Recently, in a reflective mood, or perhaps because like the rest of the country I have spent an inordinate amount of time in my home office of late, I glanced up at my bookshelf. And then I paused, lips forming a small smile of satisfaction as I reflected upon what each book, meticulously arranged, has meant to me over the course of my career. Some are worn, cracked from excessive perusal, with copious notes in the margins. Some served only a fleeting purpose—perhaps a chapter or two here and there, never having been read cover to cover. All are important, each bringing me back to a particular point in time, marking the evolution of my company, as well as the evolution of my CEO.
The books over my head, 20 in total, are the ones I’ve instinctively kept at arm’s length to grab at a moment’s notice—as one would an old friend, for support and guidance. Looking at the titles alone is often the only inspiration I need. As I scanned the titles, my smile grew wider still.
I had these books organized on two shelves, from right to left. The books on the right shelf are related to visualization, intuition, thinking and empowering. The books on the left shelf are more logical and technical. The fact that they were organized thus is something a good executive assistant does. You must be so organized that eventually it becomes like breathing—a part of who you are. There are exactly the same number of books on each side. A subtle nod perhaps, to how an EA must use both sides of their brain, equally.
Executive assistants are powerful, and over the course of one’s career this power is augmented, nurtured and is meant to be treated with the utmost reverence—never abused. It lives deep down within us. ”Assistant” may reside within our title, but in reality, we are leaders if we choose to be and our legacy is our executive’s success. We are as one, a duo in synchronicity. We make work work, by being efficient, while creating and implementing systems and checklists where none existed before.
We must learn to think “optimally,” ask better questions and we will get better answers out of the executives we work for. Sometimes that question is “who else can I ask to get the information I can’t get out of my executive?”
Remember to live, and live younger. We need to stay sharp, never allowing ourselves to get complacent or lazy. There’s life outside of the office—live it! It makes you more interesting and effective on the job and off. Getting a securities license, becoming a certified meeting planner, writing your first blog, remember that no matter what kind of day we are having, there is always something we can do to change it. Good habits are essential, but you must always be ready to pivot.
Empower yourself. You are a gatekeeper, and are entrusted with a great deal of responsibility. You will be inundated with requests—everyone has their priorities and they always believe theirs are the most pressing. But ask yourself: who do you work for, really? Learn your executive’s priorities, values and belief system so that you are not afraid to reschedule an appointment that you know your executive will ask you to reschedule at the last minute. If the weather report for Friday afternoon is gorgeous and the links have been calling, just clear the afternoon. Or you know about a big game or dance recital that is likely to be forgotten about, reschedule the appointment and update the calendar. Go ahead and call a client that needs to be called, with the excuse of just saying hello.
Sometimes we do things that are downright miraculous, and we don’t even realize it. We are just doing our jobs. Over time, some things will become intuitive, second-hand for you. And yet other things will remain confounding, always requiring a greater effort or level of focus. Tackle them all with equal energy and determination.
As I sit here contemplating my bookshelf, I recall that the books on the left side are related to the left brain’s analytical, verbal and analytic characteristics. These books are on a lower shelf, a bit easier to reach because these are my fuel. As an EA we need to keep our tanks full – always prepared, always ready for a hurricane.
I’ve learned what my unique ability is. I thrive in situations that require strategic organization of information, setting priorities and putting them into sequence. I get excited about visualizing solutions and making decisions. Conversely, I find adding paper to the printer annoying. We are at our best when we do what we love. If you haven’t uncovered your unique ability, I highly recommend you do it. Hint: there’s a book that can help (see below).
We must continue to check in with ourselves by asking ourselves questions. “Am I happy with my progress, both personally and professionally?” If the answer is no, then “What needs to happen to change that?”
If you can take any project or task to 80% completion before bringing it to your executive, I guarantee that you are in good shape. Over time, you’ll get to 90%. . . 95%. . . and with a few key answers from your exec or a trusted peer, it will be 100% in a noticeably short time.
Systems and processes are the secret ingredients to our success. In order for us to put these essential systems and processes in place we need to research, constantly train, and use checklists. We want our emails and communications to be clearly written, explicit in their requests, brief but well-constructed and thorough. We must hold ourselves accountable above any other.
Own the opportunity that you have earned, every day. Your exec’s success is your success as well—do not forget it. But remember that we are all human. You will fall and you will fail—get up, get better and learn from your mistakes. Don’t take yourself so seriously that you stop enjoying your job. Among all of the business books, self-improvement tomes and well-worn inspirational compendiums, I also have a motivational coloring book on the left shelf—strategically placed to remind the left side of my brain to relax!
Whether you are well into your career as an EA, or just starting out, I hope this has brought you a sense of comfort. Do your job well and you will be rewarded in ways big and small, tangible and intangible – you will perhaps find yourself surprised at the countless opportunities available to you, should you give it your all. If you are reading this and are not an EA, but rather employ one or work with one, my hope is that you will perhaps have a newfound respect for those that keep the engine running, always vigilant, always prepared. Always looking for one more thing they can do.
Ellen Smith has been the executive assistant to Paul Saganey, president and founder of Integrated Partners, since 1999.