A lot of executives refer to and consider their assistants “gatekeepers” who control access by means of managing calendars and warding off time-wasters. When assistants act as gatekeepers, executives don’t have to have some unpleasant or tedious conversations. And those who get past the “gate” may feel the glow of entering the inner circle. But at what cost—to the assistant, the executive, and the organization?
When an executive assistant (EA) is assigned to keep people out, the result usually isn’t greater efficiency. It tends to lead to more work and work-arounds, in addition to bad press. People don’t like to be told “no” without getting at least a semblance of a proper audience. They want to be and feel heard. If they’re not, they may be upset and take their business elsewhere. They may bad-mouth the executive and the organization as a whole to important clients, prospects, or industry players. And those kept outside the gate may decide to pester the EA with calls. Or if the EA always says “no,” they may bypass the EA entirely and go directly to the leader themselves.
Executive assistants should not be saying no for the sake of saying no or because they are unwilling to re-arrange a day of meetings to accommodate something that has high priority. Instead, they should be willing to listen to the needs of the caller and make a decision based on what would be the best choice for the leader and the company at large. The EA’s role is to think like their leader and to understand who is coming in and going out of the office and why. Their responsibility in handling the calendar is huge, as it could make or break a day’s work for an executive if done improperly. However, the viewpoint of the EA should be that every person that reaches to them for a meeting or call with their leader is important enough to be heard and their purpose understood.
An EA should be a strategic partner to the leader and someone the leader can trust to make decisions rather than just someone at a desk who knows how to put Outlook invites on a calendar. Naturally, if they’re going to be true strategic partners, leaders need to stop seeing and referring to EA’s as gatekeepers. And they ought to coach their EA on how to prioritize meetings (i.e. clients first, family second) and tell them why and how they themselves would say yes or no so EA’s are able to embody that.
We all know what an unpleasant gatekeeper experience feels like. As a leader, your goal should be to employ and train an EA who will be unfailingly friendly and cheerful, who listens well, and who knows the appropriate place to put people on the calendar. And if it doesn’t make sense for a person to meet with you, your EA should refer them to someone in or outside the organization who is the right person and then makes sure they are connected.