How to Excel as an Assistant in the C-Suite
Today we have guest Diana Brandl who is an experienced executive assistant, international speaker, coach, mentor, and trainer. She will be sharing her tips on how to successfully assist executives in the C-Suite.
CH: Thank you for being here Diana! Could you please give us an overview of your background?
DB: I attended the Academy of Business Management and Foreign Trade Languages and received a diploma in International Administration and Management, specializing in Office Management. I am also a Foreign Language Business Specialist.
Throughout my career, I have worked successfully with C-Level executives within global corporations such as Sony. I also have a strong background in communications which led to heading the internal communications department within two of my former employers. I have always enjoyed this role in addition to my busy EA one as it connected me to so many people in the organization.
I constantly use every opportunity to educate myself by attending various conferences, trainings, and seminars – mainly through my IMA (International Management Assistants) association. The network offers great training opportunities with high-class instructors.
I have been an active IMA Member since 2006. Starting out in the regional group of Stuttgart, I moved to Berlin where I took over the lead of what was, at that time, a small group. I put a lot of energy into forming and growing the Berlin group, which was a great success in the end. I held the function of Regional Head for three years before it was time for me to leave the Chair role. A year ago, I took it over again and am currently also serving as Acting National Public Relations Officer within the IMA Germany Board. As you can see, the IMA is a major part of my professional life.
I was born and raised in Germany. After a few stops in various other cities in Germany, I now live with my husband and our little dog in the outskirts of Berlin.
CH: You have had a lot of experience working with executives in the C-Suite (COOs, CEOs, etc). What advice would you give to an assistant stepping into a new role and assisting an executive at that level for the first time?
DB: I have three pieces of advice:
Number 1: Get a mentor. Find a person you fully trust who has already reached the C-Suite level. You will learn so much from that expert rather than reading tons of books.
Number 2: Never be afraid to ask a question twice. We all started as junior assistants and grew into the roles we are holding now. It takes time and you should use it to learn as much as you can. Better ask a question twice before making a mistake is my advice.
Number 3: Communication is key. The faster you learn how your executive thinks, the better you will onboard in your new role. Therefore, make sure you set up regular touch base meetings with your manager to align on current topics and to share your common roadmap. Working in a C-Level function means some extra miles as your executive has higher demands. To fulfill and even exceed these expectations means a transparent and frequent way of communication. Chase your boss as often as you need to get the necessary answers.
I would like to share a funny story with you, especially since assistants often tell me that they never have enough time to talk to their bosses and that their touch base meetings are always canceled. I once took a taxi ride with my boss to the airport. At first, he was surprised the moment I was standing next to him with my coat on! However, he truly valued my approach of getting things done, so he let me join. During our travel time, I was able to address all my open questions to him. Once he jumped out of the cab, I drove back to the office. Sometimes you have to be creative and bold!
CH: Gatekeeping and generally protecting an executive’s time as an assistant is an ongoing challenge. Do you have any tips you can share that have helped you to be successful in this area?
DB: I have always structured the agendas of my bosses in a very detailed way. This means that they had their specific time slots for meetings, phone calls, food breaks and strategic thinking. The last item is very important as I have always felt it is essential to give my managers time to think. Placing a 15 min break before and after every meeting gives your managers time to recap the meeting and get prepared for the next duty in the calendar. Some bosses prefer back-to-back meetings and I always try to convince them that my role as a gatekeeper is also to make sure they have time for themselves. The feedback I got after a while was very positive. My bosses knew that certain slots were there for phone calls and some slots were simply meeting-free. (At one company we implemented “No Meeting Thursday” which helped everybody to catch up on emails).
CH: Being a pro at calendaring is crucial once you are an assistant at this level. Do you have any calendaring tips you can share?
