What will it take for executive assistants to be taken seriously?

In this article, author Jan Jones discusses being taken seriously as an executive assistant and suggestions for how you can make an impact, in order to be taken seriously.

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FlyPrivate: I feel like I’m not taken seriously in my role. I’m not asked for my opinion and when I share, it doesn’t seem to count. Is it because the perception of executive assistants is not as positive as it should be? I’m a hard worker and do a good job. Why can’t I get recognition for that?

Jan Jones: Recently, CBS News Sunday did a feature on the plumbing profession. It takes 5 years to qualify as a licensed plumber (versus 4 years for a college degree). Apprentices are paid while they learn. They earn almost $80,000 a year while training. Their instructor, who is a licensed plumber, earns close to $200,000 a year. He owns 2 houses. Plumbers, who are highly trained and well paid, said they feel they are looked down on. The reason is because people are ignorant about the profession, the level of training that is required before they can be licensed, and how much money a plumber can make. People make judgments about plumbers. One apprentice said when he was a kid his mother told him he better study “so you won’t end up like them.”

This story can be repeated again and again about numerous professions that are disparaged and looked down on, despite being well trained, proficient and earning a solid income. They have to constantly overcome prejudiced perceptions. Even though the EA profession is white collar, assistants are often met with the same elitism as blue collar workers are. The answer is to show what true EA professionals can do, because we all know that showing is better than telling.

It‘s going to take effort on the profession’s part and your part to change perceptions, but the good news is it’s nothing you can’t handle because you already have the required tools at your disposal. You just need to present them a little differently so they make a better impression.

I wrote an article for FlyPrivate a few months ago about assistants feeling like they are not “seen” at work. Many of the issues I discussed there pertain to what you’ve asked. I recommend you read that article, which delves into historical and other reasons why assistants feel like they are not seen, or taken seriously.

You say you are a hard worker and do a good job. You probably are taken seriously for that level of performance. But it’s clear you want a higher level of recognition. For that, your performance will have to ramp up to levels of accomplishment that go significantly beyond working hard, and doing a good job. Working hard and doing a good job is a given. It’s the basic expectation when someone is hired to do a job. 

Yes, it’s true that because of the general misperception about the EA role, you might not be taken seriously because your co-workers don’t realize what you bring to the table. Often, the reason is because the EA role is thought of as “anyone can do it.” While writing this article, I saw a social media post where an assistant said that in a short while she’d gone from childcare to supporting a successful entrepreneur. I don’t know her education or business background, so I’m not making a judgment about her specifically, but her statement immediately brought to mind that ubiquitous perception that the EA profession’s barriers to entry are so low that anyone can jump right in. This is something that professional executive assistants constantly contend with. It’s why you have to make extra effort to establish your credentials and show what you have to offer. Don’t indulge in pointless “but that’s not fair” talk. Just buck up and tackle it head on by showing your extensive competencies.

In a nutshell, the essential purpose of your role as executive assistant is to position your executive for success. Your support helps them to successfully execute on the business’ strategy requirements. Their success is your success. Since the EA role is categorized as a support role, no matter how much control, authority or autonomy you have in your individual role, this classification can camouflage your contribution and keep it in the background. Author Chester Elton told me the EA functions like “The wizard behind the curtain.” It’s no coincidence that I called my book “The CEO’s Secret Weapon.” Your expertise and your contributions are not always obvious. But the initiated know who is orchestrating behind the scenes. That’s your job, and every assistant’s job, to make it widely known not only who is the wizard behind the curtain, but exactly what is the contribution they make.

Leadership guru John Maxwell says, “Respect is earned on difficult ground. You’ve got to climb some high country.”

If you want to be taken seriously, there’s plenty you can do to change the perception of you and the role. You have to establish your credibility early and keep building it. Right from the outset, display your credentials and show that you are there to play at a different level than they’ve seen before. 

Make it clear you are not some stereotype image of the assistant profession. You are a capable business professional and you mean business. Then prove it by constantly upping your game. That doesn’t necessarily mean major daily conquests that you perform with great flourish. Incremental steps you perform on a daily basis, that add visible value, will work just fine.

