The thriving EA

It takes just a few steps to ensure your relationship with your boss – and your career as a whole – is thriving and moving in the direction that you really, really want, says Richard Boston.

Meet Karen; typical of many of the people I’ve helped ‘manage up’. She’s been expecting her boss to look after her, to resolve issues and disagreements on her behalf and to be better than all of the bosses Karen’s had in her long and distinguished working life. Above all (and it’s taken her a while to see and admit this), she’s been expecting her boss to be even closer to perfect than Karen expects herself to be. And, Karen’s a card-carrying perfectionist.

But Karen’s not an EA – she’s a senior manager in a well-known multinational organisation. In my experience, a lot of PAs look at their bosses differently to Karen. While most people effectively act as though their bosses are some kind of surrogate parent, this role is reversed for the majority of EAs. The PA becomes the parent, taking care of their executive’s daily needs and keeping them on the straight and narrow.

Whether you’re operating as the parent or the child with your boss, though, it can be easy to overlook the need to ensure that you yourself, are truly thriving. If you’re like Karen, you might be caught on the hamster wheel of meeting short- term targets or pleasing others and, if you’re like the classic parental EA, you might be so focused on looking after the boss that you’ve lost sight of what you want from your own career and how best to get it.

The healthiest way to approach these relationships is as two adults, partnering with the intention of thriving together. That doesn’t mean making a pact with your boss to manipulate those around you; the two of you trampling over others to get to the top or inflating each other’s egos by ignoring each other’s faults and always agreeing. Instead, it’s about working as a team of equals, understanding each other’s needs, aspirations and blind spots, and finding ways to ensure both of you thrive in a way that’s healthy for your colleagues and the rest of the organisation.

If you’re looking to thrive at a new level in 2018, I’d suggest the following:

Work out what it is that you really, really want
Thriving means different things to different people – earning more money, progressing faster up the career ladder, breaking through a plateau or out of a rut, having a great deal more fun or a fantastic work-life balance. It might mean something else entirely.
Whatever you’re seeking, the following three techniques are very helpful when working out what you want, and they’re best done in the following order:

  • Grab a sheet of paper and draw a graph of your life-to-date. The horizontal axis is time. Some people prefer to start with their childhood, others prefer to start at 16, 18, 21 or when they got their first job. Meanwhile, the vertical axis shows the extent to which you were thriving versus simply surviving. Once you’ve plotted the various times and periods in your life on the graph, showing for each the extent to which you believe you were truly thriving, look for the common themes. What was it about the things you were doing, the environment you were in or the people you were with that really helped you thrive?
  • Take a really big sheet of paper next; preferably a flipchart. Draw three overlapping circles. Label the first ‘what I really enjoy/have a passion for,’ the second ‘what I’m really good at’ and the third ‘what will bring me the success I’m looking for’ (whether you define that success as career progression, income or something else). Then, drawing on the previous exercise, fill in the circles and the spaces between them – if you have a passion for something and you’re also really good at it, it goes in the overlapping space between those two circles. If you’re using a flipchart, post-it notes really help here as you can move them around if necessary. You’ll realise that the place where the three circles overlap is your sweet spot – that’s where you’re truly thriving.
  • The third step is to look at your current job and work out which parts of it are contributing to you  truly thriving and which bits could do with some alterations. We’ll come back to the latter shortly…

Check for alignment with your boss’s true, long-term aspirations
If you’ve used the exercises above, you’ll have a clear view of the direction you want to take your career. That direction may include your current executive; perhaps with some alterations to the way you’re working together. Or perhaps thriving for you means pastures new. Either way, you’re likely to still have a boss going forwards and it’s going to make a huge difference to your chances of succeeding if their aspirations are sufficiently aligned with yours.
If you’re hoping to stick with your current boss, it’s worth mining your existing knowledge and mapping out where you think they’re keen to take their career over the coming years, remembering to factor in the things you know about their life outside work, too.
If you think you’re going to be changing managers, choose your next leader wisely. Do your due diligence when interviewing, ask good questions that really get beneath the surface and show you’re interested in the direction they want to take over the coming years – not just in leading their department or organisation, but in terms of their own careers.
You’ll need to avoid them feeling like you’re invading their privacy, of course, but a good boss will value a genuine level of interest (and not just self-interest) at the start of this hugely important relationship.

Factor in your boss’s habits, needs and mindsets
When looking to get the best from a relationship – particularly a relationship under pressure or one that’s facing some kind of change – it’s helpful to think in terms of the habits, needs and mindsets of the people on both sides of that relationship.
As an EA, you’re likely to be better than most at empathising with your manager so you’ll know your boss’s habits well – the good ones and the not-so-good ones. You’ll understand their immediate needs and how they sometimes drive your boss to demonstrate some of those less-than-helpful habits. You’ll have a view on their beliefs, assumptions and expectations when it comes to a range of topics, too.
So, when it comes to turning your aspirations into reality, ask yourself the following:

  • Habits: Which of my boss’s current habits will help me to thrive going forwards? Which might get in the way? What helpful and unhelpful habits do we have in our relationship when it comes to me achieving what I want to achieve?
  • Needs: What are my boss’s greatest needs? How might those evolve over time? And what impact might me pursuing my aspirations have on their ability to get their needs met?
  • Mindsets: What are my boss’s assumptions when it comes to me and my role? How are they expecting my own career to evolve over time? What do they expect our relationship to look like in three years’ time?

Have the conversation
You’ll no doubt have a lot of conversations with your boss, but for most PAs those focus on the day-to-day, the events and tasks of the coming weeks and months.
Much rarer are conversations about the broader, deeper and more future-focused things in life – so, it’s time to talk to them about what you really, really want. I’ve found the key to many of these conversations is to get the right blend of authenticity, responsibility and courage – three qualities I summarise as ARC.
To put it into context:

  • Be authentic by being open and honest, staying true to your core values, treating each other as equal human beings and being prepared to take a long hard look at yourself.
  • Be responsible by recognising that you may not be able to have everything on your wish list (or at least not right away), that your boss and the people around you will have to get their needs met if they’re going to help you meet yours, and that you may need to adapt your own habits, needs and mindsets to find a mutually beneficial way forward.
  • Be courageous by being bold enough to share your aspirations, even when they might conflict with existing agendas. And be brave enough to discuss the habits, needs and mindsets that could limit this relationship’s potential for enabling you and your boss to thrive.

To summarise, thriving in this relationship – and in your career as a whole – means working out what it is that you really, really want. And you’re more likely to thrive if your aspirations are sufficiently aligned with your boss’s true, long- term aspirations and if you can factor in (and adapt to) their habits, needs and mindsets.

Finally, given the importance of healthy dialogue in any relationship, thriving is going to be all the more likely if you can have the necessary conversations with your boss in a way that is simultaneously authentic, responsible and courageous.

Richard is a psychologist and coach specialising in leadership and team performance. He is the managing director of global consultancy LeaderSpace and the author of The Boss Factor: 10 lessons in managing up for mutual gain and ARC Leadership: from surviving to thriving in a complex world.