Disclaimer: Not every executive assistant (EA) is a woman and not every executive is a man, but for the purpose clarity in this post (and in keeping with my practice in the rest of the blog) I will use “she” for EA, and “he” for executive in most instances. Please don’t let my use of these pronouns cloud the point I’m trying to make.
A partnership is defined as an association of two or more people as partners. Synonyms for partnership include, cooperation, collaboration, coalition, and alliance.
Few circumstances are more disappointing in an executive assistant’s career than to enter into a relationship that she believes will be a working partnership, only to discover that the executive does not understand what partnership means and is incapable of building or sustaining it. Of course, the same disappointment may occur for the executive.
A professional partnership with one’s boss is not expected to be an equal one. The executive is the employer and the EA the employee. A natural imbalance of power is built into the relationship. However, if the two are to create an effective two-person “collaboration” or team, a degree of partnership – a characterized by mutual respect, trust, reliability and even friendly intimacy – is essential.
The creation of an effective partnership begins with the interview process. It is hard to learn much about the suitability of a prospective partner in a series of relatively short interviews in which each party is putting the best foot forward. (Or at least one party is!)
In a world in which there is a perceived “glut” of laborers, the power differential in an interview is skewed in favor of the boss. He schedules the meeting and conducts it on his turf. He has the power to hire or not and decides the offered salary. The dynamics of the process are often crafted to create as much stress as possible for the interviewee. The candidate meets with a confusing series of individuals and groups, one after the other, with little transition time in between, answering the same questions multiple times. A job interview is often characterized as a marathon.
It may seem as if the potential boss/ hiring team hold all the cards. But the prospective EA holds cards as well. And it’s best for both parties if they each put as many of them as possible on the table during the hiring process.
EAs, try as best you can to discover the executive’s work style. If you are interviewing with others on his team, ask about this directly. Indeed, ask the executive himself. (It will give him a chance to self-reveal in a way that may be key to your decision about the suitability of the match.) Is the executive able to delegate? How does he do so? Is he open to suggestions from his team, does he seek them? Is he a visionary who hopes for an EA who will embrace and help him implement a vision? Does he like to be involved in and consulted about the details of all projects or is he more of a big-picture – only if you hit a roadblock – kind of manager. Is he capable of articulating a work style and a vision?
Look around. Is his office messy or neat? Does he ask you questions during the interview, or does he talk only about himself, his needs and those of the organization? Is he passionate about the goals of the organization and his own role in it? Does he seem interested in your career development? Is he willing to go to bat for a fair salary? How hard does he work? What is his work-life balance and what are his expectations of his EA in this regard? If he is likely to value a true partnership with his executive assistant, he will not be “put off” by such questions. He will know how important they are in establishing a partnership.
Of course, each party comes out of an interview process with only a limited amount of information, and the reliability of first impressions will be dependent upon how open and honest both parties have been.
I interviewed for a job four times during my career. During all but one of these interviews, the hiring manager monopolized the conversation, describing the position, the organization, and his or her needs. He/she seemed to have given my resume a cursory glance and to be uninterested in learning more about me or in asking probing questions to determine what I might have to offer.
In the best interview, the interviewer (who was not the executive herself) asked very complex hypothetical questions about how I might handle certain situations that were likely to arise while assisting the executive with whom I would work. By the end of the interview, I had a good idea of what I might be getting myself into, and what the relationship between my new boss and me might be. And the interviewer had a fuller picture of how I was likely to react in various real-life situations and whether my reactions would suit the executive with whom I would be working.
More and more, the real hiring decisions for executives are now made at the lower levels of management – human resource (HR) departments and office managers – with the executive simply giving a final blessing to a candidate that has been recommended by his staff. Depending upon the skill of the HR hiring officer (and the salary and personnel constraints under which HR is operating), the personal compatibility of the executive and EA may or may not be given its due weight. Indeed, if you find yourself offered an EA position with an executive whom you have hardly met, the chances are very slim that he is looking for a true partner.
Several times during my EA career, my bosses inherited me from their predecessors. I knew the circumstances of the office, the personalities of their colleagues, the job description of my boss, and the goals of the organization better than he or she. Therefore, I was in a stronger position to demonstrate how my own skills and talents could add value to their work lives and to position myself for a working partnership.
