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FlyPrivate: We’ve had this question come in a few times from executive assistants who say they don’t feel “seen” at work. Will you comment on this?
Jan Jones: Despite my attempts to ignore it, this question keeps raising its head! I’ve previously passed on this topic, firstly because it is not a condition exclusive to the executive assistant profession. A friend of mine, who is a successful business owner, once told me that when she turned fifty she became invisible to the world. She felt nobody saw her. People from all walks of life, and every profession, struggle with feelings of not being seen.
Secondly, this is not a quick-fix issue. It is nuanced, with lots of variables. When something is not a quick fix, people lose interest if what you are saying is not what they want to hear. My focus is not on telling assistants what they want to hear. My emphasis is on sharing high-value straight talk to help assistants deliver spectacular performance in the EA role and beyond.
Obviously, I’m not a certified medical professional, so anything I say about this issue is not professional medical advice. I’m speaking from observation and in-depth personal experience in the EA profession. Just as I advised EAs in my article on the Impostor Syndrome, I say the same thing here. Don’t self-diagnose yourself as having an issue because it’s trending. If you truly are struggling with feelings of invisibility, you may need professional guidance.
Some historical context may help this discussion. Business was male dominated until the 1880s when the typewriter came into widespread use, allowing women to join the workforce in large numbers to do stenographic and clerical work. They went to secretarial school to receive professional job training. Their duties included taking dictation, typing, filing, answering the boss’ phone, greeting visitors. There was no need for a college degree to do those tasks. The role had a low barrier to entry (some secretaries hadn’t graduated high school). Secretaries were not highly educated, so the work they did was considered low-level. They weren’t always treated respectfully and little status was attached to the role, and to the workers who did it.
The role was not taken seriously because it was not considered to be a career. There were no defined long-term prospects for advancement like other office positions. Many women left the job when they got married and had families. Secretaries were plentiful and easily replaceable. That kept their pay low. All this contributed to the attitude that anyone could do the job, the ramifications of which are still being felt today, causing assistants and the profession to be viewed as expendable. If you think that’s an overstatement, recall the mass layoffs of assistants in 2021 by Deloitte and the other Big Four accounting firms who said their executives could handle many of the tasks assistants were doing.
Even as high quality EAs proliferate across the business world, false perceptions of the executive assistant profession persist. Why? Because despite the reality that many capable assistants are unappreciated in the workplace, it is equally true that there are assistants who have not actively forged their workplace identity. They’ve been passive about brandishing their credentials and making their presence felt. Insufficient investment has been made in building their reputation by showing what they are made of, by showing who they are, what they can do, what expertise they bring, why their work matters, why this profession matters and, most importantly, why the assistants themselves matter.
I speculate that the trend towards employers asking for executive assistants to have degrees is because of the traditional low entry requirements into the assistant profession. “Anyone can do it,” was the thinking. Leave high school without graduating, get a job in an office doing basic administrative work. Sure. Anyone can do it. A woman who runs trainings for EAs was asked how she developed her persona in the EA profession since she’d never been an assistant. Her response, “Well, I was a receptionist.” And we wonder why the EA role has the reputation it does, when people teaching EAs to enhance their skills believe being a receptionist – an entry level office position – qualifies as expertise in the EA role. So I speculate the thinking now is that if assistants have a degree, they will have a higher-level capability to do more. Whether this thinking is sound or not is a separate discussion. EAs without a college degree, but loaded with experience, expertise and smarts can certainly make a valid case to the contrary.
Assistants are constantly reminded that they are leaders. But remember, leaders are visible. By the very nature of their role, they have to get out in front and be noticed. They have to be seen if they want to inspire and influence. To be a leader, you have to do the same.
You may not realize it, but many leaders and celebrities are introverted and shy by nature, yet that hasn’t stopped them. Lady Gaga told a reporter, “People think I’m really confident but I’m actually quite shy and insecure.” Johnny Depp told Details Magazine, “I’m shy, man. I don’t like to be in social situations.” Miley Cyrus said she was shy so she would “crank it up” so she wouldn’t come off as nervous.
Introverted business leaders include Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg and, yes, Elon Musk. For those who are not naturally extroverted, these high achieving personalities should be good role models to help us deal with shyness and introversion. Bill Gates says if introverts are “clever” they can be successful. So be clever. When you play small and stay safe, you become easy to overlook. You work too hard to allow that to happen to you.
Why do vendors pay handsomely to have their products displayed in prime positions in stores? They do that to get noticed immediately. Just like merchandisers do in stores, you have to position yourself so you are visible. Those merchandisers fight for key positioning because they know they have to be seen. It’s the same for you. You have to show what makes you viable to your organization. If you feel unseen, then you have to formulate a plan to get yourself noticed. One surefire way to do that is to outperform and overachieve. It will make you visible in a hurry.
