Last week, we spent much of our topic identifying the WHYs and HOWs of forming a highly effective Manager-Assistant dynamic. We discussed Simon Sinek’s three steps that separate the innovators from the masses – what he calls The Golden Triangle. If, when choosing an EA, a Manager has satisfied The Why, The How and The What, then the time it takes for a Manager and Assistant to begin working harmoniously together is rather minimal.
There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority. Those who lead – inspire us. Whether they are individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to – but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. It is those who start with WHY that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others that inspire them.” – Simon Sinek
Now, let’s take a closer look at how to build a harmonious work relationship, spot a dysfunctional one and recover from a mistake.
Using the Golden Triangle
There will be growing pains at the beginning of every new work relationship. A learning curve exists in even the most basic of interactions between even the most synergized of people. However, if a partnership is formed between two parties that are both like-hearted and like-minded, the foundation upon which a team’s opportunities will grow is already well above sea-level.
Stepping away from the intangible for a moment, lets look at a tangible application of The Golden Triangle.
In the study of contracts, legal scholars determine that a solid contract has been formed if the parties have established a “meeting of the minds.” In order to prove that an otherwise subjective meeting of the minds existed between two parties, the courts look for: the WHY, the HOW and the WHAT. Here we see The Golden Triangle’s application in one of the most fundamental concepts of the social contract. When the time is taken to ensure both parties’ needs are met, a strong foundation is laid from which wonderful things can blossom.
Setting a Foundation for Success
It is much easier to build a harmonious relationship when you lay a solid foundation and use productive communication from the get-go. However, sometimes even with the most respectful of communication on your side, a bond just will not work. So much of an interaction between a Manager and an EA hinges on personality. Just like everything else in life, these two are either compatible or they aren’t.
Aside from the ground rules (respectful communication and position boundaries), and the importance of using The Golden Triangle to set your foundation, Managers and Assistants should run through a laundry list of likes and dislikes to determine real compatibility.
Last week, I mentioned silly questions like: are you allergic to peanuts? and do you hate the smell of popcorn? Although these examples are more whimsical than industrial, they give you the thought behind the compatibility process. If I’m allergic to nuts and you must eat a peanut butter sandwich every day, maybe we should think twice about whether or not we are a good fit.
Ridiculous as this scenario seems, just as success rests in the strength of the foundation – it is the weight of the minutia that can tip the balance toward failure. So, play twenty questions with your Manager. Get to know who they really are. Guards must be down for this duo to truly tango, so cut to the chase and use an icebreaker exercise that can also provide valuable insight.
I spent a lot of time thinking back on my career this week. Between meetings and conference calls and blogs and life, I tried to think about a specific memory that I could recount to really drive home the importance of personality compatibility. Instead, I was flooded with memories that surmised how the little things really are the biggest indicators of success.
I remembered the time I worked for a law firm in high school, and learned to keep snickers bars in my desk drawer so my boss could feel like he was being stealth when he sneaked one. He never realized he was the only person eating them, and I never minded spending $10 of my paycheck to keep my boss’ playful spirit alive.
I remembered the years I spent working for The Chairman, and the story he enjoyed sharing with ALL of our constituents about watching me grow from a scraggly toddler into a force to be reckoned with. He would speak of his pride in my accomplishments and his confidence in the direction I was headed. I probably heard that story a thousand times – so many times that sometimes the child in me would cringe or internally roll my eyes. The sincerity of his words never faded though. He told that story because he was proud of what he had helped shape – always strong in his belief that with the right polish, I would shine.
I thought about my favorite boss and how much she hated doing the dishes and touching fruit. Since she had small children there were always dishes and there was always fruit. So, whenever I was at her house, I would do the dishes and clear the fridge of fruit. She never asked me to do it, but she never had to ask either. The look of relief on her face was more than enough motivation.
And the boss that would send “How are you?” text messages whenever he was overwhelmed just so I’d respond with “Good. How are you?” – a small affirmation that someone was always on his side.
Dealing with the fruit and doing the dishes never bothered me, but even if they did – I would still deal with them. The “how are you” text messages sometimes arrived right as I was closing my eyes, but that rarely stopped me from responding to them. Most of the time, others will see your job as insignificant, disposable, slave labor. Let them.
If you build this relationship the right way, you will always know that criticism to be false. Moreover, you will be the recipient of the powerful secret they’ll never discover. Personality compatibility in this type of relationship doesn’t just afford you a healthy work environment; it also guarantees you a true friend and a high-ranking advocate for life.
Spotting an Incompatible Dynamic
Despite all your efforts, sometimes a Manager-Assistant Relationship is doomed from the beginning and it can be helpful to know some of the signs to look for so that you don’t waste any more of each other’s time. Stubbornness and disrespect have no place in this operation; they are chaos creators, and we’re looking for harmony. The good news is that there are typically warning signs to indicate potential issues from day one.
