How Relevant is Resilience to the Role of the Executive Assistant?

In this article, author Jan Jones, discusses how relevant resiliency is to the role of the executive assistant. 

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: There is so much attention on the word Resilient at the moment. Our readers are wondering how relevant the concept of resilience is to the role of the executive assistant. What does it take to be resilient? What are the benefits for EAs to develop their resilience?

Jan Jones: The executive assistant role would struggle to survive without resilient EA professionals. Resilience is a mandatory characteristic for anyone performing the true role of an executive assistant. I noted Resilient as one of the Crucial Characteristics of exceptional executive assistants in my book. I said, “Most assistants have had their share of disappointments at work, but a true high performance expert will take stock, find a way to put it in perspective, understand it’s a temporary setback, and get back in the saddle.” That’s resilience. You may go down, but you don’t stay down. You get back up and you keep right on going because you are focused and solution-oriented (two more vital characteristics for an EA professional).

The word Resilient comes from the Latin “Resilire.” It was first used in the 1600s. We humans have been resilient a long time! In fact, we are resilient by nature. Resilient became more widely used in the 1970s, mainly in the fields of psychology and ecology, to define the ability to adapt and transform in the face of challenging situations, or environments. In everyday terms we call it the ability to bounce back. Resilience is your ability to withstand adversity – to not be overcome, overrun, paralyzed or demoralized by it.

We are experiencing a focus on resilience because the world has spent almost two years in the grips of major adversity that has challenged our lives and demanded a level of resilience and courage like most of us have never experienced before in our comfortable, predictable, day-to-day existence. We were ordinary people suddenly forced to live in extraordinary circumstances.

Grit, tenacity, stick-to-itiveness, persistence, determination, self-reliance. These are all words that describe resilience, and executive assistants must have an abundant supply of them if you want to thrive in the unpredictable, ever-changing environment in which assistants routinely find themselves.

Olympian Ruben Gonzalez says not only do you need to get back up, “You need to get up – quickly. By getting back up and in the game quickly, you don’t lose your momentum and drive. Your competition doesn’t have a chance to get ahead of you.” For assistants this means any obstacles you are dealing with won’t have a chance to get ahead of you. Your ability to anticipate will keep you out in front and help you to prepare for any adversity, so you always land on your feet. Anticipation means you see and prepare for what’s coming next. It’s an indispensable EA characteristic and skill. Landing on your feet positions you to recover quickly from an unforeseen event, so you can get back to business without a mad scramble.

Ruben says “Life is tough, but you have to be tougher.” Remember, you are a problem-solver. You know how to find a way – not only at work, but also in your personal life. As a first step, get in the habit of taking a deep breath when you find yourself in overwhelm. It sends oxygen to your brain and calms you down. For me, a few deep breaths don’t only clear my head, they open my heart. It helps me to feel more favorably disposed to a person or situation I’m feeling challenged by. With your equilibrium restored, you can plough through whatever obstacle is staring you in the face. It may take some practice, but you’ll get the hang of it.

In 2007, Nicholas Taleb popularized the term “Black Swan events” in a book he wrote. A Black Swan event is something unpredictable and unforeseen on a grand scale. Interestingly, Taleb says Covid is not a Black Swan event because in January 2020, along with others, he cautioned and wrote about the need to contain the virus while it was still mainly confined to China. We know the world didn’t heed that advice, and predictably Covid spread across the globe.

According to Taleb’s definition, Black Swan events would be the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11, or the First World War, for example. Events we didn’t see coming, that shock us and alter the way we live and view things. So, while the spread of Covid may not have been unpredictable, the aftermath of it on our way of living and working certainly was, giving rise to twenty or more months that are still testing our resolve, but also showed us the stuff we are made of. Happily, many people discovered that “stuff” is resilience. We undertook self-care, maintained our perspective, dealt with unexpected reversals in our circumstances and came through with a clearer idea about what we value in life.

When you experience such a crisis you feel vulnerable, your perceptions change, your priorities change, your relationships change. You lose the sense of certainty you had about life just a short while earlier. You look more closely at what you want to hold on to in your life, and what you’d like to change. As much as these circumstances try your patience and test your resolve, they help you to build your coping skills and develop your resilience muscle. You learn to focus your energy on what you can control, rather than being absorbed by what is outside your control. This is how you learn to survive, thrive and develop flexibility.

Unforeseen events happen on a personal level to all of us, such as a sudden illness, the loss of a loved one, financial problems, losing a home in a wildfire. It could also be something unnoticed that accumulates, then suddenly take us by surprise.

I’ll let Emily Housley share her experience in her own words. Emily is executive assistant to Michael Mogill, Founder & CEO of Crisp Video Group, one of the fastest-growing companies in America.

“About two years into my career at Crisp, I hit a wall. My responsibilities felt as though they were consuming me and I encountered severe anxiety and self-doubt. One afternoon, after a series of slip-ups, my boss directed me to take the rest of the day off, as my head was “not in the game.” That hurt deeply. I spent hours reflecting on my actions, trying to get to the root of the issue. After close examination, I came up with a list of pros and cons for the choices I had before me, which I distilled into two options. They were:

1.   Find a new role in the company with a more focused scope and less pressure (the easier option); or,

2.   Invest the time and energy into becoming a stronger, higher-performing assistant and rise to the occasion (the difficult option).

