Is Adaptability a Valuable Skill for Executive Assistants Today?

In this article, author Jan Jones discusses how executive assistants can develop and improve and their adaptability skills.

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!

FlyPrivate: A reader asks: Ever since the pandemic, my executive has been pushing us to increase our adaptability skills. Please share some ideas on how I can become more adaptable as an executive assistant. I want to show my executive I’m taking him seriously. Is adaptable the same as pivot?

Jan Jones: Charles Darwin said the species that survive are the ones that most accurately perceive their environment and successfully adapt to it.

Because so much of the executive assistant’s workload and accountabilities are fluid and fast-altering, being adaptable is a necessary trait for your success in the EA role.

In my book, EA Barbara Haynes commented, “An executive assistant must be able to juggle many tasks at the same time for her boss, and have the ability to change direction quickly and often.”

Some days, the changes in priorities and requirements to adjust your workload may seem never-ending as you maneuver and juggle to accommodate requests. This can make it difficult for you to build up a head of steam, and may cause you frustration.

Yet, the nature of your job requires you to be adaptable enough to make those adjustments at short notice, and nimble enough to pivot into a new direction if required. Pivot is adapting quickly to changing situations. Finding a better way, changing course if necessary, using what you have to deliver results in a short space of time.

Adaptability means you are flexible and willing to adjust to changing circumstances. Adaptable people typically have a problem-solving mindset. They have learned to roll with disruptions. They don’t get flustered when taken off course and they don’t instinctively push back or say no when they have to make changes. They understand the nature of business and are willing to accommodate. Their disposition and outlook are more solution-oriented than team members who are inflexible and resistant to changing course as necessary.

A former chairman of the Herman Miller company once said that “The first task of a leader is to define reality.” If your executive is encouraging you to improve your adaptability skills, the reality is your workplace is changing faster than usual and your response times need to speed up, together with your ability to effectively handle the new situations that are developing around you. Business is increasingly subject to disruption. You have to increase your capability to respond to the surge in demand for your time and your skills. That means you have to adapt to the speed of business to avoid falling behind, or becoming obsolete.

And remember what Darwin said about perceiving the environment. You have to remain alert to the changes going on around you. This is where I have an issue with remote-working assistants. A critical part of the EA’s role is functioning as the “eyes” and “ears” of the executive. If you are not there, how do you perceive the environment? What on-the-ground, moment-to-moment reconnaissance are you feeding back to your executive? What up-to-date information are you passing along to them so they can adjust and adapt their strategy in real time? This important aspect of the EA’s role is unwisely undervalued in the remote/hybrid discussion.

As I discussed in a previous article for FlyPrivate, whether my executive is in the office or not, I elect to be present to hold down the fort and man “command central.” Remotely-situated assistants are not contributing on this major chunk of intelligence gathering that keeps the executive and team ahead of the game, able to change direction at a moment’s notice. As a short-term strategy, hybrid and remote are practical solutions, but in the longer-term, these arrangements reduce the impact of the EA’s role as the executive’s deputy. It’s not only a matter of how you perceive the environment, but how you perceive your role in it.

Here are some ways you can develop your skills and learn to adapt quickly:

• Become expert at your job. Put in the work required to excel in your role. When you know your job inside and out, you can quickly make adjustments and figure out what alternative course of action is needed as circumstances change.

Ramp up your anticipation skills and be ready for what’s coming next. Anticipation provides tremendous leverage to adaptability because it gets you in front of issues. When you know what’s coming, you can make changes in advance of any emergencies. The adjustments you need to make in a crisis will generally be smaller and easier if you are prepared. Preparedness brings a certain relaxation and confidence that things are under control. No matter how volatile the circumstances, they won’t faze you.

• Be ready with alternatives and ways to implement them. This carries over from anticipation skills. It means learning to be resourceful, finding alternatives, using creativity to come up with solutions and being prepared to deal with challenges. From time to time, check your procedures, processes and systems for vulnerabilities and make sure to fix them so you don’t have system failures at crucial moments, that will hamper your response ability.

• Pay attention to details. Keep your eye on the ball and your finger on the pulse. Business has a “feel” to it. Get good at noticing any changes in daily rhythms, or anything that seems off that will need you to intervene, or alert your team members.

• Be courageous. Make the call to adjust and change if you see what you are doing isn’t working. Develop the habit of looking at situations from many angles. Be willing to rethink how you are doing things if you are falling behind, or if you are not getting the results you need. This will prevent work from coming to a standstill if you find yourself in crunch mode and things aren’t going as planned.

• Be flexible. Experiment, innovate. What are some successes you’ve had previously that can be adapted to how you are working today? Be willing to try and learn new things that can lead you to bigger opportunities. And even if opportunities don’t eventuate in the short-term, you are keeping your mind nimble, which will give you greater ability to adapt. 

• One of your biggest assets when things get complicated will be the relationships you’ve built. Learn to cooperate and participate with your colleagues in your day-to-day work. Build trust with each other. Team members and other stakeholders who can pinch-hit or offer solutions when you are overwhelmed with challenges that require swift action, will be a valuable resource. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it and build up your credit with colleagues long before you need it.

Adaptability is another prized skill that keeps executive assistants relevant and valuable to business. Learning to adapt is a long-term practice you perfect over time. Start today by rethinking and adapting established practices into newer ways that will meet the changing needs of business and your role in it. 

The key is to stay fresh, fluid and flexible. Easier said than done? You bet! Practice flexibility in your thoughts and actions. Don’t let the rust set in by being complacent, too rigid, or unwilling to change. Develop a positive, can-do mindset that will allow you to accommodate conditions as they unfold. Pivot into new directions if that’s what the situation demands. Develop your situational awareness. Remain alert to your environment so that when you encounter situations that are new, undefined and unpredictable, you will be ready to accept the challenges they present.

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

Jan Jones

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