Let’s be SUPER real – absolutely no one on this planet is perfect, and every single one of us makes mistakes. Things get overlooked, we get too busy, we forget. We didn’t write it on our sticky note, then stick it to the inside of our notebook, transfer it to our “daily list,” and then yellow highlight and cross it out when we were done. Whatever system your EA uses, there is always the potential it could fail. When it does, how should you, as the leader, respond?
Let’s say this “mistake” causes you, as a leader, embarrassment and communicates a sense of unreliability, if not incompetence, to an important client. You take ownership of the mistake to your client…but now the client may think less of you. And your confidence has dropped, even a tiny bit, in your assistant. With an eye toward future potential mistakes (and subsequent losses to revenue and/or goodwill), should you threaten, punish, implement a new system, add more checks and balances, or simply move on?
Here are three steps you could take:
1.Bring it up
Bring the mistake up with your assistant once the waters have calmed. Don’t let too much time pass, and don’t bury the issue (even if you’d like to forget the incident ever occurred). Be sure to use the Golden Rule and treat them how you would want to be treated if you made a mistake with absolutely no malice or bad intention involved. A simple mistake. Let them know what happened and if there were unintended consequences. If they are the kind of assistant that you want to keep around, they will care, and they will take this to heart. They will search deep and wide for the “how” and “why,” and they will use it to learn from the context for that situation. Even though the exact circumstances that caused them to overlook something may not ever happen again (meaning there may not be a one-size-fits-all “fix”) at the very least it brings it to their attention. Speaking from years (and years) of EA experience, I can tell you that this is important to them.
2. Use the opportunity to check for underlying reasons for the lapse
If your EA responds in a confrontational, defensive manner, this is a bigger issue than a simple overlook. Dig in and see if there is stress there or worry. Give your EA space to communicate their stress or feeling of overload, but also let them offer you a solution. It’s possible that they have an unspoken beef with you personally. If so, be willing to hear it. You don’t have to agree with their position, but be willing to hear it and be willing to take the same degree of responsibility for it that you would expect your EA to take. Does this diffuse the tension and bring the conversation back to a place where you can converse easily, and both learn from the situation? Or does the defensiveness continue? If the defensiveness does continue, seek to communicate what you’re doing to change or take things off your EA’s plate. In a healthy workplace culture, there are pathways to share and address frustrations that keep people from boiling over and engaging in counterproductive behavior. Be willing to commit to this sort of culture.
3. Take a holistic look at your EA’s quality of work
What does your EA’s work look like overall? Is there a consistent area where mistakes are frequent but nowhere else? Maybe there is something about that area they don’t understand or confuses them, and they still haven’t sorted it out.
Are mistakes so infrequent that when they do happen it stands out so badly it’s like someone wore Lady Gaga’s meat dress to the office?
Or do they have a reputation of being a little….spacey… or incompetent, but at least they show up every day and are reliable?
In other words, don’t let one mistake or a few mistakes over some years’ time color how you view your assistant; take the whole picture into view before you make a judgement.
You hire an EA so you DON’T make mistakes, DON’t drop balls and DO remember everything. They are an extension of you and are there to essentially augment and enhance your experience as a leader through their work. For this reason, mistakes seem even more obvious and severe by an EA than if a director or other leader put the wrong address in an invite. A senior leader will be forgiven for this—“they are too busy, too overloaded, are really bad at Outlook, etc.”— but if an EA does it, that is specifically what they are hired for and so it becomes glaring. AND it’s what we are hired for…so we need to know.
If you assume mistakes were done out of malice and seek to lay blame, you will lose every time with an EA. If you assume that we are there for you and that our job security rests on your success, you will win. We CARE. So much. And only want your experience as a leader to be a great one. Bear this in mind as you listen to and coach your EA.