Why do successful executives settle for lousy assistants?
I became fascinated with this question when one of my famous CEO clients once again employed an assistant with no experience of supporting a high-level executive. He'd done the same thing twice before, with disastrous results. Why, I asked myself, would a smart, powerful executive keep repeating this mistake? And he's not alone. Over the course of my career as a former assistant and now as a business owner, I'm repeatedly bewildered that successful executives, who otherwise demonstrate good business judgment, allow themselves to be encumbered by ineffective assistants.
Like my client, many executives (of older and younger generations) harbor outdated ideas about what an assistant is and how they can enhance the executive's effectiveness. Executives underestimate the requirements of the role and don't realize that their assistant is their "face" to the world. But it doesn't have to be this way because there is no shortage of high-quality assistants all over America and all over the world.
In my new book, The CEO's Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness, I interviewed numerous successful executives such as Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers and real estate mogul, Donald Trump, whose stellar assistants have been with them well over twenty years. Entrepreneur Richard Branson's former assistant was with him over 30 years. In the book, I discuss characteristics that are the hallmarks of exceptional executive assistants. Some assistants may have all these characteristics, some only a handful of them. I show executives what to look for in order to find an exceptional assistant who will be their valuable business partner.
A first step in securing the right assistant is for executives to get clear on what they need from an assistant. In addition to skills and experience, Richard Branson told me because of the close working relationship and the amount of time he and his assistant spend traveling the world on business, it's important that they can also be friends. Donald Trump told me it's important that "someone is on your wavelength - and it also saves time." Indeed. The exceptional assistant understands that giving back time to their boss is a vital role they play. They do so by handling any and all matters that would be distractions keeping the boss from focusing on the strategic side of the business. Juggling numerous tasks and opening up more hours in the day are just the beginning of the value accomplished assistants like John Chambers' assistant Debbie Gross, or Liz Gregersen, assistant to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, can bring to an executive.
If an executive is ready for a high-quality assistant who executes well, here's a sampling of the characteristics they should look for in choosing their valuable "right arm":
•Someone Who Thinks & Plans Ahead: The exceptional assistant handles the nitty-gritty for their executive. They remove uncertainty. Using good judgment, these self-starters are constantly looking ahead in order to take care of their boss' needs. They don't require constant supervision or direction. Once you give them the "big picture" you can get out of the way and let them do their job.
• Someone Who is Resourceful: Being resourceful is a vital asset for an exceptional assistant. Full of initiative and drive, an exceptional assistant knows how to get the job done. They know when and how to take appropriate action. They are courageous and move speedily to avert a crisis without making the boss responsible for problems they can handle.
• Someone Who Makes Their Executive Look Good: The assistant is the executive's "face" and "voice" to the world. An assistant must know what image the boss wants to project and make sure they are successfully projecting that image. They must, at all times, present themselves in a manner that reflects the boss' values and priorities.
• Someone with Top-Notch Communication Skills: Because an assistant frequently speaks on behalf of the boss, they must communicate with clarity, exhibit a professional demeanor and convey sincerity and respectfulness in their communications.
• Someone Who is Detail Oriented: Whether it is impeccable presentations, spelling, planning travel, or meetings and events, everything is accurate and organized down to the last detail.
• Someone with High Levels of Integrity & Discretion: An exceptional assistant shows excellent discretion in all communication regarding their boss and their firm. They don't indulge in gossip, show disloyalty, or betray a confidence. They follow through on promises and always keep their word.
In addition to acting as the executive's face to the world, an exceptional executive assistant functions as the executive's "eyes and ears", keeping them in touch and in tune with the wider organization, contributing to the direct effectiveness of the executive and the overall effectiveness of the company. A strong business partner in the form of an exceptional assistant is half the battle in an executive's day-to-day productivity. I guarantee you, once you've had the experience of working with this special breed of assistant, you can never again settle for anything less.