I recently received a letter from a reader who wrote about his frustration at not being valued more highly at his firm:
“Basically, my FA owns the business, but I run the business. I find that the attitude toward registered sales assistants, which I proudly call myself, is fairly dismal. What is frustrating is that although there is huge value in having an employee with my experience, many advisors do not see past the title and assume that we are mere paper pushers or worse. We tend to be called ‘office managers’ or perhaps ‘phone answerers,’ but we are much, much more than that. I have spoken with several ‘enlightened’ financial advisors who see the value in what I do, which is fantastic, but sadly not many. I am now considering a job change but, after a decade, it's tough finding an employer where I will not have to start at the bottom. But I do love my job.”
The timing of this letter resonated deeply with me. Having merged my business with a marketing consulting firm last summer, my new partner, Kristen Luke, and I were finding that running our new 15-person company was beginning to overwhelm us. So about two months ago we decided to hire an “executive assistant” with responsibilities that sound very similar to the writer of the above letter.
For many years, we have recommended that our advisor clients whose firms have grown to include at least 12 employees and two owners or less to hire executive assistants, a recommendation that produced consistently good results.
However, I never realized how helpful they can be. Although our executive assistant, Stacey, has been in her new job for only a short while, both Kristen and I can honestly say that she has literally changed our lives and made a major impact on our ability to run the new company much more effectively.
Now, before you start Googling “executive assistant,” let me warn you that the definitions you’ll find online will not be very exciting. That's because most of the articles I found were about jobs that are essentially glorified secretarial positions, which I suspect is a commonly held view. I’m talking about a position with responsibilities that are much more than that.
Remember the TV series “West Wing” that was largely about the people who help the president run the country? In that show, Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer) was the president's chief of staff, who ran the White House and often represented the president on phone calls and in meetings with senators, cabinet secretaries, political supporters and representatives of other countries.
I don't mean to be overly grandiose here, but I think the role of “chief of staff” is a much more accurate description of what I have seen executive assistants do in other advisory firms and in our firm.
Five Tasks Your Chief of Staff Can Take Off Your Plate
In independent advisory firms, owner-advisors have many duties. Among the most important of those are working with clients, attracting new clients, monitoring finances, managing the office, overseeing human resources, supervising client services, working with employees to be more effective and maintaining strategic relationships with other businesses that help the firm run better. A good executive assistant can take most of the time-consuming work of those last six duties off the owner's plate, freeing them up to spend more time and energy on working with existing clients and getting new ones.
Here's a list of just some of the things that we’ve seen executive assistants do in firms.
Organizing your work schedule
Stacey has total control over our schedules, booking our appointments, phone calls, meetings, client meetings, travel, vacations, doctor's visits, workout schedule, everything. She makes sure we get to where we need to be—on time and prepared. She makes sure we talk to the people we need to talk to and that we do the things we need to do. She monitors our time, so that meetings and phone calls don't run over their allotted time, unless they really need to.
Not only does this save us a huge amount of mental energy and stress (you have no idea), she also keeps us from wasting time: on people we don't need to talk to, problems we don't need to deal with, meetings we don't need to attend and projects we don't need to do. Stacey also manages decision fatigue so that we don't have to make a lot of decisions at once, which helps us make better decisions.
Over time, a good executive assistant will get a sense of how you work, the issues you want to deal with, the people you want to see and your answers for many questions that they can simply convey and report back to you on later.
Managing your personal life
Depending on your relationship, an executive assistant can take a lot of personal items off your plate as well. Keep in mind, he or she doesn't actually have to do any of these things, they just have to get them done, one way or the other: sending Christmas cards, client gifts, planning office and personal parties and client events, gifts to relatives, theater tickets, client dinners and visits to our offices, etc. It's unbelievable how much time we all spend on “stuff” and how much time we can save by not having to do it.
Serving as liaison with staff
Stacey serves as our eyes and ears around the office, making sure we know what's going on and that we take the appropriate actions when we need to. She helps keep employees motivated and connected, and makes sure we know about the issues that we need to know about. She ensures that we talk to people and make decisions when necessary. She also makes sure we say “No” enough and “Yes” to the right things. It's very important for business owners to keep tabs on what's going on with their employees, and it's a huge time saver when you don't actually have to take the time necessary to do it.
Training the staff
Executive assistants create a system for scheduling, preparing for and setting up meetings and meetings with clients and our employees. They then train the staff on that system and enforce adherence to the system. While we are all too likely to get sucked into meetings or discussions that aren't strictly necessary, they make sure that most of the time, we focus on what we really need to be doing.
Dealing with issues and solving problems
Executive assistants spend much of their time making sure we only deal with the issues that are absolutely necessary. For instance, while they don't hire and fire employees, they do perform most of the legwork to identify good candidates, as well as clarify employee problems and recommend a solution. They deal directly with our vendors, making decisions when they can and bringing us in when necessary. They also review important documents—agreements, statements, etc.—and summarize them so we can decide if we need to read further. We do many of the same things, but with their help, we now do them much more efficiently.
Independent advisors tend to be entrepreneurs, but to run a business that's bigger than their own efforts, they also need to be delegators so they can make the best use of their time. We find that one of the best ways to make that happen is to hire someone like Stacey to take as much as possible off the owner's desk.
For us, the hardest part was convincing Stacey to take the job (“executive assistant” doesn't sound like much fun), but when we told her all the things we wanted her to do, she was in. She doesn't regret it and neither do we.
Finally, don't forget to fully appreciate all the things your executive assistant does for you. They’ll become too indispensable to have them writing a letter about you like the one that starts this column.