I have saved the least glamorous traits of a good EA for near the end of this series. I should, perhaps, have mentioned them first as they are the bedrock of her relationship with her executive. Occasional brilliance is welcome, but reliability is essential. Disloyalty is flagrant, but loyalty is a quiet and hidden jewel.
When I retired from Harvard, my school threw me a retirement party. I was “blown away,” as they say, by the number and diversity of those who attended. I was honored by the presence of the five deans I had served in the last 15 years of my career there, and by the words, they spoke about my service. I was touched and happy that the guests included other assistants and program managers, custodial staff, and colleagues and leaders from across the university.
When my former bosses spoke about the kind of service I had offered them, the word “reliable” came up time and again. What memories did that word conjure in their minds as they spoke? I imagine they remembered that I was in the office before they were on many mornings and sometimes still there when they left at night. They could count on me doing my very best to make it to work on snowy winter days when the university remained open, and, if I couldn’t get there, to work and be available from home. They knew if I was sick, that I would try to rise above it and come to work anyway if there were crucial tasks or events that needed attention. If I was so sick I couldn’t “rise above it,” they relied on me to arrange for coverage from among the team of assistants with whom I worked closely. They knew no balls would be dropped and they would never be left high and dry, never embarrassed, never unprepared. Deadlines would be met, projects would be on track, deliverables delivered.
Of course, I was not perfect, sometimes, at particularly busy times, something would slip through the cracks. But I had learned, over the years, to minimize these omissions by setting up systems to check and double check myself. And when something did slip through this fine sieve of backup techniques, I had learned not to “freak out” but remain calm and fix the problem quickly.
They all knew I had their backs, which brings me to loyalty. In a real, EA/Executive partnership, the boss is not paying only for all the qualities I’ve discussed in previous posts – prescience, discretion, humor, equanimity, political savvy, diplomacy, and humility – but also is investing in a strong bond of allegiance or loyalty. The executive may not have realized that loyalty is a two-way street, but he/she certainly wants it coming in his/her direction.
I made it a practice, no, a policy never to discuss an executive with his successor. During my my last executive assistant role, Executives came and went, and while I passed on to each new one the lessons her predecessors and I had learned, I never spoke about the personality, strengths and weaknesses, victories or screw-ups of the ones who had come before. We only talked in the most general terms of insights gained or disappointments that turned into learning experiences. Because I didn’t break confidences from one executive to another, I assume they concluded I would be loyal to them each in turn. I was.
Sometimes I watched the reputation for reliability of my young EA colleagues falter on the mistake of many sick days taken in short periods; on lateness, ball dropping, confidence breaking and careless mistakes. And sometimes I watched them soar as they grew in expertise, maturity, wisdom, reliability, and loyalty. And I celebrated with pride in my heart the careers they were launching, the growing responsibilities they would assume and the excellent references they would receive as they moved forward.
You, my colleagues, are a dedicated, brilliant and versatile lot. May you know your worth in your hearts, and may your worth be recognized by those you serve.
[NOTE: The next articles on “Partnership/The Failed Partnership,” “The Boss who doesn’t Value and Respect,” and “Taking Care of One’s Self,” will finish this series on Respect and the Executive Assistant. I plan to follow it with some posts on the topic of Homelessness. Thank you for reading With All Due Respect.]