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Becoming A Trusted Partner

The skillset required to grab a cup of coffee, pick up dry cleaning, and unstick the copier (AGAIN!) isn’t particularly nuanced. But as I’ve said before, what it means to be an assistant is rapidly changing. Because software is eating the world, anyone with access to a smartphone can pay someone to grab food, or jump into a one-off gig. Being an Executive/Personal Assistant requires much more than being able to complete administrative tasks quickly. 

A key strategy to leveling up in your role is becoming a trusted partner. It’s something you’ve likely heard before but the role is rarely defined in terms any of us can practically apply. You may have wondered how to go about becoming one of these elusive “Trusted Partners” for powerful executives who often seem too busy to remember names, let alone engage in trust exercises.

Well, whether your boss knows it or not, they need you to become a trusted partner. Consciously or unconsciously they hired you in order to have someone in their corner. Someone who they could depend on to always act with their best interests in mind.

Becoming a trusted strategic partner requires a fundamental yet complex set of soft skills. These skills are required to gain lasting influence and effectively execute strategic priorities. Whether you’re starting with a new team or have been with your boss for years and feel like you’ve struggled with transitioning from doer assistant to strategic partner, these tips will help build the kind of bonds that long-lasting relationships require.

Bridge of Trust

As an assistant entering into a new working partnership with your boss, building trust is the first and most important task ahead of you. If you’ve already established a great working relationship with your boss and want to ensure they come to you with more strategic issues, you need to work on building a deeper professional trust – the kind that results in more delegation and fewer errands.

The Bridge of Trust can not be traveled alone; it’s usually best to meet in the middle. However, our role is unique in that it’s incumbent upon us to earn the trust of our bosses and not the other way around.

In the early days of any new relationship, there’s usually an openness from both parties. It’s important to leverage this “honeymoon” period with your executive to build trust. I’ve learned to focus on three key strategies for building trust with my executive; skillful self-disclosure, principled behavior, and consistent performance.

Self Disclosure

Self-disclosure is a hallmark of trust in relationships. When we disclose our authentic selves to others by revealing our motives, intentions, and goals, evidence shows that we not only build trust but also engender teamwork and cooperation. However, this can backfire if not employed correctly. To do this effectively you must share information in authentic ways that reveal important information about your thinking process. This can result in a “shared mental model that facilitates communication and improves task performance”. 

Principled Behavior

We’re likely all aware of how important things like discretion and confidentiality are to our jobs. But how do we demonstrate these qualities before we’re trusted with something confidential? Exhibiting principled behavior around your organization can take many forms. No matter how new you are you’ll have an opportunity to demonstrate it. 

One way is to help others who are struggling without seeking public recognition or praise. Another is being quick to acknowledge when you fall short. Then, you must be ready with strategies to help mitigate future issues in this area. However you choose to demonstrate your principles, ensure that they are authentic reflections of who you are.

Consistent Performance

Perhaps none of these is more important in encouraging professional trust than consistent performance. Showing up and performing at a high level on a consistent basis starts with onboarding thoroughly and methodically. Holding regular 1:1 meetings with your boss shows that you prioritize your partnership. It’s also an opportunity to walk through weekly accomplishments.  

It is important to note that perfect performance isn’t required. No one is perfect: your executive isn’t, the head of HR isn’t. And no matter how much we are eager to do everything right when asked, we’ll never be either. Set expectations with yourself early on that you will not do everything right. Have an action plan in place for when things go wrong.

Be Team Player

Being a “team player” has always been a broad and amorphous term. It conjures up images from our favorite sports movies like The Sandlot and Remember the Titans. Although many of the sports-themed movies do a good job of imparting important lessons about teamwork, these lessons don’t always carry over into the business world.

More and more companies are transitioning to a small teams approach. Understanding what it really means to be a team player is crucial to finding long term success in the future of business. Getting people to see you as a team player might be easier than you think.

When new members join a team, veteran members will usually assert their positions in the group early on. Rather than trying to compete and prove yourself, focus instead on helping to facilitate group synergy. In other words, do glue work.

Approach team missteps with curiosity rather than critiques. When the group is falling behind or failing to hit key deliverables, use the art of humble curiosity to pose questions that deepen thinking and broaden perspectives. People are much more receptive to questions than critiques. Guiding the group to investigate new solutions will demonstrate your commitment to team success rather than just your own.

Think Like a Leader

Thinking like a leader sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. It’s much more than just asking ourselves, “what would I do if I were in charge?”. The kind of mindset that great leaders adopt centers around four key themes, according to professors Ryan Gottfredson and Chris Reina. In their article on Great Leaders in the Harvard Business Review, they outline four different mindsets that leaders should learn to identify in themselves in order to be more effective. 

First, the Growth Mindset, understands that people have the ability to grow their talents and skillset. This stands in contrast to the fixed mindset seeing them as stagnant. Second, the Learning Mindset focuses on developing your capabilities and mastering something new in order to expand your skillset. Third is the Deliberative Mindset where you focus on accepting all kinds of information that could help you address problems in new and more effective ways. The final on is the Promotion Mindset, where you identify the specific purpose, goal, and destination and optimize workflow around those.

Consider ways that you’d apply this kind of thinking to your decision making, whether you have a title or not. Learning to lead without authority is one of the best ways to make an impact wherever you sit on the org chart.

Say No

This last piece of advice might seem counterintuitive… say no? But wasn’t I hired to do everything my boss asks of me, the moment it’s asked? No, you weren’t! You were hired to be a force multiplier, an energy manager, a highly functioning second brain, and an occasional miracle worker. More importantly, trust has a lot to do with gut feelings. It isn’t measurable and whether people admit it or not, it’s incredibly difficult to trust a “Yes-Man”. 

While it might sound nice in the imagination to have everyone answering our every request with a resounding “Yes!”, in reality it’s isolating and disjointing. It’s critical to have team players who are on board with great ideas. It’s equally important is to know you can count on an honest perspective from someone in your circle. Someone who is willing to push back when necessary and say, “no”.

Finding your authentic voice means being able to speak the truth, with respect, whatever it may be. Over time you’ll come to find that your boss welcomes your input and values your opinion more than if you’d just kept “going along to get along”.

Being a Trusted Partner it’s a role that requires fluidity, a strategic mind, and highly honed critical thinking skills. To really move into the full potential of your role you need to employ these steps to become a trusted partner rather than just piling up busywork at your desk. 

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