Are Executive Assistants Servant-Leaders? Part 1
FlyPrivate: Recently we’ve heard executive assistants mentioning Servant-Leader without being sure what it is, or if it has any relevance to executive assistants. We know this is not some new buzzword because you wrote about it in your book. Can you say something about how the Servant-Leader concept is relevant to the EA role?
Jan Jones: Yes, I’ll be happy to discuss that here and perhaps we can do a Part 2 to this discussion where we can explore what I believe is even more relevant for executive assistants and that is the concept of Exemplary Followership, which in a few words is self-managed “followers” who think for themselves and whose hearts are in their work.
Servant-Leader and Servant Leadership are not new concepts. Robert Greenleaf coined the terms in an essay he wrote in 1970. He got the inspiration from reading Herman Hesse’s book, “Journey to the East”. Greenleaf spent forty years at AT&T in management research, development and education. After that he was an influential consultant.
In my 2015 book “The CEO’s Secret Weapon”, I told the story of Leo the servant in Hesse’s book. Hesse wrote “In addition to his menial chores, Leo sustained the group (of travelers) with his spirit.” When Leo left the group, they fell into disarray and the journey was abandoned because they could not make it without Leo.
I said this reminded me of the role an executive assistant plays in an organization. They perform tasks that are sometimes perceived as menial, yet “They hold together and sustain the multiple activities and personalities that keep an enterprise going.”
I was introduced to Greenleaf by management guru Dr. Ken Blanchard who was a good friend of my boss at the time, Tony Robbins. When I was writing my book, Dr. Blanchard invited me to his home and spent a full day with me, giving me advice and direction. This showed me first hand who servant-leaders are. They live true to their principles. In my book I’m sure you noticed Dr. Blanchard’s relationship with his wonderful assistant, Dana Kyle, whom he likened to a “soul mate”. Reading his comments you experience the servant-leader in action. They are leaders who listen closely to their teams, care about them on a personal level, care about their development and value their contributions.
Appreciation for the servant leadership concept didn’t come easily to a rugged individualist like me. I struggled with the term “servant-leader” because the words usually mean the opposite of each other. People don’t want to be perceived as servants, particularly assistants whose role through the years has sometimes been spoken of in derogatory terms, analogous to servant. This is probably why a personality in the EA profession recently referred to the assistant role of earlier generations as being “tea and typing”. A massive blunder on her part, but if you’ve never been an assistant, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing the stereotype. When I read about Leo in Herman Hesse’s book, I suddenly became clear about what a servant-leader is, and how true executive assistants have been examples of the concept for generations.
In my book, Simon Sinek, author of “Start with Why”, said that a huge mistake executives make is “Treating their assistant as a subordinate. What they don’t recognize is if you look after the person and look after their growth as a human being, they will want to do everything in their power to keep you healthy, happy and productive.”
Does Simon’s description sound a lot like what an executive assistant does for their executive and their team? It’s about having the heart of someone who wants to serve and be of service. That’s how secretaries of previous generations expressed the essence of the role. They were intensely loyal to the executive they served. Not that they didn’t understand that they served the larger organization as well, but their loyalty was first and foremost to their direct executive. They looked out for them and kept them protected. Some secretaries smothered their executives. Others took their protection too far by keeping tight control on access to their executive. This was done because the secretary saw themselves as the protector of their executive’s time. With that in mind, there was little the secretary would not do in service of their executive.
While they had the best intentions, that thinking was exclusionary, not inclusionary, which is contrary to the idea of servant leadership. But realize that in previous generations business style was much more formal than it is now, particularly in the executive suite. Many executives wanted an assistant who projected a formidable persona to create the perception of exclusivity around the executive. I was a secretary in those days and if you wanted to be executive secretary to a high level executive, you were expected to bring a certain authoritative demeanor to the role.
It is important for the current generation of assistants to understand the basic concepts of servant leadership because its influence is widespread now, and many companies such as SAS, Marriott, Nordstrom, Men’s Warehouse have instituted servant leadership practices and offer servant-leader training. With the growing influence of servant leadership, EAs may find themselves working for an executive who is committed to being a servant-leader. It can be a radically different experience and one that takes getting used to because you are asked to step up and be mindful of your better nature at all times. Embodying what it truly means to be a servant-leader is not easy, and certainly cannot be trivialized as the latest buzzword. Servant leadership doesn’t happen overnight. It is a long-term transformation for people and organizations.
