Congratulations. You’ve achieved professional recognition for your performance and the public service keeps heaping more responsibility on your shoulders. It means more work and more stress but it also means that you will be able to take advantage of the services of an executive assistant (EA). The theory behind the hiring of an EA is that this individual will make you more efficient. In order to justify the cost of employing this person, the onus is on you to ensure that the EA can deliver on her/his promise.
EAs have come a long way. Far removed from the tasks of administrative assistants, they are now mostly drawn from the ranks of young professionals in the public service. The bureaucracy wins in two ways by hiring from this pool: it rewards an executive with a highly educated, promising new professional and it also offers the younger employee an opportunity to work among executives so that they might perhaps more clearly visualize their future careers.
EAs perform a wide range of duties from coordinating and tracking correspondence to providing logistical support for a variety of activities. They sometimes represent the executive in meetings. They develop and recommend solutions to myriad issues and provide strategic advice. They help manage budgets, participate in various aspects of the policy cycle, generate reports, and, if they do their job correctly, allow the executive to focus on mission-critical issues and perform to her/his highest levels.
Very often, the “match” between EA and executive is successful. But sometimes, it is not. Beyond the usual practices that lead to success in supervisor/employee relations, here are a few rules, based on lived experience, to maximize the chances of real achievements.
1. Remember that different styles and great outcomes can be compatible
Senior executives and executive assistants spend a great deal of time together during their partnership. Specific processes involving communication, preparation of briefing materials, issues management and strategic planning, among many others, are put in place to carry out day-to-day activities. While executives have developed their own operational methods during the course of their career, they should remain open to revising processes as both their organization and EAs change. The EA is closer to the operational aspects of policy advice and will know the mechanisms intimately as they evolve. What matters here is that the outcomes are optimal. Let the EA develop her/his style in your shadow.
2. Keep efficiencies in mind
Typically, a new EA will ease into the job by following previously established processes to the letter. However, as they master their role, they begin to make changes. One colleague developed a new approvals protocol that resulted in her executive gaining an additional 24 hours to review and approve materials before sending them up the chain. Being receptive to regular modifications to office operations so as to make them more efficient is a good idea. If other offices in the department adopt similar practices, it will reflect well on you, the executive.
3. Use the intelligence
Senior executives in the public sector are surrounded by people who provide advice, but good EAs have a keen sense of most everything that is taking place in their department and across the organization. EAs bridge the gap between staff and management and they almost certainly have confidants at all levels of their department. EAs are uniquely positioned to be an additional pair of eyes and ears for their senior executive and are probably in the best position to provide an assessment of the good, the bad and the ugly at any given time. To be blunt, EAs have a vested interest in making their boss look good, so don’t hesitate to consult them regularly.
4. Prepare succession
Executive assistants in the public sector have a limited shelf life. Generally speaking, most EAs serve between one to three years before rotating into new operational or management roles. It’s a good idea to maintain an ongoing shortlist of candidates who might be good fits for the role. Such a plan serves the executive, the department team, and individuals in the department who might want to consider taking on the EA position (and give up much of their personal lives for a while!). An additional benefit of such a plan is that it can also serve as an EA backup list should the executive assistant become ill, take vacation or otherwise be unable to perform their duties for an extended period of time.
This can go beyond the succession of EAs. During my tenure as executive assistant, I was heavily involved in moulding a succession plan designed for director-level positions. The executive I worked for trusted my perspective as we identified and ranked three potential candidates based on a combination of their skills, experience and demeanor.
5. Encourage leaving a legacy
Public sector executives usually want to leave a lasting legacy for each portfolio they hold. They should encourage their EAs to do the same. This can be done by generating a few ideas of interest to both the executive and the EA, then collaboratively selecting one option and developing an action plan, including projected timelines and required resources. I desired my legacy to be the improvement of top-down communication across the department led by my executive. Together, we identified areas for improvement and made the necessary alignments to achieve our goal. Thanks to the support of my executive, I accomplished my objectives, based on feedback received from departmental staff and management.
Executive assistants in the public sector play numerous roles and typically represent an important investment for the department. Making good use of their talents will help young careers prosper and deepen commitment. It also invariably reflects very well on the executive.