How Can Executive Assistants Build Business Backbone?

In this article, author Jan Jones discusses how executive assistants can build business backbone.

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Question: In your book you say that assistants are the “backbone of most organizations.” I must admit, I had an agenda when I shared that quote with my executive. I was disappointed because he gave me a look that felt like my job wasn’t the backbone of our organization. I’d like to take this a little further with him, but first I want to ask you what does it mean to be the backbone of my organization and how can I make sure that my executive and our team see me that way?

Jan Jones: Justine, there’s no need to feel disappointed. A variety of metrics are used to decide what constitutes the backbone of an organization. Typically, it’s where companies perceive the most value is generated for them. It could be a function, or someone they feel they can’t do without. Some companies think it’s product design & development, sales, or customer service. Some think it’s HR, or the leadership team.

Small business is considered the backbone of the American economy. It is often called the economic engine because it creates two-thirds of net new jobs in the economy. The World Economic Forum described small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as the backbone of the global economy. A popular point of view is that all employees make up the backbone of an organization. You can be the backbone of your department or division, it doesn’t have to be the entire operation.

I’m of the firm conviction that there is a select group of high-performing, exceptional executive assistants who indisputably serve as the backbone of an organization, alongside the senior-most leadership they support. Using finely-tuned business skills and bearing all the responsibility, duty, discretion and pressure their position entails, these assistants function as “a seamless extension of the executive.©

Let’s look closer at what “backbone” is in terms of business. When I refer to backbone regarding the assistant role, I’m speaking about it from a support function perspective. Our physical backbone is our body’s central support structure. It’s the main support for the body from which our movement emanates. Without a backbone, the body can’t function properly, if it can function at all. Likewise, the role of the assistant in an organization serves as a central support structure. Without it, organizations struggle to function effectively. The assistant role offers a base of support that fortifies business operations. That support makes the role a business must-have. Companies who understand this inevitably do better than those who don’t.

Justine, perhaps your executive might relate better to this example. I also refer to the EA function as a hub. The hub is an anchor from which the spokes radiate. Those spokes are the functions you support, the executives and teams that you hold in place. A hub is a connection point. The backbone is also a connection point. So, you can see the importance of such a function in the day-to-day management of administrative and other support activities, that make up the EA role. Those activities are the fundamentals that need to be mastered by assistants in order to build a robust structure, a backbone that provides sustained support, and gives the EA profession long-term relevance.

Another definition of “backbone” is to have a “spine,” meaning to have integrity and the courage of your convictions. You have strength of character. You know what you stand for and you stand up for it, no matter what the herd is saying or doing, or how uncomfortable it makes you feel. You don’t sacrifice your values and principles for convenience or consensus.

Even more than the EA role being known as the backbone of your organization, you personally want to be known as someone with backbone. Someone with courage who can be relied on to uphold principles. You are your executive and your team’s North Star. Everyone in your company knows this about you. You are the epitome of integrity and you don’t waver. Please understand, I’m not telling you to go around saying you are your organization’s backbone. If you constantly act with integrity you won’t have to say it. Everyone will know it.

The reason Justine’s boss may not have agreed with her is because most organizations don’t consider how the EA role directly impacts the bottom line. The administrative function is a cost center, not a revenue center. It is considered a cost center because it doesn’t directly generate revenue. Instead, assistants facilitate other areas of the company that generate revenue. Your job as an executive assistant is to show that even though you are not an independent revenue generator, you are a vital team member who contributes to the bottom line in a multitude of ways.

Acting as your executive’s deputy is a way for assistants to demonstrate your business backbone. You serve as the nerve center, so to speak. Through you, the strategic direction, protocols, the culture and values of the organization are disseminated throughout all levels of the operation directly and indirectly, uniting the group around common goals. You are the link from your executive to the rest of the team and consequently the wider organization. You don’t wait to be told, asked or allowed. You see what needs to be done, and you take care of it. That’s showing leadership backbone.

What price can anyone put on the peace of mind you bring to your team by being reliable? You do what you say you will do so they can focus on their accountabilities, without having to spend a moment worrying that details are being overlooked. That’s showing reliability backbone.

What are some other ways your resourcefulness has helped impact the bottom line? Do you stay within budget when managing projects? Do you save your company money in your negotiations with vendors? What about with travel arrangements? Are you mindful of cost effectiveness, or are you reckless because it’s not your money?  Be vigilant about expenditures. It won’t be lost on your executive when they look over the accounts and see others are spending money like water, but producing lesser results than you are. That’s showing an integrity and responsibility backbone.

What are the myriad tasks you do in a day that aren’t strictly part of your job description, that the company would have to pay handsomely for someone else to do? I remember some of my EA colleagues in the marketing division who worked until 4:00 AM to get an urgent proposal put together. The company could not have found help to come in at the last minute, let alone learn the job and do it the way the EA team did. Other than a paid taxi home, there was no bonus pay for them, despite having worked the equivalent of another day, and the company being awarded a huge contract. That’s showing dedication backbone for which there is no substitute.

I’ve heard that the most valuable asset to a company is employees that demonstrate leadership backbone, because they are instrumental in driving success.

What are some characteristics of your executive that exemplify leadership backbone at your company? For example, maintaining focus on vision and strategy, effective communication, good decision-making, conflict resolution, upholding values, showing respect to employees and appreciation for their efforts, being fair in judgment. Learn from those examples. Add in your own unique contributions to develop your backbone strength and show the value you bring to your organization.

If you want to show backbone, you have to develop and fortify your backbone. Taken action. Take the lead. If it needs doing, then do it. Treat your executive and team as if they are your customers, because they are. Be what they want you to be and somehow, they’ll be what you want them to be. Show what you can do. Show you can be relied on. Show you are trustworthy. Show you are an independent thinker who can generate ideas and find innovative ways to deliver results.

To be the backbone, you can’t be a lightweight. You have to be sturdy, resilient, confident, dependable, productive. There are numerous ways you can put these and other suggestions into practice in your day-to-day operations. Take a close look at your performance and you’ll see you are already doing much of this. Don’t be timid. Show some moxie.

In your role as executive assistant, you need to have enough backbone for yourself and the team you support, because you are the one they rely on. You are shouldering a lot of weight, but through dedication and tenacity you’ve developed broad shoulders, so you have all the fortification and power you need. You have backbone.

©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

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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. 

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

Jan Jones

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