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Creating a Next Level Partnership with Your Manager

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Ben and Jerry; Batman and Robin; Bill Gates and Paul Allen; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Barack and Michelle; LaVerne and Shirley; Prince William and Kate Middleton…all successful partnerships. The bottom line: in the best partnerships, both people are better together. There are 10 common characteristics of strong partnerships. How does your relationship with your boss measure up?

An assistant’s role is different than most employees. Your job is to help someone else succeed at his or her job—to make your manager(s) look good. At its best, that should be reciprocal, with assistants in a dynamic and evolving relationship and with both people committed to a collaborative partnership to achieve organizational and professional goals.

At the foundation of a successful professional partnership is a good working relationship, however, a partnership goes substantially beyond that. As Jacqueline McCumber, an Executive Assistant at Nektar Therapeutics puts it, “In my opinion, good working relationships are a dime a dozen, but a partnership means that your boss requests and genuinely values your input with strategic decisions.”

In discussing successful partnerships with the APC and EA Summit Advisory Council members, we identified 10 common characteristics. These attributes were reinforced by feedback from many ASAP members, all seasoned executive assistants and administrative professionals.

10 Characteristics of Successful Partnerships:

  1. Trust and mutual respect. Trust was mentioned by every assistant we talked to; trust and mutual respect are the basis of any partnership. Margaret Maly, Executive Assistant to the Vice Provost at the University of Wisconsin – Madison put it this way, “Trust is the number one characteristic of a strong partnership. Open communication, loyalty and mutual respect make a partnership work.” Jodi Rowlands, Administrative Supervisor & Executive Assistant to the President at Parkview Regional Medical Center echoed that “A ‘partnership’ identifies the administrative professional as a respected and trusted advisor, who is an asset, and who plays a significant role in achieving the successes of the organization. Trust, respect, and open communication are key elements in establishing a strong partnership. It is important to remain just as genuine as you were on the day you accepted the role.”
  2. Shared mission and goals. You might call this a common purpose or cause. Both partners want to achieve the same thing. Chris Weldon, EA to the CEO of the Indiana Soybean Alliance says: “In order for a partnership with my CEO to be successful, we must be like-minded when it comes to organizational goals and objectives. We don’t need to think the same way to have an effective partnership, and it’s better if we don’t. Different approaches and ways of seeing things stimulates dialogue that can discover or clarify ways to achieve the goals laid out in a strategic plan. The vital importance for partnership is that we are both ultimately and completely committed to achieving those goals.”
  3. Complementary strengths and skills. Think of Elton John and his song writing partner, Bernie Taupin—one writes the lyrics and the other composes the music. While partners need some things in common, it is a big plus that they have different strengths and skills. Erin Floss, Executive Assistant at Grainger noted, “A partnership takes a working relationship to the next level. It’s where two or more people pool resources to achieve a business goal and then share in the ownership of the result. The parties each bring a unique set of skills needed to create the best outcome for the business.” Additionally, Peyton Ticknor, Administrative Assistant, Oak Ridge National Laboratory shares: “You build a strong partnership by really listening, watching, and asking questions. You and your boss need to be in sync so (that) you understand what is important, you can anticipate each other’s needs, you understand strengths and weaknesses, and know when to step in and when not to.”
  4. Open, regular and clear communication. This can be one of the assistant’s greatest challenges—finding the time needed with your manager. And it is particularly hard to find time to talk strategy or long-term planning amid all the urgent daily demands. But blocking time together that focuses on strategic goals and the future is critical. Jacqueline McCumber, Executive Assistant, Nektar Therapeutics advises “Do not lock yourself up into a square box of information related only to your position. Ensuring you understand the business industry will increase your ability to partner with your Executive tenfold. Chances are, your Executive needs someone to bounce ideas off of, and if you are not up-to-date with market trends you will be of no use to them as a sounding board.”