I returned to work and presented my self-reflection and a performance improvement plan to my CEO. I informed him that I had chosen option 2. He said: The person who strives and tries can always be redeemed in my eyes. 99% of people, when faced with the obstacle you’re faced with, take the easier path. What the same 99% of people won’t likely admit is that by doing so, they’re giving up not on their leader or their organization, but on themselves and their capacity to learn, grow, and improve. If I didn’t feel you were capable of growing, improving, or fulfilling this role at the level it needs to be done, I would have a different conversation with you. So, in my eyes, it’s not a “skills” thing. My theory is it’s more mental confidence and habits, which can be overcome, but only if you choose to.

“The choice I made was the catalyst behind some of the most transformational growth I’ve encountered not only in my role as an assistant, but in my entire life. I had a choice to make about which road to take. I knew that the first option could end up in me being more complacent with less opportunity for growth. I didn’t want that. But was I ready for Option 2, that put me right in the line of fire from Michael each day? Was I strong enough to face potentially harsh feedback when I didn’t measure up?

“I imagined what my life would look like in five years for each option and in the end my choice was clear. Even though I would have to practice extreme resilience just to keep up, let alone get ahead and stay ahead, if I wanted to make a greater impact, then option 2 was the right choice for me. When I reframed the challenges I had experienced and saw them as opportunities to grow and improve, I understood that with resolve and commitment, there are no walls that can’t be broken through.

“Curveballs are a part of the everyday setbacks assistants face. We are first in the line of fire. With many balls in the air, the potential is for many balls to be dropped. In such close proximity to high achieving executives, we have to work much harder and are held to a higher standard than other employees. But we also have the opportunity to make a greater impact. My advice to assistants who are feeling defeated, frustrated and ready to resign is take a breath, zoom out of the situation and set aside your emotions. Remind yourself how your contribution directly impacts the success of your executive and as a result the company. I’m thriving in my job now. My working relationship with Michael is the strongest it’s ever been and the responsibilities I undertake are recognized and valued. The challenge and the self-examining exercise I went through have filled me with pride and confidence. I now understand why such a high value is placed on developing resilience. It was certainly the right choice for me.”

Emily’s experience reminds me of something I heard leadership author John Maxwell say, “Your will to succeed has to be greater than your willingness to fail.” Emily showed tremendous initiative. She took responsibility for her life. She asked “How can I fix this? How can I make this better? How can I improve?” Resilience means you don’t give up when experiencing failure or hard times. You persevere through the difficulty because you are emotionally resilient. That means you’ve learned (or are learning) to adapt and cope with challenging situations. What you are going through is making you stronger, so commit to keep trying.

For 2021, The BBO PA Network in the UK added a Covid-19 Resilience Award, which was presented to executive assistant Mandy Tinker. The award was created to bring attention to deserving assistants who have shown tenacity and resilience in overcoming their challenges. Network founder Sarah Howson said “Our reason for choosing to have a Covid-19 Resilience Award is because we know first-hand how assistants have been impacted, whether it be personally or professionally, over the last 18 months. Through the Network we have stayed close, lifting each other up when needed and have supported one another as a community. We have first-hand witnessed the resilience of our wonderful community, whether they are in an employed position, or lost their job due to the pandemic. As human beings we are capable of amazing things even in the face of dire adversity. This Award highlights and celebrates the ability to adapt, learn and grow following these challenges…to come back stronger!”

Just like members of the BBO PA Network, EAs please take support from your network of family, friends and colleagues. No matter how strong, capable and self-assured we are, everyone needs help at some point in their life. Once in a while the pressure will get to the best of us. If you need help, please ask for it. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of courage. It means you are confident enough to ask for what you need. Resiliency doesn’t mean going it alone. Talking things through with someone can lend perspective and help them and you to emerge stronger from unfamiliar territory.

I’m an admirer of psychologist Nathaniel Branden, often called “The father of the self-esteem movement.” Branden said “Self-esteem is who we think we are, and who we think we are determines how we choose to respond to challenges.” Develop your belief that you control your life, so you never let feelings of victimhood overtake you. Avoid pointless “why me” questions, that can lead to feelings of victimization and bitterness. Even if you are going through a rough patch with no end in sight, don’t let self-doubt overtake you. When I need a bit of a push, I always remind myself of my past successes. I see myself in that winning situation and say, “You did it before, you can do it again.” It’s a huge motivitator for me, and just like that, my energy and power take control and I’m diving into the next opportunity.

Self-esteem is your emotional opinion of yourself. It is how you feel about yourself as a person. Appreciate yourself. Feel good about who you are – irrespective of your so-called imperfections – and watch your self-confidence grow. I read somewhere that “We should feel bigger than anything that can happen to us.” Know you are bigger than anything that can happen to you and you will have the fortitude and resolve to be resilient, stay strong and come back strong. Being resilient doesn’t mean you won’t face difficulties. It means you’ll know how to handle them. Resilient executive assistants learn to manage frustrations, setbacks and challenges. Some days it may feel like that’s all your life consists of. But it’s not, so put things in perspective and move forward. Your strength and resilience are an inspiration to your fellow team members. You might not realize it, but they draw encouragement from your can-do spirit and positive disposition. They admire how you diffuse difficult situations with humor and grace. Even if they don’t say it, sometimes they think they’d be lost without you. 

Humans are resilient by nature. It’s in our nature to bounce back from adversity. If we didn’t we couldn’t survive as a species. How quickly we bounce back depends on how resilient we are. Live optimistically. Respond with confidence and determination because you know setbacks can’t stop you. You are a survivor. Remember all the things you have to be grateful for. You are stronger, more resilient, more exceptional and more blessed than you could ever imagine. Lucky you!

©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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