Leadership: From Aspirations to Reality

January 31, 2022


Are you already a leader, or is this something to which you aspire? Your answer may depend in part on your take on leadership. Setting dictionaries aside, what does leadership mean to you? If we were to ask a hundred different assistants and executives what leadership looks like to them, we’d probably receive dozens – if not a hundred – different responses. I’d suggest that most, if not all, responses would have merit.

We can anticipate a variety of responses, because our experiences of leadership will vary. When I think of leaders with whom I’ve worked, different people come to mind for different reasons. Shelley is strong on strategic thinking, and in identifying opportunities for improvement. She’s community-minded, as is Tom, who consistently prioritizes personal development – his own, and that of the people he leads. He actively encourages their ongoing development. Frank and Heather, in addition to other qualities, both have a knack for productively engaging people in conversations many might otherwise find difficult. Influential from an early stage in her career, Victoria eventually left her assistant role to launch and lead a not-for-profit organisation. She pays attention to members’ needs.   

When it comes to succession planning, needs change. An organization may appoint a new leader whose style is significantly different from her or his predecessor, given changing circumstances. That was the case with Ozzie, an innovating and inspiring COO. In the throes of a recession, he didn’t seek to maintain the status quo; he led actions and change. Whether it’s because he emigrated to our country as a young adult or because he intentionally cultivated such traits, he was also adept in communicating across different cultures. Long before the term cultural intelligence came into play, he was demonstrating the capacity and willingness to understand, communicate and collaborate with people whose personal or corporate cultures were as dissimilar from his as a rose is to a cactus. He demonstrated his respect, and found and built on commonalities and shared interests. It’s unsurprising he was adept at rallying people together for shared goals.

Like Tom, Ozzie also paid close attention to what his team needed. More than anyone else I supported in my assistant career, he supported my aspirations and empowered me. We began working together when he was VP. When he was appointed COO of our corporation’s BC operations, I continued as his right hand. He enabled me to lead a number of initiatives I identified. Some of these intiatives impacted our head office operations, and others extended across our part of the country. When it was clear I wanted to do more, he didn’t hold me back. Instead, knowing what I’d done and could do, he tapped me for a newly created corporate trainer position. Soon, I was leading my own department.

These people, and other leaders I admire, share some traits. They’re ethical. They have high degrees of self-awareness, and they’ve mastered self-management. They’re typically community-minded, and give of themselves beyond what’s expected. They’re respectful. They inspire trust and loyalty, and create opportunities for others to develop. While some of them are particularly charismatic and popular, I’ve not seen any of them base their decisions on whether or not they’ll be liked. They’re willing to take unpopular stands based on convictions.

Some of the people I’ve mentioned here are executives, or exhibited their leadership traits while in formal positions of authority. Others have demonstrated these characteristics in roles as assistants of various job titles, or as a Chief of Staff. This brings us to an important message: leadership is not necessarily a reflection of one’s job title. As you may have seen at one point or another in your career, not all managers are leaders. Nor is it necessary for a person to be a manager or executive in order to lead.

Think of assistants and people in other roles whose positions aren’t identified on high level organizational charts, yet who lead in advisory bodies, or in professional development for you and your peers. They may influence and rally people toward other goals, independent of their careers. Consider the leadship exhibited by assistants around the globe in 2020, when our world shifted and the mass exodus from offices began. Many of you reading this were likely involved in influencing and guiding colleagues, often people in more senior positions, in reaching the goal of functioning effectively in remote or hybrid careers.

The fact is, many assistants – whatever your job title – have social influence within your workplaces, within your networks and professional associations, and more. If you’ve tapped in to that influence to help others maximize their efforts or contributions toward a specific goal, you’ve demonstrated leadership traits.

This brings us back to my opening question: are you already a leader, or is this something to which you aspire? A few years after I left my role as a corporate trainer, I rebooted my assistant career. I began work at the local college and, after some auxiliary assignments, landed a role as EA to a Dean. That position came complete with responsibility for leading my fellow staffers.

As it turned out, I was stepping in to a quagmire. Two of my soon-to-be colleagues had also applied for the EA role. On offering me the job, the Dean gave me the lay of the land: one of the two women very much wanted the role. The other applied for it not because she wanted it, but because she believed she could win over the other internal candidate. This was important to her, since she was determined a certain territory would freeze over before she would accept that colleague as her supervisor. The team – a term you’ll appreciate I’m using loosely here – was physically situated in three offices on two campuses. Most of the assistants in this new team were good, very good or tremendous colleagues, and frustrated by discord that was palpable. All my new colleagues had been with the organization longer than me; I was still in my first year. All but one of these women was older than me.

Was I up for the challenge? I was. Did leading the team prove to be the most time- and energy-consuming aspect of the role? It did. I spent time listening to and acknowledging reasonable complaints from faculty members about some of the office dynamics. I had to sort out how to resolve longstanding issues while also calculating salary placements and approving leave requests associated with four different collective agreements, preparing and tracking practica contracts, arranging, attending and recording meetings, and supporting the Dean.

