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What does it truly mean to elevate the Executive Assistant role to one that serves as a powerful and strategic business partnership and reaps endless benefits for your executive? For starters, it goes way beyond ‘tell and do’ and daily tasking. It is about alignment across the full discipline of the role of the executive assistant, and while many believe they are already performing at this level, the reality is this; very few are operating as strategic business partners to their executives.

Fellow Administrative Professionals, it is time to learn why strategic business partnerships are crucial to your future success, particularly as more positions require a new level of administrative talent. Creating a business partnership with your executive is a pivotal transformation — and exciting leap — for the administrative community, and continues to gain traction since the concept was introduced several years ago.

The relationship between the executive and executive/administrative assistant has always been about partnership — but the evolution of this role to a business partnership requires a different kind of thought process and a different response to the way we currently operate. Successful partnerships require a focus on the business aspect, which transforms the work from mundane tasks to strategic responsibilities.

The critical components need to be defined and explored deeply, to enable the shift from what the position has been (administration) to where it is going (business partnership). This shift is so profound that, in many organizations, the voice of the administrative professional is much more pronounced today. More organizations are popping up throughout the country that are dedicated to advancing, promoting or connecting the administrative profession.

To dive deeper into the evolution of the position, it is important to look at the two critical components of a business partnership: (1) a different thought process, and (2) a different type of interaction. Assistants who embrace these two components are moving beyond the traditional skill set into one where they perform at a much higher, strategic level and deliver greater value to the executive and organization.

A Different Thought Process

Tasks like scheduling a meeting, booking travel, ordering lunch, tracking information, creating a presentation, and planning an event all result in exactly what was asked, and not much more.  This task-oriented relationship involves checking a box, and moving on to the next task. While relationships like these still exist, there is an increased demand for something different.

Senior executives report needing support staff that are focused not only on the tasks at hand, but also on the business and the larger picture. This understanding enables them to provide more value to each task and better understand the priorities of the day, week, month, and year.

A different thought process is one of the first critical steps for administrative professionals to make. It is a shift from tell and do to independent deliberation and proactive execution. It means that administrators must first educate themselves on their executive’s goals, priorities, and deliverables. Add to that knowledge the mission, vision, and values of the organization, and you now have a full picture of the needs of the organization and the executive you support. The business-partner administrator then leverages this knowledge to align, focus and incorporate these factors into all they do.

A different thought process requires consumption of different kinds of information. Reading, evaluating and processing information that not only comes across their desk, but also that which they seek as it pertains to the business, ensures that the business-partner administrator is educated beyond the corporate walls. This means they can add greater value to not only conversations but, more importantly, decision making. This shift in thought process allows an administrator to think beyond the phone call, meeting prep, and scheduling, and provides insight into the who, what, where, when, and how of an executive’s day. Analyzing and truly understanding the business enables an administrator to tie it all together for maximum benefit and is what transforms their role from administration to business partnership.

Here’s a brief example that contrasts these roles:

An executive wants to travel to the East Coast to visit a specific customer and asks her administrator to arrange the trip.

In a traditional administrative assistant role, the administrator gets to work on the details of the travel, such as flights, hotels, the appointment time and getting it all on the calendar. All details would be nailed down, such as noting preferred airlines, hotels, car services, etc. The trip would go as the executive asked, including the processing of expenses at the conclusion of the trip.

In a business partnership, once the executive makes the travel request, the administrator contacts the sales executive to request a customer briefing for the executive. When it arrives, the administrator reads the recap to determine if the executive will need any additional information to be completely prepared for the visit, which requires that prep meetings are arranged prior to the trip. The administrator will also reach out to the Sales VP to let them know that the executive will be in the area, and collaborates with the VP on other meetings that might also take place while the executive is in town. The business-partner administrator will work to ensure the executive’s time is maximized to the fullest. In many cases, the administrator is already aware of customers in the area who need special attention because they have developed a different thought process that focuses on the executive’s most pressing issues. The administrator then suggests the executive should visit those customers when the opportunity arises. The advantage to the executive is that the business-partner administrator is focusing on the executive’s most precious commodity: time.

