in the past, getting their own goddamned coffee, showing up to check-ins with their EAs fully attentive, and creating a brand new, higher level of accountability with project work that requires use of the full brain and the entire toolbox of skills that typically lie dormant under a sea of bullshit tasks, repeat work, and spreading Assistants across too many Execs, each expecting 100% attention. It's not working, kids. Do the retro. How many Assistants have you blown through in the last 4 years? If it's more than 3 per Exec, grab your iPad and let's get to work.

Stop it with all of these Meetings

Um, we know you're sooooo busy. We own your calendars, remember? But being too busy is a symptom of not being discerning enough about the way your time is allocated. I can safely say that 60% of the meetings that you attend could either happen in the space of 15 - 30 minutes or be summed up in some sort of narrative distributed to the team that outlines who's on first, progress against the timeline set at the initial project kickoff meeting, any issues that need resolving or sign-off, and the real projected date of completion. Anything that's unable to be answered in that narrative would only require an office pop-by from the DRI (directly responsible individual) or a 15-minute standup with ONLY the people who can provide the answers, not waste the entire group's time with a meeting where they're only observers. And guess who can make all of this automagically happen for you if given the trust and latitude to do so? Yep. Your rockstar Executive Assistant.

Remember, we know all of the projects on the table, we know all of the players, and which groups are overwhelmed/behind schedule/underperforming because we get the panicked OMG emails and "please push this meeting" requests without you even knowing. Allow us to run point here. Give us the low-key Chief of Staff responsibility, accountability and autonomy of having the team report into us weekly with the metrics, progress, issues, needs you want to see in a nice neat little package at our 1:1s each week, thereby allowing us to schedule your rather expensive time in a more productive, less reactive manner. And far less of it, at that. You can't successfully grow a company sitting in internal meetings all day, every day, for months on end. You're doing too much...of the wrong thing.

Set us up for Success

The most asinine, inexcusably dense mistake that I see CEOs make is not having their Executive Assistant in leadership team meetings. Are you high? Why would you have a meeting of that importance, with the most relevant information about the company's objectives and how responsibilities and accountabilities disseminate team to team, manager to manager, without the person literally closest to you in the room? Like I've said before, we know YOUR business and we know THE business. We have more access to information about YOUR and THE business than even you do! Yet you continue to allow us the privilege of only scheduling the most important meetings with the most crucial information thereby robbing us of the context we need to help you help yourself. Seriously. Unclench your butt cheeks and have a little faith that we might actually know WTF we're doing and, more importantly, what you need and how to get it to you in the way that you need it in the quickest and easily digestible way possible. We're observers. We're nosey AF, too. We don't like surprises. We read body language better than most psychologists. And we often know, well in advance, if shit's about to go pear-shaped with the biz because answers to your questions from your managers are coming later and later and timelines are slipping past the wrap-up meetings that we've already put on the calendar. We have the powers of nuance and intuition that you guys sorely lack. And they are a priceless gift that you often get for free because it can't be quantified in the metrics you rely so heavily upon. We need to be in those meetings. Period.

Our success as rockstar EAs hinges primarily on the context we're provided. Without it, we're simply task doers. And, historically, this is how Executives have operated and, honestly, f*cked up our PR for decades. Our bad PR is your fault...yeah, I said it. When you silo us and keep us out of important meetings that provide all of the context we need to have a comprehensive understanding of the objectives, run point and rally your troops, assure that timelines are met, book meetings that make sense, schedule travel that kills 3-4 birds with one stone, and block out chunks of time for you to ideate/network/breathe, you're doing everyone a disservice, especially your rockstar EA whose sole purpose is to make your life as seamless as possible, often at the expense of their own. Being an effective leader requires you to allow and encourage others to lead as well. You might want to start with the person sitting right outside your door. You've invested all of the time, effort and money to get them in the seat. Let them prove all they're made of by giving them the same access to information you have (without having to search for it) and setting expectations based on your objectives vs. handing them a bunch of disparate tasks that have nothing to do with anything and certainly don't move the needle for the company.

