I’m not wild about the new monthly edition of PR Week, but I am positively addicted to Don Spetner’s column. A former agency and corporate guy, Spetner today serves as EVP of corporate affairs at Korn/Ferry, the big international recruiting firm. His columns are always insightful, often funny and, in the most recent instance, a catalyst for today’s blog.
In his December column, Spetner waxes poetic about the important role executive assistants play in the health, well-being and productivity of the corporate chief executive officer. He’s 100 percent right. I’ve had the good fortune to meet and work with quite a few excellent executive assistants over the years and have always been amazed at how effortlessly they handle the most complicated schedules. They’re worth their weight in gold.
Spetner also shares strategies for winning over an executive assistant in order to gain access to the coveted C-suite. Again, his advice is spot on. What he doesn’t touch on, though, are examples of executive assistants from hell, and the impact they can have on an organization’s image and reputation.
For example, I’ve sometimes returned the call of a corporate bigwig only to be given a serious cold shoulder by the palace guard. She’ll (typically, the guard is female) ask what my call is in reference to (they always use that phrase “What is your call in reference to?” Why not a simple: “What up?”). When I say that I’m returning “Don’s’ call,” (I’ll be sure to use the bigwig’s first name to let the assistant know I’m a player), and she’ll ratchet up her attention a tad and ask, “And what organization do you represent?” I typically respond by saying, “Peppercom. But I’m also a friend.” That usually works pretty well. Seconds later, the executive assistant will return and be just as sickly sweet as can be, “Oh Mr. Cody, I am sooooo sorry for making you wait. Don will speak to you right away.” Not that it matters in this particular instance, but Don doesn’t know his executive assistant has not exactly endeared herself to me. And, in a different set of circumstances (say, an important prospective customer call), her attitude could have been damaging.
Then there’s the power trip move by the CEO and his executive assistant from hell. I remember when one CEO in particular was courting me, he’d always have his secretary call on his behalf. I’d answer the phone by saying, “Steve Cody.” There’d be a pause and then the palace guard would announce in a deep and dramatic voice, “Please hold for Mr. Hugebottom.” Naturally, I’d have to wait a good 20 or 25 seconds before his nibs would deign to join the call. And, naturally, he’d always have me on speaker to further underscore his importance.
I’m blessed to have an executive assistant who does an incredible job of fending off office space brokers (leave me alone, Scott Brown) as well as the boiler room guys with stock tips and the suppliers who just need 30 seconds of my time. Dandy also knows how and when to apply the personal touch with clients and prospective clients. And, when it comes to family and friends, she’ll bend over backwards to make things work. In short, just like Ray Carroll, our superb receptionist, Dandy is a critical component to our overall image.
I’m not sure CEOs think about organizational image and reputation when they hire executive assistants. But, they should. As it turns out, I never succumbed to that CEO’s myriad job offers way back when. Thinking about it now, I believe his executive assistant’s boorish behavior was one of the factors in my turning thumbs down.