When EAs raise this subject with me, they tend to fall into two general categories. One is the assistant who wants high-profile visibility. They are not complaining about not being seen, or not being well compensated. They just want more of all of it. Higher visibility, higher status, higher recognition, higher pay. I admire their ambition and drive. The only thing I say to them is “Be worthy of what you are asking for. Make sure what you are demanding doesn’t exceed what you are willing to give, and be careful of unrealistic expectations.”
The other category of EA takes a slightly different approach. It’s made up of EAs who are performing well but still lack visibility, and those whose performance could use some upgrading. They question if the work they do really matters. Their identity needs validating. They could use some empathy and not feel ignored. One executive I spoke to after chatting with his assistant said, “I do appreciate her, Jan. I tell her often. She’s a good worker, but she’s kinda needy and I don’t have time for that.”
Some executives have told me a support role has no need to be “visible.” They don’t realize that what EAs mean by “invisible” includes feeling pushed aside, their suggestions are overlooked, being interrupted when they speak, having the veracity of their ideas questioned, not feeling accepted, for example. Experiencing this behavior can feel belittling and demotivating. It adds to feelings of inadequacy which many assistants experience. Such behavior can cause people to stop trying to be seen and heard. My suggestion to EAs is don’t be dissuaded. Keep pushing, keep striving. It will make you stronger and build your courage as well as your determination. Take it from me and the assistants who’ve worked with me. When they employed this strategy, their courage, confidence and work performance shot up dramatically.
Other executives acknowledge the EA role can sometimes seem like a thankless job, but they don’t mean it to be. Things get busy, people aren’t always mindful. That being the case, perhaps assistants can have a conversation with their executives. Ask what you can do to raise your profile. What additional responsibilities can you take on? Make sure the responsibilities actually raise your profile, not just add to your workload. Are there committees you can join, networks you can set up, outside activities that could include you so you can build your profile?
I had a discussion about EAs feeling unseen, undervalued and unrecognized for their efforts, with Ratna Sreerangam, who founded the EA Faction platform. As a mentor and counselor, Ratna is deeply involved in helping EAs to conquer their fears, to identify and nurture their abilities, so they can live up to their potential. He serves as right hand to the founder of MakeMyTrip.com.
“There is a certain demographic in the EA profession that is truly unseen, meaning their work or skills are considered non-critical and they are easily replaceable,” said Ratna. “There is a second, smaller demographic who have high expectations but don’t necessarily have the required skillset. If they feel their expectations aren’t met, they describe themselves as ‘unseen.’ As time passes, the first demographic gradually becomes submissive and starts believing that they don’t deserve anything more. They believe that being unseen is their new norm. Convinced that they cannot change anything, they struggle with low pay and exploitative workplaces. What’s unfortunate is that many skilled people allow themselves to fall into this category. Despite being talented, they lack the self-confidence to do what it takes to make themselves visible.
“The second demographic, is not truly unseen. Insecure about their lack of skills but with a strong survival instinct and desire to get ahead, they act on their fictitious invisibility problem, and actively seek better opportunities.” Ratna says, “With the first demographic being meek, it’s easier for the second demographic to find clever ways to jump ahead and succeed, because they manage to achieve visibility.” I believe there’s a third strategy, which I’ll discuss later.
Allowing yourself to feel insignificant is an indulgence you simply can’t afford. The price is too high. Don’t allow your contributions to be ignored or glossed over. Feeling unseen has deeper origins than the workplace. It may go back to childhood when your parents didn’t pay you a lot of attention. It may be happening in your relationships now. Hard though it may be, please take charge. Otherwise your self-confidence and self-esteem will continue to erode and have wider implications for you.
I’ve been hard to ignore most of my life. Quite a statement wouldn’t you say? But before you decry my seeming arrogance, let me explain. As the youngest child in my family for many years, I had to assert myself, or I would have been crushed by older siblings. At a tender age, I understood how easily my spirit could be trampled if I didn’t learn to hold my own, insist on being acknowledged and allowed to voice an opinion. Through sheer determination (and encouragement from my parents), I constantly made my presence felt within my family, with my friends, teachers, and in the workplace. So much so that if I tried to hide I didn’t succeed, because my presence was sure to be missed. “Where’s Jan,” someone was bound to ask.
I didn’t share that to praise myself. It’s not easy for someone as intensely private as I am to reveal anything about myself. But that level of stark honesty is imperative if I’m to help you grasp that being seen or unseen is in your hands. Your ability to influence is up to you. If I knew that instinctively as a five-year-old child, you certainly know it by now. Even at a young age I was not willing to be inconsequential. See yourself the way you want others to see you. Project that image and believe it so they believe it. You don’t have to force yourself on others, but you don’t have to shrivel up either. When you are secure about who you are, confident in the job you do and what you know, you radiate an aura of being in charge. From that place of certainty, speak up when it’s time to express an opinion.