Ask our Opinions in Key Meetings

Kudos to you who allow your EAs in key take notes. But how many of you actually ask the EA their opinion on the subject matter at hand? Exactly. Execs really need to check themselves on this "be seen, not heard" bullshit that continues to sideline some of the smartest, most dedicated people in the organization. Sure, we'll take the notes. Some of us actually love it because recording that information provides for the muscle memory and subconscious imprints that allow us to instantly recall, in exacting detail, what was said by whom, when they'd promised it would be done, and what action items resulted from the meeting. But often rockstar EAs are essentially treated as court stenographers, showing no emotion, and certainly not given the opportunity to contribute their very own, unique perspective gleaned from all of the internal and external context they're provided in their day-to-day. The assumption is that "they don't care about all this stuff." Nothing could be further from the truth! We are the biggest nerds in the building. We want to know everything and everyone in the puzzle so that we can help our Execs retain their Wizard of Oz omnipotence. In my 26 year career I've bitten numerous holes right through my tongue when sitting in on meetings and watching managers straight up lie to save their own asses or embellish the status of a team that was in complete mutiny. Again, we know everything. If you don't provide it actively, we will find it out passively. It's in our DNA.

Here's a pro tip. Execs want so badly not to be cast as the bad guy. They want to appear in complete control, have everyone love them and see them as the greatest leader in the history of ever. Mmmkay. Then let me say something supremely unpopular. Let your rockstar Assistant play the bad cop. Empower them with the role of calling BS and holding teams to the timelines they'd set and running meetings with the precision of a ninja instead of allowing people to ramble on and on, clearly hiding the fact that they're not prepared. Let them have the responsibility of making sure that the team is on point and beholden to the bar that you set, instead of you sitting in innumerable, time-suck meetings, wading through BS and excuses and having to be a dick more often than being a leader. Use your bad cop. We love that role. Because we know how to cut to the truth, broker the deals, and get shit done. We do it every day. 10+ hours a day. And, often, we're better at interpersonal communications with your team than you are. #facts

When you ask our opinions in meetings you're accomplishing a number of critically important things.

  1. You're setting a standard for our treatment across the org. When our opinion matters then everyone sees us as an integral part of the team, not just the rando who orders the cookies that everyone is snacking on.

  2. You're holding us to a new standard. We need a big, fat, boot to the backside kicking us out of the complacency nest that, ironically, you created for us. For years we've been siloed, condescended, ignored, and treated like idiots, so many of us settled for just being the help and the silent minority. Well, no longer. I exist on LinkedIn to empower EAs to climb TF out of that nest themselves and start demanding opportunities to sit at the table and be heard. Again, help us help you. Call on us unexpectedly. Make sure we're engaged and in-the-know. And, yes, fire those of us playing Pokemon Go in those meetings and hire a true rockstar who will not only have an opinion, but will provide adeptly researched and relevant perspectives that could help save the company a ton of time and money as a result.

  3. You're providing the highest caliber of professional development. I'm a career EA. And I've loved it. But I can honestly say that if I'd had more of the trust, inclusion and autonomy that I outline above, I'd likely be CEO of a highly successful corporation by now. Instead of spending the bulk of my 26+ year career as an EA fighting for opportunities, clawing my way to a seat at the table and dealing with insecure CEOs constantly clipping my wings for fear of who TF knows, I'd be a much more accomplished executive with a far more comprehensive administrative AND operational skill set than many of the people I've supported over the years. This kind of access, accountability and autonomy needs to be the new norm. Rockstar EAs are some of the most intelligent, engaged, eager-to-learn employees in any organization. They have access to information, in aggregate, that no one else in the company has. When you synch that access with their Exec's trust, tutelage, and support, you're literally creating a future C-suite executive of your very own who would likely stay many years in position to see it come to fruition vs. bouncing in three or less feeling like their career growth has maxed out. You have the power to help us grow. So use it!

