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Do you have an evil assistant?

Is this the perfect assistant?

Is this the perfect assistant?

I have a simple theory: rude, power-crazed, pushy executive assistants usually work for rude, power-crazed, pushy bosses. Satan and his little helper burn anybody who comes near them.

In contrast, polite, professional, helpful executive assistants usually work for bosses who are much the same. The assistants know their dealings with people inside and outside the firm reflect on their boss, and a pleasant work environment helps them remain upbeat, kind and super helpful.

A generalisation, I know. I’m sure there are evil bosses with lovely assistants, and friendly bosses with Rottweilers outside their door, parading as secretaries. I just haven’t met many. Have you?

Perhaps the evil boss once had a nice assistant. But after years of working for a bully, he or she inevitably adopted the boss’s personality to survive. Or an awful assistant who works for a good boss quickly realises a positive approach achieves more, with less stress.

What’s your view?

  • Do executive assistants usually adopt their boss’s work personality?
  • How quickly does the transition happen?
  • How damaging are rude, power-crazed, pushy assistants to the organisation?
  • Does your organisation have overly pushy assistants?

As a business journalist, I have interviewed hundreds of CEOs, managers, partners and company directors over the years – and dealt with hundreds of executive assistants who set up interview times and the like. I wonder how many bosses realise their rude assistant alienates people.

It may seem a trivial matter. But as more companies cut costs, and as administrative people are usually the first asked to take on heavier workloads, I suspect there will be more unhappy assistants, receptionists, and others who are the organisation’s or executive’s first point of contact.

Yes, many personal or executive assistants do a terrific job. They are polite, professional and productive. They work long hours. They put up with demanding, often ungrateful bosses, sometimes for low pay. Or their job continues to expand, as they work for more executives, without extra pay.

But every so often you find assistants who abuse their position, are unreasonably demanding and rude, or tease other staff with bits of sensitive information to strengthen their position. In my experience, such assistants do great harm to the executive office and broader company.

The busy bosses give little thought to their assistant’s performance beyond their direct working relationship. They have not considered how the assistant relates to others inside or outside the organisation, or sought performance feedback from those who deal with the assistant.

Or worse, disliked bosses are overly protective of their assistant, brushing off complaints from other staff in the belief that the assistant is “watching their back”.  They rely so heavily on their assistant that it becomes hard to rebuke him or her for poor performance. They are too close, professionally.

Good executives and managers recognise that their personal brand, inside and outside the organisation, is in part reflected by their assistant’s style. They know the assistant has some custodianship of their reputation. A great assistant enhances it. A terrible one detracts from it.

They seek to hire and keep highly good assistants, value their role, treat them fairly, support them, help them grow professionally, and reward them. As with other staff, they assess the assistant’s performance through their own experience, and after feedback is sought from a wider group. They notice if there are behaviourial changes and pull the assistant into line, if required.

If you have a personal or executive assistant, ask: does he or she enhance my reputation and that of the firm? What type of image do I want my assistant to project when dealing with people? Do I understand how my assistant relates to internal and external stakeholders, or is it taken for granted? And how much of my leadership style has rubbed off on her or him, for good or bad?

If you haven’t asked these questions, you may have a personal assistant who is burning your reputation through his or her sharp tongue and pitchforked emails.

10 comments so far

  • Yes, they do usually select assistants who think alike and behave as they do. Generally most people value those traits and behaviours that they themselves exhibit. Take our Prime Minister and his Chief of Staff. Both dictatorial with a lust for power with the same mindset.

    Date and time
    July 31, 2014, 10:47AM
    • One exec assistant i use to work with was the only person at work i really didnt like. I think it started because the exec was happy for me to go straight to him with my work. She didn't like this, being use to people first coming through her to approach the exec. She hated me for it, to the point where we were called in for a HR meeting. She left the business before i did. WIN.

      Date and time
      July 31, 2014, 11:01AM
      • What a pathetic article!

        As a career EA for over 25 years let me tell you, there are far more power-crazed and horribly behaved EXECUTIVES in the world than there are Executive Assistants.

        I look forward to your future articles where you slander Accountants and HR types with a bad attitude.

        Little dog
        Date and time
        July 31, 2014, 11:34AM
        • Really? I try to treat others as I would like to be treated - no matter what or who.

          Is polite and succinct wrong? I have been told to my face that it is wrong to be succinct.

          Date and time
          July 31, 2014, 11:51AM
          • Some GPs could look to their receptionist staff too. Some of those ladies feel they own the practice, being rude to people and sending them to other GPs where they receive a better reception.

            Date and time
            July 31, 2014, 12:20PM
            • In my experience, managers / professionals tend to employ exec assistants who complement them. When managers like to avoid confrontation, they tend to employ someone who's ready to quickly lay down the law, or even have a bit of the 'junk yard dog' about them. I also know some professionals who want to be brisk to the point of being rude, not bothering with niceties, so they have an assistant who is incredibly kind and nurturing to lessen the impact of their boss's snappy ways. I've never known a manager who doesn't know the nature of their assistant. If the assistant exhibits nasty behaviour, it's always been quietly authorised. Incompetence is a different matter, however. A fair bit of assistant inability is tolerated by bosses, but not endorsed.

              Date and time
              July 31, 2014, 12:20PM
              • I don't think that it is simply a case of "monkey see, monkey do".

                Over the years, I have learnt that there are certain people who have "parking officer syndrome" (ie a small amount of actual power, which results mainly in irritation, combined with the compulsion to misuse that small amount of power disproportionately to the actual ambit of said power). These are usually not people who have substantial power (eg bosses). They also tend to be narcissists.

                Bosses, if they are toxic, tend to be abusers of actual power, which is very dangerous to those around them. They also tend to be narcissists.

                So, two different foundations for the bad behaviour, but similar drivers (ie narcissism).

                Date and time
                July 31, 2014, 4:06PM
                • Your observation is spot on, every single time I've come across a horrible PA or EA, their boss has been the same and vice versa. Nice bosses on the other hand all seem to have great assistants.

                  Code Red
                  Date and time
                  July 31, 2014, 4:24PM
                  • I am an Executive Assistant and my boss is emphatic about the importance of tone in both written and verbal communication - the perfect mix of friendliness and formality, always being wary of hurting anyone's feelings or offending them, every word/interaction reflecting the business' reputation. Also, by definition, an assistant is there to assist everyone as much as possible, with his/her boss being the priority. If you encounter a nasty/cranky EA, then they may be new to the game - it takes a while for ego-death and greater perspective when dealing with pressure from every angle. Please give them a break, at least at first - it can be quite stressful trying to baby everyone's egos, do a million things at once, many of them that involve relaying bad/inconvenient news to people, and remain 'bubbly'.

                    Date and time
                    July 31, 2014, 4:44PM
                    • I was an EA first working for a boss who bullied everyone most of my role was consoling crying people. He got pushed out of management.

                      I then worked for the 'nice" guy that took over but the culture of bullying took a long time to dissipate.

                      The "nice" guy went on to become the CEO and hired a practice manager so I got pushed out and my role diminished. There was no long term career growth or training for assistants.

                      I think the problem is that so many women get degrees, law, business, marketing etc and then become someone's assistant, the role has changed and it isn't a role I would do again.

                      My last job I was in for 8 years throughout that time we'd been through loads of redundancies, high staff turnover, mergers and change management cycles - the one thing I learned is that the assistant directly reflects the executive. And most executives couldn't give two hoots about assistants unless they are well connected or married to another CEO then they do what they like.

                      Date and time
                      July 31, 2014, 8:54PM

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