"Woman at Work:" Who's the Most Important Person in Your Company? Your Assistant

"Who is the most important person in your company?" I provocatively asked a group of executive assistants. To a woman -- there were no men among them -- they answered, "My boss," meaning a male boss. "No!" I replied. "It's not them -- it's you."

Remarkably, several women in the seminar scoffed and said, "Me? Ha! I'm nobody." This is a horrible thing for anybody to say about themselves under any circumstances. And this is a ridiculous way for any executive assistant to describe themselves for they are among the most powerful and influential people in their organizations. If only they themselves would realize this -- and stop waiting for others to acknowledge it.

Executive assistants, as any savvy organizational insider or outsider knows, are the greatest of all gatekeepers guarding the sacred chambers where the boss holds court. If the assistant likes and respects you, you're in. If not, you'll linger in an eternal wasteland of canceled meetings, rescheduled appointments and unanswered phone calls.

The best executive assistants are highly organized multi-taskers, effectively juggling the boss' professional and to some degree personal lives while operationally running the office, keeping the broader concerns of the department and the company in mind -- and simultaneously managing the assistant's own professional and private lives. If the assistant is a woman, which she normally is, this includes her own full duties as wife or girlfriend, mother and housewife. These impressive feats alone should earn her the undying gratitude of her boss, and the business world as a whole.

Often multi-lingual, executive assistants are natural intercultural interfaces between the boss and her or his international clients. With grace and friendliness, they welcome visiting businesspeople and set them at ease. As the face of both the boss and the company, the executive assistant helps create the mood for meetings and negotiations by her professionalism, patience and organizational talents. She casts a cold eye on slackers, tricksters and those who don't have the boss' best interests at heart.

A sophisticated executive assistant is often the boss' finest and most loyal confidant, providing him or her with astute insights into the personalities, politics and motivations of rival managers. Usually misconstrued as "insignificant" in the company hierarchy, she is actually at the convergence of all of the rivers of rumor and information flowing through the corporation. Wise leaders always consult their assistants on inter-departmental moods, discussions, wants and needs.

Executive assistants care for, council and console their bosses. She "is my memory," Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson explained in a recent blog. They deal with an incredible range of tedious yet vital tasks, from organizing hotels, meetings and dinners to sending birthday reminders or insightful missives on internecine politics.

Yet executive assistants are frequently as under-appreciated as they are under-paid. Often labelled by the misnomer "secretary," they actually keep the corporate heart beating. Interestingly, when I run my seminar, "The Powerful Assistant," the workshop's contents have much to do with self-branding: and it is often difficult yet ultimately rewarding to open minds and help these highly talented executive assistants realize their immense value to their bosses and their companies. Executive assistants have to learn how to speak up, brand themselves and ask for a pay raise, perks or a promotion befitting their experience and worth to the corporation. If they don't demand acknowledgement of their work, they rarely receive it.

In the business world few are as powerful, qualified and loyal as the hard-working executive assistant. She sees all, hears all, knows all, organizes all, influences all. Disrespect her at your peril. Pay her for her worth, and then pay her more -- and don't forget that company car. Avoid her wrath, respect her wisdom. And give her the praise she so richly deserves. For executives and their teams, for the department and the company as a whole, the executive assistant is essential. Indeed, the best of them are irreplaceable.