Is there an EA “Gatekeeper” Stigma? How Do We Undo it?

In this article, Author Jan Jones, discusses the EA “Gatekeeper” stigma and how to undo it.

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FlyPrivate: You wrote in your book that the role of the executive assistant is to be the “Gateway” to the executive and not act as a “Gatekeeper.” Gatekeeper is widely used in describing the assistant’s role. What’s the distinction between the two words and how will using “Gateway” instead of “Gatekeeper” help the perception of the assistant’s role?

Jan Jones: It’s not about whether to use “Gatekeeper” or “Gateway.” It’s about the assistant’s performance that will show the stark distinction between the two words, and how they are perceived. Gatekeeper didn’t start out with a negative undercurrent. Even though the image is not ideal, it was a description of the role the assistant played in helping to maximize the executive’s time by protecting them from unnecessary interruptions. That description is still valid today.

I have a copy of a Chicago Tribune article written in February 1988, entitled “Administrative assistant: A gatekeeper to the boss,” which described functions of an administrative assistant. The descriptions accurately reflect the functions we describe for executive assistants today. One assistant remarked, “I use my head. I keep track of things, I anticipate my boss’ needs.” Those words could have been spoken by an executive assistant in 2021. Interestingly, even back in 1988 there was snobbishness in defining titles. One administrative assistant quoted in the article said “Secretaries sit down in front of typewriters. Administrative assistants sit in front of computers.”

Over time, the word gatekeeper has diminished in certain circles because some assistants didn’t develop an understanding of business protocols and the inherent requirements of their role. If they had, they would have managed incoming inquiries and requests for their executive’s time differently. They would have known how to ask effective questions and route the inquiry to the correct person within the organization. If their boss was the correct person to respond to the inquiry, the assistant would have been able to either handle the inquiry themselves, or ask pertinent questions so their executive could evaluate quickly if the request for their time was a fit with the company’s strategy.

“Gatekeeping” is only one aspect of the assistant’s role, but it commands attention because it is such a visible part of the job. It’s an area where the assistant has autonomy and can show their ability for good judgment. It puts the assistant in the spotlight and calls on the assistant’s communication skills, diplomacy and discretion in handling requests for the executive’s time, irrespective of who is making the request.

So how is it that so many assistants, in full view of the world, fail to demonstrate expertise and competence in such a high profile area of the job? Easy. Nobody trained them, nobody mentored them, and they personally haven’t figured out that they are the official ambassador and deputy for their executive. In carrying such a responsibility, assistants must understand that their role is to be a facilitator. No part of their role requires them to restrict legitimate requests for access to their executive.

To accurately assess who should be admitted, you must understand all about the business your company is in, and the critical role your executive plays in making that business successful. Understanding this will make it plain who should be granted access from within and outside your organization, and who should not. If you don’t grasp this, you will prevent your executive from doing their job. You will create unnecessary roadblocks for those who have a justifiable need to access your executive in a timely manner.

Understand who has priority and why. For example, your executive’s direct reports, major customers, attorneys, investors, board members, would be on the priority list, together with family. Depending on the need or the urgency of the situation these people get priority on the calendar, or are allowed to see or speak with the executive without an appointment and without notice, if the situation warrants. It is always incumbent on the assistant to know under what circumstances they should facilitate access, either scheduled or unscheduled.

The way to know that is to understand priorities. Is this relevant to your executive’s goals? Ask your executive or a colleague to explain pertinent issues to you. Find easy ways to understand things. You just need a general idea so you can see where the pieces fit, then slowly your knowledge will grow and your effectiveness and value will grow along with it.

If something unscheduled arises, you should know whether an interruption would be acceptable to your executive. Even if my executive had his office door open, if I knew he was immersed in something and someone came by to see him, I’d say we can’t interrupt him right now. If I could help, they’d typically tell me what they wanted because they knew I had insights into many things. Otherwise, asking if I could give them a call when he’s free was enough to satisfy them because they knew with certainty I would follow up. When the assistant demonstrates they can make rational and credible judgments, they will no longer be seen as an obstacle; they’ll be seen as a facilitator – not the gatekeeper, but the gateway, the point of entry that leads to results.  

Looking at it in context, gatekeeper is not an inaccurate description of the intention of the assistant’s role, meaning to protect the executive’s valuable time. Assistants, please understand that protecting your executive’s time means that you must handle routine matters that don’t belong on an executive’s to-do list. This is the true meaning of “gatekeeping.” You keep minutiae away from the executive by handling it yourself. It’s work that has to get done, but not by the executive – by you. Doing that work is more productive than building an impenetrable wall around them so nothing gets through.

When you take control of administrative or transactional matters, you allow your executive more time to handle the activities that require their specific level of expertise – something only they can do. Even if you start small, when you take on more activities, we’ll get rid of the perception that the assistant’s only function is to sit there with a sign that says “No Entry.”

Right now, we have a situation that even within organizations and business in general, some assistants are perceived negatively because they make it hard to reach the executive. As a result, bottlenecks are created and work is held up, which causes resentment towards the assistant who is viewed as a hindrance to getting things done. Because of this, a harmless word like “gatekeeper” has become disparaging, tarnishing the entire administrative assistant profession.

