Welcome to another episode of the Well Aware Podcast. In this episode, we’re going to be talking about executive assistance. This is part of a series on executive assistance which includes a host of episodes all guested with people who currently provide executive assistance, or have done so in the past.
With that, I hope you enjoy the episode.
Lessons on Executive Assistance w/ Debbi Shaffer
[00:00:01] Debbi Shaffer: Hi!
[00:00:02] Conrad Ruiz: Hi!
[00:00:04] Debbi Shaffer: How are you?
[00:00:06] Conrad Ruiz: I’m doing well,
[00:00:06] Debbi Shaffer: happy Friday! Long week.
[00:00:09] Conrad Ruiz: I know. I’m really grateful for the time though. I would love to just jump right into it if that’s okay?
[00:00:16] Debbi Shaffer: Sure.
[00:00:16] Conrad Ruiz: Okay. We’re a time management consulting and coaching company – we obsess over the reality behind how people expect their time to be. One of the things that we’re really excited to get into is we wanted to learn about what’s going on in the world of executives and also executive assistance.
[00:00:33] What’s your insight into the world of executive time management and what do you want to share?
[00:00:40] Debbi Shaffer: So I moved away from corporate America through COVID. I’ve been supporting CEOs and C-suite executives in corporate for 20+ years. And I moved down to Florida three years ago and had a series of executives that were not… delightful! I took the opportunity of COVID to move into virtual assistance so I’m actually supporting the former CFO of the state of Florida, who does a lot of board work, a CEO of a major pharma, an executive chairman, and a former executive chairman of American Express.
[00:01:18] So my value is taking anything away from them that they don’t need to do.
[00:01:25] COVID has definitely been interesting. I think it’s actually made a lot of C-suite more productive because you’ve taken the travel component out – the hours and hours spent on flights and getting to airports. Everybody that I work with has become more efficient, but also burnt out because they’re cramming so much more in because you can jump from zoom to zoom.
[00:01:50] I think it’s been a win and a lose. I think that they’re not protecting their time as much, it’s just easy to say yes to a lot of virtual zooms. One of the places where I try to tell executive assistants to be really proactive is making sure the virtual info to connect is there and that it works. And if there’s a password they need to get into it… through COVID, there was a lot of fire drills with all of the people that I support. Like “it’s time for this meeting and I can’t get in. They’re asking for a password that I don’t have”, and you’re searching through their emails…
[00:02:30] I would like all virtual event people plan to send an email four days in advance – they can send one again an hour in advance, but for the executive assistants who have to get this stuff on the calendar, everything should arrive by Monday for that week: passwords, connection, information…
[00:02:45] Yeah, it’s been an interesting year and a half because the four that I work with have zoom fatigue and virtual fatigue. But at the same time, they’re connecting with a lot more people and actually doing a lot more professional development too, because they have time to squeeze that in.
[00:03:02] So a blessing and a curse.
[00:03:04] Conrad Ruiz: So we like to look at this context of balance under the law of diminishing returns. There’s only so much additional time you can spend on a zoom call before that is not creating as much value as doing some other activity.
[00:03:20] Where does that conversation happen? Where does that optimization occur? How do we recognize these opportunities?
[00:03:27] Debbi Shaffer: I try to time block on the calendar, like meeting prep time and if back when they were traveling, I would put “This 30 minutes is your drive to the airport. This is your time at the airport. This is your actual flight…” so now it’s “Here’s your 20 minutes before the meeting at three o’clock to read the stuff that they sent so that you’re prepared for the meeting and it’s productive. Some people like that and some people don’t. I have one executive that just keeps scheduling over all of that stuff. They’re like, “Oh, there’s this thing here, but I don’t need to do that. So we can do this other call here.”
[00:04:03] Conrad Ruiz: Does that feedback – not to put any judgment – but does that feedback reign true? I see so much of the ideal expectations set when looking forward. And then when reality strikes, it’s yeah, I’m sorry. I just couldn’t teleport my mind from that activity to this one cause literally what the calendar suggests for in that zero minute transition.
[00:04:24] Debbi Shaffer: Yeah. I guess it really depends on the individual. I have one that’s really versed at moving and doesn’t need that. And then I have another one that if they don’t properly prep, they just get completely frustrated in the meeting and they’re like, “We need to reschedule this. I don’t have the prep time… I don’t know what we’re discussing so why are we discussing it?”
[00:04:44] As an executive assistant, in an ideal world, no executive would ever touch their calendar themselves. They would let us do everything, that doesn’t exist anywhere.
[00:04:54] I know one of the biggest complaints of all executive assistants I’ve ever spoken to is they can’t get time with their executive.
[00:05:01] And we say you control their calendar. How can you not get time? And they’re like I put myself on the calendar. And they push you for somebody” yeah, depends on the executive.
[00:05:11] Like I said, I have one that can listen and read the document at the same time and she’s good. And I have another one who needs like complete quiet, who, who needs to focus on the document before they go into meeting…
[00:05:23] Conrad Ruiz: Where does the professional development on optimizing your executive assistant exist? What does that look like?
