When thinking about the second article in the series, I decided to share few things that I have learned the hard way – and that could have been less painful or confusing to me if I would know about them in advance.
1. Trust is essential, but it comes with time.
I don’t know you, so I don’t trust you. I have heard this once. Mostly, however, when I started working with a new manager, it was not said aloud. It was there, in the air, unspoken between us.
Nothing in my resume, no good words from my recommendations and reference letters can force my new boss into trusting me. We don’t trust strangers.
Lack of trust makes the work of an EA extremely difficult. I have been micromanaged, reduced to the duties of a (very expensive) secretary. My expertise and opinion have been questioned and disregarded. Typically, after a few months, this would stop. Once you get to know each other, trust is being born. The more I do, and the more I succeed in it, the more recognition I feel. At some point, I see that I have finally taken the place I am designed for – a position of a trusted advisor, a person to ask first. And then we rock.
But it always takes a while. And this time can be very frustrating, confusing and even depressing. Our self-esteem tends to be fragile; we rely on the opinions of others around us, especially at the beginning of our professional careers. And this experience can indeed be a hurtful one if high self-esteem is not a natural part of the character.
Don’t see the initial lack of trust as a negative evaluation of your qualities or your personality. Learn to give your manager time to get to know (and trust) you.
2. Managers don’t want to be managed.
I have only once had a chance to talk to a CEO who was open to being managed. He wanted to have a professional EA to worry about his agenda, travel schedules and reports due. He was prepared being told what to do. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the job, because I lacked significant corporate experience, which was a prerequisite for this position.
Most of the other managers I’ve worked for have experienced difficulties being told what and when to do. They would stick to their ways of organising themselves even if the tools they use were outdated or complicated to use. They would be reluctant if they were not the designers of the organisation process. Some also would have difficulties coping with the idea that an assistant is bossing them around. They hired me to assist, but they were mostly not ready to acknowledge that letting me assist means they have to let go of some control.
Managing a manager can be a challenging thing to do. Make it as easy for both of you as possible – discuss this issue openly and agree on the mutually feasible approach.
3. Too much information.
Part of my job concerns managing the private affairs of my boss. In general, it is fun – searching for schools for kids, delivering flowers and presents, making sure family trips are appropriately organised. However, it can also get ugly – making appointments with doctors and accompanying family members to specific medical procedures as a translator. It makes you feel a bit too close.
Be prepared to discuss this during the initial interviews. Ask if you are expected to deal with personal tasks, including healthcare and make sure you don’t take a job which requires you to do so if you are not happy with it.
4. In case of everything – ask.
However clear the task might seem to you – always make sure you understood what exactly your boss wanted you to do. Never assume you know what is expected – you might end up wasting time on something that is not what your manager wanted. Never think your boss knows what is expected – you might end up wasting time on something that has been done before or could have been done differently.
5. Never disagree on public.
We are all aware of one of the favourite corporate life memes Rule Nr. 1: The boss is always right. Rule Nr.2: when the boss is not right, read rule Nr. 1.
A reasonable employee understands that this statement is not always true. Some companies even invite discussions openly, allowing employees to counter the decisions of their managers. Such cultures are welcomed environment for people with experience and knowledge. I believe that the corporate culture that encourages to disagree openly, followed by discussions and a decision that considers all opinions, leads to higher productivity and loyalty.
However, I also firmly believe that an EA should never publicly disagree with the manager. It is not up to an executive assistant to participate in the discussions and publicly counter the opinion or decision of the manager. It is OK to disagree, discuss and argue about specific issues – only this should be done behind the closed doors of the office, in private.
The nature of the EA-manager relationship is that of mutual trust, support and certain exchangeability. In ideal circumstances, these two work as a single body and the image they translate to the outer world is the image of a strong executive team. During the absence of the manager, it is up to EA to keep the standards high. An EA is an alter ego of the manager. Challenging the decisions of the manager on public sabotages this image. It makes the manager look weak and the power balance in the executive team improper.
6. Everything is your job.
You might feel tempted to expect that the marketing department will do what seems to be their job without your involvement and assume that the finance department does the same.
If you want to succeed as an Executive Assistant, you have to be prepared to act as one. Everything that lands on the table of your boss is your job. Everything.
You have to be at least aware of what is it that the corresponding department has prepared. In the worst-case scenario, you have to check and adjust what the department in question has prepared before the boss can be allowed to see it. In the end, you are the EA – the chances are high that you will be sorting out the mess if something is not done correctly.
Being aware of everything that is happening in the company makes you valuable. It also allows you to make better decisions when necessary. And being the right hand of the boss implies that you can support him in every situation.
7. Learn, master, repeat.
With the right preparation, everything is possible. You can learn anything if you are willing to do so. Nothing should scare you. Anything new you encounter (and you will – see the previous point for reference) – you learn, how to do it. Then you master it. And then repeat with the next. Continuous learning is the key to mastering your professional future.