Don’t say it’s too late for that because you’ve been in your job for a while. Step-by-step, start making changes. People will notice something different, even if they can’t put their finger on it. An assistant who read my book shared just such a scenario. She said she was so inspired by the book that she immediately started taking all steps necessary to raise her performance levels. Very quickly her boss noticed her enhanced accomplishments and encouraged her to “keep doing it.” Get started today by acting a little more decisively, speaking with more certainty, growing your knowledge and interacting more confidently. These are the actions that will win over the doubters and gain you credibility.

Start with the executive you report to. Be a true partner in the way you offer support. Show them you understand their priorities. How can you serve them best? What talents and skills do they value? What would make their life easier? Take steps to win their trust. It won’t be long before you develop a reputation for excellence and word will spread. Many EAs have had the experience of being told, “I’ve heard about you.” That’s because their reputation as a quality performer has been broadcast widely by their satisfied executives and team members.

Here are some further suggestions for how you can make an impact, in order to be taken seriously. It’s not exhaustive and there are no guarantees, but these steps are definitely proven, not only for EAs but other business professionals, so they should get you off to a good start.

– Take yourself seriously: Your self-concept has a lot to do with how others perceive you. Appreciate what’s good about you. Respect your talent and skills. Be clear about who you are and what you stand for, and let that be the aura that surrounds you. Consistently display your talents at the highest levels of which you are capable. Strive to add value and showcase yourself as a competent professional. Let your performance do the talking. Establish your credibility. Only a fool would argue with the excellence you display and not take you seriously.

Present yourself professionally: Dress professionally and act professionally. Executive assistants should be courteous and friendly but keep a slight distance, especially in the early stages of the relationship. Make sure you are never compromised by what you say or do. Even at social functions be friendly and fun, but maintain your demeanor. Presenting yourself professionally definitely includes online meetings. Don’t attend meetings looking look like you came down the laundry chute. No matter what you say, that’s all they’ll focus on, and talk about behind your back. I don’t recall where exactly, but I’ve seen research that says if you dress more formally, you don’t only feel and act more powerful, but you are perceived as being more powerful. That can’t be a bad thing and the rewards are certainly worth the effort.

Be prepared: Know your stuff. Make sure any information you need to know, or need to provide, is at your fingertips. Being informed makes you a valuable member of the team. Know things others don’t know – or don’t expect you to know. That means your job, but also general knowledge about what’s going on in the world and how it impacts your company and your industry. It shows you are paying attention and you understand the repercussions of external situations on your company. What’s interesting is that the more widely informed you are, the better you’ll be at your job because you’ll be able to connect the dots and see things with fresh eyes. Have intelligent conversations with your team and soak up as much information as you can, then put it to good use.

Get things done: The way to start is by taking control of your time. Prioritize your workload. If you don’t know what takes priority, ask. Then get down to it. Learn to focus and avoid being overwhelmed by distractions, which are an ever-present reality in an EA’s workday. Deliver quality work in a timely and error-free manner. Follow up and make sure things don’t fall through the cracks. Vijay Vashee, who spearheaded Microsoft’s PowerPoint division, told me that the thing he appreciates most about his assistant is that “she closes the loop.” Finish what you start. Do what you say you will do and do it well. Do your best not to let people down. Be the person they can trust and rely on. Your team must know that the business is safe in your hands.

Show initiative: Every business loves a go-getter. Be a self-starter. Step up. Don’t wait to be told. Be a collaborator. See what needs doing and do it. Present solutions. Anticipate requirements and attend to them ahead of time. Do more than you are asked or expected to do. Go out of your way to oblige. I’m not saying allow yourself to be taken advantage of, but you can handle more than you think. The more you do, the greater your capacity for doing, and the more your expertise will grow.

Something I practiced from my very first job in my EA career, was to routinely take on higher-level activities – activities that no one would ever suspect a junior assistant was capable of handling, much less successfully accomplish. Typically, I did them on my own initiative because I knew I could. At other times, I requested the opportunity to try. Initially, my bosses would be amused, but when I produced the results, I didn’t have to request any more, they automatically started giving me ownership and authority over projects. I must give them credit for the pleasure they took in my success, because that made me try even harder. Hustling, grit, gumption, being enterprising, all these traits served me well in my EA career, and they will serve you well also, if you seize the opportunities in front of you.

