Knock Knock: Who’s There?
Your Jewish Fairy Godmother’s 10 Commandments for the Care and Feeding of Executives
Executive Assistant, Personal Assistant, Executive Secretary, and Gatekeeper
are all names for the person who is closest to the boss, whether s/he’s the
manager of a department, a division, or the whole company. It’s among the most
interesting, edgy, and complex jobs in any organization.
Among the perks are access to confidential information, advance notice of what’s
blowing in the corporate wind, and witnessing firsthand the personality quirks of
organizational leaders. You’re the fly on the wall when big decisions are
discussed. Line staff and even managers are nice to you, because they want to
know what you know or because they think you can help them get something
they want. All of this can blow up in your face, of course, if you abuse insider info
or try to influence the powerbrokers when they’re not ready to listen.
Follow these commandments if you want to become, and stay, invaluable:
Commandment Number 1: Be loyal.
All roads will lead back to this commandment. If you’re motivated by self-interest,
remember that Mr/Ms/Mrs. Big is the person who’ll one day determine the size of
your bonus or the timing of your promotion, write your letter of reference, and
generally control your personnel file. What’s true of any supervisor is written in
capital letters for this relationship: what goes around, comes around. Take good
care of your MB. And if you’re not prepared to look at the world from your MB’s
point of view, this isn’t the job for you.
Commandment Number 2: Keep the gate closed.
Your MB is the person everyone wants a piece of. That goes for other
organizational muckety-mucks wanting to test the political waters to cold-call
marketeers who want a piece of MB’s wallet. This list includes people who have a
legitimate call on MB’s time: people who are supposed to deliver projects and
reports, people with financial information, and employees with gripes or personal
problems. Be sympathetic, and listen carefully to all of their entreaties. Then ask
your boss which ones should get through the gate.
Commandment Number 3: Save your Mr/Ms/Mrs. Big time.
Don’t screw up the schedules. Don’t forget to make and re-check travel logistics
like flight times and rental cars, meeting times and locations, attendees, or
anything that can cost your boss time or money. Create efficient systems for
setting and confirming appointments, everything from business meetings to
haircuts, and for making sure s/he remembers them. If your MB is standing at
baggage claim when s/he’s supposed to be at a meeting or on a conference call,
the head that’s going to roll is yours.
Commandment Number 4: Develop functional systems.
You’re probably the only person in your MB’s life, other than a spouse, who gets
the big picture, who knows all the stresses and deadlines that s/he is under.
Create and implement systems that help you bring urgent matters to the
foreground, before they explode. Prevent littler matters from festering in cracks
that will later undermine your collective future. Whether it’s a “Read Me Tonight!!”
pile, red folders on the executive chair, or a five-minute daily morning check-in,
come up with systems to suit your MB’s work habits that’ll keep you both on
Commandment Number 5: Represent your MB appropriately.
If you have a potty mouth with friends, that reflects on you. But one badly timed
#&*@!! to a client, employee, or other manager can damage your MB’s
reputation. So can an overly familiar attitude or smug arrogance that implies you
know something that you’re not supposed to. Even your presence and
participation in meetings counts. Get guidance about the tone and style your MB
wants you to cultivate, and stick to it. If something you do angers or reflects badly
on your MB, you won’t be a gatekeeper much longer.
Commandment Number 6: Listen more than you speak.
Everyone will want to pick your brain about your MB’s opinions and plans, or to
litmus test their ideas on you to see how you think your MB will respond. Here’s
the truth: you don’t know, so don’t pretend you do. Button up your lips. If you
mislead someone with false hopes or betray insider information, the person
you’re setting up for a fall is not the listener but yourself. Collect opinions,
feedback, and even gossip from and about everyone. Be like a little packrat, so
you always have something bright and shiny to offer up to your MB if you need
to. But don’t betray the boss who feeds you.
Commandment Number 7: Tell your MB the truth.
No matter what’s going on, you have to tell all. If you get caught in a lie, even a
white one, you’re doomed. There has to be absolute trust between you and your
MB. You have to be the source of information that’s accurate, and you have to be
willing to give your opinions. That’s how you become a safety zone, and an
invaluable ally. This trust takes time to develop, and must be nurtured with
appropriate helpings of deference and wit, spontaneity and elbow grease, and
some creative private metaphors that are your codewords for communicating.
Once you’re in the inner circle, you can stay there by being a trustworthy and
reliable source of input.
Commandment Number 8: Work for someone you like.
Being an executive assistant will mean doing things for your MB that you don’t
even like doing for yourself (think filling out insurance forms or acres of tedious
filing). You might be asked to pick out a spouse’s gift or cope with a child’s or
pet’s crisis. You have to be able, ready, and willing.. If you don’t like the person
who’s asking you do these things, especially things that seem to have nothing to
do with business, it’s going to show. If working with your MB turns into a mere job
(instead of a fun and unpredictable game), you might as well find another way to
pay the rent.
Commandment Number 9: Befriend the family.
If your MB is like most other execs, family life is going to take a back seat to
work. That means being late for children’s plays and games, forgetting
anniversaries, too many meetings and too much travel, lots of reasons for
families to resent work. Become their confidante as well as your MB’s, someone
who dispenses good advice, solves problems so they don’t have to interrupt, and
a willing, always available, ear. There’s always some risk of jealousy, but if you
walk this tightrope well, it could be a good insurance policy; become someone
your MB would look like a big louse to fire.
Commandment Number 10: Master this: “Please make it so.”
You’re the person your MB will turn to with impossible needs and ridiculous
timelines. You’re the place the buck stops. You’re expected to work scheduling
miracles on a daily basis (like rearranging meetings for twelve other busy MB’s
with only two hours notice). You’re the safety net; you’re what keeps anything
and everything from hitting the floor with a nasty noise. Whatever you’re asked to
do, it’s in the job description, the last line of which reads: Please make it so. If
you master this commandment, you’ll become your MB’s secret hero. It’ll pay off
in the long run.
Punchline: To be a good gatekeeper you need a special personality: a unique
blend of helpfulness and assertiveness, patience and energy, dogged
persistence and infinite creativity. If you can find the right fit, it’s as satisfying as a
great romantic relationship. And it pays off with income, security, and