Chuck Lauer: A thank-you to gatekeepers who protect the boss

Many people don't understand the crucial role executive assistants play. They function as a "gatekeeper" to the outside world, so their bosses can get their work done.

Even former CEOs who benefited from gatekeepers seem to forget this when they retire and become part of the crowd on the other side of the gatekeeper's door.

They hate it. A friend of mine who was a top executive at a very successful healthcare company retired a few years ago and began doing a little promotional work for a manufacturer. Calling the CEO of a prestigious health system and reaching his executive assistant, he asked to be transferred to the head honcho posthaste.

My friend was discreet. He didn’t inform her of his previous position. Doing so would have been like those Hollywood celebrities who, whenever they feel they're not being treated with adequate deference, will blurt out, "Don't you know who I am?" No, my friend wanted to be treated like anyone else, and I respect him for that. But in response, this gatekeeper told him the same thing she probably tells any sales person. She politely asked that he send her a request in writing, so that she could determine whether it should go to her boss or to someone else.

When my friend was told this, he felt he was getting the run-around, and he was livid. He called me afterward, still so upset that he could hardly speak. He couldn't get over the way he'd been treated. I listened to what he had to say, and since he's a very good friend, I felt I could be honest with him.

I told him the executive assistant was totally within her rights. It was her job to be the gatekeeper for her boss — a very busy person who very much needed to preserve his time. I gently reminded him that when he'd been working in the C-suite, he would have wanted the same thing. He thought about it, regained his composure and actually felt embarrassed about his reaction. "It was wrong the way I handled this," he said.

Me, I've always respected the work of the executive assistant. As a salesman for many years in my early career, I was the one calling up to try to have a word with the boss. As a salesman, it was crystal clear to me that the executive assistant held absolute power, and I had better be as respectful and as charming as I could. Otherwise the door would remain tightly shut. She — and it usually was a "she" at the time, although more men have joined the ranks since — would determine whether I would be able to have any word at all with the CEO.

Later, when I became publisher of Modern Healthcare, I had the opportunity to be on the other side of the door and have my own executive assistant. I came to depend on her as the air I breathed and the legs I walked on. For more than 25 years, Cathy Fosco was my gatekeeper and business confidante — even after I left the magazine and started working as a speaker and advisor. To my great sorrow, I lost her to cancer a few months ago, and I deeply miss her — both personally and professionally.

A talented administrative assistant is quite literally worth his or her weight in gold, according to Melba J. Duncan, a former executive assistant for top CEOs of major Wall Street companies and now head of search firm that places executive assistants. In a 2011 article in theHarvard Business Review, she calculated that when an executive makes $1 million annually, a top-notch assistant is worth a salary of $80,000 a year if she can save her boss five hours in a 60-hour workweek. That extra lift makes the boss 8 percent more productive.

Many a highly competent assistant, she added, significantly exceeds those savings. This person filters out distractions that would force CEOs to be in a reactive mode, making it possible for them to "proactively set the organization’s agenda," Duncan wrote.

When executives can efficiently do their work, the whole organization benefits. "My most important job is to protect my boss’s time," an executive assistant toldTucson Businessa few years ago. She calculated that she got 120 cold calls each month, mostly from salespeople. She asks each of them to email her explaining what they wanted, but only about half of them follow through.

"Once in a while, one will try to bully me into connecting him or her to my boss. That's not effective," she said. What happens is "I tell them that I'll be happy to, and that I'm the one who listens to [the phone message they leave]," she explained. "Some will ask for my boss' email address, and I tell them the same thing. I'm the one who reads his emails, too, so they might as well send it to me."

When callers say they were referred by a board member or important client, she said, she'll ask her boss if he wants to speak to them. If the answer is no, the caller will hear a little fib that we all have heard at one time or another: "He's in a meeting right now. Can I take a message?"

On her blog, "CEO's Gatekeeper," Janel Tate-Montgomery recalls that when she was in the Navy, "my job was to serve as an executive assistant to admirals, captains and other high-ranking officers." Since she reported directly to them, "I was delegated the power to speak on their behalf," she writes. "When I spoke to those that outranked me and had been in the military for years, they would assent to my requests because they knew who I represented. When people would come to the office to speak to the 'big guy,' they had to speak to little old me first."

One of her duties in the Navy was actually quite literally being the gatekeeper, taking "gate guard duty" on a Navy base overseas — "standing duty during themidnightshift, armed with a 16-gauge and my head on a constant swivel," she writes. Later she left the military to work as an executive assistant in private industry.

You'd think anyone who guards the gate to a powerful boss would command universal respect, but every seasoned executive secretary can tell you stories of rude salespeople angrily demanding access. "I listen to them in as polite a manner as I can," one executive assistant told me, "and I say my boss is too busy to talk to them now or in the future, and then hang up." Some will call her back to apologize, but many never do. "You wonder how they got their job in the first place as a salesperson," she says.

The moral of this column is that good manners count for a lot in business — and indeed in any relationship you have. Good manners seem to have almost disappeared these days. If you want to see a bit of magic, though, try being polite and respectful to an executive assistant. It will open a door now and then — provided the boss has time for you.

These dedicated professionals are not being obstinate or pig-headed. They are simply helping their bosses get their work done. And as such, they're an invaluable asset to the organization.

 

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