All of this is to say, that the seeds of a true partnership are sown during the interview process. The EA who wants to partner with her boss should not be shy about demonstrating a “partnership” attitude or about speaking openly of her hopes to develop such a relationship for the good of the office and the organization. If this attitude and the open expression of her hopes are rebuffed or ignored by the hiring executive, the chances are good her efforts to build a productive partnership later on will be frustrated.
Let me not be “pie-in-the-sky” about the interview process. In the present employment climate, in the majority of workplaces, employees are expected to do more and more for less and less salary, with longer hours and shrinking benefits. Any job, with any boss may seem more attractive than unemployment. You may need to “settle.”
Developing the partnership
If an EA has been hired by an executive who has demonstrated clear signs that he wants to work together as partners, both will start building such a relationship immediately. Their “check-in” time together (daily if possible, except when the boss is traveling) will be held sacrosanct. It will be well organized; information will be exchanged in a streamlined and efficient manner. It is primarily the EA’s responsibility to schedule, plan and conduct these check-ins. Each will listen deeply to the other, learning essential details about every agenda topic, but also studying the other’s reactions, way of thinking, values, concerns, and priorities. The EA knows her executive will make decisions without seeking her input in many instances, but still, she will feel comfortable offering her views and expects them to be valued by her boss.
Red flags should go up for the EA if the executive routinely cancels their meetings, isn’t willing to listen when she has a viewpoint to offer or seems uninterested in her concerns. The executive will feel comfortable sharing confidential information with his assistant. He will realize that situations will be handled more professionally and effectively if his EA has the full picture.
The executive must understand that the EA needs uninterrupted time to accomplish tasks and projects that require extended periods of focused thought and he will ensure such time is available. The executive will also understand that an assignment that he thinks is relatively simple and quick to accomplish might take much longer than he imagines. He will, however, trust that all the invisible (to him) steps will be taken, hoops jumped through, or emails exchanged. He may be happy in his ignorance, but he is solid in his trust.
Failed Partnerships – Some scenarios
Cindy walks into her boss Jay’s office soon after he has taken on his new responsibilities with the company that she has served for six years. She and Jay have both read a series of emails from others in the company complaining about a problematic employee who reports directly to him. Suspecting that Jay may not have a complete picture of the situation and wanting to help him deal with it effectively, she says, “May I offer some information and a suggestion….?” Jay cuts her off, responding. “No.” Cindy is dismayed but hides her reaction and leaves the office to process what has just happened.
Her interactions with Jay up to that point have been positive. She will, of course, give him the benefit of the doubt, but will, in the future, carefully choose those moments when she offers an opinion or a suggestion. Over the next few months, her observations of and interactions with Jay confirm her initial impression. He is not open to her ideas, does not value her input and prefers to use her as a clerical secretary. He is insecure enough to believe he must have all the answers and make all the decisions unaided by her experience. Others in the company are whispering about similar interactions with Jay.
Deborah hired Naomi with great fanfare and goodwill. She liked Naomi’s professional manner, her energy and self-assurance and her extensive experience. She felt an immediate rapport with Naomi. In the first months of their work together, Naomi proved competent, reliable, and a good problem solver. She usually came to Deborah to report how she had headed off a problematic issue, rather than to dump the problem in Deborah’s lap.
For her part, Naomi felt trust growing between her and Deborah. She felt respected and valued. But about nine months into their partnership, Deborah made a business decision that shocked and disappointed Naomi. She thought long and hard about all Deborah’s possible motives, trying to understand what had brought her to this decision. Finally, Naomi decided to talk with Deborah directly about her discomfort and to offer her perspective on the injustice the decision had created. She hoped that their conversation would not only help her to understand Deborah’s point of view, but also that Deborah might change her mind.
Deborah listened to Naomi’s views and offered reasons for her decision, but Naomi did not believe those reasons were justified or valid. She left the meeting feeling that Deborah was blind to the injustice she had caused. Naomi struggled with her convictions, sought counsel from trusted friends and ultimately decided she must resign from her post. Her values were incompatible with Deborah’s on this matter. She believed that their promising partnership could not sustain this incompatibility. It had foundered on opposing values. Deborah was sorry to lose Naomi but understood the strength of her EA’s feelings and respected Naomi’s commitment to her values. They parted saddened but understanding each other’s perspectives.
