In college, I studied theatre design. While some would say that my degree holds very little value, I would argue that this course of study taught me several important skills which I use every day. Working in theatre taught me to think critically and to read the subtext of every situation. It taught me to not only use my voice but how to use it so that I’m heard. It taught me how to collaborate with a variety of different people, personalities, and working styles. Most importantly it taught me to respect others’ roles in the theatre, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
As assistants, we have the privilege of working with a variety of people, most of whom are employers and co-workers that we will rarely come in contact with. In addition to getting to know other high-powered executives and executive assistants, we get to know the doorman, the parking tenant, and supplies vendor. This is one of the things that make our careers as executive assistants so satisfying and unique. When we develop relationships at all levels we are able to accomplish more for our executives and organizations. Anything from getting into a high-demand restaurant that has been booked for weeks, to getting special discounts.
I have the same starting point with everyone and that starting point is friendship. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember. I assume everyone is my friend because it’s who I am. My parents love to tell the story of me going up to strangers as a toddler and asking to be held. I used to embarrass my high school friends when I included someone who looked left out. It’s who I am at my core. This mentality has served me well in my career as it makes it easy to connect with people. It doesn’t matter how outgoing you are or whether or not you are like me in this regard. We can all start from a place of inclusion in respect to others.
We should never treat anyone better or worse because of their income level, job description, or social status. This means that we are to approach the janitor with the same level of professionalism, respect, and kindness as we do the CEO. As assistants, we all, at one time or another, have had someone talk down to us and treat us as “less than”. How far did they get? How did that mentality serve them? I don’t know about you, but as my executive’s strategic partner I tend to share with him when others treat me differently or are “a little off” in our interactions. In a way, this is viewed as a litmus test for the level of interaction my executive is willing to have with someone.
There are times when we will need to hold others accountable, hold boundaries, or otherwise assert ourselves but be careful not to cross over into disrespectful territory as this will never serve us. Remember, we don’t treat others with respect because of what they do or don’t do, we treat others with respect because of who we are.
Strategic relationships are like every other relationship. In order to build a strong one, you’ll need to take a genuine interest and spend some time getting to know the other person without any ulterior motive. Yes, this article is about strategic relationships but if you leave out the truly relational element of genuine interest people will notice. If you’ve ever had anyone reach out to you or treat you well with the sole purpose of getting something in return, then you understand what I mean.
Try and get to know people, their interests, likes, and dislikes, etc. Listen to their answers and ask follow up questions. This is a really simple concept but it can be harder than it sounds. As an assistant, I sometimes get “in the zone” with my work and so focused that I can forget to slow down. I’m sure I’ve missed some opportunities for connection as a result. Slowing down and complimenting someone on a job well done or offering a word of encouragement will go a long way in establishing a sincere and authentic connection.
We all know how good it feels to be appreciated and how terrible it feels to have our contributions go unacknowledged. A key element of building strong strategic relationships is to show appreciation. A sincere “thank you” shows you value others’ contributions and them by extension.
Think of times when you felt appreciated. How was that appreciation expressed? Early on in my career, I had a boss hand me $20 for lunch and tell me to take the afternoon off. Another executive I worked for gave me a handwritten note on Administrative Professionals Day. Still, another kept $5 gift cards to a local coffee shop and told me to distribute them when I saw someone go above and beyond or show a little extra kindness.
You don’t have to spend a nickel to show someone you appreciate them.
When I graduated from college we had our own special ceremony in the theatre department. The speaker, who was chosen by the students, was a professor by the name of Eric Forsythe. Eric said something that day that I will never forget, “In order to be truly successful in life you only really need to do two things. First, always be on time and second, don’t be a jerk.” It’s nearly 13 years later and his advice still rings true.
If we are to truly be successful in life we will need to develop strong relationships both personally and professionally. Don’t be a jerk.
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