3 months ago by Melba J. Duncan

What do Executives want from their Personal Assistants?

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What do Executives want from their Personal Assistants? 

According Melba J. Duncan in the Harvard Business Review, Two critical factors determine how well a manager utilizes an assistant. The first is the executive’s willingness to delegate pieces of his or her workload to the assistant. The second is the assistant’s willingness to stretch beyond his or her comfort zone to assume new responsibilities.

Delegating wisely.

The most effective executives think deeply about the pieces of their workload that can be taken on—or restructured to be partially taken on—by the assistant. Triaging and drafting replies to e-mails is a central task for virtually all assistants. Some executives have assistants listen in on phone calls in order to organize and follow up on action items. Today many assistants are taking on more-supervisory roles: They’re managing information flow, dealing with basic financial management, attending meetings, and doing more planning and organising. Executives can help empower their assistants by making it clear to the organisation that the assistant has real authority. The message the executive should convey is, “I trust this person to represent me and make decisions.”

Not every executive is well-suited for this type of delegating. Younger managers in particular have grown up with technology that encourages self-sufficiency. Some have become so accustomed to doing their own administrative tasks that they don’t communicate well with assistants. These managers should think of assistants as strategic assets and realise that part of their job is managing the relationship to get the highest possible return.

Stretching the limits.

Great assistants proactively look for ways to improve their skills. When Duncan was the assistant to Pete Peterson, the former U.S. commerce secretary and head of Lehman Brothers, she took night classes in law, marketing, and presentations to burnish her skills. Today she sees executive assistants learning new languages and technologies to improve their performance working for global corporations.

In her work, she frequently encounter world-class executive assistants. Loretta Sophocleous is the executive assistant to Roger Ferguson, the president and CEO of TIAA-CREF; her title is Director, Executive Office Operations. She manages teams. She leads meetings. Roger says that he runs many decisions past Loretta before he weighs in.

Another example is Noreen Denihan, whom Duncan placed over 13 years ago as the executive assistant to Donald J. Gogel, the president and CEO of Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, LLC. According to Don, Noreen fills an informal leadership role, has an unparalleled ability to read complex settings, and can recognize and respond to challenging people and circumstances. “A spectacular executive assistant can defy the laws of the physical world,” Gogel says. “She [or he] can see around corners.”

Trudy Vitti is the executive assistant to Kevin Roberts, the CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi. Often when you ask him a question, he’ll say, “Ask Trudy.” He travels for weeks at a time and says that he has utter confidence in Trudy to run the office in his absence.

Compared with managers in other countries, those in the United States do a better job of delegating important work to their assistants—and of treating them as a real part of the management team. Outside the United States, educational requirements for assistants are less intensive, salaries are lower, and the role is more typically described as personal assistant.

You can often tell a lot about an executive’s management style—and effectiveness—from the way he interacts with his assistant. Can the executive trust and delegate, or does he micromanage? Do assistants like working for her, or does she have a history of many assistants leaving quickly or being fired? Not every boss–assistant relationship is made in heaven, but an executive’s ability to manage conflicts with an assistant can be an important indicator of his overall ability to manage people.

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A version of this article, by Melba J. Duncan appeared in the May 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review