  5. A collaborative, team mindset. In a partnership, both sides need to be able to make their own interests secondary at times. Both sides need to be willing to step up and take responsibility when necessary to achieve the goal. There needs to be an element of equality. “In a partnership both people have a voice and their thoughts and ideas are valued by their partner. They are working together for the good of the company and positive energy is being put forth to fill the needs of the company and its employees,” says Sherry Bouwman, University Communications Assistant, Grand Valley State University. Peyton Ticknor shared: “In my opinion, a partnership is when you and your manager work together in such a way that you know and anticipate exactly what the other person needs, wants, and expects in tasks that needs achieving. You both have each other’s backs. You understand what motivates each other. You know each other’s pet peeves, drivers, likes, and dislikes.”
  6.  Shared planning and clear expectations. The perspective of Pam Hamblet, Executive Assistant to the CEO, Kitsap Credit Union is that a “…strategic partnership is forward-looking. Planning 1-2 years ahead. What will the organization look like, what does our team need to do to prepare for that? The admin and the executive have their own responsibilities and roles. There is continuing discussion of what the goals are and developing plans to reach them. The admin has a place at the table and freely contributes to the process.” 
  7. Understanding on the distribution of activities, tasks, and roles. While it can be a somewhat bumpy process, everyone does their best when people can divide and conquer as partners. Jacqueline McCumber values her “Autonomy - As an EA, the autonomy given to me to manage my day and handle things on-site, without his buy-in first, shows that we know/trust each other enough for me to make quick decisions.” And Peyton Ticknor notes it’s critical that “You and your boss are on the same page. You are both working towards the same goal; you both want the same result. You must work together (and) have an understanding of who does what in the partnership and trust each other to do it.”
  8. Ability to handle disagreements. No partnership can be effective or productive without the benefit of diversity of thought and opinion. Jacqueline McCumber believes in “Absolute honesty – this can mean you engage in some uncomfortable discussions, but your Executive needs to know they can trust you to be honest, especially given their title – due to a lot of people being intimidated or far too agreeable.”
  9. Commitment to building and maintaining partnership. But what if you don’t think your manager is invested in a partnership…what if he/she doesn’t recognize what you are capable of? The EA’s we talked with acknowledged that that can be a problem. Their suggestion is that, in these cases, the assistant “walk, talk, and act” like a partner. If you model that behavior and are direct about wanting to support the manager fully, your manger will get on board. Erin Floss shared her thoughts on modeling the right behavior: “As it pertains to an admin being a strategic partner, I think this speaks to the admin understanding the business, understanding the executive’s place in the business and key partners, understanding the executive’s development goals/next steps, and then keeping all of that in mind to drive the right decisions, actions, or results on behalf of the exec.”
  10. Mutual benefit. In general, a strong partnership just has to be reciprocal. Pam Hamblet, urges assistants to “front-load your relationship with your executive. Go in expecting that he/she is doing their best for the organization. Go in trusting your executive and work each day to keep the trust that your executive has in you. Go in exceeding his/her expectations. Go in expecting to do good for your organization. And, you will always get more out of your partnership than you put into it.” Erin Floss finds “The key characteristics in a strong partnership are mutual respect and support (each party values and stands behind the other), open and frank communication (they hide nothing from each other as it pertains to the business or professional development), trust (they have absolute confidence and belief that the other party is acting in good faith and truth), and service (they each work to serve the other, the customer, and the business).”

Melonie Carter, Executive Assistant/Secretary, Amazon sees a big part of partnership being the ability to collect and process information in order to anticipate what will be needed. “To be a strategic partner means to always look around the corners. See all sides before anything happens and be able to pivot to make things go smoothly. Know the business inside and out and anticipate the next move of the business and be prepared for it.”

Positioning yourself as a partner with management and strengthening this most critical relationship will not only help you become a more valuable asset to the team, it will give you career traction and satisfaction.

ASAP thanks these members for their valuable input:

  • Sherry Bouwman, University Communications Assistant, Grand Valley State University
  • Meloni Carter, Executive Assistant/Secretary, Amazon
  • Erin Floss, Executive Assistant, Grainger
  • Pam Hamblet, Executive Assistant to the CEO, Kitsap Credit Union
  • Margaret Maly, Executive Assistant to the Vice Provost, University of Wisconsin – Madison
  • Jacqueline McCumber, Executive Assistant, Nektar Therapeutics
  • Jodi Rowlands, Administrative Supervisor & Executive Assistant to the President, Parkview Regional Medical Center
  • Peyton Ticknor, Administrative Assistant, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • Chris Weldon, EA to the CEO, Indiana Soybean Alliance

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