Creative LeadershipCreativity

Don’t Neglect The Assistant!

At the start of my career, I worked for a large production company in the Midwest.  It didn’t take me long to discover that although the President of the company had a great title, it was his assistant that really made things happen.  So I became her friend.  She was a very nice professional woman, and I bought her flowers on her birthday, and sent her gifts at Christmas.  As a result, she gave me enormous favor.  She mentored me in how a big organization works.  I learned that if she sent out a memo, it had the same authority as the company president himself.  During those early years in my career, she made a huge difference for me.   Which is why I’ve been so baffled over the years when some people call and completely disregard my assistant.  They ignore her, treat her badly, and demand to “only speak with Phil.”  Guess what?  Those people rarely get through.

My assistant controls my calendar, my appointments, and my speaking and travel schedules.  As a result, you can find out more from her than you can from me.  Plus, I trust her.  She has the keys to my house, knows my computer passwords, and generally runs my professional life.  When I want to go off the radar, she and my wife Kathleen are the only ones who know where I am.  She’s a very important cog in the wheel.

And you know what?  As soon as a meeting is over and our guest walks out the door, I turn to my assistant and ask:  “What did you think of that person?”  If you were rude or ignored her, she’ll tell me, and I won’t be happy.

In any organization, assistants, secretaries, and receptionists matter.  They’re important to the key people in a company, so don’t think ignoring them will help your case.  Become their best friend.  Their favor can mean more to your career, your project, or your dream, than you’ll ever know.

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  1. I don’t know where people learn to trample the “little people” to reach the top dogs in an organization. They clearly don’t realize that most of those top dogs know very few details and are unlikely to be much help. In my organization, we refer to the people who you want to know, those who get things done as the “rubber people”. Its a reference to the phrase “where the rubber meets the road”. Know and listen to the “rubber people”. While there may be influence at the top, there is action at the “rubber” level.

    Oh, by the way, as a Christian, I am appalled at folks who I see treat assistants, receptionists, custodians, etc. as something to be less valued than a leader. Christ loves everyone I see as much as He loves me. They deserve to be treated like Christs’ prized possession.

  2. Thanks for that post Phil, I have been a secretary/receptionist/assistant and it was hard work…..I basically had a hand in most things and held a lot of responsibility. You also deal with all the angst and have to do it with a smile on your face!

  3. Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with you that it’s ‘good business’ to be kind to the person at the front desk, but it’s simply humane. I was in Chinatown for lunch the other day and got this fortune in my cookie: “Be kind to everyone you meet. It’s good for your karma.”

  4. Thanks for this post, Phil! As someone in this position currently, I appreciate it very much. I’m sure your assistant does as well. I also can’t begin to tell you how true it is in so many organizations – your first impression matters, even it’s on someone who you perceive to not matter.

  5. I agree. My husband and I have always worked for people that did not know how to treat the assistants. We have worked for pastors, doctors, and educators. Unfortunatly, the worst offenders were the Christian employers. Unless you were one of “God’s Generals”, they didn’t want to treat you nicely, dissed on you every chance they got, paid very little, and did it in the name of “ministry”. It is really sad when the very poeple that should be representing Christ would treat others so shamefully. As Christians, my husband and I go out of our way to be extra kind to those who are servants — whether thay are assistants, waiters, maids, or others who help us.

  6. In my experience, more than one job candidate did not get called back for a second interview because I asked the receptionist how they treated her.

  7. Great post Phil!

    Gender is right in the middle of this.  Most of the executive assistants in the corporate and church/non-profit world are female and it’s a rough ride as they relate to “alpha males” inside and out.  You would love to think of course that the faith community is better and much more sensitive to the challenge.  But sadly Christian organizations have a definite white male bias that excuses a lot of brutal, insensitive behavior that is inexcusable.

    Recent history is full of profound marginalization of women that we have only recently begun to address.  It is outrageous to consider that women could not vote, own property or a business until the very beginning of the 20th century.  What a stark contrast as Jesus relates to a Samaritan woman, a woman caught in adultery, Mary and Martha from Bethany and Mary Magdalene.  In each case there is sensitivity, grace, genuine love and real respect.

    We would do well to do the same …

  8. I really believe that people reveal their true colors in how they deal with those they don’t need to impress.  Or those they FEEL they don’t need to impress.  Someone once told me that you’ll discover a person’s true level of kindness or arrogance in how they treat a waiter/waitress.  It’s proven true time and again.  Those people who have warm, polite conversations with a server have coincidentally been the people I’ve come to enjoy as friends. 

    People who are rude to executive assistants are likely just rude people underneath all the glad-handing, let’s-do-business facade.  Thank God for executive assistants — the gatekeepers and character detectors.

  9. Thanks for this post Phil.  A friend of mine passed this on to me.  I am currently a EA/PA for an extremely busy EO in the head office of a mainstream denomination, and was just this last week discussing with my friend how undervalued those in assistant roles can be.  Just reading what you had to say, as well as the comments from others has been a real encouragement!!

    Thanks …

  10. It’s true, I always knew today’s receptionist, PA, or assistant is tomorrow’s agent, producer or studio head.  I met a guy working on Seinfeld who has started as a PA, and by the 4th season he had become a producer.  And the receptionist at my old agency is now the top agent in the country for voiceover talent.  

    Of course, we’re supposed to value all people and show no partiality to anyone. And assistants in Hollywood are often treated so poorly, by their bosses and others, that the slightest kindness and appreciation afforded to them can make their beleaguered day and will be remembered.

  11. This is so true. Being sincerely kind to the assistant will get you everything you want. If fact, they will bend over backwards to help you get what you what/need because you treat them like gold. Rev Run says: “Being kind doesn’t get you anywhere…. It’s get you EVERYWHERE.”

  12. Hi Phil,

    I agree this is a smart move for your career – and I am sure you’re not implying that’s the only reason to treat assistants well. 

    But it’s good to note that treating admin assistants with kindness, warmth, and respect is also the right thing to do, as God calls us to honor and give dignity to all His children – be they a mechanic, a waitress, the janitor at church, or yes, the receptionist.

    Time and time again I’ve seen it proven true that the way someone treats folks with little or no power over them shows their true colors. If you’re rude to that waiter/waitress, that speaks greatly to your character.

    Thanks for this great reminder!

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