Apr 12 2012

Alter Ego

Alter Ego

A couple people have asked me recently how I work with an Executive Assistant, what value that person provides, and even questioned the value of having that position in the company in an era where almost everything can be done in self-service, lightweight ways. At my old company (in the 90s), each VP-level person and up had a dedicated assistant – the world certainly doesn’t require that level of support any more.  In our case, Andrea has other tasks for the company that take up about half of her time.

I happen to have the absolute best, world class role model assistant in Andrea, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with for almost seven years now (which is a reminder to me that she has a sabbatical coming up soon!).

This is an important topic.  It’s tempting for CEOs of startups, and even companies that are just out of the startup phase, to want to do it all themselves…or feel like they don’t need help on small tasks.  My argument against those viewpoints is that your time is your scarcest resource as the leader of an organization, and anything you can do to create more of it for yourself is worthwhile.  And a good assistant does just that – literally creates time for you by offloading hundreds of small things from your plate that sure, you could do, but now you don’t have to.

I asked Andrea to write up for me a list of the major things she does for me (although she didn’t realize it was going to turn into a blog post at the time).  I’ll add my notes after each bullet point in italics on the value this creates for me.

  • Updates and maintains calendar, schedules meetings and greets visitors – My calendar is like a game of sudoku sometimes.  I can and do schedule my own things, but Andrea handles a lot of it.  She also has access to all my staff’s calendars so she can just move things around to optimize for all of us.  Finally, she and I review my calendar carefully, proactively, to make sure I’m spending my time where I want to spend it (see another item below)
  • Answers and screens direct phone line – The bigger we get, the more vendors call me. I can’t possibly take another call from a wealth management person or a real estate broker.  Screening is key for this!
  • Plans and coordinates company-wide meetings and events – This is an extension of managing my calendar and accessing other executives’ calendars…and a pretty key centralized function.
  • Plans and coordinates Executive Committee offsite’s – Same, plus as part of my theme of “act like you’re the host of a big party,” I like this to be planned flawlessly, every detail attended to.  I do a lot of that work with Andrea, but I need a partner to drive it.
  • Collects and maintains confidential data – Every assistant I’ve ever had starts by swearing an oath around confidentiality.
  • Prepares materials for Board Meetings and Executive Committee meetings – Building Board Books is time consuming and great to be able to offload.  We put together the table of contents, then everyone pours materials into Andrea, and poof!  We have a book.  For staff meetings, she manages the standing agenda, changes to it, and the flow of information and materials so everyone has what they need when they need it to make these meetings productive from start to finish.  In our case, Andrea is part of the Executive Committee and joins all of our meetings so she is completely up to speed on what’s going on in the company – this really enables her to add value to our work.  She’s also not just a passive participant – some great ideas have come from her over the years!
  • Coordinates and books travel (domestic and international) – Painful and time consuming, not because Expedia is hard to use but because there is a lot of change, complexity, and tight calendars to manage and coordinate for certain trips.  And while it takes a while to get an assistant up to speed on how you like to travel or how you think about travel, this is a big time saver.
  • Prepares expense reports – Same thing – you CAN do it, but easier not to.
  • Manages staff gifts and Anniversary presents for all employees – This is a big one for me.  I send every employee an anniversary gift each year and call them.  Once a month, a stack of things to sign magically appears on my desk…and then gets distributed.  Andrea manages the schedule, the inventory of gifts, the distribution of gifts to managers.
  • Manages investor database – I assume someday we’ll have a system for this, but for now, IR is a function that Andrea coordinates for me and Jack, my CFO.
  • Assist Executive Committee with project as needed – The person in this role for you ends up being really valuable to help anyone on your staff with major projects.  Good use of time.
  • Prepares Quarterly Time Analysis for CEO – This is a big one for me.  Every quarter, Andrea downloads my calendar and classifies all of my time, then produces an analysis showing me where I’m spending time my classifications are – Internal, External, non-RP, free, travel, Board/Investor.  This really helps us plan out the next quarter so I’m intentional about where I put my hours, and then it helps her manage my calendar and balance incoming requests.
  • Help with communications – This one was not on Andrea’s list, but I’m adding it.  She ends up drafting some things for me (sometimes as small as an email, sometimes as large as a presentation, though with a lot more guidance), which is helpful…it’s always easier to edit something than create it.  I also usually ask Andrea to read any emails I send to ALL ahead of time to make sure they make sense from someone’s perspective other than my own, and she’s very helpful in shaping things that way.

This may not be true of all companies at all sizes and stages, but for companies like ours, I’d classify a great assistant as a bit of an alter ego, one definition of which is “second self” – literally an extension of you as CEO.  That means the person is acting AS YOU, not just doing things FOR YOU.  Think about the transitive property here.  Everything you do as CEO is (in theory) to propel the whole company forward.  So everything your alter ego does is the same.  A great assistant isn’t just your administrative assistant.  A great assistant is an overall enabler of company success and productivity.  You do have to invest a lot of time in getting someone up to speed in this role for them to be effective, and you have to pay well for performance, but a great assistant can literally double your productivity as CEO.