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How Exceptional Executive Assistants Are Keeping CEOs Thriving In This Crisis

On the best of days, many CEOs would be lost without their EAs. In the chaos of the pandemic, exemplary assistance is not a luxury, but a requirement.

If ever there were a time when executives must call on the full complement of their assistant’s skills and utilize them to best advantage, now would surely be that time.

With the world on Covid-19 lockdown and businesses striving to function amid unprecedented disruption, I’ve heard from numerous executives about how grateful they are for the services of their unwavering Remote Executive Assistant. Assistants are being counted on not only to keep their executives on track, but to put into daily practice a role at which they are adept—serving as their executive’s ambassador, their “face” and “voice” to the world.

A high performing executive assistant (EA) who acts in keeping with your vision, objectives, priorities and values, must be the goal of every executive. They cannot be considered a luxury reserved for a lucky few. High functioning assistants are a vital resource for time-strapped executives, an absolute necessity if you are serious about your business.

Every expert assistant knows that, at its most fundamental, the role of the executive assistant is to give back time to their executive. To do this effectively, it must start with the executive sharing their priorities, goals and objectives with the assistant. With this big-picture overview, the assistant strives to ensure that everything the executive does fits those goals and objectives. As one executive told me, “I live by my calendar. If it’s not on my calendar, it doesn’t get done. Because of that, my assistant must be one hundred percent familiar with my priorities.”

The Chief Executive Network, a leading peer network for CEOs, has created a peer group for EAs at the request of its CEO members. If you want to help your EA become a more valuable strategic resource for you, contact Chuck Smith ([email protected]) for more information.

As businesses globally adapt to their Work From Home (WFH) status, assistants are using technology and empathy to keep their finger on the pulse and their ear to the ground on behalf of their executives. They are serving as a conduit, keeping their CEOs in front of their teams, arranging daily and weekly briefings via Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other technology. I’ve heard from executive assistants about how they are functioning during this enforced WFH phase. Their systems and procedures may be helpful to you as you navigate your WFH agenda with your assistant.

Dorothy Connell, EA to the CEO at Agilent Technologies told me, “Mike [McMullen] and I communicate regularly via email, text messages and WebEx meetings. Since we are both working remotely, our interactions are now very planned instead of spontaneous. He relies on me more than ever to proactively read his messages, forward them to the appropriate people for resolution and remind him of his own action item deadlines. We have cancelled all Mike’s travel for the balance of the year and he has entrusted me to play a bigger role in setting up virtual meetings with his key customers instead. Mike sends weekly video messages from his home to all employees reassuring us about our job security, customer wins, the status of the company and a timetable for re-entering the workplace. He encourages me to be an added bridge of communication to our executive assistant and administrative assistant community so we stay connected as a team.”

Likewise for Janet King, EA to CEO Rusty Keeley, of L. Keeley Construction. Janet said that because Rusty travels so extensively, early in her tenure they set up processes for communication which have prepared them for the transition into today’s WFH environment. As a result, her role with Rusty has not changed much during WFH, but what has changed is her communication with the staff with whom she holds weekly mentoring teams calls across all Keeley companies to make certain everyone is doing fine, maintaining work-life balance and offering the company’s help if anyone has the need for it. As part of the company’s ongoing charity efforts, earlier this month Janet organized an event with the St. Louis Urban League, local businesses and civic groups to organize food drives. The event was such a success (raising $500,000), they are doing four more during the month of May.

Janet told me that she and other assistants are accustomed to working from home because their executives travel so extensively and rely on them 24/7. I heard something similar from Chantelle Taylor who said her company had been promoting flexible working long before Covid-19 hit Australia. “I often work from home when my boss is not in the office. We utilize OneNote and Teams to enhance our remote working experience, meeting twice a week via video chat, using technology to record the meetings for those who are unable to attend. We have team members all over the world so having everyone in the same office has never been an option for us.”