When you willingly step out of your comfort zone, you gain tremendous confidence in your abilities and you continue to strive for bigger wins. The “high” you get from the achievement becomes a driving force that propels you to strive for more opportunities to expand. Take them. They lay the groundwork for you to do even bigger things, and they will travel well into another profession, if you so choose.

– Speak and act confidently: Confidence comes from being good at what you do. It gives you assurance that you are up for and equal to any challenges you will encounter. If you know you can add value, don’t hesitate to speak up, or share your opinion. Be clear and get to the point. Being confident means you are open to other’s opinions. You respect their point of view. When you are willing to listen to others, they will be willing to listen to you. As an executive assistant, you are often in the presence of your company’s elite. Know the value you bring and speak as if you belong there. If the situation is formal, then use discretion with how and when you speak. Being ever-so-slightly deferential with board members for example, will showcase you as circumspect and professional, someone to be taken seriously.

Be trustworthy: Trustworthiness speaks to your character. Get your executive comfortable trusting you early in the relationship. Trust is imperative in a working relationship with your executive and team. You all have to be able to rely on each other. Your team has to trust that you will get the job done and you have to consistently show your performance at the highest levels. From the outset, there has to be an expectation of trustworthiness – you will do what you say, you will have your executive’s back. Yes, trust has to be mutual, but as is typical, the onus will be on you.

“Trust is the essence of leadership,” said General Colin Powell. If people trust you, they will let you lead them, they will take your word. Get out in front of this early. If you don’t have the trust of your executive and team, for all intents and purposes the game is over. Caring is the softer side of trust, I heard someone say. Show you are trustworthy by showing you care about your work, about your colleagues, about yourself.

Be on time: I’ve heard this repeatedly and I’ve seen it in action by the most successful global leaders. They arrive a few minutes early, or on the dot, but they are never late because it is disrespectful to keep people waiting and they know the value of time. I share this with you because of how significant it is, and I must be honest that this is something I’ve struggled with mightily as an assistant, because the role made me think that time is elastic. It will stretch to fit in one more thing I must get done. Take your cue from successful executives. Plan ahead, be on time and push your executive to be on time. If your executive is repeatedly late and you throw up your hands as if to say “I know, I’ve reminded him/her,” you come across as not having control or authority. Your job is to get them there, so do your utmost.

Be personable: Especially if you are assistant to a CEO. If people are not used to being in the executive suite, or dealing with a CEO, there can be an intimidation factor. Be authentic, be respectful, be pleasant and put people at ease. A genuine smile is the easiest way. When I was a young assistant, I encountered senior assistants who were haughty and scowled at us. Remember, you are the executive assistant, you are not the executive. Your job is to be the welcoming access to anyone who has legitimate business with your executive. If you usurp your executive’s authority, you will not be taken seriously because it will look like you need someone else’s title to give you credibility and power.

You’ve asked me about how to be taken seriously at work and I’ve made some recommendations. To that, I would like to add that you should be cautious about over-tailoring yourself and your life to what others expect of you. Yes, as a community we have agreed-upon social mores and behaviors that have been created so we can function as a society. Outside of that, you don’t want to become a slave to others’ opinions to such a degree that you lose your individuality and the essence of who you are. If you are fortunate enough to find such an opportunity, there are times in the workplace when mavericks are tolerated, especially when they are champion performers who deliver outsized value. Believe me. I know! Just be careful when pushing the envelope that you don’t get too far out in front of what you can handle.

To be taken seriously, you don’t have to always be serious. Let people see another side of you that they’ll find charming and a nice contrast to your serious business face. They’ll appreciate that you know when to be serious and when to lighten up. Something you’ll discover is that the more confident you are about your performance, the more relaxed you’ll be.

The more you practice, the better you’ll get as you start to develop overall mastery. The paradox is that the better you get, the less you’ll crave being taken seriously by others. You’ll know who you are, and the value you bring. People will sense your confidence and give you the respect you are looking for and deserve, which is really what you mean when you say you want to be taken seriously.

©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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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

Jan Jones

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