Among the most striking details of the corporate era depicted in the AMC series Mad Men is the army of secretaries who populate Sterling Cooper, the 1960s ad agency featured in the show.
The secretary of those days has gone the way of the carbon copy and been replaced by the executive assistant, now typically reserved for senior management. Technology has allowed managers at all levels to operate with a greater degree of self-sufficiency. At the same time, companies have faced enormous pressure to cut costs, reduce head count and flatten organisational structures. As a result, the numbers of assistants at lower levels have dwindled in most corporations. That’s unfortunate, because effective assistants can make enormous contributions to productivity at all levels of the organisation.
At very senior levels, the return on investment from a skilled assistant can be substantial. Consider a senior executive whose total compensation package is $1 million annually, who works with an assistant who earns $80,000. For the organisation to break even, the assistant must make the executive 8% more productive than he or she would be working solo – for instance, the assistant needs to save the executive roughly five hours in a 60-hour workweek.
In reality, good assistants save their bosses much more than that. They filter the distractions that can turn a manager into a reactive type who spends all day answering email instead of a leader who proactively sets the organisation’s agenda.
That’s true not only for top executives. In their zeal to cut administrative expenses, many companies have gone too far, leaving countless highly paid middle and upper managers to arrange their own travel, file expense reports and schedule meetings. Some companies may be drawn to the notion of egalitarianism that they believe this assistant-less structure represents – when workers see the boss loading paper into the copy machine, the theory goes, a “we’re all in this together” spirit is created.
But as a management practice, the structure rarely makes economic sense. Generally speaking, work should be delegated to the lowest-cost employee who can do it well. Although companies have embraced this logic by outsourcing work to vendors or to operations abroad, back at headquarters they ignore it, forcing top talent to misuse their time.
Granting middle managers access to an assistant can give a quick boost to productivity even at lean, well-run companies. The real payoff may come when the manager arrives in a job a few levels up better prepared and habitually more productive.
An experienced assistant can be particularly helpful if the manager is a new hire. The assistant becomes a crucial on-boarding resource, serving as a sounding board during the crucial acclimation. In this way, knowledgeable assistants are more than a productivity asset: they’re reverse mentors.
Getting the most from assistants
Two critical factors determine how well a manager utilises an assistant. The first is the executive’s willingness to delegate pieces of his or her workload to the assistant. The second is the assistant’s willingness to stretch beyond his or her comfort zone to assume new responsibilities.
Delegating wisely: The most effective executives think about the pieces of their workload that can be restructured to be taken on by the assistant. Triaging and drafting replies to emails is a central task for virtually all assistants.
Today, many assistants are taking on more supervisory roles: they’re managing information flow, dealing with basic financial management, attending meetings and doing more planning and organising. Executives can help empower their assistants by making it clear to the organisation that the assistant has real authority. The message the executive should convey is, “I trust this person to represent me and make decisions.”
Not every executive is well-suited for this type of delegating, but they should think of assistants as strategic assets and realise that part of their job is managing the relationship to get the highest possible return.
Stretching the limits: Great assistants proactively look for ways to improve their skills. When I was the assistant to Pete Peterson, the former US commerce secretary and head of Lehman Brothers, I took night classes in law, marketing and presentations to burnish my skills. Today, I see executive assistants learning new languages and technologies to improve their performance working for global corporations. In my work, I frequently encounter world-class executive assistants.
Trudy Vitti is the executive assistant to Kevin Roberts, the CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi. Often when you ask him a question, he’ll say, “Ask Trudy.” He travels for weeks at a time and says that he has utter confidence in Trudy to run the office in his absence. Compared with managers in other countries, those in the United States do a better job of delegating important work to their assistants – and of treating them as a real part of the management team.
Elsewhere, educational requirements for assistants are less intensive, salaries are lower, and the role is more typically described as personal assistant. You can often tell a lot about an executive’s management style – and effectiveness – from the way he interacts with his assistant. Not every boss-assistant relationship is made in heaven, but an executive’s ability to manage conflicts with an assistant can be an important indicator of his overall ability to manage people.
Finding the right fit
In some ways, hiring an assistant is trickier than filling traditional management positions, because personal chemistry and the one-on-one dynamic can be more important than skills or experience. Expert assistants have high levels of emotional intelligence: they quickly learn what an executive needs and how to best accommodate his or her personal style. Good matches are hard to come by – that’s the reason so many good assistants follow an executive from job to job.
The most common missteps an assistant makes are misreading the corporate culture, failing to build bridges with other assistants, failing to ask enough questions about tasks, agreeing to take on too much work and speaking to external parties without authorisation. Bosses usually contribute to these deteriorating relationships by not being open in their communications or being unclear about expectations.
The best executive assistants are indispensable; they give companies and managers a human face. After years of cutting back, companies can boost productivity by arming more managers with help, and executives who are fortunate enough to have a skilled assistant can benefit by finding ways to delegate higher-level work to him or her.
Executive-assistant relationships are business partnerships: Ultimately, the companies reap the benefits.
Melba J Duncan is the president of The Duncan Group, a retained search and consulting firm specialising in senior management support resources, and the founder of the Duncan Leadership Institute, which offers training for administrative support staff. She is the author of ‘The New Executive Assistant’.