The economic case for having educated, highly trained and strategically effective EAs
Is busy the new stupid?
In Ed Baldwin’s popular article, he argues that ‘Busy is the new stupid’. And in a well-publicised interview, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates famously argued for executives to spend more time to sit and think, and not feel it a proxy of their seriousness to fill every minute of their time. Many of the YouTube clips for that discussion also famously use the caption ‘Busy is the new stupid’.
So here is the question, how do executives do what Buffett, Gates and others have proposed? How do they put the systems in place to achieve that greater time for higher cerebral activities like just thinking and rationalising, doing more strategic planning and, of course, also just finding time for more valuable and imperative types of ‘doing’?
My contention is that any executive wanting to achieve that, to find more time to strategize and think, and generally therefore to become more productive and effective overall, requires an exceptional EA. And my further contention is that with the right working models, and the right suite of exceptional EAs working with all the senior management and executives, the results for a business can be exceptional.
How exceptional? Well what if all your senior managers and executives got to increase their productivity and effectiveness by 15%? Read on to see how I believe that is possible, and then where I believe it is possible.
Why traditional EA and executive working relationships fail the value test
From my experience, organisations, and the senior executives who run them, often fail to spend adequate time investigating what benefits a great EA delivers and examining why they should be investing in training and developing their EA resources, rather than looking to roll them back or ‘rationalise’ their positions as we are seeing in so many organisations.
Most arguments posited for why senior executives and managers should have EAs, centre on the simple time value equation based on simple wage disparities. Simply put, the argument goes, why employ someone on a high salary to do simple administrative and clerical tasks that someone on a much lower salary can do for them.
This argument of course holds water and is extremely valid, but on its own, it not only misses other key benefits an exceptional EA can deliver, it is also not the most compelling argument in a world where technological advancements and the advent of artificial intelligence are seen as heralding a business era where more and more of those simple tasks can be done by fewer and fewer people. And sadly, it is this error in thinking that we see leads to so many organisations rationalising their EA positions or off-shoring many senior administrative and clerical functions.
In this article, I want to put forward an economic justification for investing in EAs, for investing in their greater employment, education and development, and also to highlight many of the areas where good EAs deliver significantly greater benefits that many executives and managers often don’t comprehend.
Using a wide range of benefits that we have heard over the years when discussing these matters with senior executives, from a vast array of different organisations, I will demonstrate why investing in your EAs to help ensure that all your senior executives and senior managers can receive tangible improvement in their productivity is an obvious decision.
In my book, The NEW Executive Assistant – Exceptional Executive Office Management, I outline in much greater detail my guide and model for EAs and executives wanting to partner for increased productivity, effectiveness and value, but I will still cover some of the main points from that book here to help validate some of my arguments around return on investment (ROI).
A role with no really defined purpose, scope or strategic value – beyond high level clerical and administrative support?
In thirteen years of working with EAs, their executives and broader organisations, one of the main things that has struck me is the distinct lack of understanding at senior levels around what makes one EA great and another not so great.
Working from position descriptions that often have remained unchanged from those used by predecessors long past, most EAs still have as their core function simply a list of basic tasks that really don’t make it clear exactly why they can be so indispensable in some cases, but merely just perfunctory in others.
Even if you haven’t had the experience yourself, I’m sure you will know that one executive who talks about that time when they had the best EA they ever had, and how much better things were back then, often lamenting further how they wish they could have kept them forever! I’ve met a significant number of these executives and senior managers, and what always amazes me is the minuscule amount of time most of them have ever spent trying to work out exactly why one EA was so great, and the rest so average or, even worse, appalling; at least in the minds of their executives. And yet, the one thing I can guarantee, is that they probably all had their responsibilities and duties derived from pretty much the same basic position descriptions.
Well, during thirteen years of investigation, I managed to distil sufficient information from a number of those managers and executives to develop a model and outline for what it is that makes the difference, and this is outlined in significant detail in my book (acknowledging that all organisations will be slightly different and the way different executives work will always be slightly different so the model will always need to be tweaked slightly to suit each situation or set of circumstances).
In July 2018 we commenced a consulting and training project with an agency of the Federal Government in Australia, designed at supporting a significant change initiative for all the EAs and the executives they work with inside that organisation. From the outset, it was clear that there were incredible differences in the skill and knowledge levels of the different EAs, that there was incredible differences in terms of what they believed the essence and purpose of their role was, and almost unbelievable differences in opinion among the senior executive and management teams about what the role and scope of the role of an EA should be. Our goal with them was to help provide clarity, consistency and unification at all levels in terms of how they work, act and think, and we have been succeeding with that. Importantly, however, the nature of the role, as it is proposed in our models, has been vital because it has helped to remove ambiguity and confusion and provide unified vision and a base line for understanding, which is essential for the types of increases in executive productivity and effectiveness across an organisation that I am proposing.
An amazing EA – The strategic thinking and strategic acting Manager of the Executive Office
My definition of the EA role is that, working in partnership with their executive, their function is to manage the office of their executive in a way that enables the executive to be their most productive and effective. It is that simple. The role only exists and has true meaning in so much as they must be enabling the executive to do more and be more – beyond just the time saving aspects of doing tasks instead of the executive wasting time doing them.
The executive assistant role exists to provide high level strategic management support, clerical and business assistance, plus provide direction and guidance to the executive to support the executive in the achievement of their strategic priorities and business goals and objectives.
