I’ve touched on both political awareness and diplomacy in several previous posts in this series, but in this one, I’d like to write about them more directly. What am I talking about when I commend them as qualities of a competent and respected Executive Assistant (EA)?
An article entitled “Political Savvy in the Office: What it really means,” from the website Success Labs gives an apt description of the kind of savvy an EA should seek to develop.
“At its core, political savvy is simply a deep understanding of what other people need, born of empathy, listening, and honest communication.”
“Political savvy” can get a bad reputation — too often it can conjure up images of backstabbing co-workers and up-and-comers who stop at nothing to get to the top…. Political savvy reflects [the] ability to understand the [work] environment. People sometimes shy away from developing political savvy. They may not want to be seen as a “plotter” or “fake,”… But in any workplace, nothing is black and white — there’s always ambiguity, unwritten rules and different personalities to deal with. You need political savvy to deal with those personalities and rules…”
It’s fashionable now, in politics as well as business, to look for “outsiders” to fill various roles and bring new perspectives to the table. While there may be merit in such an approach, and “fresh ideas” are valuable in any organization, I’m usually attracted to the more experienced insiders, provided they are not jaded and manipulative, and they demonstrate political savvy. They are the ones who know all the players and their habits and tricks; the ones who know who will help them to advance a cause, who to avoid, and with whom to seek closer relationships.
Diplomacy is stitched into the cloth of political savvy. The art of dealing with people sensitively and effectively, diplomacy’s synonyms describe the kind of person everyone wants as a colleague: one who acts with tactfulness, discretion, subtlety, finesse, delicacy, savoir-faire, politeness, thoughtfulness, care, judiciousness, and prudence.
So, with these understandings of political savvy and diplomacy, let me turn to an example of them in the work of an EA. Suppose the assistant is given a delicate task to complete, one that requires perfect timing, confidentiality, teamwork and an optimal outcome in a complicated situation. Let’s say she is asked to place an important and controversial report, already vetted by the CEO, in the hands of the organization’s communications officer. The head of the company is holding her boss, the author of the report, responsible for a public release that will paint the organization in the best possible light. Her boss is in Asia; they’ve had extensive phone conversations about publishing the report, but he believes a face-to-face delivery to the director of communications is optimal. His EA must stand in for him.
The first thing the EA must know is how the communications office works and how much confidentiality can be expected from it before publication. Can rumors or leaks be expected? How can she and the communications director head them off? A trusting relationship with the director must already be established, and a clear understanding of how she or he operates in such situations will be essential. How should the report be delivered and with what caveats? Does the EA command enough respect in the communications office to be accepted as a stand-in representing her boss’ concerns with authority, subtlety, and tact? Are there any pitfalls that she has encountered before that must be avoided? The timing of the release is key, and she must negotiate it with an understanding of the constraints and concerns of the director. She must be ready to respond to questions out of a nuanced grasp of her boss’ values, views, and goals. She must function as an ambassador and a diplomat. She will shepherd this matter to its successful conclusion acting as a liaison between the CEO, her boss, and the communications office. Who should she avoid, who should she engage? Who should she stand up to, and when should she acquiesce?
Admittedly, in this situation, the number of players appears to be limited, and they are well known to each other. However, other industry news outlets and the public media will also be involved. Other EAs will read their bosses’ emails or merely overhear phone conversations. The intricacy of the task emerges, and the delicacy required is apparent.
So, let’s step back. Who would you rather have in the center of this complex hub? An outsider, new to the organization, or a seasoned, politically savvy and diplomatic Executive Assistant. You do not want her to be manipulative or self-serving, insensitive or indiscrete, and certainly not uninformed and bumbling.
The EA, who maintains a low profile, operates in the background, keeps her eyes and ears open, and synthesizes all the information, cues and motives swirling around her can steer a straight (or, if necessary, convoluted) path to the goal.
There are many EAs like this in organizations across the country. Shall we elect one as “Speaker of the United States House of Representatives?”