Q&A: Forging a cutting edge EA role at Gold Coast Cabs

2019 Boss of the Year Benjamin Lee and his EA, Angela Lightbody talk about their experience forging a modern EA role with our editor, Bennet Nichol.

Ben, you are quite young to have such a high position in the corporate world. How did you manage to climb the ladder so quickly?

Ben: I started as a call centre agent in the telecommunications industry. I remember looking into a meeting room window and seeing the then executive site manager giving a briefing to some of the team leaders and I just knew at that point in time that I wanted to be an executive leader.

I worked pretty hard and managed to get myself a team leader position within 12 months of being there. Then I moved into a company called Excelior and I did quite a lot of project managing there, which got me a gig at General Electric.

Then, from GE someone told me there was an operations manager job going at Gold Coast Cabs. Having a bit of an IT background, I was convinced the taxi industry in Queensland was ill-prepared for what was about to happen to them. But most of the time, where there’s adversity there’s opportunity—and I felt I had the right skills to help the organisation meet that challenge.

So, I jumped in as an operations manager here at Gold Coast Cabs, and after about a year-and-a-half the chief executive left the business and the board of directors asked me to step in. Which I said yes to and now I’ve spent the last four years here as the head of Gold Coast Cabs.

Angela, how long have Ben and yourself been working together and how did this partnership come about?

Angela Lightbody, Ben’s EA for three years at Gold Coast Cabs.

Angela: I’ve been with Gold Coast Cabs for nearly three years. That was starting with Ben when he first took over as the CEO. I am always about finding a company where I can make a difference. When I interviewed here at Gold Coast Cabs, it wasn’t about finding a traditional EA, but an EA that could really make a difference within the company and be hands-on.

I understand you two worked out your EA role together. How did that discussion play out and how did your relationship start?

Ben: I remember being very clear to all the candidates that I wasn’t looking for someone to make me coffee and take meeting minutes. I really was looking for someone who could help me run the organisation and be my right hand.

Angela: I think from the start, it’s really important you build trust in the relationship quite quickly. The sooner you can do that the better, because it cements the messages and the work ethic that you bring.

For me when I started, Ben was ridiculously busy and we were very under-resourced. But the way for me to get up to speed was to tail him at every meeting he went to for nearly a month.

That got me across all the critical ideas and items that were ongoing, but also allowed me to get the insight into how Ben addressed them and how he wanted to manage those situations.

It was very successful because when we started Ben had never really had an EA before. I kind of had to teach him what an EA was. No-one really understands what an EA can do for them until they’ve had an EA for a couple of years.

Ben: When I started in middle-level management, I always wondered what you needed an assistant for. Was it just laziness? I meant that out of a complete sense of ignorance. Then I got thrown into these higher management roles, and I do not know what I would do without Ange. An EA makes or breaks whether or not you’re sane at work and whether or not you things get done.

The amount of times I have walked into Ange’s office and I’ve gone to open my mouth about a particular thing and Ange has gone, “I already know, this is what I’ve done about it, you don’t need to be concerned.” Not only did she know what I was going to talk to her about, but she also knew exactly what I would have wanted and had just gone and done it. It’s instant relief, so I can go on and continue with what I was dealing with. I now have a very different outlook.

Ange would be in there, being my eyes and ears, and executing with the full scope and authority of the executive.

Ben, how important do you think communication is to a company leader and Angela what strategies do you use to help get Ben’s messages across and keep them consistent?

Ben: I’d be surprised if there’s a single leader around that didn’t think communication was important, especially when you’re in an industry that is under significant pressure through deregulation and disruption. You’re trying to take the business through large-scale change, from an environment where it was doing extremely well to where it is now.

I always make sure that every quarter there is a town hall meeting that every front line agent can attend. We do a monthly newsletter that I contribute to and I always make sure that the executive team is communicating any critical changes as best as possible through to the front lines.

Also, sometimes it’s not what you’re saying, but how you say it that can be really critical. Communication about serious or critical matters has got to be from the heart. It has to be sincere and genuine. I’ve always tried to ensure that was an element in my verbal and written communications. I want the team to know that it’s sincere.

Angela: For me, the role of the EA really is a partnership. You need to be on the same page, and if not you at least need to portray that you are. I think that what’s really important as the EA is that you are the one that gets down to the level of other people. It really is the EA’s responsibility to ensure the message is going out to all the different levels of staff.

Ben, can you describe to me your management style?

Ben: I’m a big believer in servant leadership. That’s the model I try to adhere to the most. It’s every leader’s responsibility to make the lives of those—both that report to them, and in the rest of the organisation—easier and better.

We spend eight to ten hours a day in an office with each other. The team here have been through a very difficult and challenging environment that not many other industries are going through. I’m proud to say that the culture and environment that we have set here has had very low attrition rates. Things have been difficult but people have enjoyed the work here. I think that’s a testament not just to my leadership, but to the leadership of everyone in the organisation.

How do you both see the EA-executive partnership developing in the future?

Angela: Stepping into manager’s roles when they are absent, running or mirroring projects so that Ben could monitor them, just being able to step into any aspect of the business and take a role on behalf of the executive.

Ben: Within the context and the experience that I have, I’d like to think that we were a little bit cutting edge.  When I think back on what her core role was, it was stepping in when department leads were away, and being involved in critical projects that I couldn’t have my attention on for whatever reason—and Ange would be in there, being my eyes and ears, and executing with the full scope and authority of the executive.

That’s something that I made very clear. If Ange gives a directive, you can assume that that’s come out of my mouth, and treat it as such. I can’t say whether or not that’s normal.

I think organisations in this day and age are growing more complex. One person can’t get to everything, but if you’ve got a capable asset sitting on the right of you who can run interference, make decisions, shoulder some of the load and make things a little bit clearer on what the executive should focus on, you’d be crazy not to leverage that asset.

Nominate for the 2020/21 Executive PA Awards

Benjamin Lee took home Boss of the Year at the 2019 Executive PA Awards, for his outstanding work ethic and leadership skills. Do you know a superstar boss? Nominate them for the 2020/21 Executive PA Awards here: https://executivepa.awardsplatform.com/

Established in 1937 under the name Regent Taxis, Gold Coast Cabs is now the largest regional Taxi Company in Queensland and comprises of over 390 vehicles, servicing an area from Ormeau to Coolangatta and operate 24 hours a day every day of the year. www.gccabs.com.au