Prior work relationships.
The length of time people are able to work with or for someone else is often indicative of their personality when part of a team. This flag doesn’t just work for an EA’s work history. Assistants, ask your potential employers how long their last Assistant worked with them. If there is high turnover, chances are that the personality compatibility component will be much more important. Don’t believe yourself to be a blanket “fixer” assistant. Figure out beforehand if you can work at that Manager’s pace and trust the results.
Saying “I don’t do [insert laundry list].”
Personally, if what you’re asking to be done is both legal and rational, chances are high that I will complete the task. The beauty of having an EA is the ability to offload both high-level tasks and low-level tasks with confidence that the transition will be easy and the results will be awesome. Assistants, the key to being a great assistant is flexibility. That means that you apply the same level of enthusiasm to washing the dog as you do to organizing a national event. Managers seek out authenticity. Authenticity comes from heart. You have it or you don’t.
Disrespect is a buzzkill and relationship suicide.
Managers, a good assistant will go above and beyond for you. Don’t ask them to watch your children every time you need a babysitter or expect them to clean your entire house. They are there to assist you.
By definition, the verb to assist means: to help someone; typically by doing a share of the work.”
Cleaning your entire house is not a share of the work – it’s all of the work, and unless your assistant has indicated a full blown love affair with scrubbing tiles, perhaps leave that task to a professional.
Disrespect goes both ways, and EAs have been known to use poor discretion as well. I can only imagine that being fired by someone who once adored you probably doesn’t feel so great. So, stick to a smile and respectful communication and remember that the benefit of earning the title of “great assistant” is holding the great power of management. If you use it wisely, the payoff is golden.
Recovering from a Mistake
Why do we fall, sir? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” – Alfred, Batman Begins
There is no flying without failure, so lets just jump into the hot topic of mistakes. To prevent errors, we teach and preach mindfulness. What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is your presence in the present. It is that pause before speaking. That breath before reacting. That smile in lieu of sarcasm. Choosing to grow when its easier to shrink – that’s mindfulness.
When you’re mindful, you bring your attention to your intention to change your perception.”
But let’s face it, mistakes happen. It’s called human error for a reason. No amount of mindfulness will ever guarantee flawlessness. Sometimes it’s tripping over a carpet that breaks a dish. Sometimes it’s mispronouncing a colleague’s name when on stage at the Oscars.
No matter the magnitude of the mishap, it is more about the grace an assistant exhibits in the rebound than it is about the mistake itself.”
In yoga teacher training, I was told a story that personified how attention to an intention can affect perception. The setting is The Sandman, one of Neil Gaiman’s epic storyboards. The Sandman (the Controller of Dreams a.k.a. the Master of Perception), travels to Hell to free someone he wrongly banished. Upon arrival, The Devil formally renounces his domain and gifts The Sandman with the key to Hell. The Sandman may now unlock the door and accomplish his goal, but in acceptance of the key, The Sandman accepts ownership of Hell and all that it entails. Instead of righting his wrong and tossing the key, The Sandman traps himself in a web of threats, promises and lies, as other dark forces seek to take possession of the key.
The moral of the story reads, ‘Hell is something you carry around with you, not somewhere you go’.” Seasons of Mist, The Sandman, Neil Gaiman
The Sandman returns to “Hell” to offload his poor choices and free himself from shame and regret. He chooses to accept the key from The Devil, and instead of maintaining his attention on his intention, he allows his mind to be clouded by the struggle around him. As long as he possesses that key, his perception will be hellish.
In the moment, you might think yourself capable of cheating perception, but the only person cheated is you. The way you experience life is 90% the thoughts to which you attend and the baggage you choose to carry. That leaves only 10% for your intent.
I didn’t intend to trip on the rug and break the dish, but I can choose to admit my mistake or I can choose to sweep it under the rug. I didn’t mean to mispronounce a colleague’s name on live TV, but I can choose to apologize and move on or I can choose to shrink in shame.
Perhaps instead of focusing on prevention of the inevitable mistake, we should be teaching assistants how to pause in that mindful moment between the action and their reaction. How you react, what you learn and how you grow – that is how assistants can bounce back from any significant mistake or failure. Remember that high-level people can sense your authenticity and in the end, it is what they remember most about you. Your choices craft your legacy. Choose them wisely.
Using this week’s and last week’s tools, you should feel well-equipped to seek a healthy work dynamic or nurture the one you already have. The power of this working relationship is unparalleled and it is worth taking the time to find the right match. At the end of the day, authenticity and trust is what will keep the Assistant-Manager relationship productive, efficient and rewarding.
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