In this article, author Jan Jones discusses the idea of being an authentic executive assistant and how to demonstrate authenticity within the role.
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FlyPrivate: The word “authentic” is being used a lot in our organization. It seems like every other communication talks about being authentic. Our assistant group is not directly included in the conversations so we are wondering how does “authentic” apply to us in supporting our executives. What are some suggestions for assistants to show they are authentic?
Jan Jones: Thank you for the question, assistant group. I’ve attended some executive coaching sessions on authenticity. From what I see, there’s a small percentage of executives taking a deep, introspective look into their authenticity. Mostly, they’re being coached on how to demonstrate traits that will make them come across as authentic, not necessarily how to reveal their natural authenticity. Traits like being a good listener, being empathetic, showing vulnerability, building relationships, taking an interest in people. Be like this and you’ll inspire loyalty, they’re told. Your executives are learning to conform to the zeitgeist’s idea of what being authentic is. In order to be a trusted leader they are being encouraged to practice certain agreed-upon behaviors that are indicative of how, as a culture, we perceive authenticity today.
Assistants, you don’t have to try that hard or look too far, because authenticity is the very essence of who you are as an individual. It is always present and never separate from you. You can suppress it, but you can never lose it. Being authentic is about being who you are without all the layers we have built to cover up ourselves in order to get along, to be liked, respected, approved of, to succeed, to be promoted, to be included.
We’ve covered up our authentic selves, our precious individuality, with personality traits that don’t always serve us. We’ve succumbed to social pressure and looking for approval, rather than trusting our core values. The word personality comes from the Greek persona, which means mask. It’s a face we wear to get along, and in extreme cases, to survive. Sometimes we have to play the game. So wear the mask, but don’t become the mask.
Authentic people don’t hide behind a mask. They are confident and comfortable enough to show up as they are. They show themselves truthfully. Whether you like them or not is of no real consequence. They show a consistent face. You can rely on them, because they don’t blow with the wind. Is a pleasing and relatable personality desirable and helpful? Sure it is. We can have a genuinely pleasing personality and be authentic at the same time.
To help EAs understand more fully how to present themselves authentically, let’s look a little further into what it means to be authentic. Being authentic means being comfortable in your own skin, having the courage to be yourself. Standing up for what you believe is right. You live according to your principles. You don’t compromise yourself in exchange for short-term rewards. Being authentic means not yielding to pressure to behave or act contrary to what you know to be true. Your moral compass guides your actions.
Yes, you can demonstrate your authenticity as an EA. I was in a situation where our company was sold. The HR director for the new ownership was overbearing in his style, letting us know things were going to be different going forward. He had a massive showdown with my EA colleague from the CEO’s office, suggesting she remember her “place.” My colleague was very senior, highly respected within the company, a woman with a ton of business experience who’d been with our boss for 15 years. The HR director’s disrespect to a woman of her caliber stunned me. It looked like he was deliberately trying to take her down a peg or two, in order to get control across the organization. In a show of solidarity with her, I tendered my resignation alongside her. He tried hard to persuade me to stay, but if such disrespectful behavior towards fellow professionals was tolerated in the new organization, I didn’t want any part of it. It was certainly only a matter of time before he and I tangled, because the issues he had with my colleague, he would certainly have with me.
I share this with you as a first-hand example of an assistant being guided by a moral compass to stand up for what’s right. So often assistants witness unfairness or disrespect in the workplace. We feel angry, shake our heads and gossip quietly about it, but that’s as far as it goes. I’m not suggesting my actions are the way you should respond to a situation. You must consider the wider consequences of your decisions before taking action. I simply want to share with you that as an EA, you may face issues in the workplace that challenge your sense of right and wrong. This was my instinctive response to a situation that offended my sense of propriety and values. Had I stayed, I would have been immediately promoted to her position with a healthy pay increase, but knowing how I came by the position, there would have been no fulfillment in it for me.
Being authentic means popular opinion can’t sway you to abandon your principles. It means you are not two-faced, saying one thing and doing another. People can rely on your word, which is so important for executive assistants because you act as the face and voice of your executive, and you also act as your executive’s deputy. So you have to be authentic on your executive’s behalf and on your own behalf. Yes, if you are authentic on your own behalf, you will automatically be authentic on your executive’s behalf. I’m glad you see how that works.
Being authentic means you don’t compromise yourself in an effort to not rock the boat, or to try and be all things to all people. You are considerate of people, but you are not a people pleaser, trying to be liked by everybody. This is an important skill for assistants. As the representative of your executive you are in a position of authority. You are expected to keep an even keel and be evenhanded. Sometimes people can be upset because you are asking for information, or reminding them to comply with deadlines. That’s your job, so you don’t have to be apologetic for doing it, but you must be pleasant and professional. I’ve seen assistants groveling because they feel insecure asking senior executives for something. Remember, it’s your job and those executives know that, so don’t be intimidated by a title, but remain cordial and respectful.
Being authentic means you have unwavering confidence in your values and principles, so no matter how many people are saying otherwise, you remain true to your code of ethics and your conscience. You do what’s right, not what’s convenient. Because you’ve built yourself on a strong foundation, you relax and let people see the real you. Then it’s easy to be yourself. If you need to rebuild your foundation, or strengthen it, then do so, so you can express yourself in a manner that feels authentic to you.