Richard respected those who worked for him. He said openly and frequently that he could not do his job without the skilled, loyal, dependable staff who supported him and the organization so effectively. He took an interest in their career development, offered them opportunities for continuing education, and understood their needs for flexible schedules and a healthy work/life balance. He was proud of them when they moved on from his department to higher levels of the organization and to more challenging work. He was exceptionally gratified by the professional growth of his EA, Alex. He had hired him as a temp fresh out of college, seen his potential and promoted him to be his executive assistant. He trusted Alex completely, and Alex didn’t disappoint. They worked together happily and productively for eight years.
Though he didn’t carry the title, in many ways, Alex functioned as Richard’s chief of staff making the whole department run more smoothly. They understood each other perfectly, Richard thought. Alex could anticipate his unspoken needs and fulfill them. Others commented on their close partnership.
In their ninth year together, Alex started arriving late to work in the mornings. Richard ignored this, thinking that Alex would explain himself at some point and that the reason must be good. Alex worked as hard as always but began making odd errors, forgetting important but routine responsibilities. Richard tried to talk with him about the possible causes of these mistakes, but Alex said he was tired and that things would get better when he began sleeping better. One day Alex did not show up at work leaving Richard stranded with an important meeting to chair. The meeting room had not been reserved, the catered lunch did not arrive, materials were not printed and distributed.
This was the last straw. Richard called Alex at home, exploding about his frustration and embarrassment. Alex apologized vaguely but showed up at work late again the next morning and seemed not to remember their heated call the day before. Richard called HR and asked the senior human resources officer to meet with him and Alex. The HR officer was skilled in handling such situations and created safe space for Alex and Richard to talk about what was happening to their partnership. Alex admitted to experimenting with drugs, during a time of personal loss (his father’s death). The HR department recommended a treatment program, leave was arranged, and he was assured that his job would be waiting for him when he returned.
During Alex’s leave, Richard struggled with his fear that his and Alex’s trust had eroded. He felt he had failed Alex by not noticing the depth of his mourning for his father, and that Alex had failed him by not reaching out earlier to tell him what was happening. Alex struggled with embarrassment and shame and wondered how he could face Richard and work with him again. At the end of his sick leave, Alex resigned from his EA position. He and Richard said a sad farewell and eventually lost touch with each other. Alex flourished in his next job. Richard found a new EA and built a solid partnership with her. Both acknowledged that they had learned from their failed partnership.
Trust is the bedrock of any relationship. And trust is the rock on which a partnership can founder. Choose your partner carefully – eyes wide open. Trust your intuitions early on. Don’t overlook signs of the relationship’s instability. Invest your best energy, your best self, in developing a loyal, trusting, relationship. Be clear about your values and your boundaries. Seek to understand those of your partner. Communicate and keep communicating. Accept that things change, and people change – you and your partner are no exception. Value your partnership; don’t take it for granted. Do your best to strengthen it if it becomes fragile. If it fails, let go and move on but learn from the experience. Don’t allow yourself to become jaded; do be careful. Invest wisely in the next partnership. Respect yourself. Respect your partner.
Why is a working partnership between the EA and the executive so important? If both feel secure and draw out the best in each other in the workplace, the benefit for the organization will be invaluable.
The EA may sometimes feel misunderstood and undervalued. She works behind the scenes deriving her satisfaction from the success of others. She doesn’t seek the limelight; she may be embarrassed when placed in it. She doesn’t consider herself a leader but nor does she feel like a follower. She knows the value of her contributions and thrives on using her skills and wisdom in the service of her boss’ accomplishments. She doesn’t seek praise, but she appreciates the thankful smile, or the knowing glance, or the simple “Excellent!” now and then. The failure to achieve a partnership with her “principal” (as EA’s call their executives) can be a considerable disappointment in her life and career. When respected and valued, when allowed to use all her skills and talents, experience and wisdom, she will flourish and so will the career of her boss and the mission of the organization.