DB: As I mentioned before, I have specific time slots in the diaries of my bosses. I mark them with fixed colors: phone calls are green, in-house meetings are orange and blocks for working and thinking are yellow. In addition, I mark absences. What I mean by this is when my bosses travel or have external meetings. So when my managers take a look at their schedules, they can easily see if they are in the office, if they are out of the office, if they have the morning free for calls, etc. Maybe this is a method other assistants can incorporate in their calendar management; it has worked great for my bosses and myself!
CH: Besides protecting your executive’s time, I bet you have had to learn how to protect your own. Saying no can be so hard sometimes (at least in my experience!). Do you have any tips on how to turn down others’ requests for assistance?
DB: Saying no is never easy, especially when you start a new job and you feel like you need to be nice to everyone. In fact, saying no gives you more power than you think and people will see you from a different perspective once you make your point clear.
When I was younger, I found it much tougher to say no, but nowadays I feel more confident in doing so. However, simply saying no is too ordinary, so I try to give a recommendation. My refusal consists of referring the person to someone else who might be able to help instead of me. This makes the ‘no’ less harsh.
CH: Executives at this level are typically extremely busy with travel, meetings, calls as well as flooded inboxes. Do you have any tips for assistants to communicate important updates despite the fact that their executive is so occupied?
DB: I usually write a few notes in the calendars of my bosses, especially because they look at their calendars constantly. I also use WhatsApp for short messages such as “Flight delayed - pls check your emails” or something similar.
Once you start working with a new executive, it is super important to find the right communication style and tool. Ask your manager how he/she prefers to be informed and ask how frequently. I have had managers who wanted to know every single detail, which drove me crazy. Luckily, I have also worked with executives who were the opposite and left everything in my hands. Also, do not spam them with messages they probably will not need.
CH: Are there any other tips you would like to add?
DB: Keep asking your boss once in awhile if he/she would like to have any changes in the way you work together. It is not necessarily the case that your working style should stay the same for years. It is always good for both sides to reflect on what is going well and what needs more attention. Usually, a good time to do this is during the appraisal discussion. Before addressing this topic, bring a few ideas of how the collaboration would benefit if using a specific tool or app you recently heard of. I am sure your manager will appreciate the way you are approaching new technologies. Have the desire to constantly improve the way you work with your manager. Keep learning and never lose the motivation to strive for more.
CH: How do you find the balance you need to recharge?
DB: Get a dog and travel as much as you can! Seriously, my dog Phoebe helps me get fresh air and my wonderful husbands shares my passion for traveling the world. This is how I constantly recharge my batteries. I am answering these questions from Dubai. And my next trip to the US is around the corner.
CH: I know you have been speaking at quite a few events lately. Are there any coming up that we can mark in our calendars?
DB: Yes, I started speaking less than a year ago right after I launched my blog The Socialista Projects. I feel extremely fortunate to have been asked to share my advice and expertise in various conferences, trainings, and workshops in Germany and abroad. The last two events in 2017 will be in London and Lisbon, plus the kick-off event in Istanbul for our newly installed IMA chapter in Turkey:
2018 is around the corner and I have already agreed on speaking engagements in London, Stockholm and various cities in Germany. Please reach out if you would like to book me for an event or in-house training at your company. I will also be holding my first webinar in April 2018 with a German training provider. Lots on the agenda! I just love the way my life currently turns.
CH: Thank you again for being here Diana! I am appreciative of all the advice you are sharing with our peers.
DB: Thanks so much for having me, Christina. I really enjoy your website, activities on social media and all the tips you offer for us office admins. You have my endless support. Keep rocking!
Diana Brandl holds a degree in International Administration and Management, specializing in Office Management. Throughout her career, she has worked successfully with C-Level executives within global corporations such as Sony. Diana has a strong background in communications and is an active networker. She joined the professional network IMA (International Management Assistants) in 2006, and is a member of the board serving as the Acting Public Relations Officer for IMA Germany. She continuously supports the role of the management assistant by speaking at international events and publishing articles in Germany and abroad. Diana writes her blog The Socialista Projects and is influencing the industry with her creative initiatives such as launching the hashtag #WeAreInThisTogether.