Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gatekeeper or Guide? The Role of Executive Assistants

Executive assistants (EAs) are often viewed as obstacles, gatekeepers whose sole job is to keep you from getting through to the executive who can lead you to untold riches.

I have known many EAs over the years and these people can be your best friend and guide when you treat them with the respect they deserve. Treat them poorly at your own risk.

Having said that, I started to do some research on EAs and found that JD Kathuria of WashingtonExec had already laid the groundwork by starting a WashingtonExec Assistant group on LinkedIn. He put me in touch with them and the following is advice, directly from them, no editing, the straight, unadulterated advice. Only the names are changed to protect the...

Pay Attention to it.

Having come from a sales background, I am sensitive to the role of telemarketers and salespeople and I actually do try to help.  I try to learn more about what it is that the person is trying to sell or what their goal is so that I can point them in the right direction.  By the same token, coming from a sales background, I’m also a little peeved that I’m doing the salesperson’s footwork for them.  Because that’s not how I did business back in the day.  Back in the day, I took the time to qualify all of my leads and targets and did extensive investigation to learn exactly who my target was within a company.  

Sales 101 tells you to get to the decision maker.  It is completely inaccurate to assume that the CEO is the decision maker.  The CEO has direct reports that get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to make most of the decisions salespeople think the CEO makes.  If the CEO sat around mulling over our long distance phone service, leases  on copiers and printers and optimization software, he’d never get anything done.  

In my 25 years of doing this, NEVER has the CEO gone to our SVP of Biz Dev and suggested a personality evaluation tool and training program for our sales people.  Never has he made a suggestion on switching to a new health plan after a call with a telemarketer.  It’s the other way around.  It is the job of his direct reports to be on the lookout for ways to save the company money, to fully investigate a new plan or tool, to meet with the representing company and to then decide if it is something that deems the attention of the CEO. 

So, the answer is, you never start with the CEO.  And trust me, we EAs don’t just shut people down that call the CEO’s office.  At least not initially.  Sometimes, we will actually politely jot a message down and give it to the CEO.  It is always immediately rejected.  It is rejected for the reasons I stated above.  All of what people are trying to sell to a CEO are typically not even within his level of expertise or in the realm of his knowledge.  The quickest way to get your product ignored is to try to show it to someone that doesn’t have the first idea or the time or patience to even realize how the product might help them.  That’s where CIOs, CTOs, CMOs, Chief Talent Officers, CAOs and so on come into play.

But, if you insist on calling the CEO’s office – or even the receptionist’s desk, or anyone for that matter, pretend you are calling your neighbor.  Let’s think about this.  Let’s say you just saw an infomercial on a great grill cleaning product and you wanted to tell your buddy next door about it because the two of you really dig cooking out on the grill and sharing ideas.  When you call next door and the wife answers, would you just dismiss her and say, “Lemme talk to Joe”?  No!  You’d be polite to her and after some cursory niceties, you’d probably then say, “Hey Mary, I just saw this great commercial about a product you just spray on the grill and with two swipes of this nifty sponge, the thing is clean.  I thought Joe would like it and I want to tell him about it.”  Now, that’s assuming you have manners. 

Manners are important.  But here’s what we EAs get on a regular basis.  Every single time.  Every guy I’ve worked for.  These are the calls I get from strangers:

“Yeah, lemme talk to Fred.”
“Is Fred around?”

Calls from people who know Fred:

“Joan, this is John Smith from ABC Corp.  Fred and I met recently at the Titans breakfast and we both agreed to try to get together for lunch.”

“Joan, this is Chuck Walsh.  Fred and I attended Darden together and I was hoping to get a few minutes to chat with him about…..”

Advice to cold-callers – LISTEN to the name of the person who just answered the phone and use it.  If they didn’t give their name, introduce yourself and then ask their name.  Then state your business.  If you are trying to sell something, understand that you should not be starting with the CEO.  So now you are starting with the EA to the CEO, an incredibly busy person, and you are about to ask them for their help.  Be respectful.  And when I say be respectful, I mean respect the fact that they have been hired in the role they are in because they are smart enough to help the top guy run the company.  So take the time to actually tell them about what it is you are trying to sell!  Callers seem to dismiss the fact that we have brains!  Sell me on your stuff and I’ll know where to point you.  How refreshing to have someone actually say, “Joan, I know starting with your boss isn’t the right starting point but I’m hoping once I tell you about my product that you’ll know who I should speak to.” 

Also, why should it be a one-shot deal?  Whatever happened to relationship building?  There’s a guy, Dave C., who has called the various offices of execs I have worked for my entire career as an EA supporting CEOs.  The guy doesn’t call with that fast, dismissive “I’m more important than you so put me through to your boss” tone.  He’s in wealth management and it just so happens, he dings all the CEOs I’ve worked for.  By the time I got to CEO #3 and he called, I was like, “Dave – it’s Joan.”  It’s been 20 years and I’ll still take Dave’s call and I’ve even arranged for him to meet with one of my CEOs because he and I built a relationship.  Bosses will meet with people their EA asks them to.  I’ve literally said, “As a professional favor, would you meet with this guy?” 

Salespeople think they are supposed to throw the hook in and pull out a fish.  Fishermen know that never happens.  They toss the hook in and they wait.  They toss it again and they wait.  They get a snack and they wait.  They pop open a beer and they wait.  And eventually, they get their fish.  And, sometimes they don’t and they move on to another fishing hole.  How is business any different?

Know this:

If you never introduce yourself to us but you keep calling in hopes of catching our boss, we still remember your voice.

Don’t ask us if we know where our CEO is.  Of course we know.  That’s none of your business.  To this question, you will get the curt answer, “Yes.”  Can I tell you?  “No.”

People who the CEO doesn’t want to speak to act like they know him.  Please don’t be the same and say, “That’s OK, I’ll call him on his cell.”  No you won’t.  I know your voice or I know everyone that calls that has business with him and they never say, “I’ll call him on his cell.”  For what it’s worth, I used to use this one too back in 1991.

The other oldie, “I’m about to run into a meeting myself.  I’ll try him later.” 

Just be honest.  State your name, your company, what your company does, what you’d like the person on the other line to help you with.  It’s that simple.  Don’t lie.  Be honest and respectful.  It is refreshing and you’ll have good results.  If the assistant pointed you in the direction of the CTO and you haven’t gotten anywhere, call that same assistant back and say, “Joan, hello, it’s John Smith again, from ABC Corp.  You might recall we spoke the other day and you were so kind as to direct me to your CTO.  I’m not having any luck connecting.  Do you know of anyone else in his org that might take my call so I can try to tell your company a little bit more about what we offer?”  No, not everyone is helpful but some people are.  From there, you try the same thing with the receptionist, back in the day, I even called the guy in the mailroom!  I got traction!  Different fishing holes!

OK, there you have it.  A tome of information.