Let me remind you that being yourself doesn’t mean you are free to run around acting crazy, defying social norms, being disrespectful, engaging in threatening behavior and infringing other people’s rights. That’s anarchy. In civilized society we can enjoy self-expression without trampling on other people’s sensibilities. We respect the line between tolerable and intolerable behavior. Otherwise, our social framework breaks down and we have chaos and lawlessness.
Professor of Business Management Henry Mintzberg says, “You learn authenticity by making choices in keeping with your values.” Let me offer you a few of my suggestions for areas in which executive assistants can show their authenticity. You are probably doing some of this already, because as an EA you are given access and trusted with information that requires all the characteristics that are fundamental to authenticity.
Sincerity: An assistant who works in the entertainment industry told me she finds it hard to maintain sincerity because she lives in an environment where everyone is flattering everyone, and pretending to be something they are not. She gets pulled into the game of being a sham, especially around celebrities. Yes, being genuine and acting from your truth and values can be especially hard when people around you are wearing false faces. But authentic people don’t try to be something in order to get something. Assistants in the C-suite see fawning and pandering behavior all the time. People are selling their self-respect to get ahead. You can smell it a mile off. When you are insincere, people lose respect for you. They don’t trust you because they think you’ll abandon your principles in order to get what you want.
Quite early in my career I had a job supporting a general manager. His contract negotiations with management failed and he departed the company. He was not at work on Monday and rumors were flying. At an employee meeting later, we were introduced to the interim general manager. He was a known sycophant and most people couldn’t stand him, so we were surprised when an assistant spoke up saying how much we all loved our jobs and our company, and we were all keen to support this wonderful man. The air just went out of the room because it was so obviously expedient and two-faced. People started asking what job she was angling for. Strive to be sincere and genuine, because people can see right through phony behavior.
Consistency: To be authentic, you have to be consistent in what you say and what you do. You can’t preach one thing to the organization and get them to comply and then exempt yourself from the rules. If you do that, you’ll lose credibility.
I remember attending an offsite meeting with the senior leadership team. The event was at a beautiful resort so some executives wanted to bring their partners, but the CEO told us bringing partners could be a distraction and he wanted us to be fully focused. At the cocktail party, one of the executives yelled out to me loudly across the room, “Hey Jan, I thought we weren’t allowed to bring our partners.” I was dismayed when she said she’d seen our CEO’s wife. Our CEO looked sheepish that entire evening. He was a well-liked and respected leader. His inconsistent behavior could have blown his years of credibility, except our people cut him some slack because his wife had a strong personality and they rationalized that she probably insisted on joining him. When you live authentically, your actions are consistent with your values. As an executive assistant, your stakeholders must be able to rely on you being reliable and true to your word. Fair or not, you probably can’t get away with things as easily as your executive can.
Integrity: Your words and your actions are in alignment with your values. You keep your promises. You are fair in your dealings with others. You don’t cut corners. You strive to do your best. Many studies have shown that if the person at the top of the organization has high integrity, it is reflected throughout the organization. EAs know how hard it is to support someone who is out of integrity. Your job of covering for them is harder because you may find it difficult to be loyal to them. Be a role model for high integrity. People will notice and be inspired by you.
Being Mindful: Mindfulness reminds you to stay connected to yourself. It means we stay present to who we are as much as possible, and live and act from there. Being mindful of who we are lets us consistently express our authenticity. We live with conviction and openness. When we live mindfully we feel freer. Discontent abates. We don’t feel persecuted or put upon, because we are living from a place of certainty that we are in harmony with ourselves. From this place we allow others to be themselves as well, without judgment.
Speaking Honestly: Authentic people communicate openly, using plain language that people can understand. Being plainspoken makes you come across as believable and trustworthy. You tactfully say what you believe and not what you think people want to hear. This is a valuable trait for EAs. As I say in my book, you are willing to tell the truth “when everyone else is running for cover.” As a bellwether and confidant for your executive, they must be able to trust that the information you are giving them is unbiased and without self-interest. When you speak on behalf of your executive, people must be able to trust that you are speaking without a personal agenda.
I can’t stress enough how valuable this has been for me as an executive assistant to high profile executives. They are not always around so your role as deputy takes on much more significance. You must come across as a straight shooter and credible at all times. This is about as tangible a demonstration of your authenticity as you’ll ever find. It will make you a sought-after confidant far beyond the executive office.
Trust: My experience is that the only time I get into trouble is when I don’t trust myself. When I don’t pay attention to that inner voice, or that unsettled gut that is urging me to reevaluate and reconsider. These signals come from deep within my being, where there is complete certainty. Not trusting myself has brought enough regret to where I now will go with my gut because when I look back, I see that it has never failed me. When we are children, we trust our instincts. When we grow older we start doubting our instincts and trusting external evidence more than our inner guidance. Learn to trust yourself. Don’t be rash, just gently rekindle your self-trust and see what happens. If only this were as easy as it should be! Pay attention and little by little it will become natural, it will feel authentic and you’ll know you’ve returned home.
It’s a shame that in today’s world we have gotten so far away from ourselves that we are making a big deal about authenticity. Being authentic is natural. Authenticity is the very best expression of who we are. Really, it should be the only expression of who we are. Remember to be mindful. It brings you back to who you are – natural, authentic. When it comes to being authentic, this is one time when I say to executive assistants, you don’t need to model or mold yourself after your CEO. When you are authentic, you are a role model for yourself. Then you are a breath of fresh air to everyone you meet. Honor your authenticity and the sweet fragrance you emit will be irresistible, especially to those who are also living authentically.
©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.
The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness
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