You should want to have a ninja executive assistant (EA). Let’s talk about how.
Two things determine if you have a ninja executive assistant: who you hire, and how you work together.
This article reveals a non-scientific set of tips based on a quarter-century of observations of what it takes to have a ninja EA. Since I founded ghSMART 24 years ago, I have had the privilege of working with dozens of ninja EAs at our firm. And we have interacted with hundreds of great and not-so-great EAs across our client companies.
One of the best kept secrets in business is the importance of having skilled EAs on your team. The role of an EA is often the first point of contact that a prospective client or colleague has with your company. Talk about brand impact! And you might talk with this person more than anybody on your team. Poor performers make your customers angry, your team frustrated, and your family lose touch with you. Great performers amplify your positive impact on the world as a leader, they can make the cash register ring, and they help you have more time with your family.
How can I hire a ninja EA?
Write a “scorecard” for the type of EA you need. All great EAs are organized administrators. But what are the “extras” that you value? The ability to support your business development efforts by managing a pipeline of client opportunities? Extra good writing or editing skills, if you write a lot? Social media and PR skills if you are on a marketing push? HR or legal skills related to contracts or training seminars? Event management? Find an EA who “spikes” in an area that is of value to you.
Source candidates, mostly through other ninja EAs in your company. Pay a bounty of $1,000 to $5,000 to the colleague who sources the ninja EA you hire. Don’t be cheap! This is a very important role!
Select the right candidate by doing the same in-depth Who interview you would do for any other key role. Talk through all of their jobs, what they were hired to do, accomplishments, low points, what feedback they received from bosses and peers about their strengths and development areas, and why they left their jobs. Do at least 3 reference check calls to verify what you heard.
Finally, sell the finalist candidate by showing how his or her career wishes will be met working at your firm. Pay top quartile salary and bonus with the chance to purchase ownership in the firm like everyone else, if your firm offers such an opportunity. Assure them that they will have the freedom and flexibility to manage their time effectively inside and outside of work. Send goodies from your team and a restaurant gift certificate so the finalist and their significant other or friend can celebrate and consider your offer. They will say yes.
But beware! Merely hiring a great EA does not mean your working relationship will achieve ninja status. The rest is up to how you work with a ninja EA.
How should I work with a ninja EA?
First, here is what not to do. Don’t keep your EA in the dark and hand him or her a series of one-off tasks. That approach is boring and annoying for great EAs (which might make them quit!), and it’s wasting your time. Instead, about once a quarter, strategize with your EA about what your top priorities are for the next few months, how you plan to allocate your time, key things you want to get done or people you need to be with. Knowledge of your priorities, and having your EA serve as a sounding board as you determine your priorities, means he or she will be able to reach a much higher level of service and performance than if you keep them in the dark about your goals and priorities.
Next, when your new EA is asking you questions, take a moment to provide context, review the bigger picture goals, and ask what he or she would recommend you do. This onboarding exercise gives your EA a sense for your operating style and how you make decisions. (Maybe you are risk averse. Or maybe you are a speed demon when it comes to making decisions. Maybe you like to do a lot of analysis and research, or maybe you prefer to move swiftly through lower-priority topics and take your time with higher-priority ones. Maybe you like to preserve certain days or evenings for family time.)
Once your EA has been successfully “recommending” actions for a month which fit your preferences, consider moving your working relationship to the ninja level.
Just below the ninja level is when your EA is constantly telling you things and offering a recommendation and waiting for you to decide. Moving above that into the ninja level is scary at first. It may not be for you. You might underestimate your EA. You might have a big ego that prevents you from delegating effectively. There might be some other psychological obstacle standing in your path to success.
If you truly believe in hiring the most talented people and empowering them to do their job to the best of their abilities, then consider moving to the ninja level.
What is my EA doing at the ninja level? At the ninja level, your EA is anticipating your needs (because you have strategized about your goals and priorities), he or she is conducting proactive research, generating opportunities, and even deciding where appropriate, which opportunities to accept and which ones to decline, solving problems rather than coming to you with problems, and then he or she is concisely summarizing what you need to know.
Imagine the time you will save when your EA takes on more of an ambassadorial role and fields in-bound inquiries from prospective clients, conducts research on whether they are a good match for your firm, communicates with your service delivery team to match customer to client, and then sets up an intro call or meeting. Imagine how much better your VIP welcome reception will go when you let your EA do all the thinking and deciding and you just show up to a well-designed event you are hosting. Imagine how much your time will be optimized at your next company summit when you empower your EA to line up the meetings, offer agendas, and pack as many productive meetings into one day as possible—maybe you will get more done in less time and make it home in time for that soccer game!
But what if they mess up? What do you mean “what if?” Of course they are going to mess up. So will you. But having a fear of messing up is not a good reason to rob yourself and your EA of performing at the ninja level together. If your EA makes 100 decisions on your behalf, 95 will be great and 5 will be something different from what you may have preferred. If you must, speak up and take new action to fix the small problems, and chalk it up to a learning opportunity. But never, ever punish your EA for thinking and deciding. Don’t ever start a sentence with “How could you have______?” If you are constantly second-guessing them, they will quit.
But if you support your EA and express gratitude about the great job they are doing, they will stay loyal and perform at the ninja level for years and years. And you will enjoy more success in your career, and in your life.
Dr. Geoff Smart is Chairman & Founder of ghSMART, the leadership advisory firm. The firm exists to help leaders amplify their positive impact on the world. Clients include CEOs, investors, and heads of state. ghSMART was ranked #1 on the 2019 Vault survey of “Best Consulting Firms to Work For” in the area of client interaction, and was named to the Forbes 2019 list of “America’s Best Management Consulting Firms.” ghSMART published three bestselling leadership books: Who, Power Score, and The CEO Next Door. Geoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.