The Most Effective Executives Don’t Get Mired in The Small Stuff

By Robert Sher, CONTRIBUTOR, Forbes

April 21, 2015


Despite perpetual complaints about never having enough time in the day to do crucial work, many executives waste precious hours doing jobs that an c-level assistant could do better, and for a fraction of the cost. Leaders who don’t delegate such tasks visibly show everyone around them they aren’t focused on leading. That erodes morale rapidly, especially when a company is in crisis. It also slows down executive career advancements. In contrast, the most effective executives use EAs wisely. That lets them devote every precious minute to leadership, team-building, and making important decisions that no one else can make.

But being smart about delegating responsibilities to an c-level assistant is about much more than getting more done. It’s about partnering and building trust with an executive assistant to elevate both your power and the power of your c-level assistant. Cultivating mutual respect and a shared understanding of roles in this relationship is a top priority for executive assistance.

Executives must realize that EAs are managers, not helpers. They make decisions and take initiative based on an understanding of high-level objectives. EAs are masters at unraveling complexities, guarding access, juggling competing demands for your time and anticipating your needs. When given the necessary tools and authority to do their job well, EAs can free up your time and extend your reach so you can focus on leading the company.

Many executives don’t understand that there are differences between c-level assistant and secretaries. Some CEOs hire secretaries with misplaced expectations that they’ll be able to deliver at an executive level, while others bring on highly qualified EAs, only to treat them as secretaries. Some pairings start off well, until executives fail to protect their EAs from being dragged into projects that are not core to their role. All of these scenarios cause frustration and upset, diminishing the EA’s job satisfaction, leading to turnover and loss of continuity, or causing executives to become disenchanted by the whole idea of turning over responsibilities.

Consider one CEO who directed his HR group to recruit a top-flight EA as the company grew to $100 million in revenues. The CEO knew he needed to focus more of his attention on their rapid growth, but he wasn’t willing to give up booking his own travel and handling his own calendar. He figured it was easier to do these tasks for himself, rather than invest time in explaining his preferences to someone else. On the occasion that he did allow his EA to take over, she got things wrong because she didn’t know his preferences. This then confirmed the CEO’s thinking that it was “better to do it himself.” His failure to share adequate information with the EA created an atmosphere of mistrust between them. Not surprisingly, the EA left for a more satisfying job elsewhere, and the CEO had to direct his HR group to start a new round of hiring.

To bolster your effectiveness with an EA at your side, it is essential to acknowledge the uniqueness of this relationship and how building a healthy bond of trust and loyalty will determine your results. A set of practices that I call “The Four P’s” are useful reminders to be integrated into daily routines, never abandoned or disregarded—especially when the pressure is on.

The Four P’s are: 1. Partnership; 2. Priority; 3. Power; and 4. Panorama.

1. Partnership

Valuing the executive-EA relationship as a partnership is the first critical step. If either party sees it as something less, the pairing won’t work. As in all good partnerships, trust is developed when there is mutual appreciation for differences as well as their similarities. Giving mutual respect for each other’s talents and expertise is the breeding ground for trust.

Constant communication is the glue that binds this partnership. Knowledge is indeed power, and when both parties are fully informed of the objectives and urgencies of the week, they can work together seamlessly; and they can make decisions independently of each other. It is not just about making time for your EA. Executives who have strong EA partnerships realize that they get value for themselves out of the regular exchange of information.

One common practice is for EAs to sit in C-suite meetings and confidential negotiations, so they have the ability to make decisions without back-fill from the executive. Part of the high-level thinking that EAs bring is knowing when to consult the executive prior to making a decision and when to move forward alone. Executives who expect their EAs to get approval before every decision are wasting everyone’s time.

Along with mutual respect, trust is developed as both parties come to know they have each other’s back. A good EA looks out for his boss, alerting him of potential problems, nasty politics, of a frustrated spouse, as well as bad weather. Likewise, a good executive fights for his EA, advocating for a much-deserved raise or protecting him from undue pressure from others. Most good pairings develop into genuine care for each other—not just for the work they do, but for who they are as people. They become friends.

2. Priority

Executives must give their EAs priority access. Let me say this again: the first e-mails to get answered and the first calls to be returned must be to your executive assistant.

One executive calls his EA once or twice a day (often when in transit) to check in for a few minutes, answering questions or updating the EA on how the day is progressing. Because the two are so close, critical information passes very quickly.

Top priority should also be given to providing the EA with productivity tools and technical support to better leverage their own time. The EA has the ability to put extra hours in the hands of their executive, but only if she has access to information and the tools needed to keep ahead of the pace.

3. Power

C-level assistants serve; but they are not servants. They are powerful, highly intelligent people. Since EAs work for powerful executives, they must be able to wield authority on their behalf. EAs are self-confident and assertive. They have high emotional intelligence. They are a force to be reckoned with.

CEOs and C-suite executives who use “partnership and “priority to great advantage in their daily routines find that empowering EAs is the natural next step. In some sectors, this power is easily recognized with the title, Chief of Staff.

You will reap the benefits when you endorse your EA’s discerning use of power and respect your EA’s domain. If you try to micro-manage or tinker with her systems and processes, or if you second-guess her every decision, don’t be surprised when your EA artfully asserts her power with you.

For example, one CEO who was formerly an independent entrepreneur began to lecture his EA on how to sort incoming e-mails. The EA became angry at being patronized, cooled down a bit, and then assertively let the CEO know that he knew how to handle e-mails and had been doing so for many years. The CEO got the message—let the professional EA do his own job, and their relationship flourished.

4. Panorama

An c-level assistant will make better decisions on behalf of their executive when the EA has a 360 degree panoramic view of the company’s objectives and has knowledge of everything that goes on in the executive’s world. He looks after the executive’s needs with intellectual rigor and social sensitivity. The EA manages multiple areas of an executive’s life, tending to her calendar, travel, and sensitive correspondence. Quite frequently, this view extends beyond the workplace to include family situations, health needs, as well as social events.

If the EA is side-tracked into working on time-consuming projects, their wide-angle view will be compromised. Because EAs are strong, capable, and intelligent, it is a common temptation to shift their workload to projects that would benefit from their skills and attention to detail. Having a broad perspective impacts every decision that an EA makes, whether on matters large or small, so it is important to resist the temptation to assign work that turns your EA away from the panoramic view.

If the Four P’s are practiced consistently over time, high productivity and a strong relationship will prevail, no matter the difficulties. Many c-level assistant work in partnership with the same executive for years, or even decades.