As with everything, doing better and making improvements requires a perceptional shift, a mindset shift in how the assistant sees their role. Many assistants see themselves as a gatekeeper and that’s the word they use to describe themselves. I actually don’t remember this word being used to describe the assistant’s role during my earlier days as an assistant. Perhaps because we didn’t have electronic sentries such as email and key fobs, all of which create their own barriers to business. Salespeople went door-to-door, without an appointment. They would ask at the reception desk for whoever handled purchasing for the products they were selling. If I could, I would meet the vendors, determining what they were offering and professionally ending the inquiry quickly, or taking their brochure and agreeing to call to discuss at my convenience, if a product was of interest. I treated it as a learning experience because salespeople introduced new ideas and products to make business better. The whole thing didn’t take much time, I kept on top of new developments and the interactions were easy, professional and painless.

Be alert to something out of the mainstream that could be of interest to your executive. I shared the example in my book of Penni Pike, Richard Branson’s assistant who got a call asking if Branson would be interested in buying an airline for one British pound. Knowing her boss thoroughly, she thought, “God, he would love this.” So, as soon as Branson came back to the office, she gave him the message. He returned the man’s call and from there Virgin Airlines was born. This is a true example of the assistant as gateway and facilitator. If Penni had been an obstructionist gatekeeper, Virgin Airlines might have had a very different takeoff story.

I had some fun in my book calling out haughty sales trainers who said because the assistant is used to taking orders, or because they respect authority, the caller should put on their most authoritative voice, or call the executive by first name, in order to trick the assistant into thinking this is a call the executive would want to take. Hard to believe but this silly, insulting advice is still being circulated today.

But irrespective of that advice, you can’t view people who are reaching out as interruptions. Remember, they’re doing their job, just like you. If you have a set of standardized questions you are required to ask, ask in a friendly manner, not like an interrogator for the CIA. There’s nothing preventing you from amending those questions slightly to be more helpful, rather than sounding like a programmed robot. Remember, as an extension of your executive you “touch” the world on their behalf. Be mindful of the image you are projecting. Don’t come off as a fire-breathing dragon at the gate. It’s not attractive and it’s unnecessary. Use that famous EA empathy and treat them with courtesy.

Are there people who need a firm hand? Yes there are, and you should learn the art of treating them with a firm hand while still being courteous. Help people as much as possible. Treat them with respect and don’t come off rushed and frazzled, making them feel like a nuisance. No matter how busy you are, maintain your composure and don’t be brusque. Sounding exasperated brands you as unprofessional, easily rattled and unable to handle pressure. It tarnishes your executive’s reputation for having an assistant who lacks maturity.

Tony Robbins was fanatical about everyone being treated respectfully. My phone would ring late into the evening with people wanting to speak to Tony. I listened respectfully and directed them appropriately. If it was a sales call, it was sent to the appropriate department. If it was an authentic business proposal or inquiry, I knew whether to send it to the CEO, another department head, or handle it myself and inform Tony. If they were calling to tell Tony their life story, I listened, took a few details and assured them I would let him know they called, but it was unlikely he’d be able to call back. Because I was respectful and helpful to them, because I used familiar Tony language, they left satisfied and never expected to take it any further. They trusted Tony and felt certain they could trust me, because I was an accurate representative of what they knew to be true about him. 

As an assistant, you can provide a huge service to your organization by being an effective ambassador and deputy for your executive. People can get reliable, accurate information from you, or if they do need to have a conversation with your executive, you quickly facilitate that. Your job is to make the communication process easier. Your job is to be a facilitator, an organizer, a coordinator, a helper, to keep things moving, to prevent logjams. Keep things flowing smoothly for everyone. That’s the role you perform as a facilitator and gateway to your executive.

Am I suggesting you go around telling people you are the gateway and not the gatekeeper? If you feel comfortable doing it, go ahead. For me, it feels a bit pretentious. If someone said, “I understand your job is to be the gatekeeper,” I would quickly say something like, “Actually my job is to be the facilitator and to help you to get what you need as quickly as possible. So, if you tell me why you are calling, I’ll be happy to help you, or get you to the right person.” If they insisted on speaking with my executive, I would reassure them that I was authorized to be the decision maker in this particular matter. If it really was something I should inform my executive about, I would take the pertinent details and assure them he would get the message. I would also offer the option for them to call back in a few days if they hadn’t heard. I could make that offer because I knew I would get it handled one way or another. If they kept pushing to speak with my executive, I would politely ask them to state their business to me, or I would have to terminate the call because I had several pressing matters needing my attention.

Don’t feel obligated to spend an hour going around in circles with someone who is not being respectful of your time. If their inquiry is legitimate, they’ll give you the information and move on, after extracting a commitment from you to take appropriate action.

Facilitating access to the executive is not about the assistant’s ego. It’s about what the business and the executive require. It’s about you fulfilling a vital role that has been entrusted to you – to be your executive’s deputy, ambassador and first line of defense. And beyond your executive, you are representing your organization. Think about that for a moment. Are you faithfully fulfilling the immense trust that has been placed in you? Don’t take it lightly. You are in a position of consequence. Manage it like a true professional. Learn how to handle requests effectively and there will be no need to erect barriers around your executive.

Give people every reason to trust you, respect you, your judgment, your expertise and your professionalism. Give them reasons to look upon you as a business professional who understands the importance of the role that’s been entrusted to them and who fulfills it with intelligence and a willing heart. Do this and there’ll be no doubt about whether you are a surly gatekeeper or a welcoming gateway.

©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

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