So What Makes You Any Different?

I spoke on a panel last night consisting of myself and another (rare) male, C-suite Executive Assistant whose boss happened to accompany him to the event. I had actually seen them on a panel together 3 years ago at another EAO event I'd attended in New Jersey. They sort of have "legend" status as they both took the stage about half a bottle of wine in and proceeded to lay the audience flat with laughter regaling tales of their shenanigans over the past 7 years together. I admire the relationship they've created. The exec is English, witty, quirky and, I gather, probably a little high maintenance. His Assistant is highest energy, hilarious, speaks a mile-a-minute and is the type of person you know smiles way more than the average human being is physically capable of. What stands out is that they are clearly friends as well as colleagues and they've ironed out the boss/subordinate hierarchy to perfection. Dude is a BOSS, and his boss knows it.

We both took several questions from the audience. Most, I noticed, were centered around "asking permission" or "how do you approach your boss" to do certain things. I listened to my fellow EA talk about waiting for just the right time to ask his boss something or bring up a particular subject. As the minutes passed, I could feel a level of anxiety building within me. By the end of the evening I could actually feel myself becoming low-key angry and disappointed by what I was hearing in some of the questions we were being asked. I looked at the CEO in the room and could feel my eyes narrowing a bit as one stinging question ruled my thoughts: "So, what makes YOU any different?"

Executive Assistants have come a long way from the days of sweater vested secretaries procuring coffee by the gallon and packs of cigarettes for 8+ hours a day. However, I've noticed that our collective mindset hasn't changed much at all. We are still approaching this role as subservient workers asking permission to support someone in charge. We are walking into interviews with our tails between our legs, unprepared for battle, allowing junior recruiters to run an interview with questions they'd Googled 15 minutes before. Then, when we're unfairly passed on based on obvious "culture archetyping" we skulk and blame age, lack of swag, basically anything external to help ease the sting of our perceived failure at landing the job. Even worse, when we do land the job we blithely accept salaries 40% less than our level of contribution with zero resistance. 

News flash, kids! It's time to pull thine head out of thine bottom. 

CEOs of companies are no different than any of us...physically. They put their pants on one leg at a time. They poop. A lot. They procrastinate incessantly. They obsess over ridiculous things. They have insecurities and fears just like the rest of us. However, what they've figured out is their own special ability to translate their thoughts into action. They're self aware enough to know what they're great at and able to fill the voids with people like us who make them even better. They've developed a fearlessness and strong enough self belief to stick their necks out and fail as often as it takes to realize their vision. And because of it they are successful.

So, What Makes You Any Different?

Think about it. Why can't you treat your profession as an Executive Assistant in the same way a CEO treats his company. Sure, you may have no desire to manage 300 employees and run a multi-billion dollar company day-to-day. But there is absolutely no reason that you can't approach your career as your very own entrepreneurship and become the "CEO of me."

I constantly get the question: "How do I take my career to the next level, like you did?" My short answer is typically, "Grow some really big balls." I've since listened to my mother and my classier friends and constructed a more suitable, actionable answer: "Be willing to do everything it takes to get in the room and claim a seat at the table." I'll explain.

Executive Assistants get to a point in our careers where experience and skills converge to where we can almost do our jobs in our sleep. We can adeptly anticipate every move our bosses make, perfectly manage all things administrative, be the omniscient resource for the C-suite, their teams, and their team's teams, and pull it all together with a nice, neat bow presented daily to the man who signs our paycheck. Great on paper, but the kiss of professional development death if you get too comfortable. Think about it. Do your job competently for months and years at a time and you become "indispensable." So indispensable, in fact, that promoting you becomes a risk. When you find "the one" who has automated your life to perfection, the last thing you want to do is lose them and potentially throw your well-oiled machine into peril. Ironically, the comfort that we create day-to-day for our bosses subconsciously poisons their sense of decency to a point where they would rather keep things exactly as they are vs. pushing you out of the nest and starting the entire process over. I actually had one boss admit to me that he'd secretly denied a promotion request and kept me exactly where I was because he didn't and couldn't trust anyone else to the job as well as I had. Bye bye $20K bump in salary and "Director" title.  I quit the following week.

So what is "next level" for an Executive Assistant? And how do you get there? Here are 3 things to concentrate on. (I'm writing a book that you WILL buy so I'm saving the rest for later.)

1. Change your title in your head.

Do you simply "assist" or do you "run shit?" (sorry Mom) I'm that EA who runs shit, by design. My goal each day is to have the same understanding of the business as every C-level in the building. By default, I'm given access to all of the players, all of the requisite information and a wealth of resources who will fill in the blanks and answer any questions I may have. And, I capitalize on it at every opportunity. I make and manage my own, separate relationships with everyone who has my boss' ear. I study email chains like they're Chaucer. I note the nuance, the pivots, anything that will help me inform my boss of "things to keep an eye on" as well as put me in one of the those seats in THAT room.

2. Own something.

Find something in your boss' or the C-suite's world for which you become the #1 resource. Maybe it's a metric. Maybe it's a particular client relationship for which you have inside info via their EA. Find SOMETHING that puts you center stage and make sure your execution is flawless at all times.

3. Learn the language and speak it fluently.

If you're an EA at a company and you haven't taken the time to learn every single acronym both within the company and those used by your boss daily, SHAME ON YOU! You're not really serious about your job or moving to the next level in your career. It is imperative to learn the language, master it, and repeat it back perfectly, with comprehension, every day. You want respect from an executive and his team? DO THE WORK. Study up, develop an understanding of everything the exec team talks about, and contribute to the conversation as an intelligent, prepared, honorary member.

So, What Makes You Any Different?

Hopefully, something I've said above will make you think differently and approach your role from a position of power vs. asking for permission to be simply "good" at what you do. F that! Your CEO didn't ask for permission to start a company. She's likely not sitting around second guessing her decisions and paralyzing forward process. He's likely not choosing to watch another episode of Gilmore Girls instead of opening up Wall Street Journal online and seeing that the merger that happened late this evening will result in a flurry of phone calls tomorrow morning from reporters asking for comment. Get out of simply "doing the job" and start owning the work that you do and executing at a level that is on par with the people you support. Play time is over, unless you're content collecting a check. And if that is your career trajectory, I can do nothing for you. You want to roll with the "big boys?" Learn (and respect) THEIR game. Master it in your free time. And confidently walk through the door of THAT room and sit at THAT table as a contributing member of THAT team. Not as "the help."

Phoenix Normand