What it means to be a strategic EA

By Amanda Vinci.

Over the last few years, many Executives have been asking their Assistants to be more strategic.
The topic of strategy has been hot in the Executive Assistant world.

But the question is, what does it mean to be strategic?

Let’s break this down to the fundamentals, strategy is defined as a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim. All EAs eventually reach a point at which it is not enough to be productive or to be an exceptional EA. To progress and contribute at a higher level they must be – and be seen as – strategic.

Advice about being strategic is often a little vague, accompanied by the calls to “get out of the weeds” and “see the bigger picture.” But once you get out of the weeds, what do you do? It can be tempting to think that some people “have it” and some don’t. But, I have seen EAs build their own strategic capability as well as support others in their organisations to develop a strategic mindset. Strategic thinking can be learned and should be practiced.

Let’s look with what is NOT strategic.

It is not strategic to pack your calendar or your Executive’s calendar with meetings focused on execution.
It is not strategic to spend your time reacting to crises and responding to requests.
It is not strategic to have a short-term mindset or limit your focus to your own functional area.
It is not strategic to limit yourself simply to operational efficiency.

Now, what is strategic?

A strategic EAs thinking is inherently proactive and creative, even disruptive.
A strategic EAs thinking encompasses the big picture, cross-functionally within their organisation and also more broadly in their market or industry.
A strategic EA embraces a wide time horizon, including reflecting back on experience and projecting out into the future.
A strategic EA is always wondering, questioning, speculating, connecting, hypothesizing, making bets.
A strategic EA can be uncertain!

How do I become more strategic?

Becoming a strategic EA means devoting time to observation and reflection.

When I was an EA my mentor called this concept, “getting on the balcony.” From this vantage point, you get out of the action of the dance floor but you can see the whole dance floor. I remember the first time he shared this with me, I couldn’t understand why that would be important for me. I’m just an EA after all (at least that’s what I told myself).
How would “getting on the balcony” help me handle meeting scheduling or stakeholder engagement or reviewing the board papers??!

But, as always I entertained his theory and continued to listen.

He continued by sharing the value of stepping out of the action to observe: Are the dancers moving to the same beat? Is someone trying to waltz through the conga line? Who is that guy doing the worm? You can quickly see, holistically, the whole picture. Not just what’s immediately in front of you, on your to-do list.

This particular metaphor changed the way I operated in my role as an EA and dramatically changed the way I worked with my Executive.
I have found it is simple and effective when thinking about strategy and have used this for myself and many other EAs I have coached over the years.

Many Executive Assistants want to be more strategic, they understand this metaphor, maybe even find themselves on the balcony often. But they get anxious about what to do when they are up there and wonder how long they have to stay… They think “what if I don’t have any good ideas?”
This fear is normal and it is a good thing, it indicates that you are in uncharted territory — which is at the heart of creative leadership and strategic thinking.

What do I do when you get to the balcony?

Largely, what you do from the balcony is observe and ask questions. Questions that challenge assumptions; seek out connections, patterns and anomalies, broaden your lens and identify trade-offs.
You can pop up there any time for a few moments or linger for more extended periods. But it is important that you consistently access the perspective from the balcony and invite others up with you.

Exercise to try:

To develop your strategic thinking skills or to help someone else build theirs, practice is key, here are some practical tips to get you started:

1. Take control of your calendar, yes YOUR calendar! It’s a hard thing for an EA! Set aside blocks of time and create buffers between meetings even if it is only five minutes.
2. Build a tool kit of go-to questions, they are the engine of idea generation. Think of it as your very own strategic question “cheat sheet,” which you or your Executive can use at any time.

Here is an example of my strategic question cheat sheet that I used to refer to after every meeting:

* What are my key takeaways from the meeting? (when attending a meeting with your Executive, compare notes with them – did they leave with the same impression? What did they see that you missed?)
* If a decision was made, what were the assumptions and trade-offs that went into the decision?
* Put yourself in the shoes of any other stakeholder in the room. How would they have viewed the meeting?
* What was the content of the meeting?
* What else was going on; subtext, relationships, power dynamics, etc.?
* What was not being said?
* Do I understand why we do it this way?

Carving out just 5 minutes to answer these questions after a meeting will really help you to flex your strategic muscles print out our cheat sheet.

Download your Post Meeting Question Cheat Sheet

Growth Hub Members

Join us Wednesday March 30th at 12:30AEDT for a breakout session with Amanda to discuss this topic! RSVP below, see you there!

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