This type of thought process ensures the connections of the right people, topics, and focus, which brings maximum value to the executive.  It changes the value and elevates the contribution significantly. Those who embrace this thought process are finding an increase in their value and paychecks, along with an elevation in title.

A Different Type of Interaction

Relationships are another key component to a valued partnership. It is no secret that assistants know the pulse of an organization. They know the people and how they are feeling about the business, and are often asked to see how staff are coping and how the boss is viewed. A business-partner administrator knows how to foster essential connections within the business that enable the executive to navigate the corporate infrastructure smoothly, effectively and with the appropriate sense of urgency.

In the traditional role, interaction with others was twofold; task-related interactions, in which an assistant is given work assignments, and relational interactions, which involve patiently listening to issues. The results of these two interactions are significantly different. The first is simply task accomplishment as noted earlier, while the second typically ends when the interaction ends. Other than building relationships across the organization, lending a sympathetic ear does not lead to organizational solutions. There are few actions the traditional administrator will typically take to affect change as a result of this new information, which generally has little or no value to an executive who has no time to spend on such discussions.

Business-partner administrators, however, engage in multi-level interactions and responses.  Ownership of tasks and the ability to strategically look for additional value can assist the executive in meeting their goals and objectives. Strategic interactions ensure the best possible use of an executive’s time by getting the right people on the calendar at the right time, with the appropriate details noted. Being in lock-step with an executive is a key differentiator in delivering this type of value. It requires research, reading and being present in the moment to gain knowledge and then incorporate it into the daily activities for the executive.

Business-partner administrators develop meaningful relationships with staff across the company.  The difference here is meaningful: interactions are strategic, thoughtful and intentional, not water-cooler chats. Conversations with employees or management staff are seen as opportunities to learn more about the business, and are then evaluated in relation to the business’ goals.  Taking an example from the executives they support, business-partner administrators learn to focus on the inherent value of a conversation and are quick to redirect unproductive conversations. That is not to say all conversations have a solely strategic focus, because building relationships often requires a level of connection outside of goal or task attainment. Business-partner administrators have mastered the ability to connect with others and have learned how to manage the amount of time spent in this area.

Call to Action

If you are ready to make the shift to business-partner administrator, look for opportunities to develop your skills. Successful application is what sets assistants apart and moves them forward.  Seek opportunities for training, seminars, conferences, continuing education, reading, etc. Consider the opportunities presented to you every day to make the shift to business partner. Practice changing your thought process and interactions as discussed above.

Those who work at the business partner level are focused on providing exceptional value. Their independent deliberation and proactive execution, in conjunction with their superior administrative knowledge, ensure they are strategically connected to their executive. I invite you to embrace a business partnership with your executive. This can change both of your worlds.


SHERRY PARSONS has more than 40 years of experience in the administrative field. She earned a B.S. in Business Management from the University of Phoenix, and is a National Speakers Academy graduate. Parsons manages, develops, and delivers training programs for administrative staff.

She currently supports the Vice President of Global Segment Enterprise West at Cisco. Prior to joining Cisco, Parsons supported the Senior Vice President and General Manager of Networking and the Chief Marketing Officer at Avaya. During her career, she also has supported senior executives at Earthbound Farm, Network General, Continental Sales Company, and Aspect Communications.

Parsons is a Founding Member, Advisory Board Member and Master Instructor for the UCSC- Silicon Valley Extension, Executive Administrative Certificate Program, where she develops education criteria and courses for current and future administrative professionals. In her Master Instructor role, she serves as a mentor to administrators throughout Silicon Valley.

Winner of the 2017 Colleen Barrett Award for Administrative Excellence, Parsons served as a 2016 Inaugural Advisory Board Member, a 2018 judge for the Silicon Valley Admin Awards, and an Advisory Board Member for the Hilton Santa Clara. In her community, she serves as the Secretary Treasury for Aromas Bible Church.

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