Early in my career, I was under two significant misconceptions. I thought that just because someone was my “manager,” that they, knew everything and had to be right about everything. By the time I was working for about five years, I realized that I was dead wrong about both. The truth is that assistants can be of enormous help to their managers to be better ones. Assistants can be a manager’s most powerful secret weapon.
Here’s what happened to me.
For 25 years I worked as the Personal Assistant to Oscar winning actress Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck, Steel Magnolias.) What I experienced is that people would say things to me as her assistant that they would never say directly to her. This automatically meant that I had information that she did not have. Using this information in productive and proactive ways is a key element of managing your manager and potentially sticky situations.
I could give Olympia a heads-up about issues that I knew she would want to know. How did I know this? I asked the question, “May I tell you what I think is going on?” and inevitably, the answer would be, “Yes, of course.” Was I always right? No, but over time, Olympia came to trust this information as important pieces to a project’s puzzle, whether it was a movie, a play, or the bathroom renovation.
Around the world, this is the dynamic of the assistant/manager relationship. In general, people censor themselves around “the boss.” That’s just the way it is and it probably always will be. Therefore, the most talented assistants make themselves accessible to receive the truth about any given situation and the smartest managers are the ones who recognize that the assistant can be their eyes and ears and value them as such. The manager empowers the staff to say what they see and hear. An assistant is so much more than “just an assistant,” and in fact, is an integral part of the management team.
Here are 8 of my favorite ways for assistants to “manage up.”
1. Have Mutual Respect – No relationship is worth anything without mutual respect. Managers have a tough job to do as do assistants. Everyone has an important role to play and the most healthy relationships are built on a foundation of respect. Not everyone is cut out to be a great manager, just as not everyone is cut out to be a top-flight assistant. Acknowledgement of one another’s roles is vital. It’s as simple as an assistant truthfully saying, “You handled that really well. I learned a lot from watching you.” Managers need feedback too.
2. Show Empathy. Put yourself in your manager’s shoes and act accordingly. Imagine flying the red-eye and then having to hit the ground running at the 9AM client meeting. If you have ever done this, you know how tough it can be. Working through jet lag remedies and making sure your manager’s favorite energy-boosting foods are waiting for her/him at the meeting, are examples of how empathy serves everyone. Say, “I know that next week is going to be a bear for you. Here are 3 ideas of what we can do to make it go easier. What do you think?” The better you get to know your manager, the more you can just go ahead and make these things happen without asking. Olympia would say, “If you have respect and empathy, everything is possible.” Yes, indeed.
3. Help your manager be successful. The best way for an assistant to not come off as a threat to a manager is to help her/him be successful and to look great. Exceed expectations and offer ideas that may be new ones to your manager. When he rocks the PowerPoint presentation that you designed or she hosts the lunch meeting at the trés cool restaurant you discovered, congratulations are in order for both of you. Then you get to move on together to the next project. The healthiest assistant/manager relationships are ones where each of you is invested in the other’s success.
4. Scratch their itch and ease their pain. What is keeping your manager up at night? My wise colleague Nancy Fox (The Business Fox) told this to me years ago. She said that if an assistant can figure out how to (figuratively, of course!) scratch their manager’s itch and ease their pain, that they will never be unemployed. An assistant can stay alert to the hottest angst-producing issues and come up with ways to alleviate them. Make it your business to know your manager’s immediate and long-term goals.
5. When is doubt, ask. Still in doubt, ask again. Assistants can support their managers be better managers by the thoughtful asking of questions that helps to clarify situations. Don’t assume and make a poor decision out of insufficient or inaccurate information. The best managers understand that it is a sign of strength to ask questions when you are unsure.
6. Speak truth to power, Become your manager’s most valuable asset when you can be depended on to say the hard thing that needs to be said but no one wants to say it out of fear. Assistants need to be supported to say what they know. If you are unsure, try saying, “I have a thought about XYZ. Would you like me to share it?” It is respectful to ask first and wait for the answer. See what happens. If it doesn’t work out the first time, don’t let it stop you from trying again.
7. Don’t Suffer in Silence. It is not a matter of if but when problems are going to arise. Assistants need to address them quickly, directly, and thoughtfully. Managers are depending upon assistants to tell them what they need to know, even if it hurts a little. Many are oblivious or clueless to issues, mainly because their staff erroneously protect them from the reality. The best managers will not kill the proverbial messenger for telling them the truth. Hey, I never said it was easy being an assistant or a manager! That is why each of you needs to be compensated well. Bullying behaviors are unacceptable and not to be tolerated at any time. Speaking up is imperative to create awareness. Only then can solutions be found. Do not reward bad behavior by permitting them to poison whole offices. Assistants can be integral in short-circuiting workplace bullies by supporting their managers to take action to build cultures of respect.
8. Assistants can be good managers too. - Read and study leadership and management books and articles. Take professional development workshops and classes. Ideally these will be paid for by your manager and company. Be your manager’s invaluable right arm when you strengthen your own leadership muscles. Two heads are definitely better than one. After all, being a good manager takes training and practice, just like everything else.
Leadership expert Jack Zenger conducted a 2012 poll of 17,000 worldwide leaders around the world. He calculated the average age that a leader received their first training in learning how to manage people - 42. Given that the average college graduate is in their 20’s, it is easy to do the math and realize that managers need as much support as they can get to be effective managers. Assistants can help them to do precisely that.