Align Our Objectives to Yours

So, here's a question. When you conduct annual reviews with your EAs, what exactly are you measuring their performance against? Often these reviews end up being a complete joke and are more often influenced by the perceived big mistake the EA made two weeks prior when they'd been absolutely crushing it the entire year. I'd be rich if I had a dollar for every EA who reaches out to me after their 15 minute annual review with their Exec who either says, "Everything's great. Good job." or drones on and on about that big mistake two weeks ago blithely ignoring the numerous miracles they'd pulled off the previous 50 weeks. Consequently, their bonuses get hacked in half or reallocated creating an all-too-familiar dynamic of mistrust that will eventually cause them to leave flashing two, amazingly manicured middle fingers.

Nix the ambiguity here. Create and align your Executive Assistant's objectives to yours. That allows you see how they're tracking against their objectives, which in turn, determines how you track against yours. Achieving your objectives are paramount to the success of the company. Therefore, the same level of urgency, care, and accountability need to be baked into Executive Assistant's objectives so that each feeds the other and can be tracked quite easily based on the success of the Exec's objectives. Sure, there is a much more administrative concentration in the EAs objectives, but they have a measurable effect on the Exec's objectives. That is what should be at the fore in annual review and compensation discussions. Not, "You kept forgetting to enter my Mileage Plus number in my flight reservations," therefore you (essentially) suck. Wrong decade, dude. We'll meet you in the 21st century where meeting your objectives to the Board take precedence over that trip to Bali you're trying pay for with miles.

Last one.

Give Us a Mini-Me

To expect your rockstar EA to handle your scheduling, travel planning, internal/external correspondence, personal scheduling and errands, event planning, recruiting duties, taking meeting minutes and low key Chief of Staff duties outlined above, AND spread them across 2 or more needy AF Execs expecting versions of the same thing is absolutely ludicrous and recipe for burnout and attrition. No one in the building has more aggregate responsibility on a day-by-day basis than the Executive Assistant...including the CEO. By overloading your EA's plate and spreading them so impossibly thin, you're setting them up for failure. Simple as that. They will fail.

Get them some help. Be it virtual or in the seat next to them. This will allow the rockstar EA to hand off and manage the more menial tasks while focusing on the higher level tasks that more directly support your and your teams' objectives. They can be present in the meetings. They (and YOU) can walk the halls and listen for what's really going on. They can represent you in meetings and report back vs. you sitting in a meeting that may have little ROI at your level, but is great for the EA to grasp context and warn/course correct via information they might have that the group doesn't. Strapping them to a desk or making Starbucks runs for a meeting they actually should be sitting in is sooooo 1974. Find the budget for a part-timer or a virtual Assistant who can handle the plethora of simple tasks and allow your rockstar EA to shine and actually have the opportunity to grow in position and influence within the company. They are a representative of YOU, after all. Would you prefer an uninformed, Real Housewives devotee, coffee getter represent you in casual conversation with your most important client or a highly informed, articulate, mini-me of your own talking shop with them without even blinking? I'd safely wager the latter is the most appealing scenario.

In Conclusion

So much more to say, but I think I'll save it for the book. But start here and master the above. If you've heeded my advice about how to [actually] hire a rockstar Executive Assistant, let this be the next series of steps in your journey for creating the type of collaboration that will truly make you successful and provide real professional development opportunities for the under utilized powerhouse sitting right outside your office door.

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  • Jordan Turner

    When it gets busy at work, we sometimes forget about the persons that help us make money. Yes our assistants are essential to the survival of our businesses.

  • Thomas Feusthuber

    One of your best articles, I love it!

  • Alexander Zieher

    Super clear and specific on the why, what to do, and how to do it!

  • Daniel Salomon

    Great message for today. I've been looking for a good executive assistant and this helps in my search.

  • Nick Klaver

    I'm curious to see how CEOs feel about your post. Well written.

  • Tom Starke

    This cleared a lot up for me. Great Thanks!

  • Luigi Avallone

    Very helpful! Thank you so much.

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Phoenix Normand

Society Expert

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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