Blog article by Moriah Freeman

Now I touch on the situations in an Executive Assistant’s (EA’s) life that disappoint and cause heartache. 

Occasionally, at Harvard, EAs who supported deans across the university would gather for a “retreat day” or an “off-site;” a day together, away from their offices to encourage each other, share experiences and lessons learned, and hear from an expert in some area of higher education.  These days were few but treasured. Few because getting away from our desks was such an enormous undertaking.  Yes, we could arrange our own work lives to make time available, but we didn’t live and work on our own schedules, instead, on those of our boss and his or her team. Treasured because they assuaged the isolation that we sometimes felt, wondering if anyone else really understood our concerns, problems and, yes, even our victories.

At one of these retreats, I happened to be part of a small group whose members included the EA of the dean of one of Harvard’s most prestigious graduate schools. Her boss had recently been appointed the president of another renowned higher education institution and had invited the EA to join her in the move.  The assistant felt honored. Her life circumstances made it possible for her to accept, and so she did.  She talked about the partnership she and the former dean had developed over the years; conversations they had at the beginning or end of many days, reflecting together on the issues that had emerged and how to resolve them.  Her boss, she said, was always open to her perspective on any situation, bounced ideas off her and valued her judgment and input.  The EA looked forward to the same kind of relationship as they faced this new challenge together. 

We, her colleagues, rejoiced with her.  Congratulations flowed like wine, and it was a very happy small group discussion.  But I came away feeling deflated, and I wonder how many others did as well.  I suspect few of us had this kind of mutual partnership with our bosses or felt so valued.  I have lost track of this EA over the years, so I don’t know how things went as she and the new president settled into their roles. Perhaps in a different setting, the partnership was harder to sustain.  I hope not.

Many EAs have poured out their energies, insight, and hearts to support executives who do not value the treasure with which they have been graced.  The executives are glad that the office runs smoothly, that projects are completed, and their needs are anticipated and met.  But they never give a thought to what goes on behind the scenes during the work day, late at night or on weekends to accomplish these feats.  One of the most disheartening experiences for an EA is to know, in her heart, that her boss doesn’t have a clue what she is doing to perform the miracle the executive requires. 

A gift from his travels, a remembered birthday or special occasion, faithful “thank-you’s” don’t touch that place in the heart of a dedicated, hardworking, insightful, and wise EA who longs to partner with her executive.  What would be her true reward? To be consulted about projects, to have her advice and insight sought, to be treated as a valued problem-solver and an integral part of the executive team.  In other words, to be a partner in the endeavor at hand, not a servant, however relied upon and appreciated that servant might be. 

My advice to all bosses would be to look up and around you; to look deeply into the potential of your Executive Assistant; to comprehend the opportunity to foster a close and mutually beneficial relationship that will serve your goal, your EA’s, and the good of your organization. Nurture, support and grow your partner.  Invest in him or her as she/he invests in you.  Consider your EA an invaluable resource and treat him or her as such.  You will never regret it.

2 thoughts on “When Respect Is Not Offered

  1. Thank you again for a heartfelt and honest post Moriah. As I came to the end of it, I thought of all the people in my hospice whom I try to honor in the way you suggest. However, I’m sure I fall short of the mark. I am encouraged to do more to be sure that they are indeed consulted and treated as equal members of the team who are valued and respected.

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  2. This was such a moving post, Moriah. I could identify in my role as a mother in some of the passages you wrote. Acknowledgment, respect, and a mutual investment in one another is critical in so many working relationships. You said it all so meaningfully.

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