[00:05:31] Debbi Shaffer: We’re working on that on the executive assistant side! I’ve worked with office dynamics and Lucy Brazier, executive secretary magazine. And they’ve been trying for years to bring in Sherm and HR and executives into some of the training… It’s great to teach an EA how to work with an executive, but if an executive does not know how to work with an EA…
[00:05:51] I think that one of the components that’s really hard for, and I’ve run up against this too. This is one of the reasons I left one of the jobs when I moved down here is I know it’s really hard to trust somebody right out of the gate… But if you’ve hired a high dollar professional EA who has a track record, but there are executives that have no trust in their EA.
[00:06:14] So I prepare an executive dossier and all of my clients and all of the executives I’ve ever had. So like when I moved from a job, I turnover that binder that I have, it has every piece of information I’ve ever collected on that executive. Favorite cake to spouse’s birthday and kids’ birthdays and social security numbers, passport numbers, and frequent flyer numbers. And I’ll, I turn it over to the executive or to the next person taking the job because all of that is time and I realized how difficult it is to turn over your life to somebody.
[00:06:51] But they say that an EA salary should be based on if you can take 10% of the executive stuff off their plate, what is 10% of their salary so I try to think that you can take 20%.
[00:07:04] But yeah, so many executives don’t know how to use an EA. And so many executives don’t have trust in their EA, both from the data standpoint and the detail standpoint, it builds up over time, but my executives know that if they’ve seen me write it down, it’s going to get done.
[00:07:27] They don’t come back: Did you do this, do this…? And communication is key cause you also have to let them know when things are done. But yeah, it’s an interesting dynamic.
[00:07:38] We’ve been trying on the EA side for years to get more of HR and executives involved, both on what they want to see us trained on and how to use us.
[00:07:53] Lucy Brazier and F Lloyd have an organization called the World Administrator Summit that they’ve been working globally to try and do this. We’ve made progress and we’re starting to get more executives involved in it, but it’s still a long way to go.
[00:08:10] Conrad Ruiz: Do you think it’s just, and this is what I’d recognize in a lot of my client experiences where the call to action to delegate better, smarter, faster, with all of its values, all of its rewards, for some reason, the executive is just not recognizing that value because it’s not immediate. It’s not like another meeting with another potential high value connection. It doesn’t seem to address enough of a short-term gain. Even though the long-term gain is clearly like it’s immeasurably valuable.
[00:08:44] So is it the pitch? Is it just the demonstration? What’s it going to take for that executive to go: “That’s going to be way more valuable for my next hour.”
[00:08:54] Debbi Shaffer: It’s a lot, it’s a combination of all of it.
[00:08:56] And there’s some that will never get there. There’s just especially with advancing technology. A lot of them think “it’s just quicker for me to do it myself.” But it’s not really. Because yes, you can go ahead and book that flight and you think it’s done, but you didn’t put it on the calendar and you didn’t put all the details there.
[00:09:14] Conrad Ruiz: And you could have done something else!
[00:09:17] Debbi Shaffer: Yeah. So it only took you five minutes, but all the things that follow that five minutes to book: Getting it on the calendar or tracking the flights – make sure it’s on time. Making sure nothing gets booked in that time…
[00:09:29] So some executives will never get there. They’ll never trust. They’ll always think that it’s better to do it themselves, but it is a pitch and it is then a proven track record of getting it done.
[00:09:41] When I worked at Jacobson I was working at board meetings, so I had all of the senior executives across all of the company. And so I’ve worked with my boss long enough that I could pretty much read his mind. And so he and the CEO walked over… my boss is going, “I need,” and he’s just making these hand gestures
[00:10:02] and I reached behind my desk and I reached for what I knew he needed. He wanted more note cards, and the CEO’s like “How? What was that?”
[00:10:12] When you worked with somebody for five years, it’s like a marriage, you finish each other’s sentences,
[00:10:17] Conrad Ruiz: You know what to expect!
[00:10:19] Debbi Shaffer: Yeah. I knew, after taking notes, knowing what he wants and needs and what the people in the meetings with him want so it just builds and it becomes a track record. But it wouldn’t build if he didn’t let go of stuff little at a time.
[00:10:33] And I wish that we could get executives to let go of stuff a little at a time. And then on the other end of it, there’s other ones that are just “Here, take everything and run with zero direction.
[00:10:46] You’re like, “Okay… I’m going to need a little direction!”
[00:10:53] So the world is diverse. All the executives are diverse. Some of them I don’t know if you can ever get to go into training on how to effectively use this valuable tool at their disposal.
[00:11:08] Conrad Ruiz: So we like to establish awareness as our key value. So we like to think that an executive not recognizing this opportunity is unaware of the situation. They’re leaving money on the table. They don’t recognize it. Make them aware of that situation, keenly, and then through that, you’re actually doing the things that you need to do to train with your executive assistant, to understand what they can resolve for you and meet those expectations.