Nikki Edwards is executive assistant to Simon Segars, the CEO of ARM Holdings. Initially, the two were under the assumption they would be back in the office within a few weeks, so they agreed to keep his schedule flexible which meant communication between them was ad-hoc. However, when they realized they would be staying home for the foreseeable future, “The meetings began to pile on and Simon became busier than ever,” so they had to change their approach and set up regular one-on-one meetings.

Nikki adds, “When Covid-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic, we had a deluge of meeting requests for Simon from various industry groups to share information on organizational approach, challenges, and best practices. Simon chose specific meetings he would find most helpful, but there were times he simply couldn’t join. I took that as an opportunity to step in and level up my skillset. One call I joined included some of the largest names in technology and financial services. I took copious notes which I provided to Simon. He found them extremely helpful. I was able to provide him with important new insights on the global economy and how businesses were reacting. As an executive assistant, these are the types of actions that provide our executives with tangible information for making informed decisions. In the absence of travel and other typical duties, we must look for other ways to add value for those we support.”

Former assistant to supermodel Cindy Crawford, and now a resource to high-net-worth individuals, Meg Florence recommends: “Short term, executives get everything synched with their assistants, color code and set online reminders. Schedule daily calls in the morning or end of day to review all completed and pending items and make sure you are staying communicative.”

I’m excited to see how assistants are demonstrating proactive behavior and resourcefulness during the global lockdown. Adam Fidler, the UK’s preeminent trainer for executive assistants told me UK assistants are insisting (yes, insisting) their executives stick to their usual protocols of one-on-one meetings via Zoom or Skype, so the assistant remains in the loop. Daily meetups are vital because assistants can’t catch executives on the fly like they could in the office. Assistants continue to take meeting minutes, which keeps them informed. Zoom and Microsoft Teams are used widely and there is a big push with major blue chip UK firms to ensure employees can use MS Teams to maximum advantage.

As a result of the pandemic, few industries have been hit as hard as the travel industry. Don Smith, COO of FlyPrivate told me there are no executives flying at present. All are following policies that restrict travel and based on global quarantine rules, presently there is nowhere to go.

With stalled revenues bringing day-to-day activities for the travel industry close to a standstill, executive assistant Ratna Sreerangam at asked his CEO to let him implement a customer service initiative for customers who were struggling to get airline refunds, or who had been stranded away from home. Initially, his boss said no, but Ratna persuaded him and gathering a team together managed to negotiate concessions with airlines and other vendors to get resolution for their customers. This while voluntarily taking a pay cut, and currently looking into opportunities to launch new products when business returns. Which CEO would not welcome an assistant who demonstrates such initiative and passion for the job?

These assistants have the courage and confidence to independently take on such tasks because they are fine-tuned to their executives and are expert at anticipating their needs. They step in confidently for their executives on a day-to-day basis with a sense of certainty developed long before a crisis hit. So they can achieve this level of certainty in meeting their executive’s needs, it is incumbent on the executive to communicate relentlessly. Help your assistant to understand what you are aiming for and why. This makes the job rewarding for your assistant and they willingly stretch themselves, work impossible hours and even make financial sacrifices like Ratna is doing. Invest in them and they become fully invested in your business.

Every company mentioned here reported that their assistants are using this time to undertake self-development and learning activities, working on upskilling and taking on new projects so their executive can focus on the wider responsibilities that are currently presenting themselves. This is in addition to the numerous other responsibilities assistants already shoulder, managing tasks you don’t give a second thought to, but which keep your operations humming.

My hope is you are working in a similar manner with your assistant, maximizing your time and enjoying a relatively smooth business day despite the current disruption. If you have a capable assistant, one whose complement of skills include good anticipation, effective communication, decision making, critical thinking, resourcefulness and accountability, along with the requisite administrative skills, I’ve no doubt that you are. If you are not enjoying this level of support, you may not be utilizing your assistant’s talents wisely, or you may have the wrong person in the job—something to rectify quickly because a high performing executive assistant is not a luxury but a necessity for a time-strapped, over-scheduled executive.


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