To have an opinion, you must be informed. If you know what you are talking about, then your opinions are just as valid as anyone else’s. If you are doing an exceptional job, then you deserve to be recognized for it. Note that I said “when it’s time” to speak up. I’ve sat in meetings where I’ve known more about a confidential topic than everyone else except my CEO, and I’ve had to keep my mouth shut because it was not for me to interject comments at that time. Knowing when to keep your mouth shut is a sign of professional and personal maturity.
But are you truly unseen at work? I ask because I don’t believe that the role of administrative professional – be it AA, PA or EA – allows you to be unseen. Too many people need your expertise. They rely on you. They turn to you for what they need, so how are you unseen? As Ratna alluded to, maybe you are not being seen as you would like to be seen, but that’s a different matter.
My hunch is that a lot of your work is transactional and you want it to be more relational and collaborative. Somebody asks you to do something. You do it, they say “thank you” and off they go. You prefer to have some input, discussion, further acknowledgement of the work you’ve done, of the effort you’ve made. You are a living, breathing human being after all, not some faceless functionary.
One way to tackle the situation is to get a dialogue going. Say something about the task while you are doing it, or when you deliver it. A simple comment like “I enjoyed working on this project,” lets you put your stamp on it. An aware executive or team member might ask what in particular you enjoyed. Now you’ve opened the door to visibility. You could point out that the task took longer because it wasn’t as straightforward as it looked initially. Or, you had to do a little digging for this or that reason. Whatever the situation, show them that you put some thought and effort into the task. It’s not something routine spewed out by a robot. That will give them perspective. They’ll know you put care and attention into getting the job done. They’ll appreciate that. They’ll want you on the next project. You are invisible no more.
And if they don’t engage you in a conversation, then you speak up. Tell them you enjoyed the project and are eager to do more work like that. Tell them about a time you did something similar elsewhere and really enjoy that type of work. Say what you need to say to get a dialogue going, instead of letting yourself and the job you are doing be taken lightly and for granted. You can do this whether you are in the office, or working hybrid/remote.
Have a conversation with someone you trust in your organization. Share with them that you feel inconspicuous. Tell them you feel overlooked. Ask them what is the general perception of you? Are you imagining things? If not, how can you change your status from unseen to seen. I’m willing to bet that most people on your team will be shocked you feel overlooked and unnoticed.
Another question for you: Are you being ignored and overlooked, or are you making yourself invisible? This is the third strategy I mentioned earlier. I’ve seen assistants deliberately “hide” themselves because they don’t want to do the work, they don’t like their supervisor, or their mind is on something else. It’s getting late in the day and they want to leave work on time, so they pretend their plate is full and they can’t take on anything else.
There are lots of ways people devise to hide themselves. If it’s what you are doing, stop. It doesn’t serve you well to make yourself small and invisible. Pretty soon you start feeling unworthy and overlooked and you’ve done it to yourself.
Be clear, less visibility doesn’t mean less important. You have to be confident about the value your work brings. You have to know you are the essential hub, a sort of centrifugal force that pushes everything outward to where the effects are felt and the results are seen. That’s how you get “seen.” Project confidence and authority through your work and your demeanor. You may be behind the scenes, but you are by no means occupying a back seat. I urge you to realize this about yourself and the work you do.
Take action to boost your visibility and your credibility. Sometimes it’s simply a communication issue. I hear from assistants that their executive ignores their messages. Find out why that is so you can do something about it. Why aren’t you invited to share your opinion? Why is there a misperception of your capability? Why aren’t you the first person who comes to mind when a project is being assigned? Find out so you can advocate for yourself. If you are truly qualified for something and you’ve been passed over, speak up respectfully and professionally. Ask what you can do to make sure you are given a chance when the next opportunity comes up. If they think the project is beyond your capability and you know you can handle it, ask if you can work on specific modules, if they don’t want to give you responsibility for the whole thing. Find ways to up your game and make a name for yourself. No, it won’t happen overnight, but at least you’ve made a start.
Decide right now to make a shift in how you’ve allowed yourself to be seen. Develop your own SMART KPI methodology to track and measure your progress at becoming seen. Being seen is a key factor for growth in the EA role. Act on your capabilities. There’s no exhilaration in staying in the same place, doing the same thing. Activate your growth mindset. Decide you are going to get out in front and expand your visibility. Don’t play small. There’s no reward at the end of that road. Don’t fall into a victim mentality. Don’t buy into the just an assistant rhetoric. Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated by others’ opinions of you.
Go ahead. Conditions don’t have to be perfect for you to get started. Get ready to make a strategic shift in how you’ve been allowing yourself to be seen. Don’t put up with it any more. Become impressive. Outperform expectations. You are capable of much more than you give yourself credit for. Be optimistic. Shape the future and the life that you want. Try it. Really try it and see what happens. And please, let me know because I’m eager to hear about your success in gaining respect and true visibility.
©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.
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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.
Visit Amazon to purchase Jan Jones’ book and visit her website: The CEO’s Secret Weapon.
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