[00:11:29] Highlighting from a data standpoint that this is the amount of time by the result of lack of trust, by the result of “I’m going to do it myself”, this is the amount of time they’re spending doing let’s call it $15 an hour work.
[00:11:40] They’re getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to do all this high-level work. And here they are wasting their time playing with
[00:11:48] Debbi Shaffer: dinner reservations.
[00:11:49] Yeah. Simon Sinek says, if you don’t have an assistant, you are an assistant.
[00:11:55] Conrad Ruiz: That’s a fantastic way to put it.
[00:11:58] Debbi Shaffer: You’re supposed to be at 10,000 feet you’re supposed to have the great thoughts. Why get lost in the minutia of this flight has been changed from 10:15 to 10:45 – we need to adjust the meetings and everything and the cars…
[00:12:11] Why would you want to get lost now when you have somebody to handle that?
[00:12:15] Conrad Ruiz: Yeah. Yeah. And certainly part of it is control. Certainly part of it is just feeling like if you are capable of doing something, then you should do it. There’s some sort of a really paradoxical inadequacy mindset of if I’m not doing this, am I, is it because I’m inadequate? No, that’s nothing to do with your inadequacy. You’re more than capable. The problem is you’re too capable, if any. And that’s the reality of doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Play within your zone of genius. In line with that it feels a lot like hyping someone up, but in a way that’s pragmatic.
[00:12:47] Debbi Shaffer: I have one executive who started off as an executive assistant. So sometimes it’s “I know that you can do this, but why?”
[00:12:57] Give it back to me!
[00:13:03] But the problem also is, and to be honest, there are executive assistants out there who are not proactive burn me once and then I don’t trust anybody. So that’s also a problem in the industry.
[00:13:16] There are ones who think that doing a personal task is beneath them.
[00:13:20] And so when they (executives) get an actual career EA, they don’t know what to do.
[00:13:28] That’s why there’s like admin assistants versus executive assistants versus chief of staff. When you have an actual career executive assistant who is there to make you more productive, it’s a whole different game than an admin assistant who just calendars and does travel.
[00:13:46] My husband is an HR and he doesn’t even get it. He was writing something for the company and I said I used to do that for my boss.” And he’s “No, it was writing checks it was a check writing policy.” And I said, “No, my billion dollar global company, I had up to $50,000 authority as executive assistant, because I knew the business, I knew what he would approve. And if I was unsure, he knew I would go to him. And even my darling husband, who’s been with me my whole career, doesn’t get it.
[00:14:23] Yeah. So it’s hard if HR doesn’t understand what a true executive assistant is, then they’re not hiring the right person. And if the executive hasn’t worked with a true executive assistant, then they don’t understand the value in it.
[00:14:41] Conrad Ruiz: Deb, do you have any big sort of last takeaway, any sort of great call to action you have for people like what’s the sort of call to awareness that you want to share?
[00:14:49] Debbi Shaffer: To borrow from Simon Sinek, if you don’t have an assistant, if you’re not using your assistant, then you are an assistant.
[00:14:55] And that a true career executive assistant can be your most invaluable tool. They can be your right hand. They can be as productive for a CEO as a senior vice president, a CMO, a CHRO, we kind of fill all of those hats. We have our ear to the ground in the company, we can alert you of stuff ahead of time, but there has to be trust.
[00:15:22] You have to somehow learn how to utilize and trust your executive assistant and the time that it will give back to you, you’ll be amazed.
[00:15:35] Conrad Ruiz: Yeah. Thank you so much.
[00:15:39] Debbi Shaffer: You’re welcome. Thank you for asking me. If you have any follow-up just let me know.
[00:15:49] Have you ever read the, just a short article you should look at Melba Duncan wrote in the Harvard Business Review the case for executive assistants.
[00:16:02] It’s an excellent article that would help you with the value of an EA.
[00:16:08] Conrad Ruiz: Got it.
[00:16:10] Debbi Shaffer: Yeah. Great article.
[00:16:16] Conrad Ruiz: Okay. Excellent. Thank you. Is there anything that you’re looking for right now?
[00:16:22] Debbi Shaffer: Actually, so I got a full load of clients. It’s been an incredible year for me, starting my own business up. I’m actually turning clients away.
[00:16:31] Yeah it’s been incredible. I love all of the clients I’m working with, I appreciate that, but I would love to keep you in mind and if I ever don’t have a client and I need to fill a space, I’ll be sure to reach out.
[00:16:46] Conrad Ruiz: Yay! Okay.
[00:16:48] Debbi Shaffer: All right. Thank you.
[00:16:50] Conrad Ruiz: Thank you, Debbi.
[00:16:50] Debbi Shaffer: Have a great weekend.
[00:16:51] Conrad Ruiz: You too! Happy Friday!
[00:16:53] Debbi Shaffer: You too. Bye.