Developing a Take-Charge Mindset for Executive Assistants

In this article, author Jan Jones discusses developing a take-charge mindset for executive assistants.

FlyPrivate is a proud partner and associate of Jan Jones. Jan brings valuable, actionable information to executive assistants across the globe. We hope you enjoy her blogs as much as we do!

Jan Jones: My articles for FlyPrivate are usually based on conversations I’ve had with executive assistants, or questions they’ve sent in. This month, I’ve circumvented the norm and decided to share some recent experiences that led me to decide to write on this topic, namely executive assistants developing a Take-Charge Mindset and bringing a more resourceful approach to their role. Essentially, cultivating a mindset that gives us a powerful advantage.

As a profession we can have access to all the latest technology, exciting job offers, higher salaries, our choice of where to work from, empathetic executives, skills training, but in the end – as always – it comes down to us individually, and how we approach the role of executive assistant. None of these other factors will have the desired impact if we don’t step up with enthusiasm and respect for the work we do.

I’ve had an intense couple of months working with a celebrity client. True to the Hollywood image we are all so familiar with, the celebrity’s agent is rushing from deal to deal. Spread thin, he needs the services of an effective executive assistant, someone who will take charge. He has an “Executive Assistant.” She demonstrates that her correct title should be “Message Taker,” because all she does is take messages. Not a good look for the Executive Assistant profession. Someone who isn’t living up to the best definition of the title, taints the entire profession.

In the course of business, if I meet an inexperienced or average assistant, I automatically default to mentor mode and find ways to guide them into better practices and better thinking. I coach in such a way as to get them engaged, and out of the stupor of routine thinking. Showing them a better way in the hopes of gaining trust so they want to engage, not only with me, but with their executives and the wider field they are serving.

Every interaction I’ve had with the aforementioned assistant has been to educate and encourage her to take charge, giving her the input and guidance she would need, in order to find solutions. Sadly, to no avail. She has not shown any desire to make even small shifts in order to lighten her executive’s load. (Yes, her executive would like her to). She could make herself so valuable to her executive if she would only try. It was disillusioning to see an assistant working in a profession I’m passionate about, with no enthusiasm for the job and an unwillingness to expend additional effort.

Then, last week an EA colleague shared a new book about the EA role in which the author says, An assistant can only be as successful as executives allow them to be. As so many of us know and have demonstrated for decades, that is false, plain and simple. Our success in the role is not conditional upon what others allow us to do. It’s what we allow ourselves to do. The initiative we show. The determination, grit and can-do attitude we demonstrate to achieve results, because we are motivated high achievers, passionate about being the best possible expression of excellence.

Taking charge is endemic in every top-performing executive assistant. They do it without hesitation. To do the job well, taking charge has to be your default position, for the simple reason that you have such an across-the-board, wide-angle view of operations that goes far beyond what most siloed employees get to see. You have the catbird seat, so you are uniquely poised to see opportunities where you can take charge.

Don’t turn your back. Step forward. Pick up the slack. Participate. It will give you the kind of visibility no networking event can equal. For those of you who say you are already too busy, what you’ll find is that you’ll expand into capacity you never dreamed you had. I know. I’ve done it, repeatedly. Next thing you know, you’ll be considered an expert, an authority. People will come to you for solutions and advice far beyond the realm of your job description. Talk about building your brand!

Even in my very first role, when I had the humble title of Girl Friday, I didn’t wait to be “allowed” to do things. When I saw something needing to be done, I took care of it. When I told my executives what actions I’d taken, sometimes they suggested a different way of doing it in future. That’s how I learned. But they never baulked at me showing initiative. That’s exactly what they wanted from their assistant, someone who would step up and take charge. Spoken or unspoken, that’s what most executives want and that’s the purpose of the assistant role – to lighten the executive’s load. Get minutiae out of their way by being enterprising and forward-looking. Even in that beginner’s role I knew my purpose was to create more hours in the day for my executives by freeing up their time to focus on work that only they could do. That’s how I learned to position my executives for success.

In that same book that my colleague shared with me, the author says that the reason an assistant is a “Secret Weapon” is because, Until the executive unleashes the ‘power’ of the position and allows the assistant scope to do the job; their full potential remains ‘under cover.’

May I say to this author: It’s not the position that has the power. It’s the assistant who breathes power into the position and brings it to life. The assistant wields the power. They are the generator, the force that activates that position. Without the assistant, the position remains inert, dormant, unable to reach its full potential, despite the best intentions of the executive. Assistants are not powerless and dependent, as this author’s statement implies.

An interviewer once asked me, “How is an assistant a secret weapon?” I said, Exceptional EAs are high-performing, consummate professionals who understand the business and the executive so thoroughly that they can operate as a seamless extension of the executive. That’s what makes them a secret weapon. The EAs understand that in order for their executive to be effective, they must take over the functions that are not a good use of the executive’s time….EAs speak on the executive’s behalf with confidence and authority. They also keep them insulated from non-essentials or calamities.

Such an assistant provides a powerful advantage to any executive. They are self-actualized and confident of their ability to step in and take charge without hesitation. No waiting for permission to do what they know must be done. That’s an assistant with a take-charge mindset.