Something had to give. My earlier experience leading a team had been a highly positive experience; we were in accord. As Publilius Syrus said about 2,000 years ago, though, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” These seas were not calm, and this was a test of my leadership capabilities. The situation was wearing on colleagues as well as yours truly, and adversely impacting my capacity to perform as I wished in other aspects of the role.

Not all leaders have dysfunctional teams, just as not all teams will have stellar leaders. To effectively lead a team, whatever the circumstances, we need to have a good level of emotional intelligence, also known as EQ or EI. This implies, among other factors, that we’re both self-aware and aware of others. We need to be able to manage ourselves before we hope to lead others.

Whether rebuilding a splintered team, or supporting the ongoing development of a healthy one, it helps to identify strategies and goals that have potential to rally the group together around a shared interest. In addition to fielding concerns from faculty members about the office dynamics, my team experienced their own frustrations – some of which are common to assistants everywhere. Some of these frustrations stemmed from repeat requests for information, forms or supplies people could reasonably have sourced themselves, compounded by the frequency with which well-intended colleagues would make such requests and chat while assistants were on task.

For our team, I decided it was time to turn the talk from complaints and frustrations to building a shared vision of how our faculty offices could function. It was Napoleon Bonaparte who said a leader is a dealer in hope, and that’s what I set out to achieve. At a team meeting, I invited my colleagues to come together in an undertaking. We would take a look at the concerns staff had identified with respect to faculty requests, and we would in turn invite the various program/department Chairs to also meet with us. The goal, I suggested, was for the staff team to then come up with some proposals we could implement with the support of the Dean.

This began a process that lasted, I think, three months or so. It gave the staff team a cause around which members could come together, and it gave both the team and the department/program Chairs opportunities to identify any issues the staff might want to consider. This opened up discussions and led to the staff designing and publishing a faculty handbook that we updated each year. We gave all faculty members a copy, which was a big boost to the orientation process for new faculty members. This saved a lot of unnecessary interruptions, as we kept a copy in the faculty mailroom and there was a marked drop in the number of repeat questions from the usual suspects.  

Our handbook was so well received, in our facuty and across the institution, that we shared the template with other faculties. Did this process solve all our problems? It did not. Did it help build a sense of unity and empower staff? It did. Did all the complaints disappear like the last of a winter snowfall on a fine spring day? Only in our dreams. However, we did nurture a significantly improved atmosphere.

You may have no interest in leading a staff team, or no opportunity. You may be considering leadership in the context of how you fulfill your role working with someone who is themself in a leadership role. I’ve been asked about my priorities in past roles supporting CEOs and other senior executives. Positioning my principal (boss) and the organization to succeed, and doing so in a professional, personable and ethical manner, was among those priorities. We’re able to do this when we understand people, goals, challenges and opportunities, and when parties invest time and care to build and nurture trust in, and respect for, one another. When we do this, and it’s no small task, we’re positioned to speak truth to power.

The higher an executive rises in an organization, the more degrees of separation there are between that executive and your organization’s equivalent of the factory floor. Even if your executive’s management style in the olden days of people commuting to an office environment was such that she or he would walk about and talk with colleagues, it can be difficult to remain attuned to what front line staff and others are thinking and feeling, and to undercurrents. Astute leaders will value an assistant’s ability and readiness to effectively speak truth to power.

Your leadership interests may extend to committees, networks, initiatives or projects. You may think of honing your leadership skills through events, fundraisers or other undertakings that impact organizational culture. You may have opportunities to represent your principal in meetings, and be contemplating how you’re perceived. Or perhaps you’re working toward redefining your role, or repositioning yourself, so you’re perceived and acknowledged as a leader.

Whatever your focus, I’d suggest there’s no single leadership style. There are certainly key qualities, just as there are values by which leaders live. When we aspire to lead, we’re well served by clarity of vision balanced by openness, and confidence tempered by humility. We need to be authentic. Do our actions reflect leadership? Are we telling people how to do things, or what to do … establishing shared goals and empowering people to achieve success? I like Bill Owens’ reflection that “true leadership lies in guiding others to success”. Whether we’re focusing on a team or an executive, assistants have opportunities to influence, to guide, and to empower.

  • About the Author: Shelagh Donnelly educates and inspire assistants on topics ranging from meetings and minutes to business acumen, cybersecurity and working with boards. She helps assistants nurture their adaptability, productivity and resilience in order to enjoy the career and continue to add value even as roles evolve. An international speaker, Shelagh worked with C-level executives for more than 25 years and is recognized for her governance expertise. Shelagh founded her globally read Exceptional EA website in 2013, and is the author of the upcoming book, The Resilient Assistant.   

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