Taking their lead and overall direction from the executive, the EA is responsible for managing the office of the executive, working in partnership with the executive, and working proactively and unilaterally within a framework established with the executive. The EA is also responsible for helping to manage executive energy, focus, mindset, priorities and relationships, and for helping to facilitate the best outcomes for the executive and their team of direct reports. And this is where they are able to truly amplify their benefits beyond simply doing tasks instead of the executive doing them.
The greatest shift from the past has been that modern, adept EAs, are proactive and managing, not reactive and directed. This significant shift is what firstly helps change the dynamic in terms of executive input and oversight and direction. The ability to be proactive comes from the EA having in-depth and significant knowledge and understanding of the strategic direction and long, medium and sort terms goals and priorities of the executive. Simply put, the EA needs to know exactly how the executive would weight any priority at any time and why, if they are to be able to act proactively and, to an extent, unilaterally. But when they can do that, what follows is a very different relationship and different role.
Ignoring the traditional tasks and duties of an EA, which still exist, managing emails, diaries, travel bookings, meetings and events etc, and looking at the broader areas of responsibilities controlled by an amazing EA who is capable of being proactive and managing, not reactive and directed, what I came up with is the following, in terms of what I see as key facets of the modern EA role.
• Helping to manage competing executive time, focus and priorities in line with strategic objectives and short-term goals and objectives, and assessing and adjusting any shift in priorities as appropriate at any time.
• Building and maintaining strong relationships with all team members, other direct reports, internal executives in other divisions or departments, plus all internal and external stakeholders and clients necessary for the function of the executive office.
• Building a reputation for being the facilitator of best outcomes not just for the executive but for everyone in the executive’s team, plus all important stakeholders.
• Assessing and then managing the flow of information, communications and physical or electronic access to the executive in line with identified and ordered relative priorities.
• Utilising their judgment to help protect the executive from unnecessary involvement in day-to-day office management issues, team issues and daily interruptions, therefore enabling the executive to maintain their focus on identified priorities. A great EA will manage enquiries unilaterally where possible or bring them to the attention of the executive at a time appropriate to relative priorities – or direct them to another more suited person where appropriate.
• Helping to provide guidance and support to the executive, and ensuring the executive has the time and space they require to maintain their emotional and physical wellbeing.
• Maintaining strong connections throughout the organisation, the EA provides the executive with necessary business intelligence and data including feedback on the temperature and mood within the team and organisation.
• Supporting initiatives emanating from the office of the executive or elsewhere in the organisation as required and acting as an advocate or change champion as required.
• Building strong networks externally that help to support the executive in achieving their business objectives.
• Taking on the management of key projects on behalf of the executive and their team, where appropriate, or being involved as a project team member, permanently, or on an ad hoc basis, as required by the executive and their team.
Assessing the value delivered by an amazing EA
The role as detailed above, or anything similar, whilst only being a snapshot of some of the role we identified and the model I created, I have yet to see outlined in any EA position description. And yet we know this is what great EAs do.
As part of our education and training programs that we run in-house for corporate and government clients, and even as part of our diploma qualifications, we utilise a survey that we conduct with EAs and, importantly, with their executives. Consisting of 64 questions, many of the areas we ask both parties about are extensions of the points above. And interestingly, the vast majority of the more enlightened modern executives strongly agree with these points in terms of them being what a great EA should be doing.
So, the situation exists where we have uncovered what amazing EAs should be doing, we know from speaking with hundreds of executives that they have had EAs that they rate as excellent, EAs who work like that, but the issue of measuring the value of the EA still remains. How do you assess just what value a great EA delivers versus an average or ordinary one, and what does that mean for a business? Especially when there is no base or ground point for measurement. After all, their value is only truly relevant to the extent to which they enable their executive to be more productive and successful.
Over the years, we have heard from executives we have interviewed or had conversations with, that the difference between an ordinary EA who performs their role in a perfunctory way to one who is really great at what they do, and acts in a truly proactive and strategic thinking way, could deliver as much as 50% in difference when it comes to the productivity and effectiveness of the executive. That is where the executive is allowed to spend the maximum amount of time on higher level cerebral activities, heavily focussed on strategic objectives or business development actives, as opposed to worrying about the day to day of the management of their office, their team, and the things around them.
The range of benefit we have heard spans from about 15% to about 50%, and whilst I doubt that a 50% increase in executive productivity and performance is readily achievable in most cases, I do strongly believe that a 15% to 30% increase can be achieved quite readily.
So, what I wanted to do was posit that, if we assume that the benefit was at that lowest level, 15%, in relation to a shift of executive time and energy to more important priorities, then what would that mean for a business? What would it mean if all the senior managers and executives suddenly had amazing EAs and worked with them in an appropriate manner and, between them, they averaged a 15% increase in their productivity and effectiveness? What would that mean for the business? And what would the return be in terms of investing in EAs to ensure they were all of that calibre and capable of delivering those levels of results.
Achieving a 15% increase in executive performance, productivity and effectiveness
To achieve that level of results, as an absolute minimum, organisations need to do a few things.
1. Rewrite EA position descriptions to make them more meaningful and appropriate and ensure that everyone in the organisation understands the strategic importance of the role and exactly how the EA needs to manage the executive office.
2. Ensure that all executives and EAs are aligned in terms of the role of the EA and the extent to which they are going to manage not just their executive’s office but also their energy, focus, mindset, relationships and, most importantly, relative priorities.
3. Ensure that the EAs have the required technical skills, soft skills, including emotional intelligence, and communication skills, strategic awareness and understanding, business acumen and industry knowledge to be able to perform in their role. We often say that EAs need to have the breadth of knowledge of a general manager without the depth. But the greater the depth, the more effective they will be in their role.
allthingsadmin / Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash