Personal assistants: A busy executive’s most powerful secret weapon

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Special to the Recorder

It’s about freedom.

In my work as the personal assistant to Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis (“Moonstruck”), my goal every day was to free Olympia to do the things that only she could do. These included memorizing her lines, going for a costume fitting and working out with her yoga instructor. I did everything else and I did it for 25 years.

My job was about maximizing our 24 hours each day. This is what an assistant can do. In 2017, assistants aren’t only for celebrities. It is a relationship that can impact your life in profound ways. Your assistant can be your right arm, trusted ally and even a surrogate at meetings. When utilized properly and fully, she can enhance your business by acting as a strategic partner and freeing you up to make even more profits. S/he can also enable you to have more free time to enjoy those things that feed your soul.

Here’s how to make it happen.

Be Selective. Take great care to select the right person to be your assistant. Create a clear and detailed job description that has generous compensation with opportunity for growth. Choose a person whose skill set includes strengths that are your weaknesses. Do a “working interview” where you will bring the top candidates in for a part of a day to work alongside you. This gives you both a chance to “feel” how it is to work with one another

Set Expectations. The sky is the limit to what you can ask your assistant to do. From gift buying (uh oh, it’s your anniversary next week) to prepping you for an important meeting (you wore that tie last time and remember to pronounce X’s name correctly, and Z’s son just got married so be sure to congratulate him) to planning a vacation (Aspen sounds good, but how about Whitefish, Montana?), your assistant can take on anything and everything as long as you set it as an expectation that is agreed upon. If in doubt, ask her and have a conversation, especially about new expectations. The operative word is “ask.”

Empower Her.
Did you know that people will say things to your assistant that they would never say to you? That automatically means that your assistant holds valuable information that you don’t know yet. Empower her to speak her mind and say what she knows.

Access. Some of the best principal/assistant relationships I know include the assistant attending important meetings to take notes and participate. Some assistants listen in on conference calls and respond to the executive’s emails. This requires the highest level of trust, which takes time, but when it is in place, you will find yourself with more time because there is so much you do not have to say to one another.

Let her do her job. Your assistant is a champion scheduler and the organizer of correspondence, especially if you have articulated your preferences. Allow her to do the things that she was hired to do and you get to focus on the things that only you can do. Even though you know how to do correspondence, does not mean that is the best use of your time?

Make time for face time. Communicating by text and email is great, but for you to get the most from your assistant be sure to meet one-on-one on a regular basis. For some, this means weekly and for others it is daily and for still others, it’s on Skype every hour! If your assistant texts you and says, “I need 10 minutes with you sometime today,” give it to her. That 10 minutes will most likely give your assistant enough information to get her through the next two days.

Show empathy and mutual respect. As a busy professional, you have a lot on your plate. Allow your assistant to take some of the load off of you and respect her for doing so. She has a tough job, too, and you will both get to the end of the day stronger than the day before by showing empathy and respect.

Pay attention to the little things (that are really big).
It matters to your assistant that you say her name and pronounce it properly. It matters for her to hear you use the words “please” and “thank you.” It matters that you remember her birthday. These seemingly small things matter a lot and do not cost one penny.

Handle mistakes and conflict appropriately. It is not a matter of if, but when, that differences of opinion and conflicts are going to arise between you and your assistant. So the only question is, how do you handle them? Set the expectation that you will discuss issues on a regular basis, ideally when they happen. It is less about placing blame than it is to ensure that the same mistake does not happen again.

Give feedback. The hallmark of the most successful relationships is the freedom to give constant and easy feedback to one another, resisting the urge to take things personally or offensively. It is important for an executive to set this dynamic as an expectation from the interview. An executive can benefit from an assistant’s feedback as much as the assistant can benefit from feedback from the executive.

As a CEO who now employs an assistant, I have the deepest respect for the responsibility and stress you have. Empowering your carefully selected assistant can make all the difference in your life.

Bonnie Low-Kramen served as personal assistant to Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis for 25 years. Author of “Be the Ultimate Assistant: A Celebrity Assistant’s Secrets to Working with Any High-Powered Employer,” she recently relocated from New Jersey to Nocatee.

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