Your Executive Assistant Must Have These 4 Superpowers
This article is adapted from The 29-Hour Work Day.
We’ve seen this irony time and time again: principals hire executive assistants to make them more productive, yet they micromanage them so neither are as productive or efficient as they can be. In order to stop micromanaging, executives must be willing to loosen up the reins a bit and put trust in their EAs to do their jobs.
Trusting those in support positions can be difficult. But we believe a key to opening the lockbox housing trust is in gaining a full understanding of what an EA’s superpowers are and realizing how effective they can be when enabled.
If your EA is to be fully empowered to fulfill the performance multipliers to the point where you can and do get twenty-nine hours of work completed in one twenty-four hour day, then you must let them unfurl each of their four essential superpowers to the fullest extent. Those superpowers are ESP, Synchronization, Omniscience, and Translation. Let’s take a look at them now.
When we talk about how a good EA has ESP, we are not suggesting they read a tarot deck to foresee the outcome of your every decision. Instead, we are referring to how your EA will appear as if they can see into the future to figure out what you will need, then present it to you before you even know you need it. They are able to do that because they know your business as well as you do. They know how it functions, who the key players are, what your objectives are, and, perhaps most important, what is looming ahead on the calendar.
When your EA gets to know you and your organization very well, a rhythm sets in, a backbeat of habitual behaviors. They will have a running to-do list for the day, which includes looking ahead to see where you will be, with whom, and why. Armed with that information, they can collect the knowledge and materials you’ll need and prepare it for you so you will be ready to handle whatever is coming your way.
Principals are the beneficiary of these superpowers on a daily basis. For example, if a principal is going to be speaking on a panel at a conference, the EA will research the backgrounds of the other panelists as well as the moderator, condense the information to bulleted lists, and have it at the ready the minute the executive asks for it.
The benefits of an EA’s ESP are enormous—if the principal can let themselves trust their EAs enough to use them.
The Synchronization superpower is closely related to ESP because it relies on a schedule and the calendar. A good assistant knows their principal’s productivity cycles. They know the circadian rhythms of their executives, when they are most alert during the day, and when heavy lunches hit. They also know which days of the week are better for travel, phone calls, and in-person meetings, and they know how outside influences like children’s school schedules and other personal issues impact the calendar. When they take all that knowledge and use it to manage their executive’s schedule, they are applying their Synchronization superpowers.
Sometimes EAs know their executives’ rhythms better than the execs themselves do. Ethan once had a principal who held his most productive meetings in the mornings. However, he was resistant to Ethan scheduling meetings in the morning and instead wanted them in the afternoon. Ethan reminded the principal that he tended to have an afternoon slump, but the man insisted—subsequently frequently complaining that the meetings were a waste of his time. We’ve noticed that the more successful principals are the ones who honor their time and energy levels—and insist their EAs do, too.
The Synchronization superpower is not one an executive’s EA will be able to step into and perform right away. However, principals and their EAs will all discover they can easily get more done in less time and often do it better when those circadian rhythms and supplementary needs are honored on the calendar.
An excellent example of an EA using the Omniscience superpower comes from one of Steph’s clients. That client is in sales and has a particular step-by-step process that must happen each time a client signs a contract with them.
Once Steph realized it was the same process each time, she quit waiting for her principal to tell her what to do and used the contract signing as a trigger to start the process, which meant scheduling a kick-off call with the client. In turn, that call, once completed, kicked off an internal team meeting, then a project schedule, then an email campaign, etc. Those are all task-based items that she can easily click off, but a few of the others require more in-depth work, like checking in with other teams for availability and input before communicating back to the client.
The thing is, her principal used to do most of those steps, but once Steph understood the process, she took ownership of it. Everything gets done and the principal is alerted after each stage of completion so they stay abreast of the progress.
By allowing the Omniscience superpower to be expressed, the principal has no need to micromanage. They can trust the EA is competent, and they can be confident all of the details are covered. That means they can then focus on bringing in the next client, or on some other facet of their business that can impact their bottom line better than micromanaging their staff will.
It is not unusual for EAs to develop good relationships with all their executive’s direct reports, but they must always keep in mind that their first line of allegiance is to the principal. Executives can encourage that allegiance through clear communication and expectations that emphasize who can be clued in on which topics. Such discourse helps build Translation superpowers that enable EAs to speak to people according to who they are in their principal’s world and express what their executive is saying in ways that are appropriate for each one.
If an executive is going to confide in their EA that they’re thinking about doing a partnership with another company—a partnership that will set the VP of engineering’s nose out of joint—the executive needs to know the EA will keep the idea confidential. That means the EA must feel comfortable saying things like, “I’m not at liberty to say” should the VP of engineering ask, and it means that the EA will manage to maintain a relationship with the VP that is courteous and respectful.
Similarly, a great EA has the “velvet no” perfected—that ability to refuse to accommodate a request on a principal’s time or attention in such a way that the person asking for it feels honored.
The Translation superpower can soften rejection, ensure speculation is targeted in the appropriate direction, and put context around decisions with nonconfidential information that will smooth concerns or alleviate potential fears.
Let Go and Let the Superpowers Work
Clearly, a good EA has some impressive superpowers. However, your EA can only help you as much as you let them.You have to be willing to trust them and let go of some of your control for their superpowers to do their magic, and for your EAs to be the performance multipliers they can be.
If an executive cannot trust the EA to use their superpowers for the good of the company and the executive, the executive will wind up micromanaging, which is a huge waste of their time and energy, and get only minimum benefit and performance.
For more advice on your EA’s superpowers, you can find The 29-Hour Work Day on Amazon.
Ethan Bull is a co-founder of ProAssisting, a next-generation remote executive assistance firm for business owners and C-suite executives. With a background in hospitality and expertise in the EA space, Ethan has held a variety of senior positions, including Director of Administrative Services and senior EA to the president and CEO at Rochester Regional Health.
Stephanie Bull is ProAssisting’s co-founder and the former EA for J. Crew’s CEO and the CEOs of two multibillion-dollar hedge funds. Before developing ProAssisting, Stephanie proved herself an expert in the field and a vital addition to the C-suite by fulfilling a variety of roles, including chief of staff, estate manager, and investment liaison.