Executive Assistants, please realize that how much you enjoy and succeed in your role – whether it’s “just a job” for you, or a career in which you are thriving – it’s up to you. That success has to start with you adopting a success mindset, and it’s something only you can do. Waiting around for others to make your life better, or “allow” you to be more proactive in your role, is a dull road to a dead end. This is where you can be 100% in charge. So, take charge. If it’s true that executive assistants are leaders, this is your chance to show it. This is how you shape growth and direction. This is where you learn new things that keep you fresh and relevant. Don’t wait. Take charge. Small steps to start will do. Just get started.

I was chatting with some assistants about this topic of developing a take-charge mindset. One of them asked how this would keep her from getting laid off. I can’t say that it will, but her chances of surviving a layoff are a lot stronger if she demonstrates value. If she is known for making a high-value contribution, she’s an unlikely candidate to be laid off.  Even if she were, her take-charge mentality would be an asset in securing a new role, or going to work for herself doing freelance EA work, or turning a hobby into a business as so many are doing now. A take-charge mindset will always help you find a way out of a problem, or into a solution.

Another assistant asked about finding more meaning in her work. She felt she had a strong get-it-done attitude, which was more task focused rather than taking charge overall. She said she wanted to experience “so much more satisfaction from my efforts.”

What I told her is that meaning is something that is personal. You have to find out for yourself the why of what you do, so you can derive satisfaction from your efforts. Two people might do the same job. One loathes it, one finds joy in it. Meaning has to come from you. Create the mindset that allows you to do your best work and feel good about it no matter what the task. Take incremental steps. None of this happens overnight. But it won’t be long before you’ll see the ripple effects of your actions.

For assistants who say they are “not allowed” to do things, these could be some reasons why:

  • Your executive has never had an assistant before and is not sure how to work with one. Lucky you. You get to educate them about the true role of an exceptional executive assistant and show how capable you are. Show them all the ways you can take charge, freeing them up to focus on work they alone must do. If you do this, you will be creating an executive who is a lifelong fan and advocate of the EA profession, because he’s seen the very best in action and he doesn’t want to live without it.
  • Your executive has had a bad experience in the past and is afraid to give you free rein. So you have to show them that it’s going to be okay with you. Start making decisions, no matter how small. The purpose is to get you comfortable making decisions so that it becomes second nature for you, and it shows your executive they have nothing to fear. It may take a little time, but you can bring them around. And it is possible that you think you lack authority, while your executive thinks you simply don’t have the drive or desire to make decisions. Communicate. Find out what the truth is and start building your take-charge ability, along with the partnership.
  • Perhaps you’ve done some minor projects on your own, but the bigger assignments are still not allocated to you. Perhaps you’ve made some mistakes in the past, so you need to show that you’ve learned from your mistakes and are capable of being trusted.

Remember something, all this talk about not being afraid of failure, that is not referring to mistakes that are avoidable. That’s about big bets in R&D, or trying for audacious goals for which the cost of failure is already factored in, and can be withstood by companies with lots of money. Most of you work for small businesses and mistakes are costly and frustrating for them.

To build your take-charge mindset, there has to be intentionality in the way you go about things. Decisiveness is your biggest ally in taking charge, along with confidence. Be single-minded about delivering excellence, and confident that you can. Get over your hesitancy to step up. You do that by stepping up.

Build your business capability. Many assistants don’t make decisions because they aren’t sufficiently knowledgeable about the business they are in. Don’t be intimidated about not knowing. We all have to start somewhere. Choose your starting point. Learn about your department. What does it produce? How do your products and services work? Are your competitors more successful than your company? Find out why. What best practices are they adopting that you can model, even in a modest way, to make you better at your job.

Anticipation is your friend. Don’t wait to be told. Go from passive to active. Look ahead. Figure out what’s next. Put together a plan of action to get things done. If you need to run your plans by someone, do so confidently and build a relationship of shared contribution.  

Ultimately, you’ll need to step out of your comfort zone, take on challenges, be willing to risk a little without being reckless, stretch beyond self-imposed limits and start taking charge. Once you get started, you’ll develop an appetite for it.

Build a blueprint for yourself. It starts with some creative thinking and allowing yourself to believe that not only is there more, but that you deserve to have it – for the job and for yourself personally. People who take charge in their personal lives won’t hesitate to take charge in business. So do yourself a favor in both those areas of your life and start moving in the direction of your goals and desires. It’s time to add a take-charge mindset to your personal and professional portfolio, so you can live your life with maximum impact and fulfillment.

©The CEO’s Secret Weapon. The ideas expressed in this article and any text extracted from “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” are the intellectual property and copyrighted to Jan Jones. All rights reserved. No unauthorized usage or duplication by any means is permitted without the express consent of the author.

Author: Jan Jones

Want more from Jan Jones? Check out her Q & A Series!

Jan Jones is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness.” The book 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 Tony Robbins, the world’s #1 business and life strategist. Jan continues to champion the executive assistant profession with her writing, consulting and speaking. She offers timeless, practical advice that is relevant to the day-to-day role of the executive assistant. 

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Visit Amazon to purchase Jan Jones’ book and visit her website: The CEO’s Secret Weapon.

The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness

Jan Jones

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