The role of the Executive Assistant (EA) continues to evolve and in my capacity as a trainer, educationalist, and thought-leader in the industry, I continue to observe and reflect on what the role of the EA will become. Having worked as an ‘Assistant’ for 20 years, and having transitioned from Secretary, to PA, to EA, the biggest learning I had to do, in all that time, was to operate more ‘strategically’.
Today, it’s not just the Executives who operate with a strategic focus. If the EA role is to survive the long-game, then it’s essential that the Assistant who supports an Executive has the ability to operate more independently, both in the activities they undertake, but also in the decisions, thoughts and choices they make. This requires a strategic focus.
The hundreds of PAs who have attended my two-day Executive PA programme will know that I talk about ‘black box’ and ‘red box’ activities that the Assistant carries out, emphasising that if an Assistant is to move forward in their profession, and fulfil their desire for self-development and recognition, then it will be essential that they undertake elements of the ‘red box’. This means more managerial activities, more evidence-based input from them, and the ability to straddle between offering ‘support’ and operating as a junior- or middle-manager in their own right.
Equally, if leaders are to survive, they too will need to use their Assistants in the right way – and allow their Assistants the autonomy to do their jobs. When an Executive allows their Assistant to operate in the space of ‘management’, they free themselves up to operate in the space of ‘leadership’. (Assuming, of course, the Executive know the difference between leadership and management!)
In my view, Assistants need to become more ‘strategic’ and this is not actually as hard a transition for them to make as they may feel. Put simply, being strategic, from the EA’s perspective means:
- Knowing their organisation, the bigger picture and their Executive’s desired outcomes, so they can work towards solutions that get the best end results.
- Working more autonomously, to free up management time, by making informed judgements about what needs doing, when things need doing, and who needs consulting, thereby saving their Executive having to think about these things. In other words, EA-ing is not only about joining the dots but also about making the dots.
- Feeling confident to take the lead, offer solutions and challenge their Executive, even if this upset the status quo.
- Developing neutrality of thought and independence; crucial if the EA is to become a highly-respected, trusted advisor and enabler, who influences on their own merits, and not merely through the Executive they support.
- Working ‘to the position’, and not just ‘to the boss’. There is a subtle difference here. This means acting with delegated authority on certain projects or activities; often with no, or very little, input, from their Executive. Indeed, some of the EA’s responsibilities may not directly involve the Executive they work with at all.
The role of the Executive Assistant is here to stay but it requires some fine-tuning by the EA and the Executive if the role is to add the most value. Moreover, it requires the right attitude and approach from both parties so that everyone knows where the EA function fits in, and how Executive and EA work strategically together.
The question, then, for the would-be Strategic Executive Assistant is: ‘You may have the skill, but do you have the will?’ Only the EAs can answer that, but as I learnt, the more I put into developing my strategic focus, the more valuable my contribution became for my boss and the organisation.