Greenleaf wrote: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead… The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
I’ve abridged that paragraph from Greenleaf for the purpose of this interview. It is lengthy and the most quoted of his entire essay. Debating whether or not we should put others’ needs ahead of our own is a discussion for another time. To me, it simply points us to constantly remember to be decent human beings who are considerate of each other, finding ways to work and support each other so we can all live fulfilled lives. Servant leadership espouses lofty goals. From my perspective, the server is as valuable as the person being served. Servant leadership is not a one-way street. It is not about subjugating yourself. It is about claiming yourself, living to your highest purpose while supporting others to do the same.
Here are some characteristics of Servant Leadership as explained by the former CEO of the Greenleaf organization, Larry Spears. I’ve added my take on the relevance for EAs.
Listening: Listening is vital to the growth of a servant-leader. Listen intently and receptively to others. It means getting in touch with your own inner voice to understand what it is communicating to you. Listening and reflecting are essential to the role of the servant-leader, and a crucial characteristic for an executive assistant. Former Popeyes’ CEO Cheryl Bachelder says “Listening well is the path to serving well.”
Healing: The potential for healing one’s self and others is a powerful force for transformation. Assistants routinely come across people who need help and encouragement. Find ways to be of service, without neglecting your core responsibilities, or becoming overwhelmed by other people’s issues. I knew an EA who used to volunteer for a suicide hotline. She had to stop because she became too depressed and it was seriously impacting her job as assistant to a senior VP. This is about having empathy, not taking on someone else’s problems.
Awareness: Particularly self-awareness. Many executives lack self-awareness (about their values and how others perceive them). Pay attention to your impact on people and how you conduct yourself. You represent your executive and you represent yourself. Make sure you always put your best foot forward, and your radar is on at all times.
Persuasion: Using persuasion rather than authority. Assistants should be used to this since most of them don’t have any direct or positional authority, yet they manage to get things done through collaboration, resourcefulness and treating others respectfully.
Foresight: Understanding the lessons of the past to look ahead and avoid problems in the future. Assistants must develop their ability to anticipate. It’s the biggest complaint I hear from executives. Being prepared gives you a big advantage in supporting your executive and independently spearheading projects. Your position in the executive suite gives you a bird’s-eye view advantage, so use that data strategically to plan your course of action.
How will you apply these characteristics to your role as executive assistant? Remember servant leadership is for people at all levels, not just for people with a “C” in their title (CEO, CFO). As a servant leader, the assistant must understand their stewardship to their executive and to the organization of which they are a part. Servant leadership is not asking you to be submissive. You are being encouraged to build and be a part of something. Something you care about. Tune into the needs of your executive so they feel looked after and nurtured by you. Whether it is business needs or basic human needs like planning down time in their schedule, or having a sandwich ready to nourish them before they race off to yet another meeting. What can you do to give them respite from the pressures of the business day – things that say “I’m here to support you.”
“Support” is the operative word. The role of the assistant is to support and assist. As much as we speak about “partnerships” and “relationships”, it must be remembered that the executive is hiring the assistant to provide the support the executive needs in carrying out the company’s mandate. All efforts must be in service of this requirement. This is not limiting the assistant. It is expanding the
assistant. There are many directions in which a spirited, resourceful assistant can take the role if they are looking out for the best interests of their executives and the organization. There is much that can be done by an assistant with bold vision and a sense of purpose who wants to take the lead. It is only limiting if “what’s best for me” is your predominant focus.
Ideally, the executive has already adopted the role of servant-leader so the executive and assistant are in service and support of each other. I’ve had the privilege of having such a boss and I can tell you, you will gladly work your heart out for this person, because you know they have your back as much as you have theirs. You realize they truly see you as a human being, and not just a high achieving, production machine whose mettle they will test to the point of breaking. When this happens, the executive and the assistant are successfully partnered to deliver superior performance. They are aligned and fully engaged, bringing their best to work every day in the true spirit of servant leadership.
Please tune in next time for our discussion on Exemplary Followership and its relevance for executive assistants.
For the past three years, FlyPrivate has been a proud partner and associate of Jan Jones. Jan brings valuable, actionable information to EAs across the globe. We hope you enjoy her blogs as much as we do!
Want more from Jan Jones? Check out her Q & A Series: Part 1-11!
Jan Jones is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness”. The book debuted at #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases in the Office Management Category. It has received widespread acclaim from executives and executive assistants worldwide. Jan spent 20 years as an esteemed international executive assistant to well-known business people, including personal development icon and author Tony Robbins. Jan is passionate about the executive assistant role and continues to champion the profession through speaking, mentoring and offering timeless, practical advice that is relevant to the day-to-day role of the executive assistant.
©Copyright Jan Jones, 2015 “The CEO’s Secret Weapon”
Visit Amazon to purchase Jan Jones’ new book and visit her website: The CEO’s Secret Weapon.
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